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Lifelong Democrat Ready for Fight in Charlotte over School Reform

CHARLOTTE — I’ve been a Democrat all my life, and I’m proud Barack Obama is my president.

Four years ago, I worked hard for Obama. I made phone calls during the week, pounded the pavements on weekends and drove around like crazy on Election Day, getting voters to the polls. Our family made the trip to Washington and shivered happily through his chilly but festive inauguration.

My son was in his third year at high-poverty Shamrock Gardens Elementary, where staff, students and parents had sky-high hopes for our new president. We mailed him a box of enthusiastic student letters, and kept pushing our school forward. Two years later, in recognition of Shamrock’s accomplishments, the White House named me one of its first Champions of Change.

So as the Democratic National Convention prepares to kick off here in Charlotte, you’d think I’d be planning a party.

Instead, my friends and I are gearing for a fight.

With the Democrats, alas, are coming some of the most powerful voices in so-called education “reform” — purveyors of policies whose failures we and other Charlotte parents have experienced first hand. They bring not the patience and determination required to build up struggling schools and students, but rather a sharp critique of teachers and a steamroller philosophy that the Broad Foundation (which funds many of these groups) calls “disruptive” change.

Here in Charlotte, we are all too familiar with the damage such “disruptive” policies have done to children, schools and communities.

In the fall of 2010, despite pleas and warnings from students, parents and community members, our board of education voted to abruptly close a set of “failing” schools, most of which served low-income neighborhoods. As students were crowded into other schools, discipline infractions rose and test scores fell. The deep damage done to school system-community relations has yet to be repaired.

* A few months later, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) unveiled a battery of 52 new standardized tests, with the goal of testing every child in every subject, from kindergarten through high school, and then using the scores in teacher salary calculations. Our schools quickly became testing factories, and learning ground to a halt. Community protest managed to stop that madness, but we now face a similar barrage of state exams, mandated by our president’s Race to the Top initiative. Fed up with all the testing, more parents are abandoning the public schools for private institutions.

* Finally, two weeks ago, a pair of longtime CMS employees spoke out about the “crisis of heart” our district is experiencing, describing a stress-filled, dehumanizing atmosphere whose results include “too many fine educators, both novice and veteran, deciding to leave their beloved profession or questioning how much longer they can endure the stressful madness.” Statistics on principal and teacher departures from our district bear out their words.

Yet despite such on-the-ground experiences — as well as a stunning lack of evidence that these “disruptive” measures do anything to improve teaching or learning — the “reform” bandwagon rolls on, dragging federal policy along with it. The programs of the president I worked so hard to get elected have become just another obstacle.

I know many right-wingers want to dismantle our nation’s public education system, using charter and voucher laws to fragment education into a plethora of privately run institutions. When the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) held a summit here last spring, it felt good to be outside, protesting their attacks on public schools. It’s much harder to watch members of the party I support strike equally devastating blows, seemingly unaware of their effects.

We here at the grass roots face quite a challenge. Groups like StudentsFirst and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) spend a lot of money. They’ve rented venues, flown in speakers, ordered refreshments. StudentsFirst showed a Hollywood movie financed by a right-wing billionaire that weaves a Hollywood fantasy about school transformation. DFER will no doubt cut deals for a new round of campaign contributions.

We’ll be holding home-printed signs and yellow pencils crafted from pool noodles.

The difference says a lot. There’s big money in many of the endeavors these “reformers” propose: money for testing companies, for charter school management firms, for computer and software producers.

The changes we worked on at Shamrock Gardens don’t have the same golden gleam. We focused on human resources — especially on building a stable core of teachers, and on making sure their classes were small enough for them to build relationships with students and teach them as individuals. We made slow but steady progress, even in the face of shrinking state budgets that made the job harder every year. It wasn’t Hollywood-style success, and no one got rich or famous. But every year we helped more children.

Since we here on the ground don’t have big money, we need numbers — still democracy’s ultimate currency. If you’re in Charlotte, come stand with us. We’ll be the frumpy-looking folks waving the giant pool-noodle pencils. We won’t have cocktails, but we’ll be happy to hand you a sign.

If you can’t make it, let your elected officials — including the men running for president — know what you think. You can endorse the National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing, and tell them that you did. Tell them that the surest way to improve schools is by investing in human beings, and in the fraying social net that so many children and their families need so badly. Together, we can still make a difference.

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