Friday, February 26, 2021

Three Leaders Defending the Schoolhouse Door

 Town Hall Seattle held a three-way conversation last night, with Diane Ravitch and the authors of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire. Best $5 I have spent...I got a ticket to listen, to watch, to take notes, to wish I could rewind and get the quotes right. It was an amazing hour for anyone who cares about public schools and the destructive reforms of the right...and the left. 

These two education historians (Ravitch and Schneider), and education journalist (Berkshire) have a long view of school reform, as well as a broad view of the current legislation popping up around the country, and the connections among the efforts. 

They began talking about Betsy Devos, who has a prominent position in Wolf, as, perhaps THE wolf at the door, but Schneider and Berkshire made the point that the real action, the real reform, happens at the state level. That is a lesson I've learned in the decade I've been paying close attention...

Berkshire, who crisscrosses the country as a journalist pointed out that proposed legislation at the state level is so similar. West Virginia has a bill to punish teachers for any kind of walk-out or strike. I know OK has a similar bill. So many state houses are now sitting on a GOP super-majority, and many of these legislators have identical ideologies and motivation. Choice. Vouchers. Attacks on unions. Defunding public schools. We public school advocates are facing the same attacks, no matter where we are. 

Public education is the largest expenditure for every state in the union, and many on the right are obsessed with carving dollars away, to invest in their own pet projects. Even thought, as Berkshire and Schneider pointed out, over 90% of Republican parents' students as well as Democrat parents' students attend public schools.

One of the authors reminded Ravitch of one of her quotes in Reign of Error, paraphrased as, "The public good is not a consumer good." I had not initially made the connection between Ravitch's book and this until Berkshire reminded the audience of the four principles of conservative reformers:

1. Education is a personal good, not a collective one (almost the reverse of Ravitch's line!)

2. Schools belong to the domain of the free market, not the government

3. To the extent that they are able, the 'consumers' of education should pay for it themselves

4. Unions and other forms of collective power are economically inefficient and politically problematic

As I review my notes and memory, these principles really framed the conversation last night.

Berkshire pointed out that many of the conservatives who want to disrupt (my word) public schools are still angry about the New Deal...when unions grew in power and importance, and regulations complicated the free marketers. They never gave up their hatred of teachers' unions and a zealous belief that the free market is the only answer for this country in ever facet of our lives, including the solemn duty to educate every child in the nation.

Schneider and Berkshire show that the ideology of reform drives all the reforms we fight...a belief in markets, in choice, in no oversight and regulations, in breaking unions. Reformers are furious that public schools do no extoll the value of free markets...they believe teachers 'indoctrinate' students to be socialists. They reject accountability and transparency.

The three began riffing on these issues, and I wrote furiously...I'll share quotes (probably not word-for-word, but close) and phrases that reminded me so strongly why public education has my heart and soul. 

School choice exacerbates inequities

"Free markets don't create equity. They create winners and losers" DR

Reformers degrade and defund our schools

Viewing schools as free markets creates competition...and competition creates, is grounded in, a zero-sum game. There will, by design, and deliberate actions, be winners and losers. (This year as I have listened to committee and floor discussions at the OK Capitol, I have gritted my teeth each and every year a non-educator-legislator has solemnly entoned how important competition is for schools. No. Competition ensures there will be losers. Public schools that will be losers. Children and families who will be losers!)

"There is a national myth that your education explains your station in life...this meritocracy is privilege-laundering." JS People who attend these elite, expensive schools, will succeed wherever they go...their education is not a factor.

No transparency. No oversight.

Ideologue reformers want to unmake schools...deliver a death blow...fracture us into an individualistic society.

Ravitch asked the poignant question I often wonder: "Why are they willing to destroy schools?" Why, indeed.

The conversation circled around ALEC and the Koch fingerprints on our education...

"According to Koch, schools don't prepare kids to be ardently free-market enough." JB

"Oligarchic tendencies are rampant in these ideological reformers: they think they're smarter than everyone else." JS

"This pandemic helps us remember what schools do, what a teacher does." JS

The three circled back to the difference in reform beliefs of conservatives and liberals. They all agreed that Arnie Duncan was just as harmful in his own way as Devos.

Liberal support of 'choice' gives legitimacy to the conservative war on public schools...Neo-liberal belief in choice and tests makes them just as dangerous as the ideologues who want to gut schools for their beloved free markets. They agreed that the left must come up with a new vision for our schools. 

The conversation was not just a summarization of their excellent book. It was an hour with three brilliant thinkers and advocates. Fast-moving, exhilarating, and sometimes deeply depressing in the size of the task ahead of us. But they have given us the ability to understand who we're up against. It's time to come up with a new vision.

And it's we as Americans see public education as a societal benefit, a collective good, a public good? 

If we do, we have work to do, or we will be left as the losers in free-marketeers' zero-sum game. 

A dynamic evening!


