At Occupy the DOE, A Push for Democratic, Not Corporate, Education Reform

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The Nation

At Occupy the DOE, A Push for Democratic, Not Corporate, Education Reform

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, blogger and activist Diane Ravitch, educator and writer Deborah Meier, some of the brightest lights in a movement that seeks to shut down a brand of education reform that weakens unions, closes struggling schools, and evaluates teachers based on an endless cycle of student standardized tests, rallied in D.C. last weekend, for the second annual Occupy the Department of Education event April 4 to 7.
The rhetoric was fiery, the crowd was energized, but the square in front of the Education Department was barely half full. At the rally’s height, around 175 protesters marched to the White House.

Activists argue that it’s not coincidental that many of the closing schools happen to be located in low-income neighborhoods of color, and that students are pushed towards charter schools that lack a unionized teaching force.

The growing movement against corporate-style education reform has its work cut out for it. It is, after all, challenging an insidiously well-messaged behemoth funded by billionaires and sanctioned by both major political parties.

There are some signs of a revolution afoot. In January, Seattle teachers at one high school boycotted a district-mandated standardized test. Some ten thousand people rallied in Texas in February for more school funding and fewer exams. Groups from around the U.S. have filed lawsuits calling school closures and turnaround plans civil rights violations. Perhaps most inspiring to those gathered in D.C. last weekend, last September saw the Chicago Teachers Union strike, where 29,000 educators demanded not just better working conditions for teachers but also better learning conditions for students.

The revolution is decentralized, and for national groups like United Opt Out, which called the rally, the challenge of organizing localized pockets of resistance is immense.

Attendees of Occupy the DOE (which has no official affiliation with Occupy Wall Street) say localized actions are increasingly enabling less organized communities to take a stand against policies that have fundamentally altered the way school systems across the country function.

Although politics vary by locality, the project DOE Occupiers call “corporate” reform is one fueled by national organizations such as Students First, ALEC, the Broad Foundation, and, yes, the Department of Education. It’s one that protest organizers say requires a national counter-movement.

In the last several months dozens of schools in cities like New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia have been tagged for closure by the end of the year. Status-quo education reformers frame the closures as an inevitable result of parents wising up and abandoning district schools for charters that better serve their children. That’s the kind of rhetoric Occupiers say they have to counter.

“If we’re going to save the narrative, what we have to make people see is that we’re trying to save democracy,” said Bess Altwerger, steering committee member of the national advocacy group Save Our Schools, which organized a more widely attended D.C. march in 2011. “We have to remember that schools are absolutely a driving force for what society is going to look like. If you want to create a democratic society, you have to create schools for democracy.”

Schools for democracy require teachers to develop inquisitive thinkers, something Altwerger says test pressure discourages. According to SOS, reforms for democracy would include more funding, smaller classes, policy and curriculum input from citizens, and professional teachers committed to staying in the school systems (i.e., not Teach for America teachers).

Schools are not exactly bastions of free speech right now. It’s telling that even Peggy Robertson, co-founder of United Opt Out, which seeks to end high-stakes testing, avoids organizing educators in her own Colorado district. If she did, Robertson fears she could lose her job.

Chicago’s teachers union is more the exception than the rule when it comes to rejecting corporate-style reforms. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten was not invited to the Occupy event, since, organizers say, she and the AFT have been inconsistent in supporting their demands. Also notably absent from the weekend’s gathering was the Washington Teachers Union. United Opt Out had hoped members would show up in droves, but the handful that did said the union did not actively promote the event.

One D.C. teacher, who agreed to talk to The Nation on the condition of anonymity, said she hesitated to attend the rally at all. Since the teacher works at a school that is slated to close at the end of the year, her employment with the district is particularly precarious. With family to care for, she said she couldn’t afford to risk her job by having her picture taken at a rally or her name printed in a magazine.

“It’s fear. That’s why no one is there. There’s no recourse. You have no one to go to,” she said. “I feel that I have no protection from the D.C. teachers union.”

Arne Duncan’s Department of Education frames the challenges schools face as a numbers game. The DOE pushes schools to close the “achievement gap;” that is, the difference in test scores between low-income students of color and higher-income white students. A closed gap, reformers say, would be equity realized.

The DOE says it is moving away from punitive, test-centered policies by devising schemes like Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers, which supposedly provide more flexible paths towards equity for low-scoring schools that have suffered under NCLB. But critics say neither program relieves pressure to teach to the test. Both programs require districts to evaluate teachers based on student test scores. Labels that define some schools as problems help fuel an exodus of students to charter schools, some of which are operated by for-profit companies. The DOE has not heeded activist calls for a moratorium on school closures.

Occupiers say that corporate interests fuel the DOE’s policies. Activists argue that it’s not coincidental that many of the closing schools happen to be located in low-income neighborhoods of color, and that students are pushed towards charter schools that lack a unionized teaching force. It’s not coincidental that tech companies and testing developers make money off of many of the reforms championed by Eli Broad, Michelle Rhee and ALEC. And it’s no surprise that the most politically viable reforms do not include measures that activists say would actually improve students’ lives and school performance: more school funding, smaller class sizes, community inclusion in planning, and policies that fight poverty.

“People all say we want the status quo. No we do not. The status quo is very hierarchical,” CTU President Karen Lewis told The Nation. “If only the elites get to make decisions, then the status quo will not only be kept it will be amplified.”

Although it was small, the Occupy event revealed spaces of hope in the fight against corporate-style education reforms. A growing network of Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter feeds has given teachers that lack a local activist network or a supportive union a way to draw strength from a counter-movement.

Many of the groups speaking at the event only formed recently. Last winter, a coalition of college students from around the country founded Students United for Public Education, meant to counter Students for Education Reform and Teach for America’s presence on campus. This March, Diane Ravitch announced the launch of the Network for Public Education, which will endorse candidates that oppose outsourcing public education to for-profit corporations. It was only in 2010 that a group of dissident teachers in Chicago, who had been organizing against school closures, took over the Chicago Teachers Union, eventually leading to last fall’s strike.

The fight ahead is expected to be long and hard, and it will be especially arduous for teachers in schools facing the most punitive education reforms. Said the anonymous D.C. teacher, “People are so deep down right now. You hear my voice; I’m so deep down, I just don’t have any more fight.”

Alleen Brown

Alleen Brown is a Minneapolis-based writer. Her work has been published in In These Times, MinnPost.com and the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

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