"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Getting Clear

Inspired by the popularization of long-time voucher advocate, Milton Friedman (1962), the conservative education reform agenda has been publicly focused on the break-up of the public schools ever since Reagan’s first term. With the coming to power of the NeoCons in 2000, the agenda to end the “public school monopoly” took on a new sense of urgency. Even so, the American public seems largely unaware of the threat to public education by the same privatizers who have tried most recently to turn Social Security into a Wall Street gamble, to turn Medicare over to the friends of Bill Frist, and to eviscerate other government agencies such as the EPA and, of course, Brownie’s FEMA.

These are the same privatizers who believe that the people’s civic business should be weakened to the point where it can be dragged down and “drowned in the bathtub” by an army of greedy parasitic thugs who call themselves free market capitalists.

But what is the big enchilada for the neocons? It is the dismantling of the public education system; for there hangs the possibility to shape the thinking, or lack thereof, of future generations of Americans. In order to accomplish that end, it is necessary, of course, to demonstrate to the American people that their public shcools have failed them—and that is where NCLB comes in.

For some reason, it is difficult for the American public to accept the fact that the impossible demands of NCLB were put in place in order to guarantee the failure of public schools.

Unbelievable, you say—that would be equivalent to, I don’t know, taking the country to war on false pretenses. Can you imagine exploiting the promise of helping poor children in order to undermine the American public’s confidence in public education?

Hellooooo!!! It is happening.

Look, for example, at a recurring situation that is reported in this story from Oregon, where state data and federal data are reaching two very different conclusions, one indicating steady improvement and the other indicating steady and growing failure. Which is the Oregon assessment and which is the NCLB assessment? Come on!

Perhaps it is time for some review, as we say in school. For those who don’t or can’t believe that conservatives want to privatize education in America, I would start with the Grampa of the movement, Milton Friedman, who has been preaching the message since the 1950s (see Amazon link above). Then check out what the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute has to say, or the bold new plan of leading corporate welfare artist, Chris Whittle.

Then for an analysis of what school privatization might mean for America, try this thorough piece from the People for the American Way, even though it is focused on vouchers more than the rise of corporate welfare schools.

And for starters, here is something from the archives that remains just as relevant today as when it first appeared:

Lessons from the Voucher War

by Ann Bastian, Rethinking Schools
January 1st, 1996

This is an editorial report from the front, four years into the Great Voucher War, the war to dismantle public education in America. I am writing as a partisan of public education who has seen a fair amount of the recent action, chiefly in my home state of New Jersey, and also in Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Ohio.

As in any war, language is an early casualty. To soften their image, vouchers are sometimes called "choice" programs and confused with public school choice and charter programs that do not privatize education rights or funding. I am talking about tuition vouchers that allow public money to fund private and parochial school enrollment, a proposition raised in over 30 states since 1993.

This report is not really about how the Voucher War is going, which is mostly on and on. The good news is that statewide voucher initiatives have been overwhelmingly defeated in the three states where referenda have been held. The discouraging news is voucher legislation has established pilot programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland. The really discouraging news is: every Republican presidential candidate in 1996 endorsed a voucher platform and every Republican governor is looking at vouchers as a way to escape responsibility for the crisis in urban education. So despite electoral rejection--and a sketchy record showing that private school vouchers have no positive impacts on overall school improvement and highly inconsistent impacts on student achievement -- the Voucher War will go on for the foreseeable future.

Today's report, however, is about what we, as progressive advocates for public education, might try to learn from this grueling experience so that we can live to fight for better causes. I've collected four lessons thus far:

Lesson 1: We are defending schools we want to change, not the status quo.
Lesson 2: Don't just mobilize, organize.
Lesson 3: If you're comfortable in a coalition, it isn't broad enough.
Lesson 4: There is an enemy. Name it.

Here's what these lessons suggest in operational terms:

Lesson 1: We are defending schools we want to change, not the status quo.

Basically, a lot of us have mixed feelings about the public education system as it is, since it so often fails to meet its ideals and so often tolerates that failure. In New Jersey, you look at Newark and you want to weep. But if we can muster the stamina it takes to hold fast to a complex position, we can uphold the promise and the entitlement of public education, while being clear that we believe the institution needs deep restructuring. We need to convey that we are working to transform public schools at the same time we are defending them.

We can defend what works already, but not pretend that there is nothing wrong. There are real places in school crisis: twenty-five or so major urban systems, plus some hundreds of decaying industrial suburbs and dying rural districts. It is no accident that voucher warriors, having failed to win sweeping federal and statewide programs, are now targeting the most distressed urban districts for pilot programs (and back-door entry points for larger plans).

