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John Thompson: Educators Can’t Afford Another Eight Years of Demonization by DFER

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John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, writes here about the conflict between Democrats for Education Reform and educators and how it might affect the next administration. It is to be expected that the misnamed DFER would achieve its policy goals in a Trump administration: charters, school choice, the elimination of teacher tenure and unions. But what about in a Clinton administration? Why should an anti-teacher, anti-public school group have a “seat at the table”?

Teachers and our unions are uniquely poised to help unite the Democratic Party. Not only do educators celebrate the difference of opinions, but it’s our job to do so in a respectful manner. Our professional practice embodies the need to listen, to disagree agreeably and, often, help synthesize seemingly incompatible perspectives. Not only do we model the sharing of ideas in the classroom, our edu-political practice illustrates the type of democratic principles known as the “loyal opposition.” Teachers and our unions defend our profession and promote the welfare of our students by treating our opponents as opponents, not enemies.

My students were more socially conservative than I was. They were aware that I was a former ACLU/OK board member and a pro-choice lobbyist, but they knew that all of their opinions, values, and judgments would be treated with equal respect. They also knew how much I preferred addressing persons who disagreed with me on abortion with the term, “pro-life,” not “anti-choice.” Teaching our Government class with an open door produced a bonus. Students, patrons, or other visitors continually joined our debates. Often, parents would send their children back to school with their counter-arguments about politics, culture, and history. One junior brought his pastor to class to present an alternative worldview, and he concluded with the words, “We can count the seeds in an apple, but not the apples in a seed.”

The metaphor speaks to the Democratic Party Convention. We can count Bernie’s delegates, but we can’t even guess as to the number of future voters and activists unleashed by “the Bern.” In the meantime, we should unite behind Hillary.

And, that brings us to the second contribution that teachers, our professional organizations, and our representatives can make. Where would public education be if we embodied the ethos of “my way or the highway?” Unlike those with more money and power, we need to be trustworthy participants in the team effort to advance equity and justice. Educators know that losses are a part of the game. Even so, teachers have participated in some of America’s greatest victories; we were loyal members of the coalitions that carved out civil rights breakthroughs, that established a social safety net, and expanded economic opportunity.

As I often explained to my students, politics is a contact sport. Elbows are thrown but taking out your opponent’s knees is never appropriate. This is especially pertinent to contemporary school reform. Although this is heresy to top-down reformers, teachers know that in our world, we win some and we lose some. Our political defeats may be bitter, but they sure don’t sting as much as the all-to-frequent losses of our students. And that brings us to the coverage of Democrat for Education Reform’s (DFER’s) – or should I say “FER’s” – troubles.

When they were racking up political victory after political victory, DFER celebrated as if defeating adults was their true purpose. Alexander Russo explains how DFER benefitted from the Obama administration’s $5 billion Race to the Top and millions of dollars from Rupert Murdoch and the Walton Family Foundation. DFER donated to the pro-Scott Walker American Federation of Children, and distanced itself from Wisconsin workers when Walker attacked public sector workers’ bargaining rights. DFER remained true to its commitment to high stakes testing and to anti-union hedge fund managers, but ducked the opportunity to address the school to prison pipeline. The former DFER executive director, Joe Williams, acknowledges the mistake of pushing teacher evaluations at the same time as Common Core. He notes the resulting political turmoil, but not the mess that those inherently contradictory policies created inside schools. Neither Russo nor any of his sources try to document the idea that the DFER agenda improved schools.

Russo cites the judgment of liberal reformers that DFER was completely on board with the corporate reform wish list, but not so much with the Democrats’ agenda. Andre Perry also notes that “DFER and other education reform groups have grown comfortable working with Republican leadership – in many cases they’ve thrived,” and adds that perhaps the reform movement should go by the name For Education Reform. Perry opposes the way that DFER/FER criticizes the Democratic base “which is especially problematic in an election in which worker rights are in focus.” He explains that Democrats aren’t buying DFER’s “selling [of] school choice as justice.” The amended party platform “was a political victory for those who repudiated the brand of reform that DFER promotes.” Reformers should have accepted their loss as “a result of real political work, and as “changes designed to get Hillary Clinton elected.”

Democratic political infighting over education pulls the rug out from under black families

Perry’s account should be read along with the Hechinger Report’s Emanuel Felton, who explains how reform effected teachers and political reality in Philadelphia.

He reminds us:

Over the course of President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, a coalition formed among his administration, governors, many of whom are Republican, and big city education reformers. Together, they doubled down on former Republican President George W. Bush’s education policies, pledging to turn around long-struggling urban school districts like Philadelphia’s by holding schools accountable for their students’ test scores. If results didn’t improve, officials could tap federal funds for turning around schools, to either close a school or transform it into a privately operated, publicly funded charter school, the vast majority of which employ non-unionized staff.

Of course, student performance didn’t improve. On the whole, decades of improvements in NAEP scores slowed with NCLB, and stopped around 2008. Felton writes:

Over the last decade and a half, the union — which represents the city’s public school teachers, nurses, counselors and support staff — has been nearly halved, its ranks shrinking from 21,000 to 11,000. Come election time, that means 10,000 fewer members to go door to door campaigning, 10,000 fewer people paying union dues to finance political ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.

I just wish he’d explained how the knee-capping of educators also undermined other progressive coalitions and the battle for justice in other sectors of society. I also wished he’d recalled the damage done to students. To name just one example, the conservative reform Governor Tom Corbett cut the Philadelphia school budget by $700 million.

It might be different if reformers like DFER had a record of improving public schools. Take a look at the issues that (publicly) outrage corporate reformers, however, and they all come back to two demands that are based on faith in their hypotheses, not evidence. Reformers insist that high stakes testing must be used to sanction individuals and systems, and on the mass charterization of schools. Test-driven accountability has demonstrably failed but bubble-in scores are the metrics that keep score as charter management organizations spearhead school closures, thus breaking union power. Test scores also fuel the Billionaires Boys Club’s high-dollar, anti-teacher, anti-public school public relations campaign and, less publicly, they are seen as necessary to encourage for-profit education start-ups. In other words, all roads lead back to the insistence that the punitive is nonnegotiable.

If Democrats who remain true to output-driven reform weren’t so committed to punishments, as well as rewards, they could go along with a 2-1/2 month pre-election moratorium on attacking fellow Democrats. They could temporarily stop slandering those who disagree with them, and focus on win-win policies such as early childhood education, wraparound services for traumatized kids, fighting chronic absenteeism, restorative justice, high school graduation, reducing the college debts, and making higher education affordable. They could also help us advocate for a $15 dollar minimum wage, the end of mass incarceration, and the refusal of the conservative allies to accept Obamacare.

Assuming that Hillary Clinton is elected, teachers will regain our seat at the table. We don’t expect the Billionaires Boys Club to offer us theirs. They aren’t likely to bend on their bottom line – the punishment of individuals and of the losers in their market-driven world. But, after a few months of swallowing their words rather than insulting and slandering teachers, perhaps they could rethink the politics of personal demonization. Okay, that’s not likely to happen. Educators still need to continue to make our case, as we make it clear that our profession won’t endure another eight years of being scapegoated by Democrats.

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