Tom Gallagher

To the classrooms, Baby Boomers


OPINION As long as I’ve been substitute teaching, people have asked what I thought we could do to improve public schools. With all of the classrooms I’ve been in, they figured I might know something. But I’ve never had a simple answer for them, because I don’t actually think there is a single overriding educational crisis.

For most kids, the system works okay, or at least as well as it always has. At the same time, there are large groups of kids clearly struggling — black students most obviously, but not only. If we’re serious about fixing the educational problems of the nation’s “disadvantaged” kids, we need to improve the overall circumstances of their lives.

I’d say there is one surefire thing we can do to improve America’s classrooms: Put more adults in them — and not just teachers.

Think of how seldom the question of class size makes it into the highly politicized national education debate. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it must be an insignificant element. But if you really want to know if class size is a big deal, just ask someone who teaches. Or if you want private sector confirmation of this, check out the private school brochures or websites, which tout their smaller class sizes.

So why don’t we hear more about this? Maybe because there’s no major corporate or political interests pushing it, as opposed to charter schools — or the various tenure, curriculum, or discipline reforms that vie to become panacea of the moment.

For instance, you’ll likely hear more about the problem of inadequate textbooks in “poor schools” than the too-large classes in them. Could this be related to the fact that the only part of the publishing industry that isn’t struggling these days is the educational sector?

The world’s four largest publishers produce educational materials, and they’re out there making their case and drumming up business all the time. There’s a lot of money to be made selling $85 world history texts to middle school classes of 35 students. Again, if you’re not sure yourself, ask any teacher which would help more: the latest textbook or a smaller class?

Moving from business to politics, the Obama Administration has recently expressed interest in reforming school discipline policy, but it says so little about the surest route to reducing classroom problems: a lower student-teacher ratio. The reason for the silence is pretty obvious. More teachers cost more money. This means higher taxes (or maybe reduced military spending). New textbooks cost money too, of course. The difference, however, is that there are no giant corporations pushing for hiring more teachers — there’s simply no money in it for them.

Yet we could put more adults into the mix even when we can’t actually reduce class size. I’ve been in classrooms where it seemed like the adult-to-child ratio needed to really give kids a shot was something like one-to-five-or-six — and this was not special ed. And I’ve seen combinations of teachers, paraprofessionals (aka teachers’ aides), student teachers, parents, or volunteers from the community that achieved that goal — at least for a little while. I’ve also seen situations where an additional person helped a kid who would have otherwise likely disrupted an entire class and not only prevented that, but got him to produce something useful.

After I had expounded on this idea at a recent gathering in Boston, an old friend came up to me and said, “Look around this room,” noting the crowd of Baby Boomers who are soon retiring and will have considerably more time on their hands. All had an interest in public education.

What if even a small percentage of them could find their way to helping public schools by actually spending time assisting in a classroom? Wouldn’t we have a significant asset on our hands? I think he was right.

Tom Gallagher is a San Francisco substitute teacher and the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools (Coast to Coast Publishing, 2014). He can be reached at To submit a guest editorial, contact

Suspension reform isn’t so simple


OPINION I wish I could get behind the current campaign to limit public school suspensions (“Suspending judgment, 12/3/13).

The intent is honorable. Any additional attention to the plight of black kids within our schools is laudable. But I’ve always suspected that some would think they’d accomplished something if suspension rates were evened across races, although this would have no more impact on any underlying problems than mandating racially equal grade ratios would eliminate an educational achievement gap.

I’ve also never been confident that all involved understood that removing a disruptive student from a classroom is not done primarily for that student’s benefit, but to allow the rest of the class to carry on without disruption. Unfortunately, I’m now certain that this basic understanding is not shared on the highest levels of the San Francisco Unified School District.   Nationally, the Department of Education finds black students three times more likely to be suspended than whites. Why? An influential 2010 Southern Poverty Law Center publication, Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, suggested “the possibility of conscious or unconscious racial and gender biases at the school level.”