We can also defend schools that are changing, including some exemplary restructured public schools in those urban districts, schools that have traded in the factory model for child-centered learning. We can point to the growing number of successful Comer Schools, Key Schools, Accelerated Schools, Essential Schools, Carnegie Pilots, New Visions Schools, and scores more to prove that public schools can work even in adverse conditions. Then we can point out that these shining stars only make it more feasible and imperative to extend restructuring efforts to every school.

Most fundamentally, we can defend the universal right to public education and defend our future chances to transform the institution. What we cannot defend are schools that have failed or given up.

One key to supporting and challenging public schools simultaneously is to develop a focused agenda for local school improvement in our communities, as well as campaigns against vouchers, cutbacks and other attacks. But having a local agenda means we have to let some allies (usually inside the education system) know that we are not going to gloss over what is wrong or stop raising what needs to be done, just because schools are under hostile fire.

Building a pro-active agenda for troubled schools means it is necessary to raise difficult and divisive issues. The hardest are teaching practices, committed by fault or default, that reproduce racism, sexism, language and class bias. It is equally necessary to critique special ed placements, disciplinary double-standards, elite-centric and test-driven curriculum, segregation in the guise of tracking ... The list could go on, but it includes all the gut issues of inadequate schooling. The trick is to raise these problems in a problem-solving context, where change is seen as possible. So while we seek to create broad coalitions to defend public education, we also have to create appropriate and ongoing spaces, places, and programs where we can struggle with educators who are obstacles to school reform, but allies in the larger war. I believe this is called fighting on two fronts. No small trick, but it's part of what makes Lesson 2 important.

Credit: Huck Konopacki Teacher Cartoons

Lesson 2: Don't just mobilize, organize.

Voucher battles are demanding and expensive because they are an all-out assault on the integrity of public education. We cannot afford to lose in any state, without losing equity mandates, economies of scale, and community investments that have taken decades to achieve. Whether wholesale or piecemeal, privatization would fracture the coherence of the public system and particularly its obligatory, if often grudging, commitments to the neediest students. So the stakes are very high. We must learn to fight negative and defensive battles in ways that increase rather than deplete our energy for education politics.

The problem is that we have been drawn into an endless series of defensive mobilizations and are in danger of becoming exhausted. Here's a sobering example: the fight against Prop. 174, the 1993 voucher initiative in California, cost the California Teachers Association roughly $16 million in campaign expenses; millions more were spent by allies, which included the PTA, League of Women Voters, the AARP, civil rights organizations, labor unions, business leaders, social service providers, and more. The proposition was defeated by a 70%-30% margin, a resounding victory. The problem is that voucher proponents are vowing to come back with another voucher referendum in California, just as they are continuously submitting voucher legislation and amendments in other states.

Conservatives have deep pockets and the Right has rabid benefactors. If they can't deliver a voucher A-bomb, they are willing to fight a war of attrition, to launch a state of siege. They are using voucher battles to build memberships, scare officeholders, identify new allies, reach deeper into local communities, connect organizations, capture media attention, control the public debate, and develop their own leaders and candidates. This is organizing.

Mobilizing is when you activate those who are already enlisted in the cause. It is represented by media campaigns, rallies on the Capitol steps and get-out-the-vote drives, and is the main way we have fought voucher battles so far. All of these actions are necessary, but they are not sufficient for protracted warfare. We need to use mobilizations and work beyond them to organize new bases of support. We need to increase the numbers, the diversity, the understanding, the leadership, the solidarity and the energy on our side; these should be the real measures of progress from every voucher battle.

Whatever organization we work out of --a school, a parents' organization, a teachers' union, a youth program, a community organization, a public interest group, a civic association--we need to start rounding up the unusual suspects and reach out to the unorganized. Don't forget the grandmothers, the new immigrants, the trailer parks, or young people themselves. We need to get beyond the all-or-nothing style of activism that mobilizations encourage, so that more than overcommitted activists can join and so that the overcommitted activists can recover.

Then we need to provide a range of ways to get and stay involved after the voucher battle is suspended. People are reinventing some good approaches: a local speakers' bureau, neighborhood house meetings, an ongoing roundtable breakfast of concerned teachers and community leaders, a program for school/community dialogue around education visions and goals. It seems that sustaining an active base of support for public education also requires that we organize around what we are for, not only what we are against. Which brings us back to Build an Agenda and Educate Your Allies, Lesson One.

Lesson 3: If you're comfortable in a coalition, it isn't broad enough.

