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Campaign for America's Future: The Education Spring’s ‘Year of Action’ Revs Up

When President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, called for a “year of action,” he probably didn’t have this in mind.

An extensive and diverse coalition of forces opposed to the education policies pushed by his administration, and many state governors, is organizing on an unprecedented scale to spur a variety of protest actions, including street rallies, sit-ins, walk-outs, strikes, boycotts, and disruptive legislative actions and lawsuits.

It’s clear, last year’s emerging Education Spring that revealed a nationwide movement of diverse factions opposed to unpopular education policies has now developed substantial new organizational capacity and a more powerful voice.

The “new populism,” as my colleague Robert Borosage reveals, that is defining the economic debate in 2014 is also firing a new populist movement to reject failed education policy mandates and call for new reforms of our public education system.

“Movements grow,” Borosage reminds us, “only when harsh reality is combined with dedicated organizers and teachers.” Well, the “dedicated organizers and teachers” for a populist education movement have arrived.

Meet The Organizers And Teachers

This week, hundreds of activists are gathering in Austin, Texas for the first annual meeting of the Network for Public Education, a group with a stated opposition to the status quo education policies pushed by federal and state governments, including “high-stakes testing, privatization of public education, mass school closures,” and “for-profit management of schools.”

Headlining the meeting are prominent critics of the nation’s current education policies, including education historian Diane Ravitch, Texas superintendent John Kuhn, and Chicago Teachers’ Union President Karen Lewis. A contingency is expected from a group calling themselves the Bad Ass Teachers Association that has the expressed “aim to reduce excess testing, increase teacher autonomy, and include teacher-family voices in legislative processes.”

This gathering comes on the heels of recent news stories about Testing Resistance and Reform Spring, “a new coalition of national groups,” explains a report in Education Week, that “hopes to bring together a growing number of grassroots boycotts, protests, and petitions aimed at reducing and revamping student testing.”

Valerie Strauss on her blog at The Washington Post explains, “The emergence of the alliance represents a maturing of the grassroots testing resistance that has been building for several years locally in states, including Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois.”

This opposition, notes Strauss, contends that the Obama administration has gone beyond the excesses of high-stakes standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind legislation under the administration of President George W. Bush.

Among the first actions promoted by TRRS is an event in Denver on March 28-30, convened by United Opt Out, an organization “dedicated to the elimination of high stakes testing in public education” by advocating for boycotting standardized tests that are used to make “high-stakes” decisions about students, teachers and schools.

Other events are being planned across the country.

Not to be left out of this new education populism are the students. Student activist Hannah Nguyen writes, “Students all over the United States, from Portland to Chicago to Providence are tired of feeling powerless when it comes to decisions that affect their education … They’ve begun to organize together, forming student unions and fighting back against threats to their education, such as budget cuts, high stakes testing, and school closings. From mass walkouts and sit-ins to creative street theater and flash mobs, these students are demanding that their voices be heard.”

Nguyen is widely known from a video that went viral over the Internet showing her taking on former Washington, D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee and saying, “I used to stand by reformers, I will admit it, I did. But after seeing the facts, and the data and everything, and my own lived experience, I cannot –  I’m sorry – stand by what you preach if it has to do with high-stakes accountability, this ‘school choice’ … [and] charter schools, and how they push out certain students.”

Nguyen is now involved with the grassroots Students United for Public Education, “a national network of students who are committed to fighting for educational equity in America and to work collectively to organize action that works towards this vision.”

SUPE has worked with other student activists to organize the event EmpowerED: Los Angeles Student Power 2014 on March 29. The meeting claims to be “the first education conference led by students, for students,” drawing student organizers from Chicago, Newark, Portland, Providence, and Baltimore to “work with the student organizers in workshops to build organizing skills, discuss their ideas for education, and collaborate on developing a student power movement in their community.”

This spreading network of activists, organizers and advocates is accompanied by teacher-union activism that pushes the needs of students to the fore.

New Form Of Union Activism Emerges

Along with the grassroots direct action ramping up, a new form of union activism is connecting teachers’ labor grievances to their students’ learning conditions.

Earlier this month, when teachers in Portland, Oregon threatened to strike they made students learning conditions – particularly class sizes – a focal point of their grievances. District administration conceded to “hire 150 teachers to reduce class sizes and teacher workloads,” fewer than the 170 new positions teachers requested, but vastly exceeded the 88 new teacher hires proposed by the district.

When teachers made class size a main rationale for the threatened strike, they drew widespread approval from students and parents in Portland.

Also this month, in St. Paul, Minnesota, when negotiations faltered and the union considered authorizing a strike, the teachers made clear their actions were not over salary and working conditions, but over the students’ learning conditions. Those conditions included, according to a local report, limits on class sizes, less instructional time devoted to testing, increased student-support personnel, and expanded slots in the district’s preschool program. It’s clear from the report that students and parents vocalized strong support for the teachers’ demands.

When a deal was reached and terms were announced this week, teachers got most of what they wanted: limited class sizes, less time spent on testing, and more consideration of increased student support staff and expanded preschool.

Too often in recent times, teacher unions have been portrayed as motivated by the narrow self-interest of their members. But the strategies exemplified by teachers in Portland and St. Paul turned that perception on its head.

Voices Louder, Stakes Higher

A year ago, the nation was roiled by the widespread, unified backlash to top-down education mandates driven by corporate interests, private foundations, and promoters of a market-based philosophy for education. The protests had huge impacts on elections for mayor in New York City and school board in Bridgeport, Conn.

This year, the voices of dissent are louder and the stakes are far higher. More states are pausing education mandates and challenging the status quo of high-stakes testing. “Testing season begins soon in U.S. public schools … But this year is filled with tumult,” reports Lindsey Layton for The Washington Post.

State elections this year will determine the fate of three dozen governors and more than 6,000 legislators. Education, always a more important issue in these local races, could make or break some political contests. No candidate can afford to ignore the new education populism.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging cen...