Sunday, November 20, 2011

Education reformers attempt to soft-pedal embarrassments by revising history

On its Facebook page, Stand for Children - Tennessee promoted its organization's assimilation of the Education Equality Project (popularly associated with celebrity John Legend) and in the process exercised a revision of its own history:

Unlike some reform groups that frequently challenge teachers unions, Stand For Children, founded in 1996 in Oregon, has prided itself on generating local support and collaborating with unions as it promotes legislative change. That reputation was challenged this summer after the group was revealed to have lobbied aggressively against Illinois teacher unions to get a reform bill passed.

Jonah Edelman, Stand For Children’s founder and CEO, said today that the new partnership with EEP would help the groups extend their influence in more states, particularly southern states where the influence of reform groups has been less strong.

“Together, we’re positioned to shape the national debate on public education while building powerful statewide organizations across the country that will make a profound impact for students, from the state capitol to the classroom,” Edelman said in a statement.

That is an interesting gloss on what happened in Illinois and a complete omission of what happened in Oregon. Mr. Edelman is obviously using the occasion as another form of damage control to the embarrassing mess he and SFC left of their track record.

Observers acknowledge the common values that bind Stand for Children to the more conservative and dominant elements of Democratic Party culture, which share affinities with Republican politics:

The most engaged in this neoliberal education campaign are organizations focused on school choice: Democrats for Education Reform (and their 501(c)(4), Education Reform Now Advocacy), Education Sector, and the Progressive Policy Institute; as well as service-oriented groups like New Leaders for New Schools, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Green Dot charter networks, Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, Stand for Children, the New Schools Venture Fund, and even the leadership of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

These groups, it should be stressed, are very careful to avoid being characterized as politically on the Right or affiliated with Republican political efforts. Their collaborators, however, do not show any such reluctance. Right-wing, free-market think tanks have joined with neoliberal education groups in pushing for choice and privatization policies. These right-wing think tanks and similar organizations are active in every state, and many more are pursuing a national agenda. Together, these groups have launched a potent attack on the progressive foundations of American schooling, and they are framing this attack as a “civil rights struggle.”

After years of hammering home the theme of “failing public schools,” the campaign is now increasingly focused on teachers’ unions and the existing system of teacher education, preparation, and certification.

Stand for Children - Tennessee plays up school choice without leaping in with both feet to the constellation of other conservative values, but they do not forswear any challenge to teachers. They have fallen silent on recently publicized ambivalence toward teacher evaluations. Whether SFC cares to concede it or not, they have built strong ties to anti-union groups, and they leave open the option of going after teachers as they have elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, as the teachers' union joined Occupy Wall Street, Stand for Children joined the opposite side, a coalition of otherwise disparate non-profits (like the United Way and the Urban League) committed to education reform. The reformers, backed by corporate donations in contrast to the grassroots empowerment of occupiers, encouraged an ad campaign addressed to the union a couple of weeks ago: "Don't Hold Us Back".

The campaign drew the appropriate retort from a local teacher:

Of all the factors that have contributed to the struggles of our students, we the teachers, THE TEACHERS, are the ones “holding students back?” Not the economy. Not the crime. Not the violence. Not the hunger. Not the fragmentation of the nuclear family. Not the lack of medical care and fresh food in the South Central community in which I work, but me, the teacher.

They really spent thousands of dollars to buy this ad, buy a webpage? Couldn’t the money used for this ad have helped the students that are hungry and homeless stay in their apartment for one more month, get that tooth taken care of?

Who are the experts in what is best for students? Educators or billionaires? Teachers or journalists? Unions or astrotorf orgs? I may be a parent, but when the doctor tells me how to take care of my daughter, I yield to the expert. When her 5th grade teacher shared his expertise on how to approach her math work, I listened and implemented. Parents play a huge role in the success of their children but we each have our own job to do; and it differs.

SFC LA is not an isolated case. Seattle's SFC has endorsed school board candidates who are financed by union-busting venture philanthropists in the Great Northwest.

In all of these cases, Stand for Children may not appear to be in full-blown assault of teachers unions, but they are aiding and abetting forces aligned against public school teachers. I also worry that one day they may find it more convenient to mobilize against Tennessee teachers than stay noncommittal toward them.

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