Berkshire has offered to lead a ZOOM discussion for Oklahoma advocates! I'm working on a list of interested folks. So far, parents, grandparents, educators, legislators have told me they want to be included. Let me know if you want to join us. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

 A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire. It's not one wolf. It's many wolves, working separately, and as a pack. Opportunists always ready to attack.

If you've spent any time in education, you recognize the many wolves Schneider and Berkshire describe here. None is especially new. What is so very valuable about this book is their compilation of all the conservative and libertarian strategies to weaken and defund (yes, I'm using that word deliberately) our public schools. I've already used the book as a reference when researching some of the new anti-public-education bills in the Oklahoma Legislature this Session. 

Its power is in the clear examination of reforms we usually fight as separate issues, showing us they are not isolated ideas. They are part of the whole. And until we learn to fight the whole, we will exhaust ourselves fighting all these smaller battles...the new voucher bills in the legislature, the new alternative certification bills surfacing annually.

The wolves are those monied conservatives who will always have school for their children...private, exclusive, expensive schools. 

It's our children they want to starve and cheat, our children who will suffer as they find ways to siphon public school funds to their toney private schools. 

Our children who go to those pesky public schools.

Reformers' basic premises, as seen by Schneider and Berkshire?

1. Education is a personal good, not a collective one

2. Schools belong in the domain of the free market, not the government (how many times have we heard the attack on 'government schools?'

3. To the extent they are able, "consumers" of education should pay for it themselves

4. Unions and other forms of collective power are economically inefficient and politically problematic.

Now, look at your state legislature's agenda, your state legislature's current bills...most of them can neatly fit under one of these premises.

The book is organized into the values and goals of privatizers...a veritable encyclopedia for advocates of public schools:

  • Private Values
  • Faith in Markets
  • The Cost-Cutting Crusade
  • The War on Labor
  • Neo-Vouchers
  • The Pursuit of Profit
  • Virtual Learning
  • The End of Regulations
  • Don't Forget to Leave Us a Review
  • Selling Schools
  • Teaching Gigs
  • Education, a la Carte

The authors give us the big players in this fight to gobble up the $50B public education funding pot. That's what it's all privatizers don't have, and want. They want that money to educate their own privileged children in their private schools, with public school money.

In the 40-plus years I've been involved in public education, I've seen so many of these changes, attacks. 

Oklahoma will be fighting off several voucher bills, filed, interestingly enough, by Senators who are term-limited and seem to be ready to leave it all on the track. Here (Education, a la Carte) and here and here (Neo-Vouchers).

We have a bill to punish teachers with the loss of their certificate (War on Labor) f they participate in any walk-outs (OK is a right-to-work (for less) state, so strikes are already illegal...but even local school board support of a walk out would not protect teachers. And bills to attack education associations (War on Labor).

We are currently locked in a controversy over funding our virtual charter schools (Virtual Learning), and the possibility of misuse of public school funding (I'm calling this one The End of Regulations).

Oklahoma had seen, before the walk out of 2018, the largest cuts to public education in the nation. This created the crisis that resulted in tens of thousands of marchers to the state Capitol.

The funding crisis led, perhaps, to the teacher-shortage crisis, and a record number of alternative-certified and emergency-certified teachers. There is a bill this year to allow early childhood teachers (End of Regulations) to teach with alternative cert, coming into the classroom with no pedagogy training. 

It's like Oklahoma is a proving ground for all the privatizing schemes. But, I'm guessing every state in the nation feels the exact same way. These legislators who are all-in with this privatizing reform rhetoric have the advantage of national leaders, like ALEC, who will write the model legislation for them to just copy and paste. It's always enlightening to Google the title of a bill and ALEC to see what pops up.

I think for me, a 4th-generation teacher, mother of a 5th-generation teacher, looking at my granddaughters, wondering who'll be the 6th, the attacks on teachers, on my family business, were the most horrifying. Privatizers would be more than happy with teachers as gig-workers. Part-time, paid by the class, with or without an actual teaching degree, or even a degree. Teachers who scramble to create a 'full time' job with multiple part-time jobs. Teachers, most importantly, with no benefits, no pension, no health insurance. Teachers with no protections. No unions. This view of the future of teaching just makes my stomach hurt. 

I have one huge ask for the reprint...I needed an appendix listing all those foundations and committees and groups who appear to be working separately to destroy public education. I wanted a comprehensive list of our enemies. Remember, I'm using this book as a reference...a way to look up terms and organizations...and that list would really help me.

I plan to buy a copy of this book for both my state legislators. I want them to see the evidence of these efforts to dismantle and defund our schools. I want them to know we have information, all in one place, to counter reformers' plans and shed light on their strategies. 

So, there are wolves. Wolves circling, watching, hunting. Looking for that sign of weakness. That opening. Wolves ready to devour public schools, clean the bones, and move onto their next target.