A good start from Save Our Schools

August 4, 2011

Brian Chidester, an educator in Rhode Island, looks at the recent Save Our Schools protest--and what it will take to win education reform that doesn't blame teachers for failing schools.

LAST WEEKEND, I went with a few folks from the Coalition to Defend Public Education to the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C. I want to briefly describe some of the dynamics of the rally and the national movement, such as it is at this point. While there is much to be done, there are serious reasons for hope.

To be quite frank, this was the smallest rally I have ever attended in Washington--and I've been to quite a few in the past 15 years. I'd say about 2,000 people showed up--a decent number, but rather less than the 10,000 organizers expected. However, I strongly advise against reactions like, "That's all? Why isn't everyone outraged? Why aren't there millions there?" There are reasons why this movement is small--the first of which is that it's just starting.

But what a start! Think about our experience in Rhode Island: two years after the East Providence teachers were slammed with imposed cuts, a year after the Central Falls teachers were fired, only just after the firing of the Providence teachers, did we get together a real network to fight the cuts.

We share this experience with people, to a greater or lesser degree, from around the country. And, usually, it's to a lesser degree. I was quite struck by the geographic spread of people attending the rally: I talked to or saw people from south Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Alaska, Oregon, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts and, of course (best represented of all), Wisconsin.

In each of these places, people are just starting to get over the stunning demoralization of the past few years and to organize themselves--and, usually, in much more adverse conditions than we have faced in Rhode Island. The Texas teachers, for example, live in a right-to-work state where their organizations can only be "professional associations" that have no right to collectively bargain, and cannot protect them from the whims of administrators.

Another example: I spoke to a woman who has taught 27 years in the Upper Arlington school district in Ohio, close to where I grew up. Upper Arlington is a wealthy suburb of Columbus, so you'd expect teachers there to be sheltered, conservative or at least passive, etc. However, this woman talked with fire about how they had collected over a million signatures (in a state of 11 million people) against Governor Kasich's SB 5, the Ohio equivalent of Scott Walker's attack on Wisconsin workers.

SB 5 has to be approved in a referendum this November; I think there are strong reasons to believe that it will be voted down, and this woman was one of them. And if perchance our side loses this one, this veteran teacher said, "I look forward to being fired!"

Teachers are losing their fear--and that is a dangerous thing for the corporate reformers and their lackey politicians.

One more aspect of this that was striking: the average age. Back when we had rallies against the numerous imperial wars of this country, the average age would be somewhere between 40 and 55--mostly because you'd have to average the ages of the college students and the long-since-retired peace people, and statistically you'd come up with a median that would be far different from your mode.

This demonstration had a similar average age, but that range actually describes most of the people who were there. I would say that there were a large proportion of veteran teachers, with smaller numbers of younger educators who are just starting to figure out what's up.

This is an interesting dynamic: after years of divide-and-conquer tactics whereby veteran teachers are vilified while young teachers with little experience, but great pliancy in the hands of administrators, are praised, we now see the veterans demanding respect--and possibly teaching the young ones the value of so doing, right at a time when the young teachers are starting to feel the pressure on them.

It takes a few years to get perspective on how hard the profession is, and I already see some of my young colleagues bristling at it. This march--and the local and regional networks it has helped to establish--provide an important counterexample to years of corporate reform propaganda.

But back to "why was it small": the second reason has to do with the question of political organization in this country. The activist networks that are just now building are too small and too new to have built this event much bigger than it was.

Remember that at the core of this were a number of education "intellectuals," people whose ideas have been tremendous for our movement, but who are not supported by large organizations that can mobilize many people. Diane Ravitch and Jonathan Kozol have touched millions with their ideas, no doubt, but they are public individuals--and they are saying things that are uncomfortable for big organizations like, for example, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

In fact, there was only a union presence at this rally to the extent that individuals wore union T-shirts or brought union banners. (I saw the Boston Teachers' Union banner, held up by about 10 people--obviously not representative of what could have been mobilized, but more than I saw from New York City). Oh, and the Washington Teachers' Union president spoke, and the union gave out fans and free bottles of water.

Why so little support from the unions? One of the real revelations from the attack on public education in the past few years is the actual rot, the actual weakness, of teachers' unions. We are portrayed by right-wingers among politicians and pundits as this ruthless, powerful "special interest" lobby that defrauds the public of untold tax money, but as those of us in the profession know, this is completely untrue.

And, as the attack has mounted, the response from our official unions has become weaker and more muted, if there even is a response. Why? Because these attacks have been led by a Democratic administration.

It's very uncomfortable for the National Education Association (which has already endorsed Obama for 2012) and the American Federation of Teachers (which has teamed up with corporate reformers to build their own punitive teacher-evaluation models) to hear Diane Ravitch say, "We're here today to protest No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which are the same thing." This statement squarely targets Obama and identifies him with everything teachers hated about the Bush education plan--and she's so obviously right to do so.

BUT REMEMBER the political backdrop to this weekend's rally: a political farce in the nation's capital where Teabag Republicans were able to force through an agenda that the Democrats had already agreed with most of in practice.

It was Obama who suggested cutting Social Security, but now this horrific attack on social spending will be blamed on the flaming right-wingers, who will be held up as the reason we all need to vote for Obama in 2012.

This is a convenient way for the Democrats to get away with shredding social services, cutting education budgets, scapegoating teachers and harming poor children--and still have the support of organizations like our unions. Remember, it's Democrats for Education Reform. Why is there no "Republicans for Education Reform"? Because the work's already being done for them.

This means that the first political priority for the new movement in fighting the attacks has to be political independence. We cannot allow our movement to give cover to politicians who attack us.

And here's where some of the really good news comes in. This story came to me third-hand, though some more direct account may be available publicly. In brief, a few of the SOS organizers mounted their own small protest in front of the Department of Education a few days before the rally. Instead of being ignored, they were brought in to talk to officials--including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan himself.

Reportedly, Duncan tried to assert that he and the organizers agreed on a lot--something the organizers rejected, because, well, they don't. That meeting was followed by an invitation for the organizers to come to the White House the next day to meet with President Obama's Special Assistant for Education, Roberto Rodriguez.

Should they do it? A debate ensued that evening, with some arguing that it could be an opportunity to present the march's ideas to the White House, while others argued that it would simply mean being co-opted. The argument was decided by a glance at Duncan's Facebook status, which reported that he had met with the organizers and that they agreed on so much.

The organizers' response to the White House invitation was: not at this time. Fantastic! For once, a social movement refuses to be overawed and co-opted by a Democratic president. This is a very good sign for the future.

I want to close this analysis with a brief thought about rallies and networks. It's true that this rally was held in the mid-day heat in the middle of summer, a time when teachers are dispersed and disorganized; a mid-fall rally would likely have had a much better turn out.

That said, the rally was preceded by a sold-out conference that was apparently very useful--activists and intellectuals in the movement, debating what's behind the attacks and how to counter them, for the first time. It's clear that many connections were made, and people are developing the elemental forms of organization that will allow for a real response the next time a budget is cut, teachers are summarily fired and schools are unjustly closed.

And, there's a basis for an ideological counterattack, the foundation for which has been broadly laid by the leading lights of this event, but which can now be made by activists in their localities, and with the backing of people on the ground. Groups like the CDPE are no longer voices in the wilderness. We are part of a growing movement on a national scale, and that movement just had its first public event.

First published at Rhode Island Red Teacher.

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