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Where Are Progressives in the Fight to Save Public Schools?

This post is republished from the Education Opportunity Network, a new online publication edited by Jeff Bryant.

This week, here was Paul Krugman’s assessment of the current policy agenda governing the nation’s public schools:

“We have the illusion of consensus, an illusion based on a process in which anyone questioning the preferred narrative is immediately marginalized, no matter how strong his or her credentials.”

Except, Krugman wasn’t writing about education policy, actually. He was writing about the nation’s run up to the Iraq War ten years ago. “Support for the war,” Krugman recalled, ” became part of the definition of what it meant to hold a mainstream opinion. Anyone who dissented, no matter how qualified, was ipso facto labeled as unworthy of consideration.”

Krugman compared the type of “groupthink” that preceded the war in Iraq to the current false consensus driving our nation’s flawed economic policy. But he may as well have been writing about the nation’s education policy as well.

For years, federal education policies have been characterized by a “Washington Consensus” that public schools are effectively broken and only a market based reform agenda will fix them.

People calling themselves “progressives” have tended to unite with conservative Republicans in this consensus – even while they chose to fight tooth-and-nail on other issues.

But the Washington Consensus on education was indeed illusionary. And now that the real intentions of the reform agenda are starting to play out on the ground, there are signs that progressives are making the fight for public schools another front in a broader grassroots struggle agains corporate hegemony.

Education Consensus Was A Collusion

In the 2012 elections, veteran education reporter Jay Mathews of The Washington Post. noted that whenever education was the focus, Republican and Democratic candidates “have been happily copying each other.”

The general shared agenda held that schools were in need of broad, top-down “reform” driven by stricter standards, high-stakes testing, and competitive charter schools – in short, a free-market perspective adopted from the business world that would base decisions on “objective data” gathered through testing and competitive ratings to weed out “bad” teachers and schools.

Although this agenda has been mostly driven by the federal government, it has gradually been implemented by most states too, as evidenced by the widespread adoption of test-based school and teacher evaluations and the rapid increase in the numbers of charter schools nationwide.

Like the “groupthink” Krugman noted above, education policy has been a consensus without diversity and without the input of skeptics.

A recent op-ed appearing in Education Week described perfectly how this “illusion of consensus” has been maintained over the years.

Declaring, “greater cooperation across political and ideological lines is badly needed in education,” Capitol Hill insider Jack Jennings described how he “put together an advisory group of people with different opinions” to determine whether the federal school policy known as No Child Left Behind was meeting its goal of increasing student achievement, especially for “historically low-performing groups of students.”

This panel was replete with the usual suspects we see time and again from The Very Serious People in America’s political class: a couple of respectable higher ed folks, an economist, and a preponderance of Beltway belief tank operatives.

There was no one who worked day-to-day in public schools – no district administrators, no school principals, and no classroom teachers in a leadership position. There were no representatives from school boards or parent organizations. No one from the civil rights or social justice community.

But the supposed magic of this panel was that it was “Bipartisan” – that is, if you think having two conservatives, a “nonpartisan,” and a decidedly centrist Democrat (Jennings himself) constituted “political diversity.”

Nevertheless, Jennings declared the panel’s work an unmitigated “success” because it showed that NCLB – a policy now held in such exceptional disrepute, states go to incredible lengths to become exempt from it – had achieved some modest achievement gains.

The panel’s success, of course, was all due to this unbelievable level of “cooperation and compromise.”

If Jennings and other Beltway insiders really wanted more of a consensus view, they should have populated their panel with the kind of diversity that comprised the Commission on Equity & Excellence which recently concluded that instead of achieving modest gains, federal policies for education have resulted in “schools in high poverty neighborhoods…getting an education that more closely approximates schools in developing nations.”

What Jennings’ tale of reaching “across the aisle” illustrated is that education policy-making among our leadership has been not so much a Washington Consensus as it has been a Washington Collusion.

Writing in Jacobin, Micah Uetricht observed that when the subject is education policy, “Democrats have swallowed the Right’s free market orthodoxy whole.”

