New Schools 2006: We Must Never Forget

Warning: This post is very graphic and probably unsuitable for younger readers because of the atrocities I chronicle. What follows is a personal narrative: I was there when “teacher voice” was squelched…

Because of all the back and forth about the atrocities being committed against teachers at the New Schools Summit (a place where teacher voice is gravely feared) I felt compelled to check out the session Leo Casey had singled out as the place “teacher voice” would be silenced.

And on the panel in question, about the future of teacher unions, it was hard and dark, what with former Denver teachers’ union activist Brad Jupp and former Seattle teachers’ union president and TURN leader Roger Erskine as two of the three on the panel it was clear, that as Leo and others argued last week, the views of teachers’ unions or anyone sympathetic to them would be ruthlessly suppressed at any cost. So it was with great trepidation that I followed Steve Barr (founder of a unionized charter school) into the session because I reckoned that when the brownshirts moved in to beat any of us who had any inkling of good feeling for unions they’d be looking for Steve first and that I’d be in jeopardy being anywhere near him…especially because people in the know realize that he and I largely agree…

Brad Jupp looked ferocious in sensible shoes and a red cardigan sweater. He may have looked like Mr. Rogers but I knew he was basically a Pinkerton man, a ruthless tool of unchecked management. And Erskine, my God, if you’ve never met him he exudes the air of a man with a singular mission to crush the life out of something…his palpable willingness to brutally snuff the first hint of “teacher voice” chilled the room. With enemies like these it’s no wonder the teachers’ unions are worried…Attila, Hannibal, Jupp, Erksine…so it goes…My knees were weak, I was in the dragon’s lair!

What’s worse, there were actual educators in the room! Really. That they were forced to witness this violence upon their collective voice sickened me. Think of the children, I thought, since it’s all about the kids after all. These educators had no elected union leaders no currently elected union leaders to speak for them! What would become of them, I wondered, when the squelching really started? We’re supposed to think of them as professionals, but I know better from their currently elected union officials: They’re helpless and voiceless when left on their own…

But what was most peculiar is that I know I’m supposed to think of the Joel Klein regime in New York City as part of the same lineage and in the same way I think of Pinochet, Franco, and Castro but the third panelist, Dan Weisberg from the New York City Department of Education, sounded, well, reasonable. That really threw me, he wasn’t squelching teacher voice, he was having a discussion. In fact, he didn’t blame teachers’ union for everything while Jupp pointed out that school districts are no picnic and broad change was necessary across the board. Erskine said much the same thing. People asked questions! It was almost like a real discussion with varying viewpoints being presented and the concerns of teachers’ unions on the table. But I knew better, by that point I was in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder (caused by the heinous squelching I had already witnessed, natch) so I knew to no longer trust my instincts…

I’m still shaken by what I witnessed. But when the history of this awful time is written, I’ll know that I was there when teacher voice was squelched in Redwood City, California in May of 2006…now I’m healing, not by looking backwards, but by looking forward to the next big teachers’ union confab when, as they always do, they invite in their various critics to air their views and debate. In the process they’re taking the first step toward ending the squelching of voice which silences too many would-be conference panelists across the land…They’re not afraid of critics voice, they’re putting us on the path to reconciliation even as others ruthlessly continue to suppress teacher voice…

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