It was education and punk rock that brought Randy Hurley and Tim Slekar together, as college freshmen with a mutual love for Husker Du and The Sex Pistols. Thirty years later, they’re finding punk rock is a surprisingly great tool in the fight to save public education, and they’ve taken this fight on the air.
Slekar and Hurley stayed in touch via social media as their lives diverged after college. Hurley settled in Madison and went into radio production. Slekar became a teacher in his native Pennsylvania. But when Scott Walker attacked public employee unions in Wisconsin in 2011, sparking massive protests, they reconnected––over a Facebook argument.
“Randy would write things on Facebook about his kids having to stay home because of the damn teachers off protesting, and I would say, ‘Take it easy on the teachers, they’re trying to do what’s best for your kids,’” Slekar recalls. “We started a dialogue.”
Hurley invited Slekar to come on the radio to cover education and explain the teachers’ perspective.
As the public school activism movement grew, so did the duo’s momentum. Hurley flew Slekar to Madison to make a podcast demo, Slekar moved to Madison and took a job as Dean of Education at Edgewood College, and the rest is social studies.
“We wanted to come up with a great radio product and website,” Hurley recalls. But the work took a personal note for Hurley as his kids entered middle school. Things that Slekar had been saying about corporate education reform and overtesting began to hit home.
“The effect of the things he had talked about doesn’t kick in till almost third grade, so in those couple years when I started casually working with Tim I was still the radio person, helping him formulate what he wanted to do,” he recalls. “But as I became the parent asking, ‘What’s going on?’, I became more passionate about it.”
In this spirit, BustED Pencils, as the team named their project, was born as a website, radio show, and podcast focused on the war against public education, framing the concerns of two parents within a national-level perspective on education reform, standardized testing, and activism.
BustED Pencils features an activist of the week (past activists have included musician and music education advocate Robby Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls and college-level special education advocate Barbara Hong) as well as trending news coverage and a weekly feature from Nancy Carlson-Paige––the mother of actor Matt Damon and a passionate education activist. (The feature is appropriately titled "What Would Matt Damon's Mom Say?")
Hurley’s favorite show so far? The interview with punk rocker-turned-teacher Martin Atkins, which ran in The Progressive’s special issue on saving public schools. “[Atkins] says education is the new punk rock,” says Hurley.
That philosophy reflects the BustED Pencils approach, he adds. “Our vision is to try to present the subject matter in a way that will get people interested. I’ll say, ‘Tim, you’re talking like a professor; as a dad I don’t understand that. I just have a nine year old and I want to know why the computer lab has been turned into a standardized testing facility for a month.’
“We make the show palatable for everybody, but it is kind of punk rock––who knew you’d have to be rebellious to fight for children to get a quality education in the public school system? Who knew you’d have to fight to keep Wall Street interests out of the schools?”
Asked his advice on how to get progressives to rally behind public education, Slekar explains that it’s been a hard sell due to misunderstandings about the achievement gap. “Progressives are kind of stuck on this question of, if you don’t have accountability, who’s going to focus on those kids that aren’t getting what they need? People say if we stop testing we’ll never know what kids we’re leaving behind,” he says.
“That assumes we didn’t know before. I knew which kids needed what without a test––I was a trained teacher doing my job.”
Hurley adds that as a dad, not an educator, he finds much of the current public education discussion too jargon-heavy. “A lot of the people talking about it are using in-group vocabulary. Educators, teachers union, school systems are talking to each other in their own language.”
The goal of BustED Pencils is to eliminate that culture gap. “Having the drummer from Nine Inch Nails or a fourth grader that can understand that a test isn’t good for her [on the show] takes the conversation out of the in-group vocabulary and more into people’s psyche,” says Hurley.
“Every parent with children in schools should care. But there’s an assumption that everything’s safe and fine. You drive up to school and the building looks good,” he adds. “[But] my wife and I opted my kids out [of a standardized test], and there’s a fear––who’s going to be mad at us and how will it affect our children?”
It’s not just parents who are scared. “Teachers are so afraid to talk about it; there’s such a shady underbelly to this,” Hurley says. “I just had parent-teacher conferences and I’m asking what my daughter’s doing in school––these tests are pretty much what my daughter’s doing from now until the end of the year, and when you start to ask these questions and they’re not allowed to answer, you’re like, ‘What’s the secret?’”
Slekar answers his question. “Teachers are fearful for their jobs. This is the test and punish culture. And we’re trying to expose it.”
Julia Burke is web editor at The Progressive.
Author's note: Prior to BustED Pencils, Tim Slekar was the cohost of the podcast At The Chalkface, as several readers pointed out.