That’s hardly surprising, given the long history of racial prejudice in this country. But is this what’s actually going on?   San Francisco, with a suspension rate mirroring the national, gave an African American 84 and 83 percent of its vote in the last two presidential elections. Comparable statistics are not available for the city’s teachers, but it seems likely they’re at least as liberal as the electorate as a whole. This, and years of experience as a substitute teacher in virtually every subject on every grade level, tells me it’s not teachers’ racial prejudice that’s the issue here, but something much larger — and harder to tackle.   Last December, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the city’s black infant mortality rate was six times that of whites (a figure not totally reliable due to the shrinkage of the city’s black population). Other markers of well-being show similar numbers. In short, the black community in San Francisco — and the nation — lives under considerable stress and, as anyone familiar with schools knows, kids don’t leave their problems at home.  But causes aside, I’ve hoped that the anti-suspension efforts might at least promote useful alternatives. After all, no one sends disruptive kids home because they think it makes them better students; they do it because few schools have the resources to do anything else. An “in-school suspension” would likely be a far better alternative in most cases, but it requires people and space available to deal with those students.  Unfortunately, while focusing on the vagueness of causes for suspensions such as “disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering,” which the SPLC study called “behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent,” the current effort seemingly ignores the need for a classroom free of things like “excessive noise” and “threat.” And it ignores the right of other students to learn in one — students likely from similar circumstances as the kids teachers feel they have to remove.  San Francisco School Board President Sandra Lee Fewer is amending a proposal to ban “willful defiance” suspensions with a mandate to reduce the use of referrals — removing a student from class, but not sending them home — calling them “invisible suspensions.” And SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza says, “We’re talking about culture change. A culture where it’s not okay for an adult to say ‘get out.'”

I think the people at the top might benefit from a little more real life classroom face time.

There is great hesitancy around this issue, probably because of fear that protesting too loudly might mark you as part of the problem — perhaps as a racist. But if we allow an ill-considered effort to become a juggernaut, in the end it will be the most vulnerable students who will suffer.

Tom Gallagher is a substitute teacher who has served on the executive board of the United Educators of San Francisco.

Sacramento needs a foreign policy


OPINION “The country is rich, but not so rich as we have been led to believe. The choice to do one thing may preclude another. In short, we are entering an era of limits.”

Presidential candidate Jerry Brown said that in 1976. Thirty five years later, second-time-around Gov. Jerry Brown has a profound opportunity to finish the thought — by pointing out that we can no longer afford follies like the Afghanistan war.

Any reluctance Brown might feel about discussing foreign policy — an area of responsibility clearly not assigned to the states by the founding fathers, or anyone else’s fathers — must be weighed against his understanding that when it comes to budget matters, the buck stops at the California statehouse — and the other 49 state houses. The feds can print money, but the states can’t.

California famously faces an immediate budget deficit in the $25 billion range. This, while the federal government burns through taxpayers’ money on a war that even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledges as insane. He recently told an audience of West Point cadets: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

The National Priorities Project puts the current cumulative cost of the war to California taxpayers at $48.5 billion. The $110 billion Washington plans on spending in the upcoming year pencils out to another $14 billion from California taxpayers, while they deal with what the California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates will be an annual $20 billion state budget shortfall through 2015-16.

Brown, then, has everything to gain from a serious domestic redirection of funds now squandered in this war, yet runs little risk in going out front for a national movement in that direction. After all, it’s not just Robert Gates having second thoughts: A CNN poll found the U.S. population opposing the war by a 63 percent to 35 percent margin last December. Last month, 24 of the 53 members of the California congressional delegation voted in favor of a budget amendment to cut all but $10 billion of the war’s funding, with the remaining money to be used to withdraw troops.(Jackie Speier voted for; Nancy Pelosi against.) The California Democratic Party called for “a timetable for withdrawal of our military personnel” well over a year ago, and last month the Democratic National Committee told the president to get a move on in ending this war.

When Brown first became governor, best-selling author Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had posed the question of whether the country was suffering from too much change, too fast — a type of thinking the new governor appeared very much in tune with. In the interim, Naomi Klein has written a less known but probably more important book called The Shock Doctrine. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman describes the “shock doctrine” as an ongoing effort to exploit “crises to push through an agenda that has nothing to do with resolving those crises, and everything to do with imposing” a “vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.”

As the governor of the largest state in the union, with the nation’s biggest deficit, Jerry Brown is in a unique position to influence the national debate by simply pointing out the elephant in the room: A healthy portion of the nation’s economic crisis will melt away if we will just do today what the secretary of defense says we should do tomorrow — get out of Afghanistan. 2

Former Massachusetts state legislator Tom Gallagher is a San Francisco writer and activist.

