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While at the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit last week, I attended a few panels on public education. I’ve kept up to date on the school choice movement for the past few years, but hadn’t witnessed an anti-choice meeting for quite some time.
Compared to the education reformers’ message of optimism, enterprise and fresh thinking, the Netroots discussions seemed like an alternate universe — and a grim one at that.
The session “Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education” had a hopeful title, but ultimately revealed a movement in steep decline. Perhaps the anti-reform agenda shouldn’t be called a “movement” at all since it offers only inertia. Each panelist betrayed a siege mentality, admitting they are being hit with the school choice message from all sides, even from traditional allies.
There was much lashing out, but precious few solutions. The primary complaint, as in most Netroots sessions, was racism. The moderator, Zerlina Maxwell, maintained that focus every time there was a pause in the action.
“I’m glad you brought up racism,” she said as the first speaker wrapped up his talk on race, “that was where I wanted to go next.” After the second speaker talked more on the issue, Maxwell notified the third, “but I want to talk about racism.” She then prefaced her question to panelist number four with, “Still talking about racism…”
“I’m really excited that we’re really tackling this topic,” offered Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of a teachers’ union in St. Paul, Minn. She was quite apologetic about her whiteness but claimed one of education’s main problems is semantics.
Ricker asked the audience to expose the “bootstraps/individualism narrative.” She claimed this was important because “underneath that premise is that everybody has equal access to the same boots and the same straps. Or even has boots!”
She also was frustrated at the use of the term “racial isolation” in describing inner-city schools. “We’re using dominant-narrative language to create an otherness,” she said, prompting nods from her fellow panelists.
Joe Bishop, Director of Policy with the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, continued the farrago of soft-science buzzwords. “We have to link Economic Justice to Education Justice,” he declared, defining neither term nor presenting a roadmap to achieve the goal.
Bishop also insisted that government vastly increase the definition of education to include “access to child care, family medical leave, and broad-based support from the time a person enters the world.”
Panelist Helen Gym offered a sprawling indictment of American society based on what she considers inadequate school budgets. Apparently taking her cue from If You Give a Pig a Pancake, the retired Philadelphia educator said, “it starts out with funding” which leads to “depleted resources” then “depletion of teachers” and losing “our teachers of color.” This results in excessive student discipline, too much testing, school closings and “massive segregation.” Somehow, this trail of societal ills ultimately ends with “prisons, casinos… and fracking.” (No flowchart was provided.)
Chicago community organizer Jitu Brown said the supposed lack of funds was the “intentional sabotage of schools” intended to fill the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“They are building prisons while they are shutting down the schools of the children they anticipate will fill those prisons,” Brown said. “That’s not greed, that’s evil.” Why anyone in government or business would want more people in prison was never explained, but Brown further developed the conspiracy theory.
“America has always hated its darker citizens,” he said. “We are treated as sheep and the country we helped build are the wolves. They feed on us, they feed on our spirit, they rob our creativity, and they benefit off our genius.” The audience and fellow speakers applauded Brown’s disturbing analysis.
“We have to kill the privatization movement,” he concluded. “We have to kill it!”
If these are the issues on which our public education thought leaders are focused, it’s no wonder public school kids fail at reading, writing and arithmetic. Most jarring was the dearth of solutions offered.
Much time was spent railing against incompetent government officials, especially Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel. But the only fix offered was to give these officials vast increases in money and authority to double-down on the existing government school system.
Advocates of the status quo in public education are losing badly and they know it. If the panels at Netroots Nation are representative, they can expect many more losses to school choice fans. This is bad news for some unions, but great news for students, parents and teachers.