Why Gist has got to go

May 22, 2013

Brian Chidester, a teacher in Rhode Island, wrote this open letter to Gov. Lincoln Chafee and members of the Rhode Island Board of Education, including Chairperson Eva Mancuso, arguing that state Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist is a hazard to public education.

Dear Linc and Eva,

I'm assuming that by now you've received dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of letters about this matter. You will shortly be receiving a petition signed online by over 1,000 people on the issue. And now, even I, humble high school foreign language teacher and public education blogger and activist, am haranguing you about it.

The matter is this: when it comes up for consideration this week, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist should not have her contract renewed. Period.

So you ask: why not renew Gist's contract? There are so many reasons in her practice over the past four years that I barely know where to begin. Let me cover the basics by saying that Gist's tenure has been a reign of terror on teachers. The commissioner has repeatedly issued edicts that affect educators and students, and done so as though her word were law.

From the day she pronounced teacher seniority a dead letter, to her support for the firing of the Central Falls High School teachers, to her ill-conceived implementation of a disastrous teacher evaluation plan, Gist has made no secret of her contempt for Rhode Island teachers. Her modus operandi has been seriously demoralizing to teachers all over the state.

Deborah Gist
Deborah Gist

But what of students? Well, in the first place, an attack on teachers is an attack on students. Teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions. A commissioner who demoralizes teachers will demoralize students as well. Let me make it more concrete: Gist's policies have increased the weight of testing on students in Rhode Island tremendously.

While the commissioner herself may not have implemented new tests--the New Engalnd Common Assessment Program (NECAP) was already in place when she arrived--she has held firm on the requirement of "partial proficiency" on the NECAP for high school graduation, despite all the evidence that this is bad policy.

But the secondary effects are even greater: the teacher evaluation system means that teachers implement more in the way of assessments so that we have "data points" for our evaluations. Students complain that they are being evaluated in EVERY class, and it's true. So even if an educator could be completely "professional" and try to hide from the students that she or he is feeling from administration, the action of the testing would give it away anyway.

At this point, you stop me and object: but what about RACE TO THE TOP!? To which I retort: race to the top of what? And who's left behind? And who falls to the bottom?

You see, Gist's grand achievement--the winning of a federal Race to the Top Grant--is not a big win for teachers, not a boon for students, not a boost to our public schools. Quite the contrary: the vast bulk of the funds has been earmarked for data collections systems, consultants, and charter schools.

Gist even stated clearly in 2010 that Race to the Top would not solve anyone's financial crisis--and indeed, it hasn't. What is has done is to advance the real agenda of Deb Gist and the education "reformers" she's in league with: to privatize public education even further.

This is the real content of Gist's tenure: she has done all she could to attack teachers' unions while finding ways to stuff public tax dollars into the pockets of private individuals and corporations. As a taxpayer, I want my money back. As a teacher, I want my profession back. As a member of the public, I want the "public" put back in "public education".

SO NOW you know my assessment of Deborah Gist, one that she has failed. But please be aware that it is not just Gist, and not just Rhode Island, where this drama is being played out. All over the country, people like Gist are doing the dirty work of a handful of wealthy individuals, in reality nothing more than racketeers benefiting from the privatization of our public schools. But in each case, ordinary people--teachers, students, parents--are standing up to these attacks.

From the Seattle teachers who boycotted the MAP test, to the Philadelphia students who walked out against the financial starvation of their schools, to the Chicago teachers who went on strike--and got majority support from the parents--our side is on the move.

Back in Rhode Island, we are organizing and growing in number. We want to stop the degradation of our public schools at the hands of people like Gist, yes--but we also want to transform them into democratic institutions that nourish and promote the best in our society. From the bottom up, we are reclaiming the institution that was in the first instance a demand of the labor movement: free, universal, public education for our children as a safe haven from the exploitation of the labor market.

We refuse to allow that same market to now take control of this institution for its own nefarious purposes. We are the people, asserting our right to a dignified existence, to vibrant and democratic public schools, as against the designs of the powerful.
Governor Chafee, Chairperson Mancuso: are you with the powerful, or are you with the people?

First published at R.I. Red Teacher.

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