Green and red


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Now that the Iraq War and occupation is accepted as a permanent feature of American life, it seems worthwhile to reflect on how controversial it once was — not just among the millions who filled streets around the world to protest the impending invasion, but also within the governments of some of America’s traditional allies. No one better expressed the rift it created in Europe than German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer when he publicly rejected Donald Rumsfeld’s appeal for support at the February 2003 Munich security conference. Lest the then Secretary of State miss the point, Fischer switched to English for his summation: "Sorry, you haven’t convinced me."

It’s unlikely Rumsfeld was particularly surprised, except possibly by Fischer’s command of English, since the German government so clearly owed its come-from-behind reelection the prior September to the vehemence of its opposition to the upcoming war. At the time, George W. Bush opted against making the traditional congratulatory call to Socialist Party Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and Condoleezza Rice declared that Fischer’s "background and career do not suit the profile of a statesman." Given Rice’s history as a Stanford professor and Chevron corporate board member, such a remark makes perfect sense. Fischer, leader of the Green Party — the coalition government’s junior partner — was not only a high school dropout but a veteran militant street protestor of the German new left that demanded that its parents’ generation confront the Nazi legacy while vehemently opposing the US war on Vietnam.

In Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic (Oxford University Press, 400 pages, $35), journalist Paul Hockenos explores the life, beliefs, decisions, and actions of Germany’s recent Foreign Minister. For example, although the Greens are widely considered a pacifist party, Fischer was not a pacifist — after a few small leftist groups had taken to kidnapping and assassination in the 1970s, he once gave a speech urging the movement to "put down the bombs and pick up stones again."

As Hockenos explains, Fischer was the most prominent of the German "68ers" who considered themselves to the left of the Socialists and who fashioned something of an "anti-party party" with the Greens in order to embark upon a "long march through the institutions." During his 1998–2005 tenure as Germany’s Foreign Minister, Fischer became the country’s most widely admired politician, although the Greens never surpassed single-digit percentages of the national vote. Still, his legacy — and the party’s — is mixed. The "Red-Green" government engineered Germany’s first military intervention since the end of World War II, when German pilots participated in the bombing of Kosovo. Just as it took Germany’s Socialists time to realize they could form a government of the left if — and only if — they did so in coalition with the Greens, the Greens are in opposition today because they have been unwilling and unable to coalesce with other factions.

Nonetheless the post-’60s German left did at least set itself on an identifiable course of action. In this respect, Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic makes an excellent case that Americans can learn from Europe.

Speed Reading



By Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes

W.W. Norton & Company

192 pages, $22.95 (hardcover)

336 pages, $14.95 (trade paperback available next month)

Since the recent television writers’ strike seemed to have a greater impact on the nation than our two ongoing wars or the frequently floated possibility of a third, maybe it’s money that matters. After all, a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money. In The Three Trillion Dollar War, Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and co-author Linda Bilmes try to illustrate what it means to spend $3 trillion on the Iraq war.

Arguing that “money spent on armaments is money poured down the drain,” Stiglitz and Bilmes dismiss the notion that wars are always “good for the economy.” Their arguments are bolstered by the grim reality that during the Iraq conflict oil prices have risen from $25 a barrel to more than $120 a barrel, while household savings rates have gone “negative for the first time since the Great Depression.” Meanwhile, as they point out, the National Guard has been under-equipped in the face of domestic disasters such as Hurricane Katrina due to Iraq deployment.

Unfortunately supporters of Sen. John McCain, who foresees a century of Iraq occupation, aren’t likely to read this book. But it would not be wasted on Barack Obama’s supporters since — much as they might want to overlook it — his presidential plan also envisions tens of thousands of American troops remaining in Iraq after the combat troops have gone. (Tom Gallagher)



By Johnny Ryan

Buenaventura Press

128 pages each

$9.95 (Comic Book Holocaust)

$14.95 (Klassic Komix Klub)

If there were such a thing as achieving the zen of filth — the zero-sum nirvana of willful wallowing in sweat, spunk, excrement, and blood till one has achieved the nihilistic bliss of transgressive freedom — then cartoonist Johnny Ryan might be dubbed our comic book bodhisattva. The evidence is all over two handsome volumes on Oakland’s Buenaventura Press: The Comic Book Holocaust, the cartoonist’s 2006 send-up (and put-down) of mainstream and underground/alternative comics from Thor to Persepolis, and The Klassic Komix Klub, his short, sharp wholesale demolition of literary warhorses à la Ulysses and, hey, Siddhartha (the search for enlightenment ends with a diaper loaded with poo, home to “Osamarexic Slim Laden”).