This lesson is ascribed to Bernice Reagan, who learned it and taught it in the southern civil rights movement. It certainly applies if you adopt an organizing approach to education politics, which is about building new bases and broader alliances. The problem in the Voucher War is that most of our coalitions have been only at the leadership level, neither broad nor deep enough. My observation of traditional leadership coalitions is that everybody in the room already knows each other, they have probably met before on some legislative campaign, they are professional staff or officers of their organizations, they speak a distinct institutional language. They may not all look alike, but they somehow look similar. This is a fairly reliable observation if the leadership coalition has formed at the state level, but it also seems to happen in local coalitions.

Vouchers battles are opportunities to build new kinds of alliances. Rebuilding a strong base for public education means seeking new blood, both at the top and at the grassroots level. It means coalitions made up of groups that are large and small, mainstream and sidestream, staffed and voluntary, and genuinely representative when it comes to race, ethnicity, national origin, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, and whatever else the Right attacks.

We can use voucher battles to begin building coalitions and networks of allies at the community level. Usually, it requires one core organization to take the initiative. Often the teacher's union is in that position, with staff and resources, but a great many union locals are trapped by isolation from the community and a fixation on their contract. One of the deepest frustrations of community advocates defending public schools is dealing with unions that are so entrenched in narrow agendas and business as usual that they can't see how profoundly the politics of education has changed.

On the other hand, my experience in several states and cities-Pennsylvania, Washington State, California, Cleveland and even Jersey City--indicates that some unions are waking up to new alliances and that they are essential organizations in this fight. So are parents groups, school support personnel, school boards, other unions, and civic and religious groups concerned about educational opportunity and the separation of church and state.

However, creating new alliances that get beyond the top-down insider model means learning some new skills. We need to work at expanding cultural comfort zones (more accurately, expanding your acceptable discomfort zones) and burying old grievances (probably the last contract fight or bond issue). We need to better understand all the sectors and social forms that make up a community (asking others about themselves) and to identify educational injustice with other social causes (like funds for Midnight basketball). We need working groups and teams that mix constituencies and don't keep us each in our safe and narrow havens. Above all, we need to forge long-term relationships rather than deals.

Lesson 4: There is an enemy. Name it.

It is remarkable how often a voucher battle erupts and people think it is just happening in their own backward city or state, as a sort of random product of nasty times. The fact is that voucher plans are not acts of God or tests of character. They are not a punishment for bad deeds in the past lives of school administrators. They are not what voters are demanding after the drop-out rates are announced. They are not even the outgrowth of an educational experiment somewhere that shows promising results. While a variety of groups and individuals may support vouchers for their own reasons, vouchers are the agenda of the political Right in this country and we ought to know it and say it. Voucher battles are opportunities to expose the Right's agenda.

The Right has been putting forward vouchers for decades, but with real vengeance since the Reagan years. To privatize public education is the centerpiece, the grand prize of their overall agenda to dismantle social entitlements and government responsibility for social needs. Vouchers also serve a political function for the Right, whether they win or lose. Vouchers unify the different strands of the Right: business entrepreneurs looking for a new public carcass to feed on, having used up the Cold War; anti-government libertarians who worship the free market, having noticed that education is the society's largest public institution; social and religious conservatives who want to break down the separation of church and state, while garnering public funds to run their own schools. Many issues divide the Right; vouchers unite them and provide an organizing platform.

The importance of exposing this agenda is to combat both political fatalism and the myth that voucher campaigns are concerned with saving sinking school systems or rescuing drowning children. Look at the Milwaukee or Cleveland programs, or the proposals for Jersey City or Philadelphia, and you see the most cynical power politics: the Heritage Foundation's game plan for state by state privatization, the Landmark Legal Foundation's search for the new Supreme Court case on church and state, ambitious governors pandering to the Right and hoping to escape from court orders on desegregation or funding equity, and a flock of campaign strategists looking for new wedges into the Catholic vote or besieged communities of color, traditionally Democratic strongholds.

Understanding the role of the Right on vouchers should remind us that there is a very broad spectrum of people who do not share this agenda or this set of political purposes. Understanding the Right's voucher agenda also reminds us that this really is a war, a modern civil war, with vast collateral impacts. This is a war over society's resources and over our most basic social values: whether education should be obligated to serve all children equally and well, whether education should be governed by the democratic process or the economic marketplace, whether schools will represent common ground or contending private and sectarian interests, whether schools should belong to communities and serve as community institutions. I wish all the military metaphors were not so appropriate. We will surely have achieved a better world when we can use cooking, gardening, or building a house to describe the politics of education. But in launching its voucher offensive, the Right uses a perverse military logic: we must destroy the public schools in order to save them. In fighting vouchers, we need to speak the logic of democracy: we must save the public schools in order to advance them.

Ann Bastian is a Senior Program Officer at the New World Foundation, an education policy consultant, and a history teacher. This article originally appeared in Selling Out Our Schools, published by Rethinking Schools. Visit their site to order a copy of the report.

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