Coalition For Real Education Reform Emerges

Jeff Bryant

Education “reform” wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.

In an ironic coda to the No Child Left Behind era last week, Texas officially turned its back on George W. Bush’s policy triumph by opting out of his signature mandate for schools to achieve “adequate yearly progress.”

Topping the irony of The Lone Star State rejecting a policy based on the Texas Miracle, the leader of the Beltway’s newest brand of “education reform,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, lashed out at critics of his signature education policy, Race to the Top, by saying they … wait for it … “inhabit a Washington bubble.”

Along with those who want “government hands off my Medicare” and Congressional Representatives who insist on being paid while they cut off wages to other federal employees, purveyors of education policy have clearly descended into nonsense.

As the country pivots from the failures of NCLB, what’s needed is not an insistence on the same brand of policies or the outright rejection of those who believe there is a better way forward, but a new course for real education reform based on traditional values that made public education an enduring American institution to begin with.

That new course is indeed emerging in a movement coming not from a Washington bubble but from communities across America.

Community And Labor Organizing Together

At a hotel in downtown Los Angeles last week, hundreds of activists and organizers gathered to voice a common commitment to public education and to plan specific courses of action to disrupt what most in the audience described as a “corporate model of school reform.”

The participants included labor leaders, educators, clergy, members of immigrant communities, civil rights activists, representatives from grassroots student and parent groups, and community organizers fighting for fair housing, economic fairness, and other causes.

The hotel meeting – billed as a combined “organizing summit” and a “conference on civil, human, and women’s rights” – was put together by the National Opportunity to Learn campaign (OTL) and the American Federation of Teachers. (Disclosure: OTL is a partner with the Education Opportunity Network.)

Although the two labor unions, including the National Education Association, contributed to the agenda, workplace issues, such as collective bargaining and tenure, were mere bullet points in comparison to the meeting’s full scope. Instead, those gathered focused on much broader concerns over widespread economic inequality, the marginalization of Latino and African-American communities, and the disempowerment of teachers, parents, and students within the educational system.

A Call to End “Corporate Reform”

Central to the meeting was a document proclaiming “The Principles That Unite Us,” which provided a touchstone that various speakers referred to frequently in their presentations throughout the event.

According to a press release from AFT, the Principles “were developed from ideas and proposals for strengthening public schools that were generated at town hall meetings held in several communities nationwide. More than 100 partners from parent, union and community groups are signatories to the principles.”

Declaring “access to good public schools is a critical civil and human right,” the document calls for “public schools that serve all children” and describes an attempt by “corporate interests” to “dismantle public education,” beginning with “urban African American and immigrant communities” and then “targeting rural and suburban school districts.”

This corporate reform is characterized as a “market-based system” emphasizing “competition – as opposed to collaboration –” that imposes a “system of winners and losers” in which “vulnerable children become collateral damage.”

Specific “reforms” the framers of the document oppose include “ever-expanding regimes of high-stakes tests, attacks on collective bargaining rights of educators, and aggressive school closures that pave the way for privately managed schools.”

A Commitment To Educational And Social Justice

The document’s call to “reclaim the promise of public education” comes with a detailed explanation of principles that include a commitment to public schools remaining public and an opposition to “the creation of charter schools for the purpose of privatization.”

What’s demanded is a broader sharing of school governance, instead of mayoral control that has characterized New York City schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago schools under Mayor Rham Emanuel, and state takeover that has occurred in Philadelphia, Detroit, and elsewhere.

Taking aim at high-stakes testing, the principles propose “multiple measures” instead of a “single exam” being used to “determine classroom funding or a student’s course placement, grade promotion, or eligibility to graduate.”

In opposition to “a war on teachers” waged by “today’s corporate reformers,” the document takes a veiled slap at alternative certification programs like Teach for America by stating, “Teaching is a career, not a temporary stop on the way,” and calling for “significant student-teaching time in the classroom” in teacher preparation programs. In addition to defending teacher collective bargaining, the document insists, “class size must be kept low.”

To maintain schools as “community institutions” that offer “supports and services for students and their families, early childhood programs, and “opportunities for academic and social enrichment,” the authors want increased and more equitably shared funding that doesn’t rely exclusively on “local property wealth” and that reflects “the real costs of supporting and nurturing our young people.”

A Movement That Is Moving Forward

The significance of the conference was not lost on local reporter Howard Blume of The Los Angeles Times who noted, “more than 500 people attended from across the country.” Blume linked the gathering to simultaneous appearances in the Los Angeles area of education historian Diane Ravitch, who was promoting her new book,Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” which has reached number 10 on The New York Times best-seller list.

The coincidence of these events, as Blume put it, seemed to work in unison to “take on corporate-style school reform, which emphasizes competition and accountability and is promulgated by many state governments and the U.S. Department of Education.”

No doubt, taking on the wealth and power behind corporate-style school reform has its formidable challenges. No one at this event spoke about quick wins or easy success. Speakers at the event who are deeply experienced in civil rights and community struggles – such as Reverend William Barber from North Carolina and Jitu Brown from the south side of Chicago – exhorted the crowd to prepare for the long haul.

But as grassroots rebellions to top-down education mandates continue to flare more frequently across the map into a full-scale Education Spring, those involved in school and community organizing now have a movement with considerable resources and a broad coalition behind them.

And a force for real education reform has finally emerged.

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