Earlier this year I published a post about how the Democratic Party has been split for years over the issue of corporate school reform. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been Democratic leaders of the dominant reform movement which seeks to transform public schools through standardized-test-based “accountability” and the expansion of charter schools. (There are Republican leaders as well, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush).
Recently, there has been growing pushback against corporate reform from elements in the Democratic Party. Donna Brazile, a longtime strategist, this month announced that she will co-chair a newly formed organization called Democrats for Public Education and she told delegates at the American Federation of Teachers’ national convention that “the very premise of market-driven education reform” is wrong. The new organization is apparently a counter to the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which has for years supported Obama’s reform agenda and supported the spread of public charter schools. After the new group was announced, DFER head Joe Williams issued a one-sentence statement — “Welcome to the jungle, baby.” (Perhaps a reference to the Guns n’ Roses song?)
More opposition to the Obama reform agenda was expressed at this month’s 2014 Netroots Nation convention, which brings together progressive political activists to discuss and debate key issues facing the country. Jeff Bryant, who is the director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, writes in this post about what he witnessed at the convention and what it means for the future of school reform. This original version of this post, which you can see here on the network’s blog, began with a discussion of the political tenor of the convention and the ecstatic reception received by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who spoke about the growing income inequality in this country and declared that it was time to fight against a “rigged” economic system. Bryant also wrote about a sense among many of the participants that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. What appears below is his discussion about education issues were approached at this and earlier Netroots Nation conventions.
Bryant owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy. You can read the original post from which the following is taken by clicking here.
By Jeff Bryant
Every year Netroots Nation is arguably the most important annual event in the progressive community and a telling barometer of what is on the minds of, as Howard Dean (and Paul Wellstone before him) put it, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
The education-related conversations at the meeting were numerous and animated. There were demands for early childhood education, anger expressed at President Obama’s K-12 policies, and outcries against the exorbitant costs of higher education and ballooning college debt levels.
What makes this especially interesting is that opposition to Obama’s school policies hasn’t always been on display at Netroots Nation.
The first Netroots Nation I attended, Pittsburgh in 2009, was mostly a celebration of the Obama victory the previous year. But as events rolled out the rest of that year and into 2010, it became painfully obvious that the new White House would maintain – actually even increase – a disastrous policy agenda carried over from the George W. Bush administration for the nation’s public schools. Public schools activists looked to Netroots Nation as a venue where progressives could push back.
We had our work cut out for us.
As I wrote on the blogsite OpenLeft back in 2010, the Netroots Nation event seemed “generally in denial about issues of race and class that are at the heart of” problems in public schools. Instead, all the conversation was about “reform.” And teachers’ unions fought for attention on the agenda by addressing the worsening conditions for the nation’s public school teachers as a “labor issue.” I wrote back then:
“As lots of lip service was being paid to ‘saving teachers’ jobs,’ not much of anything in the agenda addressed the destructive education policies of the Obama administration.”
News that Michelle Rhee, then the public school chancellor in Washington, D.C., had fired another 241 teachers was completely overlooked in any of the panels and speeches. Instead, as I wrote at the time:
“As the news broke, an attendee I was having coffee with was absolutely gleeful. ‘There are too many bad teachers,’ she explained to me while coolly scrolling through the headlines on her Blackberry, ‘And they’re never made accountable for anything.’”
Those around nodded in agreement. And no one of any prominence at that gathering pointed out the blatant unfairness of the Obama administration’s push to evaluate teachers on the basis of students’ scores on standardized tests. During the conference’s education caucus, when Lily Eskelsen, then vice president of the National Education Association (who will become its president on Sept. 1) warned of the rapidly expanding charter school industry that was spreading corporate influence and privatization of public schools, attendees defended “wonderful charter schools.”
A Turning Point At Netroots
The following year, at Netroots Nation 2011 in Las Vegas, I led a panel that included Eskelsen, U.S. Representative Judy Chu (D-CA), Sabrina Stevens (who now leads Integrity in Education), and Kevin Welner, an education professor from the University of Colorado, Boulder and co-director of the National Education Policy Center.
The title of that panel was “Engaging Progressives in the Fight for Public Education,” and we warned attendees of the dangers of current education policies and urged attendees to get involved in the growing movement to take back our public schools.
Both Eskelsen and Chu cited a Stanford study of charter schools nationwide that found most charter schools fail to outperform comparable neighborhood schools. And they decried the application of business models to education because business is designed to create winners and losers and stratify opportunities.
Stevens spoke eloquently and passionately of her experience teaching in a Denver public school where a reform agenda imposed by the state had stifled teachers’ practice, turned teaching into rote test-prep, and sapped the joy of learning from the students.
At one point during the session, Welner asked if there was anyone in the audience from the Center for American Progress. Two attendees raised their hands, which prompted Welner to chide, “Your organization is as bad as the American Enterprise Institute on education,” noting the groups that generally represent the range of the political spectrum – from left-leaning CAP to ardent right wing AEI – actively colluded in the campaign for corporate education reform.
Both CAP staffers promptly walked out. Based on what transpired in 2014, it’s now clear they – and the agenda masquerading as “education reform” – never really came back.
A High Mark For Dissent
In the ensuing two years, those fighting against corporate take-over of public education kept their cause on the Netroots Nation agenda, building to a crescendo this year. The opening keynote included a speech from Lily Eskelsen Garcia who warned of the growing dangers of privatizing the nation’s public schools and the harmful education malpractice that arises from current obsessions with standardized tests.
Then Rev. William Barber III, leader of the Forward Together movement in North Carolina, electrified the crowd with an address that included support for public education in a moral vision for America. In fact, my friend and colleague Richard Eskow wrote that “the emotional high point” of this year’s conference was unquestionably Barber’s speech exhorting the crowd to “get our policies above the snake line.” (The “snake line,” Barber explained, marked a line in mountainous territory above which dangerous reptiles cannot live and where the “cold-blooded” can’t survive.)
Six panels on education topics – ranging from curriculum standards, to student suspensions, to student loan debt, to reclaiming the promise of public schools – presented a unified front against current “reform” policies and for a vision of equity and excellence in public education.
Indeed, the dialogue at the meeting made clear the term “education reform” has become a pejorative in the progressive community.