I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis last weekend. This will be the last of a series of reflections on what I learned at that important meeting. Overall, NPE’s 2018 Conference proclaimed reasons for hope.
Neoliberal corporate reform just isn’t working out the way its proponents had planned. Diane Ravitch introduced last weekend’s conference by describing, “the slow, sure collapse of corporate reform.” “The facts and evidence are on our side,” she said. “We are driven by conviction and passion and not by money. Charters do not save poor children from failing schools. Charters are more likely to fail than the public schools they replace. Charters that get high test scores do so by kicking out the kids they don’t want. Evidence on vouchers is now unequivocal, and it’s bad… High stakes testing has been a disaster for children of color who are labeled and stigmatized year after year… NCLB was a disaster. Race to the Top was a disaster… National Assessment of Education Progress scores for 2015 declined for the first time in 20 years… Many reformers have been confessing that the reforms didn’t work. They know the evidence is not on their side.”
In a second keynote, the Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg described the worldwide growth over several decades of privatization and top-down, business-accountability-driven school reform, the same policies we have been experiencing in the United States—and what he believes is the growing global rejection of such policies. What’s been happening in our U.S. education system has also been occurring in Britain, Sweden, Chile, and Australia. And it has been imposed by colonialist philanthropists and the World Bank in Africa. Sahlberg calls what’s been happening G.E.R.M.—the Global Education Reform Movement. And he believes G.E.R.M has been contagious. But it seems the plague is finally being contained. Sahlberg lists G.E.R.M.’s symptoms: competition, a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, test-based accountability, addiction to reform, and marketization. He believes that across the world, educators are convincing politicians of the danger of neoliberal G.E.R.M. and moving schooling back to wellness through emphasis on alternative values: collaboration, a whole child approach, expectations for teachers emphasizing trust-based responsibility, commitment to continuous improvement—not benchmarked achievement targets, and equity. (You can watch Ravitch’s and Sahlberg’s keynotes in the opening session of NPE’s 5th Annual Conference here.)
South Carolina education law professor, Derek Black attended NPE’s conference and he describes his experience: “Why am I suddenly confident, rather than nervous, about charters and vouchers? In Indianapolis, I saw something special—something I had never seen before. I saw a broad based education movement led not by elites, scholars, or politicians, but everyday people… Over time I have come to realize that clients matter more than attorneys. Groups of committed individuals standing behind movement leaders are, as often as not, more important than leaders… What makes this teacher movement special is that the leaders are also the followers. The leaders come from within the ranks, not urged on by outsiders, elites, or money. They are urged on by their own sense of right and wrong, by their heartfelt care for public education and the kids it serves. For those reasons, they won’t be going away, bought off, or fatigued any time soon… That, more than anything, tells me that the days of privatizing public education are numbered.”
Earlier this week this blog described encouraging community mobilization campaigns highlighted at this year’s NPE Conference—by the Journey4Justiance Alliance across America’s big cities and in Wisconsin to restore the state’s historic commitment to its public schools after Scott Walker’s multi-pronged attack beginning in 2011.
Beyond the Network for Public Education’s recent conference, there are other hopeful signs in this election season. After schoolteachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina walked out to protest the unspeakable underfunding of their schools last spring, hundreds of teachers are running for seats in their state legislatures. No matter what happens on November 6, these teachers succeeded in making the wonkish annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities the conventional wisdom. School funding across the states was devastated during the Great Recession and it has a long way to go before it recovers—especially in the states which have continued, according to the discredited orthodoxy of supply side economics, to slash taxes. Teachers have shown us—by telling us the widespread story of their collapsed salaries, their overcrowded classes of 40 and 50 students, their crumbling classrooms, and the growing recruitment of foreign teachers willing to work for much less—that our society has abandoned not only our teachers but also our children.
And we have learned from Save Our Schools Arizona that a state cannot give Education Savings Account debit cards to a vast number of families to buy a series of discrete educational services in the marketplace and still have enough money to pay a living wage to teachers and have a system of public education. The SOS Arizona ballot issue to defeat the expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts has made it through a series of Koch-funded court challenges, and will appear on the November 6 ballot.
One final encouraging note: Betsy DeVos is so utterly controversial that she has herself become a widespread feature of Democratic political attack ads—as a symbol of what’s wrong in our society today. In this 2018 election season DeVos has become a focus of ad buys by Democrats on television and across social media. Under the headline “DeVos Used as a Villain to Rally Democrats in Midterm Ads,” POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reports: “While Republicans hammer on fears of immigrants and Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, Democrats have been using DeVos as a symbol of what’s wrong with Trump policies—mentioning her in more than $3 million worth of TV ads that aired more than 6,200 times, according to data provided to POLITICO by Advertising Analytics. The analysis included ads during Democratic primaries earlier this year as well as those being aired in general election contests. Democratic strategists say DeVos resonates with base voters because she’s perceived as an opponent of public education and a billionaire who’s out of touch. ‘Betsy DeVos is basically the embodiment of everything that Democrats were afraid the Trump administration was going to be—from right-wing fanaticism to blatant conflicts of interest to laughable stuff like owning however many yachts she has,’ sad Stephanie Grasmick, a partner at the Democratic consulting firm Rising Tide Interactive.”
Those of us who support public education—publicly owned, publicly funded, and publicly operated under laws that protect students’ rights and the public interest—have reasons to keep on keeping on.