A real stand for children

June 6, 2012

Sarah Levy reports on a Portland protest against the corporate education group Stand for Children that drew out teachers, parents and community members.

SOME 60 educators, parents, students and community members came out May 31 in Portland, Ore., to take a real stand for children--in a march and rally on the national headquarters of "Stand for Children," a group that claims to help schools, but in reality works to advance anti-teacher, anti-union, corporate education reform.

Since receiving an influx of corporate cash from groups such as the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and Mitt Romney's Bain Capital in recent years, Stand for Children has become one of the main advocates for Corporate America's drive to defund public schools and privatize education.

However, educators, parents and students were determined to expose what this organization actually represents, by organizing one of the first protests against Stand for Children, following a protest by Chicago teachers of the group in April.

As part of a statewide Save Our Schools day of action, activists from Portland-area Social Equality Educators (SEE), Oregon Save Our Schools (OSOS) and the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) organized the march on the heels of the recently victorious Reynolds teachers' strike. With the presence of empowered teachers who had been on the picket line just days before, as well as angry former members of Stand for Children, the whistle-blowing, bell-clanging procession reached the front door of Stand's national office charged with energy.

Educators, parents and students marched in Portland against corporate reform
Educators, parents and students marched in Portland against corporate reform (Sarah Levy | SW)

One such former member is Wendy Swanson, a retired first grade teacher who taught for 31 years in Hillsboro, Ore., at Peter Boscow Elementary. She held a sign that simply read "CUI BONO," Latin for "Who benefits?" "I'm asking the question, how can corporations be involved in public schools, when those schools are supposed to have a public mission?" she said. "I think those things are incompatible, and I think that's wrong."

Swanson said she became a member, along with many of her fellow teachers, in the 1990s when Stand was first getting off the ground. "We liked what they were involved in like [organizing for] stable and adequate school funding, and even dental care for kids," she said. "Because we knew as teachers that those were things that would make substantial and concrete differences in the kind of educational experiences that our students could have."

But Swanson explained how, after being involved for several years, she noticed a change of priorities within the group that went against her own mission as an educator. "Now it's corporate education reform and policies that are contrary to economic and social justice, and I think it's incompatible with democracy."

Jeff Kipilman, a teacher with Portland Public Schools for the last 15 years, is another disillusioned former member of Stand for Children who came out to the rally with the aim of exposing what he described as the "pro-child facade that Stand uses to conceal its pro-corporate agenda."

Kipilman explained how he thought that if more people knew what Stand actually does, they would come out to fight it and the organization wouldn't be able to get away with what it does in the lobbies of Oregon's capital to harm schools.

Similarly Swanson explained how part of her desire to raise a stink about Stand is that fact that they try to mask their true nature under the guise of a benign-sounding name like "Stand for Children."

"They appeal to good-hearted people who really want to make a difference in schools," she said. "They talk about education as the 'civil rights issue of our time.' But really when you look at the concerns of civil rights, they're not at all aligned with or in support of those things."

ONE THING that Stand does support is the relentless drive for standardized testing. This has led to a situation where even education assistants for 5-year-olds hardly have time to work with their kids because they are forced to spend hours administering tests.

Marika Zimmerly, a current kindergarten assistant in Gilbert Park Elementary School, elaborated on the ridiculous standards being pushed on both kids and teachers by administrators who are influenced by groups like Stand.

"When I was in kindergarten, if you could tie your shoes and you knew your home telephone number, you were good," she said. "There were 16 kids in my class, the room was twice the size, and we played for most of the day, and then we learned how to tie our shoelaces. Now there are 32 children in a classroom that wasn't physically built for it--we were trying to rearrange the desks, and there just wasn't enough space to have them all."

Zimmerly cited the checklist of things her kindergartners are expected to know by the end of the year:

They're just learning addition and subtraction and place value, and they're learning these things in the last four weeks of school, but I have to test them on those before the end of school, and see if they know addition and subtraction and place value before the end of kindergarten...Then there were some kids who couldn't write their name, and they were expected to write a paragraph for a state writing assessment. And I was going through and grading some of these, and they just had random scribbles.

Zimmerly added that the school where she works was one of only 18 schools in the state of Oregon that made their "adequate yearly progress" last year. "If only 18 schools in an entire state can make the progress that they're supposed to make in a year," she said, "then I think that there's something wrong with the standards."

On top of the unreasonable expectations, many of the speakers and educators mentioned the racial and class bias of test questions and of the structure of the tests themselves, pointing to how such tests are not designed to help students learn, but instead are designed to perpetuate a system of racial and economic injustice that only benefits those at the top. These tests are then used to further justify cuts to the schools that are already hurting the most, while blaming teachers for their proclaimed failure.

In light of this testing bias, Adam Sanchez, teacher with Portland Public Schools and organizer with SEE, explained why merit pay--another favorite "reform" of Stand--is so detrimental to teachers and schools. It builds a direct monetary disincentive for teachers to teach in low-income communities," he said. "And those are generally where these teachers are needed the most."

DESPITE SEEMINGLY bleak circumstances, educators and parents are finding inspiration in broader social movements like Occupy Wall Street and are pointing to how the attacks on public education are part of a larger corporate initiative against the "99 percent."

As Chris Beck, custodian and president of OSEA AFT Local 6732 Chapter 40, put it, the problem facing education is not that the money doesn't exist, but that "the 1 percent doesn't want schools to have that money."

"Stand tries to pretend that funding's not the issue," he said. "They say it's these teachers who have been there too long, or lazy people who are afraid to try new ideas. But really we know that poverty is at the root of the problems with today's schools. And we understand that you can't address poverty by trying to bust unions and privatize education."

Shannon Selby, the registrar secretary at Margaret Scott Elementary in the Reynolds school district, made another connection. "In what world is it okay that we spend trillions of dollars on national defense and then so little on national education?" she asked. "I mean, when you look at it, it's just a sliver in comparison. What if we were really serious about funding education? That's what this all comes down to."

Emily Crum, a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Alder Elementary School, also in the Reynolds district, was clear about what real education reform that actually has the interests of all children in mind would look like: smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers that isn't tied to competition, and full funding for all programs including arts and physical education. "We want more teaching, less testing and schools that promote parent, teacher and student empowerment," she said.

As the rally wrapped up, Marco Mejia, an immigrant rights organizer and member of Jobs with Justice, explained why he had come out to the protest:

As an organizer, I believe that organizing is the only way we are going to change things and fix injustices in our communities--and supporting the organization of teachers, students and parents is one important piece of that. Nowadays I think we are understanding more and more in our diverse communities that we all together have the same issues, whether they are present in teachers' unions or whether they are present in our own communities, whether those are immigrants' rights or women's rights --all of them are connected...

So when things like today happen, we know it's not just an issue for educators and parents; it's an issue of the whole community. Same thing when we come out in a struggle for any other union or group struggling for their rights, we come out because those are members of our communities. When it comes down to it, the corporate 1 percent, whose system this is, is waging the same war against immigrants as they are against teachers, against workers and everybody else. So you know, we are all in the same struggle in the end.

Portland teachers and allies have risen to the occasion. Standing up to Stand for Children is just one part of a growing movement where corporate interests are called out and challenged as incompatible with the true best interests of our children, teachers and communities.

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