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 put it, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
Last week’s meeting was no exception.
Mainstream coverage of that event has been focused exclusively on the reception Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren got, and it was ecstatic for sure. The “clarity” of her message, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce put it, that the economic trajectory of most Americans “is rigged” – and not in our favor – rang true with the attendees and they shouted their approvals. When she urged the crowd, “We can whimper. We can whine. Or we can fight back,” it was clear those in attendance preferred door number three.
But despite the enthusiasm for Warren’s message, the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton presidential nomination permeated the air. As my friend and colleague Richard Eskow wrote, “A more appropriate slogan for the event, at least for some attendees, might have been ‘I’m resigned to Hillary.’”
While acknowledging that Warren’s presence “had an extraordinary impact on the convention,” Eskow pointed to “other opportunities” where progressives are finding political space and exploiting it for real, positive change.
“These seem like promising alternative channels for progressive energy,” he stated. For those whose white-hot enthusiasm for presidential politics may be dampened by the inevitability of a Hillary candidacy, there may be no more promising alternative channel than the raging fight for public education.
The education-related conversations at the meeting were numerous and animated – from demands for early childhood education, to anger at President Obama’s K-12 policies, to outcries against the exorbitant costs of higher education and ballooning college debt levels.
This hasn’t always been the case at Netroots Nation.
We’ve Come A Long Way
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 blog site 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.”
“Lots of lip service was paid to ‘saving teachers’ jobs,'” I recalled. But “not much of anything on the agenda addressed the destructive education policies of the Obama administration.”
News that Michelle Rhee, the public school chancellor in Washington, D.C. that year, had fired another 241 teachers was completely overlooked in any of the panels and speeches. Instead, as I reported, “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.
Certainly no one of any prominence at the meeting pointed out the blatant unfairness of the Obama administration’s push to evaluate teachers on the basis of students’ scores on standardized tests. And during the conference’s education caucus, when National Education Association vice president Lilly Eskelsen 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-Calif.), 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 in 2014.
This year, the opening keynote included a speech from now president of the NEA (and remarried) 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.
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.
Getting Education Policy Above The “Snake Line”
As Eskow wrote, “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.
Indeed, America’s cold-blooded education policies can no longer survive above the bright line of progressive values. Netroots Nation showed we’re taking education policy to higher ground. As Barber urged us to do, we’ve turned to each other and declared, “We’re on our way.”