Uetricht elaborated:

High-stakes standardized testing, merit pay for teachers, school closures, privatization and union-busting through charter school expansion, blaming teachers and unions for the dismal state of poor urban schools, an unshakable faith in the free market as the Great Liberator of the wretched, over-regulated student masses – all proposals and ideas [are] embraced and promoted by much of the Democratic Party, including President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

But a change is in the wind.

Chicago Teachers Strike: When Progressives Woke Up?

Uetricht applied his analysis of the Democratic sellout on education to the reform agenda in Chicago, What he found:

Chicago has long been one of the principal testing grounds for neoliberal education reform. Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Democrat from a Democratic political family in that most Democratic of big cities, and Duncan, then CEO of CPS, crafted Renaissance 2010, a program begun in 2004 which pushed closures and ‘turnarounds’ of neighborhood schools and replacing them with nonunion, publicly funded charters, and is largely the basis for the Race to the Top program Duncan currently oversees as Secretary of Education. Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education – which includes billionaire hotel heiress and Democratic Party power player Penny Pritzker – have continued this push, particularly around school closures. Currently on the table is a proposal to close 100 unionized neighborhood public schools around the city and replace them with 60 nonunion charters – a move that would simultaneously decimate the union’s membership, redirect public money to privately-run charters that lack basic mechanisms for public accountability, slash teachers’ salaries and benefits, and cause massive disruption in the poor black and brown neighborhoods where the majority of closures would take place.

“The shift towards the destruction of public education through the embrace of the free market was well-known among Chicago teachers,” Uetricht noted.

But then something changed. Instead of entrusting the Democratic Party to “sway back” towards supporting a more progressive agenda, the Chicago Teachers Union decided to take a “more confrontational stance.”

That more controversial tone led to a teacher strike. The strike was strongly backed by Chicago voters and parents, and the teachers eventually won the day by framing their demands on students’ basic education needs rather than obscure market-speak about “effective” schools and “value added” teaching.

The concessions teachers won “included textbooks for all students on the first day of school, 600 new teachers in the arts and physical education, and mandatory recall of laid-off veteran teachers (rather than replacing them with young, inexperienced, cheaper teachers) when positions become available. Teacher evaluation based on standardized testing was negotiated to its legal minimum, 30 percent – contrasting with the Obama administration’s push under Race to the Top to increase the proportion of teacher evaluations based on standardized tests.”

What happened in Chicago – where people on the ground took control of the narrative and made it about fighting the free market assault on the common good – is now spreading to other communities.

Education’s Progressive Pushback Is Spreading

A notable example of resistance to the corporate takeover of public schools is the campaign in Bridgeport, Connecticut to oust Paul Vallas as interim school superintendent.

Vallas is the granddaddy of free-market education reform resulting in more privatization of public schools. After stints in leading school reform campaigns in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Orleans, Vallas left in his wake school systems that had been massively “reformed” but still, somehow, are in need of more reform, necessitating more “churn” in school closures and competitive charter schools – a hallmark of market-based reform. How this can be touted as a great success is indeed only possible in “illusionary consensus world.”

What happened in Bridgeport is that progressives got wind of this nonsense and decided it smelled pretty bad. After Vallas was hired as interim superintendent, people on the ground noticed not only was his track record troubling, he also didn’t legally meet the qualifications for the office.

What ensued was a grassroots push-back led in part by the progressive Connecticut Working Families Party. The campaign consisted of an online petition, knocking on doors, a staged sidewalk rally, and a retired teacher flown in from Chicago to testify about Vallas’ past transgressions.

The teacher, Gloria Warner, said, “It just makes me sick to hear that Paul Vallas is trying to do to this city what he did to Chicago. While Paul Vallas was wasting billions of taxpayer dollars, and making hundreds of thousands for himself, I had to spend my hard earned money to buy materials so that I could do my job.”

