We Need Democrats To Act Like Democrats On Education

Jeff Bryant

[My guest writer today is Cynthia Liu, PhD. Cynthia launched member-supported K12NewsNetwork.com to amplify grassroots education news and provide a national platform for people to use sophisticated online organizing tools to better improve and strengthen public schools. It's "MoveOn" for school communities. K12NN's relaunch was funded by a Ford Foundation grant to re-envision journalism and civic engagement. Site tools are currently being used to organize supporters to fund California schools through key ballot initiatives and parcel taxes.]

While at the DNC, I was lucky enough to be invited to a small gathering of public education supporters with Governor Dean and Randi Weingarten, who heads the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). I’m a tremendous fan of Governor Dean — in fact, I was a Deaniac before there was a netroots. I still think he’s fantastic on so many issues close to the hearts of progressives. And I love the “50-state strategy.” In fact, had I not had a second awakening as an engaged citizen and activist, inspired by Governor Dean’s work, I probably wouldn’t have been at the DNC at all. I’m grateful that he took the time to speak with us. Here’s my recollection of what took place at the meeting.

When I heard about the meeting, I invited several allies and activists to attend. (I think we may have all heard about the meeting from different sources.) There was a large group from Florida in attendance (all delegates to the DNC) who were keen to deny Jeb Bush’s education privatization plans in that state. Florida parent groups and others had successfully banded together to stop a “parent trigger” law from passing in the legislature in the spring of 2012. Many of the Floridians at the Charlotte meeting were veterans of that campaign. Another group of parents were from Charlotte, NC, and had staged several demonstrations countering pro-charter school “parent trigger” mythology shown in the film Won’t Back Down. Another parent is active in MomCongress and has worked with other parents in her community to strengthen the local schools and push back on Tea Party candidates and agendas.

The meeting unfolded with opening remarks by Ms. Weingarten and Governor Dean. I won’t recap as David Atkins has summarized that portion over at Hullaballoo and I’d only add that I really love the AFT’s McDowell, WV effort to uplift the entire community using schools as a focus. We’ve featured those reports on K12NN previously as an outstanding example of community support that enables parents and students to seize hold of school governance, have input on key policies, and work in a coordinated way with business leaders from McDowell, townspeople without children, and of course, the teachers and school administrators.

Governor Dean spent time outlining how we know what solutions to pursue, but frustratingly, thanks to GOP-touted austerity scares and general obstructionism, we’re not currently in a place where we can even fund Head Start, public precshool, or 0-3 post-natal enrichment care and training for new parents. He also stated that he is most definitely against conservatives’ favorite GOP tool, voucher plans that would give a fixed sum of public money to parents to use at private schools.

After a few softball, ice-breaker questions from the Nation reporter and other bloggers there, I had the strong feeling parent voices were not being heard and wouldn’t be if we continued along in this vein. We were at 40,000 miles altitude far above daily issues. We needed to get back to ground level: from the grassroots up, from inside the classrooms and schools up.

So I jumped in and directed my comments to Governor Dean on his support of charter schools.

I pointed out how many charters have drifted from their original mission, becoming “hedge fund wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I said many charters de-fund and de-populate district schools by skimming the least expensive students to educate and tossing more challenging and expensive to educate special ed or English learner or severely disabled children back into the district public school pond. (I wish I’d added that boutique charters like Bullis Charter School in Los Altos de-fund districts by pressing expensive law suits that cost $1.3 million in legal fees and up to resolve [figure taken from this source]. How many art programs or special ed aides could Los Altos School District have funded for that amount?)

I said charter parents are being pitted against each other in co-location battles in NY and Los Angeles, and that with charter schools, it always comes down to real estate. In California, for example, charter trade associations are cleverly lobbying and exercising power through lawsuits using Prop 39 to force existing school districts to give public school facilities to charter schools by claiming that charters are on the downside of school equity in physical plant.

And I also said “charters are an unfunded mandate — a federal solution firehosed onto the states from Race to the Top and other policies — unfunded because strapped state and local government have no parallel effort to fund the building of new schools.” It’s dangerous to say more schools should be created but leave facilities to house those schools in the hands of “market forces.” Why? Because it leads to government exercise of privileges like eminent domain to seize land for public purposes and build public schools, but in hijacked fashion, so those buildings are then turned over to and controlled by semi-private or wholly private charter management organizations, as has happened in Los Angeles under the School Choice program.

What I wish I’d also said: that charter schools create a two-tier public school system where charters are “excused” from many of the rules and regulations regular public schools have to follow, such as educating ALL children regardless of preparation, parent motivation, special ed needs, or socio-economic status. And within charter schools, there’s another two-tier system springing up wherein boutique or “vanity” charters tend to educate middle class/mostly white and Asian kids but “no excuses” charters tend to educate African American and Latino kids. How is segregation, “choice without equity,” good? How is that egalitarian?

What I did say, ultimately, that I’m sure was very angering for Governor Dean, is that “we need Democrats to act like Democrats on this issue.”

And what I mean by that is this: too many Democratic mayors, groups like Democrats For Education Reform, and self-appointed, self-identified Democrats like plushly-funded ed reformer Michelle Rhee, have been too eager to partner with the “moneybags right and the religious right” to use parent triggers and school choice as a wedge for favorite right-wing policies like vouchers and charters that have at their root the decimation of public schools. When you follow the money, you see the same high dollar donors profiting from school privatization as you see donating to political campaigns big and small. We parents know it’s expensive to run a political campaign. We just don’t want electeds to do so on the backs of our kids.

Why are Democrats providing aid and comfort to the enemy in support of one of the most cherished goals of conservatives, to end what they sneeringly call ‘government’ schools?

