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

Saturday, June 13, 2009

If Not Now, When? Reclaiming Education

William Greider's recent article in The Nation, The Trouble with Democrats, Reclaiming the Economy for the People, has enormous implications for other critical issues facing the nation -- including education.
"This crisis brought down the world economy and yet Congress still hasn't passed a bill making sure it doesn't happen again."

Julia Gordon, a lawyer with the Center for Responsible Lending, did not seek anonymity. "We have reached the moment to ask ourselves Rabbi Hillel's question: If not now, when?" Gordon said.

"I fear we are letting this crucial moment pass without putting forward-looking rules in place to fundamentally change how mortgages are made and prevent predatory lending. That question ought to haunt the democratic Party and President Obama, who has been missing in action himself on key issues. Congressional Democrats are responding to this epic conflagration with the same risk-avoidance tactics they learned during many years in minority status. In those days, they could always blame right-wing Republicans for blocking their good intentions. But who do the Dems blame now that they have the White House and fifty-nine votes in the Senate and a seventy-eight seat majority in the House? Their standard explanation for not doing more is, 'We didn't have the votes.' So when might we expect Democrats to achieve more? When they have eighty votes in the Senate.

The party's ideological intentions are being defined with greater clarity in these new circumstances, and so are the President's. It's still early, but the implications are ominous for other issues. If Democrats are reluctant to disturb the power of other major interests, in seems improbable that fundamental change will occur on healthcare, energy conversion or the restoration of work and wages. The problem now is the Democrats, not the Republicans. The party aids and protects its free-roaming entrepreneurial politicians and does not punish those who undermine the party's larger promises. When Republicans were in charge, they enforced party loyalty with Stalinist discipline. Democrats ar ethe party of safe incumbents, weak convictions.

For those of us who had high hopes when Obama came into office and a new Democratic majority held the promise of universal healthcare, real education reform and regulation of Wall Street, we watch in horror as the powerful money interests continue to undermine any hope of meaningful change. The Democrats instead have been "standing with the sharks" says Greider.

According to Greider, we can't count on Washington any longer -- we need a moral awakening of the people.
Given all the adversities facing the country, I conclude that meaningful "intervention" is plausible only if it originates with people at large who are more distant from power. I envision the intrusion coming from many "independent formations" free to ignore Washington's insider routines and mobilized by citizens on behalf of their own convictions, their common-sense ideas of what needs to be accomplished. This alternative path is a central theme of my new book, Come Home, America. I describe (somewhat wishfully) how self-directed organizations might develop the power to break through regular politics and overcome the usual barriers.
As a prime example, Arne Duncan was spinning his "education reform" on CNN this morning , promoting national standards, longer school days and years, rewarding the best performing teachers, databases to track all students and link their performance to teachers. It was the same old, tired rhetoric, blaming the schools for the United States falling behind in the almighty global economy. Meanwhile, the criminals on Wall Street and in Washington are off the hook, and schools budgets are being axed all across the country -- another variation on Margaret Spelling's recipe for success.

Here's a dose of reality from Stateline.org:
More than $100 billion in federal economic stimulus will help public schools and colleges survive the recession over the next two years, and for districts in dire straits, that money is a lifeline.

But some states’ finances are so precarious their schools are still going to face large cuts. That’s why the Los Angeles school district canceled summer school classes, several Idaho districts have declared a state of financial emergency, and some states are considering shortening the average 180-day school year even as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan pushes for students to spend more time in school.

“Pretty much every school system I know is making cuts to their budget because of the economy. In some cases the stimulus money prevented cuts for some of those school systems, but in the vast majority of others, it didn’t because the cuts were so massive,” said John Musso, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International.

This year, 26 states made midyear cuts to elementary and secondary education and 31 made cuts to higher education, according to a recent report by the National Association of State Budget Officers and the National Governors Association. Some of the cuts were approved before Congress passed the stimulus relief and were rolled back after the first stimulus dollars started flowing to the 29 states
that so far have applied for their education allocations.

Back to Greider's self-directed organizations who need to break through regular politics:
These groups could function, not as a third party nor as standard "issue" advocates, but as a mixture of these capabilities. They could act like free-roaming guerillas who educate and agitate; like a political party that selectively destabilizes safe-seat incumbents by entering party primaries or running independent challengers; like a representative organization that can demand political relations through direct confrontations or even civil disobedience. This development sounds implausible, I know, especially in Washington. But our crisis demands a more aggressive response from citizens--something that threatens the power of both parties and makes them insecure.
If not now, when?

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