And parents have spoken up:

JoAnn Kennedy, a parent of two students at Bridgeport’s Bassick High School said, “Every day I sees the mess that is going on. Teachers are afraid to speak up. No teaching is going on. We need leadership that puts students first.”

Another Bridgeport parent, also a board member, Sauda Baraka said, “I expect a Bridgeport superintendent to have the required state certifications . . . with less emphasis on testing and more emphasis on providing school buildings with the necessary support to ensure student success.”

And parent and board member Maria Pereira said “I am not convinced that Paul Vallas is doing the best job for our students. He has a long record of privatizing schools, and turning tax dollars over to corporations, and I am deeply troubled with his decision to repeatedly violate CT State laws by awarding over $13,000,000 in no bid contracts.”

Although Vallas’ illegal contract ended up getting approved, by a consensus-dominated board, there is ample evidence that the community is energized to continue to press the case.

A Movement Grows In Brooklyn

Similar to Bridgeport, citizens in New York City have mobilized against school privatization efforts. According to the local education blog, Gotham News, “The [Mayor] Bloomberg administration has relied heavily on co-location, the practice of allowing one school to open in another school’s building, to open new schools. Its critics say the arrangement breeds unnecessary tension and takes resources away from existing schools.”

As colocations have redirected resources from neighborhood schools to privately operated charter schools – which frequently benefit from donations from foundations endowed with Wall Street money – more neighborhood schools experienced overcrowding and adverse conditions that interrupted students’ learning.

One colocation proposal in particular, at the Brownsville Academy High School in Brooklyn, drew stiff resistance. The colocation – which called for placing a K–5 elementary charter school in the same building as a “last chance” high school, with students “ranging from ages 17 to 21″– would privatize the public space of a school that was A-rated according to the DOE and was valued by the students for having small class sizes and more personal attention.

When a governing panel hand-picked by the mayor approved the Brownsville colocation, Jason Lewis, for the Village Voice, reported that students from the school “stayed until 11 p.m. pleading with the panel to reconsider. They were trying to figure out why the panel would potentially disrupt one of the city’s rare high-performing transfer high schools to co-locate an elementary school.”

The approval of the Browsnville colocation and others, despite objections from citizens, prompted Lewis to observe, “Anyone who fought against the recent round of co-locations can now rest assured that they never had a say.”

But the Brownsville school community was determined to have a say. According to a report from another NYC education news blog, School Book, “Dozens of Brownsville students fought the co-location with the help of the group New York Communities for Change. Arthur Schwartz, an attorney, filed the suit on the students’ behalf, arguing that co-locating another school in the building would violate the rights of special-needs students who would lose the individualized attention needed in the classroom.

The lawsuit, combined with grassroots activism fomented by the NYCC group, pressured the DOE to rescind the colocation.

But the opposition to colocations isn’t satisfied with one victory. On the contrary, “To actually have them withdraw their proposal for Brownsville Academy, it means a lot,” said Amelia Adams, deputy director New York Communities For Change, in the Village Voice. “It builds momentum. We see this as an opportunity to continue organizing so that colocations aren’t rammed down people’s throats.”

A House Of Cards About To Collapse

The progressive awakening to mistaken education policies driven by the Washington Collusion is not limited to Bridgeport and New York. Nor is it confined to the issues of school leaders and colocations.

Across the country, there is a growing resistance to the emphasis on high-stakes testing that provides the infrastructure supporting market-based education policy, from school closures and ratings to teacher evaluations and merit pay.

FairTest, website for The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, recently reviewed the spreading resistance:

A nationwide protest movement against the stranglehold of high-stakes testing on our schools has escalated to a rolling boil. Boycotts, opt-out campaigns, demonstrations, and community forums are among the tactics being pursued in cities such as Austin, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, Chicago, Denver and Providence. Meanwhile, the number of signers of the National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing continues to grow.

Education historian Diane Ravitch has observed that the false consensus driving education policies is essentially a “house of cards” about to “come tumbling down.” When it does, it will be grassroots progressives who push it over.

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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...