On March 1 and 2, a group of education activists from Indiana attended the Network for Public Education national conference in Austin, Texas. The Lady Bird Johnson Auditorium on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin buzzed with energy as people from all over the United States gathered, united by a single purpose – to support public education. Most of them had never met in person; many knew each other only through social media conversations and posts. What could have become a great deal of whining and gnashing of teeth about the sorry state of the corporate education reform was instead a powerful convocation of like-minded advocates and activists.
NPE board member Anthony Cody opened the conference welcoming 500 teachers, administrators, parents, school board members, legislators and students. Cody’s speech emphasized that the entire audience was unified in support of public education and against corporate reform and “hedge fund managers who have discovered a passion for the poor.”
John Kuhn, superintendent of Perrin-Whitt School District in Texas, and Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, reminded us in their keynote speeches that being a traditional public school teacher is noble and good. In her keynote address, Diane Ravitch movingly listed the heroes of public education, naming students, teachers, legislators, superintendents and numerous advocates. When she called out the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education as heroes, all the letters we have written, all of the calls we have made, all of the presentations we have given, all of the testimony we have spoken, all of the frustration and sadness we have felt suddenly seemed worthwhile.
Arising from this message of validation, we could feel there is hope and that the tide is turning. Momentum is building, and it feels as though we are approaching a tipping point. The 500 activists at the conference represent thousands more across the country who are questioning the wisdom and the speed with which education reforms and untested policies have been implemented and which ask for virtually no accountability for charter schools and for voucher-funded parochial schools. Parents and teachers are protesting the vast amount of instructional time devoted to preparing kids to take tests whose only real value appears to be to label students, teachers schools, and communities as failing.
Parents are questioning how their children’s private information is being accessed and sold to the highest bidder, and parents are calling for consent legislation that allows them control of their children’s data.
Throughout the country there is a growing sense of outrage over the bill of goods corporate reformers have sold legislators. The primary way in which these reformers have operated is by writing stock legislation that governs legislation at the state level and threatens local districts with punitive action. Throughout the country, there is a growing sense that parents and educators have been right all along; public schools are not failing. The corporate, for-profit reformers view children as data points and test scores; their view is unacceptable. The research shows that this “brave new world” of testing, accountability, charters and vouchers that Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, the Koch brothers, the Walton Foundation and ALEC have promoted is not working.
Parents and teachers know that the joy of learning comes from imagining, creating, playing, thinking, experimenting, problem solving and being ready to learn. The joy of learning comes when a child has an “aha moment” when he or she finally gets it. Parents know that play contributes to learning; that children need the physical activity at recess and in gym class just as much as they need “rigor” sitting at a desk; that art and music help children learn much more than learning to practice for a test and bubble in an answer sheet.
The momentum to reclaim our public schools is growing, but in order for it to continue, more parents, teachers, administrators, students, grandparents and concerned citizens need to stand up and voice outrage at the attack on public education by profiteers and power-brokers. Public education is a human institution created for the common good and is an essential factor in our democracy. It should not be a marketplace commodity. It should guarantee equity for all students rather than be a competition where there are winners and losers. We need to be informed about the legislation that is proposed and to let our legislators know what we want in our schools. We need to speak louder and defy the power and money behind corporate reformers and the legislation proposed by ALEC.
And we can do it. In the words of Diane Ravitch, “We will win because everything these faux reformers are doing is failing or has already failed. You can’t succeed if everything you do fails … The walls of Jericho will come tumbling down. … Blow your trumpets. Wake the town. Tell the people.”
At the end of the conference, the Network for Public Education called on Congress to investigate high-stakes testing. The revision of NCLB is long overdue, but neither the Bush nor Obama administrations nor Congress has done anything except increase the stakes. NPE has issued a call for “formal hearings to investigate the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools.”
The message of this conference is clear: We can reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning – not profit centers for corporations, and entrepreneurs and snake-oil salesmen and consultants.