Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How things start in grassroots goodness with Stand for Children and then turn bad after the buy-in

Former Stands for Children organizer Susan Barrett joined the Oregon organization as a concerned activist parent who like many parents in Tennessee dabbling in SFC are invested with their children in public school. She asserts that SFC in Oregon started off quite differently than the organization recently exposed in Illinois (and Tennessee Stands for Children looks like it is building like Oregon's did).

She warns us not to assume SFC is astroturf, because it does build from the grassroots. The problem shes sees is that somehow the grassroots is warped and managed into a model of "corporate reform," and then suddenly volunteers are being coached to act in ways they would not otherwise:

About three years ago, some team leaders at my school became uncomfortable when they were asked to engage in what they considered to be tacky conversations with teachers around hiring practices. When a fellow parent and I were asked to take over as the new team leaders for this school year, we were cautioned about this, but otherwise, we all assumed SFC was working to enhance public education, and this was just a minor mistake along the way.

Well, SFC definitely knows they made a mistake because they recently commissioned a consulting firm to work on better “teacher messaging” which provided them with a list of what to say and what not to mention when talking to teachers (such as, “Don’t reinforce that there are not many teachers involved with Stand chapters.”) That was a red flag, but now as I look back and connect the dots, I see so many more ....

This past year, Oregon SFC staff wanted us to press our legislators to pass a “bi-partisan education package,” which basically tied the release of much-needed school funding to the expansion of charter schools, online learning, and other so-called “reforms" ....

What is even more frustrating than the reforms they are pushing is what they aren’t pushing for anymore. Oregon has one of the shortest school years and lowest education spending in the nation. All of this has taken away from a focus on working for meaningful improvements in our schools.

The frightening part about this account for those of us watching the various chapters of Tennessee Stand for Children is that we seem to be in that early grassroots mobilization stage where parents are feeling desperate for any resource to be proactive. Stand for Children comes to our PTO and community meetings and offers to be the organizer for advocacy for better schools.
It looks promising now. They say all the right things and frame the discussion in terms of community concerns. But, particularly in Nashville, we are at a place where SFC has become embedded in the "education reform" (translation, "charter-friendly") mechanism of the public school system, and it has endorsed the Mayor with abandon. So our chapter of SFC may have tipped its hand by channeling community mobilization to the Courthouse status quo.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to look past the promise and see the campaign endorsements that tie these organizations to politicians and their agendas. It is hard to see through the hazy boundary between community organizing and political influence and see the corporate reform that will likely one day dictate the hard choices that Barrett encountered when Oregon SFC jettisoned its commitment to democratic action for education.

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