Sure, the unrelenting butt-violation, mutilation, rape, boner, crap-eating, racial stereotype, and flying vulvas jokes tend to hit or miss — and get monotonous. Reading Ryan panels in, say, Vice offers hipsters the fast, nasty frisson of a chuckle, while reading more than 50 in one sitting can be quease-inducing, which is more than Mad can claim. Ryan’s quick ‘n’ dirty, reductionist aesthetic, absurdist and disgust-centered shit-vision, and all-inclusive takedowns come off as a bit dated for these post-9/11 times — redolent of a ’90s alt-nation, slacker pessimism fed by punk rock, J.K. Huysmans, Howard Stern, and Peter Bagge. Still, at its most effective, Ryan’s work is the funny-book equivalent of watching nonstop war footage. He gives us a dirty-bird cartoon version of the Marquis de Sade, leavened by the occasional chortle at Garfield’s expense. (Kimberly Chun)


Pelosi backs Bush on Iran


OPINION Has Nancy Pelosi signed off on the George W. Bush administration’s covert CIA operations in Iran? Yes, according to Seymour Hersh’s July 14 New Yorker article, "Preparing the Battlefield." Late last year, the White House submitted a Presidential Finding, a highly classified document signed by the president, to be cleared with the leaders and ranking intelligence committee members of both parties in both branches of Congress — a group that, by dint of her position as Speaker of the House, includes Pelosi.

According to a Hersh source, "Although some legislators were troubled by aspects of the Finding … the funding for the escalation was approved" — noting that congressional leaders authorized up to $400 million for increased efforts to destabilize Iran’s government.

When some Democrats became uncomfortable with the prospect of approving "potential defensive lethal action by US operatives in Iran," they conferred with CIA Director Michael V. Hayden who, Hersh writes, "reassured the legislators that the language did nothing more than provide authority for Special Forces operatives on the ground in Iran to shoot their way out if they faced capture or harm."

Nothing more than to shoot their way out? If President Bush were to reveal evidence of Iranian agents dropped into this country and authorized to kill Americans, we can well imagine Pelosi speaking forcefully about the outrage she and the House delegation would feel about such an egregious breach of our sovereignty. But how in the world does the representative of perhaps the most antiwar city in the country sign off on the United States doing this to another nation?

Then there’s the question of whom we’re funding. According to a former Middle East CIA operative, one beneficiary, the Baluchis, a Sunni Muslim group in the majority Shiite country, are "fundamentalists … you can also describe … as Al Qaeda." Another, Mujahideen-e-Khalq, has been on the State Department terrorist list for more than 10 years.

That the Bush White House would resort to arming known enemies in its frantic effort to create new ones is bad. Democrats signing off on it is even worse. But the fact that a representative from San Francisco, a city that has time and again demonstrated its opposition to these sorts of policies, might approve them is about as gross a distortion of the public will as you’re likely to find.

Hersh quotes an aide to one of the four Democrats notified of the Finding predictably arguing that it was "just that — notification, and not a sign-off on activities." But he accurately points out that Congress "has the power to withhold funding for any government operation," but chose not to.

The burden of persuading Nancy Pelosi that the Democratic Party should not approve such policies may lie primarily with her House colleagues. But if she, or they, think that this is what the Speaker needs to do, then she needs to leave that job behind — because funding a covert war in Iran simply does not represent the interests or the will of California’s 8th Congressional District.

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts state legislator who lives in San Francisco.

The case for Kucinich


OPINION At a recent Potrero Hill Democratic Club presidential forum, when the representatives of Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama spoke more about how the candidates made them feel than about their positions on the issues, it first struck me as strange. Eventually, though, their approach made sense — I realized these people weren’t necessarily all that hot about their candidates’ actual policies.

In defending their health care programs, for instance, the Clinton and Obama reps tacitly acknowledged that a single-payer plan was superior to their candidates’ offerings, while the Edwards spokesperson cautioned the audience against seeking a candidate who believed everything they believed.