I’ll use a health care metaphor I’m sure Dr. Dean would appreciate, but I didn’t have a chance to say to him then: right now our public school system is the equivalent of Medicare, or Medicare-for-all, that imaginary single-payer system we keep aiming for and trying to turn into reality. Why would we want to use charters and allow the right-wing language of “school choice” to make education a patchwork of unequally accessible services available to only people who are lucky enough to afford it? Why would we want to go from near-universal public education of all school-aged children (admittedly at varying levels of quality) to quality education for only a lucky few (and the school-to-prison pipeline for the rest)? Why are we throwing out the improveable existing system ‘baby in the bathwater’ for an unproven, market-driven one?

Using another medical metaphor differently that only occurs to me now: charters were, in a different time, like the sun. In small doses, sun exposure is a healthy dose of vitamin D. With unchecked and indiscriminate exposure, it’s melanoma. What we have right now is moneyed right-wing interests allying with extremely wealthy liberalish reformers with no background in education to create an unhealthy situation for public schools because there’s no filter on charters as the proposed solution, no sense that they may only be good for very specific, limited situations. It’s just too tantalizing to cash in on New Markets Tax Credits that benefit charter school funder-operators.

After I had my say, Governor Dean pushed back on my charter school comments. He said he agreed with Randi Weingarten that some good can come out of them and that they’re a necessary way to foster “innovation” in schools. Moreover he was vehement that inner city children have been neglected and discarded for decades — an unacceptable state of affairs. (I agree with Governor Dean’s vehemence and energetic critique of what Jonathan Kozol has called “savage inequalities,” but obviously my idea of solutions differ from his.) Finally Govenor Dean made some concession that charter schools are too varied to be described by the single term ‘charter’, a point a member of the Florida delegation reinforced later in the conversation.

I then posed a final question to Governor Dean’s second round of comments: “For boutique charters like Bullis, how is a semi-private charter school partially funded by taxpayer money different than a private school receiving school vouchers?” What, exactly, is public about a ‘public charter school’? It’s a question more and more parents who support the public school system and insist that it be a democratizing, egalitarian force in public life are beginning to ask. Looked at from the school funding/financing point of view, what is the real difference? Are charters simply “voucherized” semi-private schools made palatable with civil rights rhetoric to Democrats who’d reject them otherwise? A civil rights rhetoric that is peculiarly missing any anti-poverty programs or measures to address chronic school underfunding and unequal resource allotment?

The question didn’t go anywhere, but it needs to be discussed more openly.

For those who have time, I highly suggest listening to the entirety of Karran Harper-Royal’s recent presentation on how some education reformers and civil rights leaders got on the wrong side of ed reform. (She is a parent and community advocate for public schools speaking from where she lives: the heart of New Orleans and the wreckage of Governor Bobby Jindal’s disaster capitalism experiment in privatization in that city and state.) I’ve included video of her talk below:

SOS12 Karran Harper Royal: How [some] African Americans and Civil Rights Leaders Got on the Wrong Side of the Ed Reform Movement from Grassroots Education Movement on Vimeo.

My intent was never to offend Governor Dean, but to speak directly, clearly, and with urgency as a parent of a child attending public schools to raise these issues. Increasingly more parents are asking the questions I raise. I am not the only one. Over 500,000 parents in Florida stood up to defy Jeb Bush’s (and ALEC-backed) parent trigger bill. The Washington state PTA along with the Washington State League of Women Voters have seen the ugly competition and divisiveness charters have sown in other states, and the corruption that surrounds non-educators with a Gold Rush mentality as they launch corporate charter chains, and they are strongly against a ballot initiative that would open Washington state to charter schools. (Washington state voters have opposed charter schools three times times previously.) Other parts of the progressive coalition such as the People for the American Way and the national League of Women Voters have issued warnings against public school privatization in the context of overall privatization of the public sector.

These are not middle class parents trying to shut out opportunities for low-income kids. We want excellence and opportunity for all children in ways that align with our small-’d’ democratic form of local and school governance. These are parents from all SES levels starting to question the rhetoric with real, on-the-ground examples of how charters aren’t working. When it comes to innovation in school curriculum and pedagogical approach, there’s more than one game in town: magnet schools are an promising, unfinished in-district experiment that demonstrate several years of proven results and use residential desegregation to try to balance resources equitably. Community and alternative schools also operate within school districts and are viable models for improving and strengthening public schools. (The AFT’s work in MacDowell is a tremendous example of community school support that draws from the surrounding town and in return uplifts the local economy.)

Should Governor Dean or his aides come upon this post, I’d urge him to read and listen to the interview I did with two Alameda Unified School District parents who worked to convert their “failing” Title I school into a magnet school that gives the many low-income in-district children first priority at attendance. For an indication of the potential for success of magnet schools, one need only look at the example of our brilliant First Lady Michelle Obama, a proud graduate of a Chicago Public Schools magnet school. We need in-district solutions for curricular innovation and resource equity that strengthen the entire public school system.

We parents who volunteer countless hours in our kids’ schools, fundraise through booster clubs or parent-teacher organizations to make up for state budget shortfalls, and support our teachers in the classroom are on the front lines. Democratic Party electeds and policymakers at 40,000 feet must listen to us, or they risk helping to further an agenda they’d never sign onto otherwise.

Let me absolutely clear on this: I am fully committed to re-electing President Obama and Vice President Biden. But this discussion of education reform — its on-the-ground flaws, moneyed interests, and unholy alliances using “civil rights” language as a marketing strategy — is an ongoing conversation I am looking forward to having with the White House and the Obama administration after the inauguration of President Obama for a second term.

Comments