The Not-So-Sweet Sound of Democracy in Action

Is political conflict about public education, particularly over replacement of low-performing district schools with charter schools, the noisiest it’s ever been? Well, no, the school desegregation conflicts of the 1950s and 60s were much louder and more passionate. But there are similarities—dueling demonstrations, struggles over control of facilities, fissures within political parties, and cascades of litigation.

These events signal that something important is happening. When big changes look possible, groups that had given up on influencing public education come back into the fray; and groups that had had things to their own satisfaction resist. The contending sides blame one another for making so much noise and upsetting so many people.

This kind of conflict is inevitable in public education, where the intended beneficiaries—children—are not very good at understanding or advocating their own interests. Adults all have their own interests and these inevitably color their views of what children need.

Today, adults who benefit from current arrangements are threatened by new schools, performance-based accountability, and teachers from new sources like TFA. Foundations and the “reform” community want to create new options for children they think have suffered under the traditional system.

Nobody should be fooled by charges that one side or the other is undemocratic, or “cares about money while we care about kids.” We are in a struggle over whether and how to change a key institution in our society, and the din it causes is in proportion to the importance of the issue.

-Paul Hill

4 Replies to “The Not-So-Sweet Sound of Democracy in Action”

  1. I personally would lke my old union (the AFT) to continue its approach to collaboration, and only litigate issues that undermine the integrity of the process. For instance, I want us to organize charter school teachers, not litigate against charters.

    At the same time, I want us to litigate until the cows come home regarding issues that threaten our core educational values. For instance, I want to spend whatever is necessary to aggressively fight evaluations where test score growth data is not subjected to peer review or and objective observor. The idea that management alone would interpret test scores is the most dangerous educational idea that I can think of.

    You link to NYC. That district reminds me of how different our world has become. Joel Klein was the antithesis of the old school U.S. Attorneys that advanced justice in the 1960s and 1970s. While writing a legal history book, I interviewed federal prosecutors who described the the old ethos. They kept in mind that federal prosecutors had the power to destroy anyone they targeted. Because of their immense power, their offices had a culture of restraint.

    Klein, and his peers, are so convinced of their righteousness that they seek to destroy their opponents, who they have labeled “the status quo.” Their is no place in a constituional democracy, left alone schools, for that mentality. Even the Strauss Kahn is supposed to enjoy the rights of people living in the US.

  2. It is revealing that you mentioned just a few things that teachers supposedly oppose (performance -based accountability, teachers from other sources and new options for our poorest children) while leaving out developments that are very objectionable to many of us: privatization of public schools for the purpose of pocketing tax money, lower standards for K-12 teachers, and schools that seek to continue to solidify the status quo by segregating children by income and color. Worse, there is evidence that these schools are leaving behind the poorest of the poor as well as the disabled. We can’t have that in our country and it’s surely worth a fight.

    “Accountability” for teachers is the highest of all the professions and that’s why almost 50% drop out during the first five years. Those who are incompetent often don’t last until October while the others, although “effective” decide that teaching is not for them. Yes, there is evidence that many of these people are very talented. Among this group are people whose contracts are not renewed or are counseled out by administrators. These teachers must please students, parents, peers and administrators. Do you want accountability? Become a teacher and don’t forget that you must be a model citizen (no DUIs or “moral turpitude) to even apply. The “accountability” that teachers oppose is the one that will judge them on the basis of a group test taken by their students. Experts agree that there is no test that can do this at the present time.

    Teachers “from new sources?” States have had alternate routes to teaching ever since I can remember. I was one of those people in 1964. These people have traditionally been sent to the “inner-city” as I was. This is the “status quo.” The leafy suburbs usually like their teachers to be experienced and fully credentialed. This is what teachers want for ALL children. Let’s stop the shameful practice of placing the least prepared and experienced teachers in the poorest schools.

    “New options for children” trapped in low-performing schools? Do you mean all black test-prep academies? Sorry, that doesn’t cut it for many parents, teachers or for me. We can do better, much, much better. Teachers and civil rights groups have been fighting for full equity for these children for many years. Teachers want the same things for these kids that privileged children take for granted: health care, preschool, qualified and experienced teachers, opportunities to move out of poverty-impacted areas, schools that are open to children of all colors, creeds, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. How about subsiized housing, public school vouchers, magnet schools, private school scholarships paid by private individuals and corporations? Charter schools started by parents and educators are OK with me, but let’s insist on VERY tight oversight of the money and fair treatment of teachers. Please.

    Until the Great Recession, it was extremely difficult to hire and retain teachers for urban schools. The “reformers” plan to decrease college preparation, salaries, benefits, job security and autonomy for teachers will obviously exacerbate the situation. Central Falls High School is the perfect example of where such strategies will take us.

    Now, for the good news: Although the executive and legislative branches of our government are extremely sensitive to “donations” from the very rich, our judiciary is still fairly independent. Many of the attempts to attack our teachers and our schools are now in litigation. I predict victories for those who truly want equity for all our children. With the federal government once again declaring “equity” as the real foe of a quality education for everyone, look for real changes, such as health and social supports for poor children as well as fully qualified teachers, small classes and help for children with special needs. Something that will really help is happening now as minority parents move to districts that have high-achieving students. These parents, like most American parents, will support our public schools. We wish it were different, but no one can advocate for children like the child’s parents. This was the real lesson of Waiting for Superman.

    Very good news: The media is now focusing on the complexities of public education and reporting the “lies, damned lies and statistics” of the “reform” movement. They are beginning to report the situation as teachers, parents and students see it.

    Many people on both sides of this debate seem to want a higher level of education for all children. Let’s unite to fight for the following:

    health and social supports for all children;

    ways of getting impoverished children out of poverty-impacted areas and schools and into mainstream schools;

    ways of attracting and retaining highly qualified people to K-12 teaching.

    Happy Independence Day to all the men and women who choose to serve our children in thousands of classrooms across America. We know for certain that YOU bring positive change to our children. Thank you, Teachers! You are among our greatest heroes and soon everyone will know it once again.

  3. One more point:

    Although I approve of the original intent of charter schools to allow educators to start a school unfettered by many rules and regulations FOR THE PURPOSE OF TRYING OUT NEW METHODS in order to raise student achievement, I am against what is actually happening with these schools. Many are started by “entrepreneurs” who are awarding themselves huge salaries by keeping expenses (e.g. teacher salaries ) low and by restricting student population through various means not allowed by regular public schools. (Are we crazy?) These charters should have to take everyone who applies (first come, first served) and should not be able to push out children, except as permitted by state law (say for setting fires or hurting other children). One thing we cannot allow in our country is the further segregation of poor, minority and disabled children.

  4. Nobody should be fooled by charges that one side or the other is undemocratic, or “cares about money while we care about kids.”

    Nobody should be fooled by charges that one side or the other is undemocratic, or “only one side places StudentsFirst”

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