Education Opinion

Can We Build a Big Tent for a Progressive Education Agenda?

By Deborah Meier — March 31, 2015 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This week Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss the possibility of “building a tent” around certain principles in education, particularly for charter schools. Deborah begins.

Dear Joe,

You’ve convinced me of one thing. You and the hundreds of other wonderful charter advocates need to form a “Progressive Charters of America Speak Up” organization--differentiating your agenda from that of the “big boys.” Their dislike of the current practices of “traditional” public education has NO overlap with yours and mine. We need all our voices opposing their right-wing political agenda. We need to formulate what a progressive pro-charter legislative might look like--one that unites us in a common effort to protect/restore democracy.

The current charter agenda is not so different than the current public school agenda as articulated by those in power. It’s far more dangerous than the usual corruptions of public and private life. The public sector educational leadership in too many cases is in cahoots with Big Money. They’re not fighting each other. They’re fighting us--you and me.

We’re facing a major concerted effort by moneyed interests (ALEC et al.) to use this moment to substantially increase the power of the 1 percent to pursue their goals without serious opposition. The new “reform movement” is, I believe, not just a mistaken educational agenda. The disagreement lies not between “charters” and district schools but between this particular movement’s grab for power and “the people’s” feeble power to resist. (Note that unions are almost dead in this country. And I can’t name another powerful organized opposition.) You and I should be on the same side.

“They” have gone far to privatize prisons, the military, soon universities, post offices, even highways are being sold off. To a degree unprecedented in American history they have made it nearly--note I say nearly--impossible to engage in a successful political life without millions and/or billions at one’s disposal. Add to this the impact on democracy of the never-ending threat from foreign enemies of democracy (right out of Orwell’s 1984 but, alas, also real).

I wish I felt as sanguine as you do, Joe. Truly. I have a lot to gain by being convinced otherwise. Like peace of mind. We need to fight this “movement” with alternatives. We need our combined strengths. How such alternatives, even united, can compete with the power of money in politics remains to be seen.

I’ve been wrong before. Just because I don’t see the path doesn’t mean there isn’t one. My best guess is that we have to build a tent large enough to include small “d” democrats who see the advantage of putting some disputes aside--live and let live--and join forces around a few critical issues and a few critical “enemies”. Can we locate the issues and allies that might allow your kinds of truly public charters and my kind of public schools to survive as we jointly struggle for a more robust democracy?

I once naively believed democracy was the “given” next historic step. So it’s just going to be harder, that’s all.

Joe Nathan responds:

Deborah, we agree on many things, and disagree on a few.

1. On January 20, you wrote: “I’m against all choice methods that give the school the right to choose rather than the students and families.”

Assuming you are referring to K-12 school choice plans, we agree. Colleges and universities are different; with long established abilities to determine which students they will admit. That’s a discussion for another day.

But there are NOT just two sides, Deb, just as there are not just 1 or 2 choice plans. Some of the strongest critics of charters criticize some charters for (allegedly) having admissions tests but are just fine with some district schools having admissions tests.

2. We agree that educators and community groups ought to have opportunities to create new, non-sectarian public schools open to all. That’s what was done (mostly) in East Harlem and with Boston pilot schools. Unfortunately a few schools were allowed to use auditions.

From at least 1970, when I began teaching, traditionalists have opposed the creation of options, such as those in East Harlem. (East Harlem, where you worked, was one of 32 community districts in New York City, with most not giving many educators opportunities to create new schools). This same continuing opposition has been apparent throughout the country. As Al Shanker noted in 1988, “many schools-within-schools were or are treated like traitors or outlaws for daring to move outside the lockstep.”

Some of the same arguments used against district options are used against chartering. That’s a subject for another day.

3. Educators should have the power to form unions.

4. Corruption, whether in districts, unions or chartered public schools ought to be challenged and condemned wherever it takes place.

5. Increasing student engagement ought to be a priority. Quoting our mutual friend and colleague, Dr. Wayne Jennings, for decades there has been a " continuing huge number of kids from 3rd or 4th grade on who are disengaged and bored with conventional schooling because learning doesn’t proceed in lockstep/one-size-fits-all approaches. Why is this? Why does it persist for all of the decades we’ve both been in education irrespective of occasional bursts like her (your) school? What can be done?” This disengagement was going on well before No Child Left Behind and more extensive use of standardized statewide tests. In his March 1998 National Press Club speech, Al Shanker acknowledged that reforms were “bypassing about 80 percent of the students in this country ... the traditional ways of learning don’t seem to work for the majority of our kids.”

6. To reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity, we need to work simultaneously on improving schools and problems outside schools. Some insist that schools will not be much better until we have much less poverty, many more jobs, better health care, less racism, etc. etc. I think we agree that simultaneous efforts inside and outside schools are necessary. Do we agree?

Finally, you suggest creating a new organization. We have many educational organizations, requiring time, energy and money. My preference is to work on specific issues with like-minded people--as we did in successfully challenging the NCAA. (Since we’re witnessing the NCAA’s “March Madness,” later this week I’ll describe this “big tent” effort in which you and I were involved.)

Deborah Meier responds:

Dear Joe,

I feel like just reprinting my opening queries. Do you or don’t you want to be identified with what is generally conceded to be the charter/voucher/the money belongs to the family argument or not? The “it belongs to the kids” argument is an approach that places education strictly in the private sphere, and citizens and consumers on the same level, and choosing schools and choosing other market goods as equivalent. So: Yes/no?

They have the money and they are pursuing an agenda that incudes vouchers, common core, testing, Pearson, et al. It’s an international phenomenon. Yes/no?

If their agenda is bad, we need to oppose it and separate the best of the chartering side from it--precisely to protect the best in the chartering idea. Or, do you consider “them” a minor enemy, no enemy at all, or an invented enemy--a mirage? Am I fighting windmills when I worry about their agenda re public vs. private? Try and convince me otherwise. Forget a new organization even, just a clear articulated statement by the charters you and I respect that differentiates “us” from “them.” I don’t get your reluctance.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.