Maybe it’s the lack of distinct seasons in San Francisco or something, but these people seemed confused about the difference between voting in a primary and in a final election. November is the month when you vote for what you have to vote for; in February you can vote for what you believe in. In November the halfhearted health plan of one of these candidates, which would continue siphoning scarce public funds away from health services and into the coffers of the private health insurance industry, will likely be superior to whatever scheme the Republican nominee offers up. But in the February primary you can actually vote for Dennis Kucinich’s single-payer plan.

Logically, we might ask why any of these front-running candidates who won’t pledge to have all American troops out of Iraq by the end of their first term should expect much support in San Francisco, arguably the nation’s most antiwar city. Why would anyone who opposes this war not back a candidate like Kucinich, who calls for complete troop withdrawal within three months? Or why, for that matter, would voters who support gay marriage not also back Kucinich, a gay-marriage supporter himself?

Well, when I appear as a Kucinich representative at election forums, people answer those questions for me all the time in postmeeting conversations. They and their friends believe in what Kucinich says, they often tell me, but "he can’t win," so they’ll vote for someone who they think can.

Now let’s be honest here and admit that those of us who get worked up about peace and justice issues are prone to complain a lot. We are ever bemoaning the influence of money in politics and the poor job the news media do in covering the real issues. But when we get to the point where a candidate is raising the important issues and we know we agree with him and we still won’t vote for him, then the next time we start complaining, it may just be time to look in the mirror.

Casting a vote against the war in Iraq is a lot easier than marching against it or even writing a letter. But if antiwar voters won’t vote for antiwar candidates, you have to ask why those candidates should go to the trouble of running and why the big-money candidates should pay any attention to the supposed antiwar vote.

Whatever else happens in this election, one thing is certain: if you don’t vote in February for what you believe in, you won’t get to vote for it in November. And then there will be no one else to blame. *

Tom Gallagher, a former Massachusetts state representative, is a San Francisco activist.

True crime



REVIEW In a July 31, 2007, editorial, the New York Times decried the "more than 5,000 murders … reported each year" in Guatemala, noting that "many are committed by the same groups — both left and right — that terrorized the country" during its 36-year civil war. Yet as author Francisco Goldman writes in The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, the Catholic Church–<\d>initiated report that precipitated the murder of human rights leader Bishop Juan Gerardi "concluded that the Guatemalan Army and associated paramilitary units … were responsible for 80 percent of the killings of civilians, and that the guerillas had committed a little less than 5 percent of those crimes."

The Times‘ "plague on both their houses" take is a splendid illustration of how poorly served we are by our media’s reporting on Guatemala — and Latin America in general. When Goldman states that the Guatemalan war "was a consequence of a coup engineered by the CIA against Jacobo Arbenz, only the second democratically elected president in Guatemala’s history," he may shock an American audience largely oblivious to events widely known outside the United States.

On April 22, 1998, Gerardi briefed the Guatemala City media on an Archdiocesan Office of Human Rights investigation so thorough that it named more than 50,000 of the war’s estimated 200,000 casualties. At the time, "no Guatemalan military officer had ever been convicted or imprisoned for a crime related to human rights," Goldman writes. And the military planned to keep it that way. Four days later, Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his garage.

It was a killing so bold as to suggest that military assassination specialists could not have been involved. But, as one Guatemalan journalist wrote, "crimes planned in the [Presidential Military Staff] are executed to look like common violence," and a disinformation campaign immediately sprang into action, one in which, Goldman notes, famed novelist and former Peruvian presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa played a particularly despicable role.

The Guatemalan-born, US-based Goldman has written three novels, a background that serves him well in his first nonfiction book, a complicated story of high-level government and military obfuscation eventually penetrated — to a degree — through dogged work by low-level government investigators and prosecutors working at great personal risk. At least two special prosecutors, four witnesses, and one judge involved in the case have gone into exile, and one witness was murdered. But three members of the army and the priest who shared Gerardi’s house were convicted for participating in his "extra judicial execution." Their sentences were finally upheld this year, although by that time one of them had been decapitated in a prison riot.

Goldman observes that Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, whose militaries the United States backed in similar conflicts, all became societies with "some of the highest murder rates in the world," where "the powerful and well connected acted with impunity." The story pauses on a positive note, though, with one prosecutor declaring the beginning of "the second stage of prosecution," aimed at higher-ups involved in the crime, possibly including Otto Perez Molina, the right-wing candidate in Guatemala’s current presidential campaign.<\!s>*


By Francisco Goldman

Grove Press

416 pages



Oct. 21, 5 p.m., free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193,