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Why America Needs an “Education Spring“

Disenchantment with education policies is not limited to Chicago.

Protesters demonstrate against school closures in Chicago, March 27, 2013. (Photo: peoplesworld )

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Well, someone in the mainstream media finally had to ask the question.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, on his “All In” program on May 24, covered the forced closing of 50 public schools in Chicago – the largest incident of mass school closings in the nation’s history.

Joining Hayes were Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, and education professor Pedro Noguera to discuss the rationale for the closures. Lewis said school administrators and Mayor Rahm Emanuel changed the rationale for the closings so many times that the case had become “murky.” Noguera declared the closings were “not a solution” for fixing or “reforming” schools.

Then Hayes dropped this: “Is this a strategy to – I’ll put it on the table: School closings as a strategy to kill public education?”

Good Question!

Neither Lewis nor Noguero answered the question directly. And it’s hard to imagine Emanuel or any of his surrogates on the board of Chicago Public Schools admitting they aim to “kill public education.”

But when political leaders push policies that have no track record of success and are obviously senseless – Noguero mocked the whole notion of school closures as a solution to education failure by asking, “If we had too much crime in a neighborhood would we shut down the police department?” – then skeptical audiences are bound to question the intent of the policies.

To put Hayes’ question in context, there are political leaders who really do want to get rid of traditional public schools. These people are not outliers. The person linked to above is a seven-term member of the House of Representatives of the North Carolina legislature. The last presidential election featured a legitimate candidate who spoke out openly in opposition to public schools.

Furthermore, policies pushed by the current leadership of the federal government could not be doing a better job of perpetuating the narrative that public education is a chronic and systemic failure incapable of being repaired.

Is ‘Reform’ An Experiment With Our Children?

Indeed, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done much to contribute to the narrative. The very schools he was instrumental in creating when he ran the system in Chicago are now some of the schools being shut down, a local Chicago news source recently informed.

This incoherence coming from the nation’s leadership leaves parents with the feeling they are “part of one big experiment,” the reporter noted.

“Sometimes I think that we are all pieces in the game that they’re playing,” one parent said. “And the game doesn’t affect their lives. It affects our lives. It affects our children’s lives and the outcomes of their lives.”

Echoing this sentiment, Noah Berlatsky, writing at The Atlantic, explained, “Closings are only the latest example of a pattern of ‘reform’ and churn, in which neighborhoods without the resources or political clout to defend themselves are reorganized and experimented on.”

Berlatsky, who researched troubled Chicago schools for the Every Chicago Public School Is My School website, looked closely at the nature of the schools being closed and concluded, “School reform in Chicago is not a solution to anything. Instead, it’s a big part of the problem.”

New Fronts In A Growing Resistance

Disenchantment with education policies is not limited to Chicago. At the same time protestors filled the streets of that city, signs of discontent were evident in Newark, Philadelphia, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Neither is the discontent limited to communities of the urban poor and people of color. A recent news report filed by an outlet covering the towns and cities of Western New York state put a completely different face to the resistance – mostly white, middle-class parents.

The reporter, Rachel Kingston, spotlighted the growing movement among parents to boycott standardized tests. She wrote, “Hundreds in school districts across Western New York – from Williamsville to West Seneca to Frontier – refused to have their children take the exams this April, in what’s becoming known as the opt-out movement.” The parents “worry their children are being deprived of a well-rounded education, and suffering both academically and emotionally because of it.”

But similar to the school closings in Chicago and elsewhere, what’s also driving concerns is that education policies are risky experiments with little prospect for success.

“It’s almost like the system is setting teachers up to fail, and setting students up to fail,” one parent stated.

“The assessments include field test questions which are sometimes above-grade-level – material the students being tested haven’t even learned yet,” Kingston reported. “Students don’t get their tests back once they’ve been scored. Their teachers don’t get to grade the tests. And parents never see the test booklet with the actual questions – only a score sheet with a number ranging from 1 to 4.”

Although not mentioned in the article, parent groups in New York have joined with the state teachers’ union, higher education advocates, and community activists to rally at the state capital to protest the over-reliance on testing and to support increased spending public education, pre-K through college.

“You may be able to bully school districts with ramifications or withholding state aid, but you cannot bully parents,” a parent told Kingston. “You may have hushed the teachers for a while, but you haven’t hushed parents.”

Is anyone else paying attention?

Of course, political leaders are unlikely to listen to protests coming from the streets until those voices turn into votes in elections. That’s happening.

In what is being called a “huge upset” to the political establishment, fifth-grade teacher Monica Ratliff won an election to the Board of Education in Los Angeles. Her “low-budget” campaign against an opponent who “had more than $2.2 million spent on his behalf and . . . was endorsed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Coalition for School Reform,” succeeded in part by her campaign’s strong emphasis on her expertise as a teacher.

Ratliff’s upset victory comes on top of another “improbable” win by Steve Zimmer who beat an establishment challenger in the L.A. school board race earlier this year, despite being massively outspent by wealthy patrons of the “reform” movement. Zimmer, also a career educator, called on voters to resist education mandates pushed down from the top that have shown scant evidence of actually improving schools.

Political candidates elsewhere are taking notes. For instance, in upcoming mayoral elections in New York City, most of the candidates are running away from the reform agenda that has dominated the outgoing Bloomberg administration.

Faced with an electorate shaken with uncertainty about the fate of their neighborhood schools and filled with distrust about prevailing education policy, it’s likely more candidates will draw sharp distinctions about their education stances rather than run to the center.

When views once thought to be too radical for serious consideration – including getting rid of public schools – are now becoming mainstream, even in vogue, and when leadership policies are driven by incoherence – even blatant contradiction – then the center cannot hold.

Searching questions coming from the likes of Chris Hayes, the Chicago protestors, and parents in Western New York and elsewhere need answers.

What’s needed is a real disruption coming from the grassroots – an Education Spring – to demand the answers and a new way forward.

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