Education-Labor Collaboration Marks Important Beginning

What makes the tide of public opinion turn against the conventional wisdom?  It can happen.  I remember the nation slowly turning against the war in Vietnam.  The struggle involved rancor and violence. One reason opinion shifted on Vietnam is that the military draft ensured that most families were personally touched by the war.  The media played an important role, and major political leaders took sides, which created a very public debate.

Turning the tide today against the test-based accountability movement in public education brings a different kind of challenge.  Less than a quarter of households have children in school with the rest less personally connected. The conversation is being driven by federal policy, and yet we know that education is low on list of issues that preoccupy the President.  Neither any member of Congress nor a governor of any of the states has made improving the public schools a signature issue.

Despite these challenges, there has been some shifting of opinion.  Although in 2002, the federal testing law No Child Left Behind passed with wide bipartisan support, today most people will at least quietly admit what data demonstrates: the law failed to improve student achievement overall or close achievement gaps.  Many of us who have worked hard to discredit the law can tell you about the succession of white papers, joint sign-on statements, studies, and resolutions prepared, presented, and passed that have pushed this change along.  Masses of articles and blog posts and books have helped, culminating perhaps in Diane Ravitch’s 2010, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which the author told the story of her own transformed thinking.

Now, three years later and five years into the Obama Administration’s competitive Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants and the No Child Left Behind Waivers that demand punishments for so-called “failing” schools, many public school supporters continue to try to turn the tide.  The Obama policies remain grounded in the same business-accountability philosophy that drove No Child Left Behind, a strategy that emphasizes punishments for public schools that struggle, blames school teachers, and posits that privatization can more efficiently raise test scores.

Three weeks ago, Diane Ravitch published a new book, Reign of Error, a casebook for this effort.  And last weekend in Los Angeles, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign pulled together their allies from organized labor, the education community, and community organizations in a very significant event.  By bringing over 400 advocates and community organizers from across the states, the sponsors sought to begin weaving an effective protest against the proliferation of state legislation being spawned by the competitive grant programs of today’s U.S. Department of Education.

The Obama Administration’s programs—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the No Child Left Behind waivers that help the states escape from the  requirement that test scores rise perpetually each year or schools be labeled “failing”—require states to establish their own laws and regulations that close schools, encourage privatization, and base teacher evaluations on students’ test scores.  These are the conditions which states must enact into law before they can qualify for the Department of Education’s competitive grant programs.  The reforms happening across the big city school districts that qualify for federal competitive grants may be similar, but they appear in each case via state laws while the hand of the federal government remains hidden. Creating a strategic movement to protest policy that appears so scattered is the logistic challenge last weekend’s planners sought to undertake.

The American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and National Opportunity to Learn Campaign brought together just the sort of coalition that can work at the state and local level where the policies are playing out and at the same time address the federal competitions that are the source of the state-by-state policies.  The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, and the Philadelphia Student Union can collaborate to protest the school funding crisis and rash of school closures in Philadelphia, just as the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Pilsen Alliance, and Chicago Teachers Union can work in Chicago to protest school closures, and as the United Federation of Teachers, New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, New York Alliance for Quality Education, and Urban Youth Collaborative can join to protest co-location of public and charter schools in New York City.  Together these groups and dozens of other local, state, and national partners from across the United States who participated in last week’s conference can push back against the competitive grant strategy at the federal level.

If you are reading this, you probably know about Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst campaign, framed around the idea that teachers put teachers’ needs first and ignore the needs of their students.   I can report that while two of the prominent sponsors of last weekend’s conference were the teachers unions, I did not experience any workshops, presentations or conversations that suggested putting teachers first.  The event’s focus was how better to equip public schools to serve children.  I sat in one workshop after another where teachers and parent community organizers grieved together that public school closures and privatization hurt children, undermine neighborhoods, and destabilize schools where staff are making an earnest attempt to educate children.  And I heard seasoned organizers training less experienced groups, organizations talking about how to work together, and educators working hard to engage community groups from city to city and state to state to advocate for enough school funding to provide the staff, services, and programs that children need—need desperately in many public schools where counselors, libraries, nurses, the arts, and music have been slashed and class size has shot upward.

For the first time the teachers unions, other national organizations, and a coalition of state and local organizations have been able jointly to negotiate a statement, The Principles that Unite Us, that pushes directly against today’s crisis: “the corporate model of school reform that seeks to turn public schools over to private managers and encourages competition—as opposed to collaboration—between schools and teachers.” Many of the organizations participating in last week’s event sent representatives to regional town halls and a national drafting meeting earlier this year, a grassroots process by which the statement was developed.  Close to a hundred national, state and local organizations— representing education, labor, and community—have endorsed the statement, thereby declaring their belief “in strengthening, not dismantling public education.”  “Our interest is in public schools that serve all children…. schools that are rooted in communities…. schools where those closest to the classroom share in decision-and policy-making at all levels.” (I blogged about the statement itself last weekend here.)

The Principles that Unite Us is an inspiring document. I urge you to read it.  The sponsors invite additional organizations—national, state, and local—to endorse the statement. If your organization will sign on, please contact Eric Zachary at the American Federation of Teachers: