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.