School & District Management Opinion

Egypt and NYC

By Deborah Meier — February 10, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

“This is not democracy—letting people yell and scream,” says Mayor Michael Bloomberg in publicly chiding the protesters at the meeting of his education advisory board. As UFT President Michael Mulgrew noted, the mayor has nothing to worry about since he has packed the Panel on Educational Policy (the closest thing in New York City to a school board) with eight of its 13 members and fires anyone who doesn’t vote his way.

Bloomberg and Hosni Mubarek agree. Facing protesters, the Egyptian dictator agrees that letting people yell and scream is an infringement on his rights.

In short, all roads lead to ... the same place. The protests over 200 years ago in Boston, the protesters in Budapest in 1956, or in Tiananmen Square in 1989, as well as the protesters who have, over and over again, come out to protest in NYC share one thing: they don’t like dictatorships. In New York City, there are a thousand schools with a million-plus students, and yet there is no avenue for a democratic voice. In New York City—the feistiest of places—it’s shocking.

How did this happen? And will we be able to wrest back control from a coalition of very well-financed and powerful private special interests, led by Mayor Bloomberg.

I know that this comparison is unfair. Unfair because the protesters in Cairo these past weeks are experiencing risks to their life that none of those in New York face. In Egypt, we are talking about hundreds of thousands, not hundreds, of protesters, and New York’s mayor was elected, even if in a sneaky way.

But the political impact of New York City’s educational policy may also have worldwide implications. If we continue reforms that further undermine schooling FOR democracy in our publicly funded system, we may do irreparable damage to our society. If we turn public education into a private playground for the wealthy, we may lose more than we understand. The glowing praise on the part of the media—left to right—for the “innovative” practices that corporate types and Bloomberg are so enthusiastic about constitute a counter-revolution in America’s educational history. We’re witnessing a return to repressive school models that we had just begun to overcome. Silent students, orderly lines, and public shame (or exile) as the punishment of first resort (now called reform) should have both Charles Dickens and George Orwell rolling in their graves. Smallness and choice can be used for releasing the creativity of students and faculty—or for tightening the screws. Adults who were raised in such schools will know only too well how to acquiesce when faced with authority. Fourteen-plus years in schools ruled by dictatorial ideals will undermine democracy and an innovative economy.

The legacy of intimidation in K-12 schooling had begun to change, largely because it was hard to continue to train the lower classes to line up quietly when the adults they knew were on the picket lines or protesting in the streets. But as fear for the future, unemployment, and gross inequalities have become the norm, acquiescence is dangerous. Having virtually eliminated trade unions from American society and released the unconstrained power of money in the public sphere, we are more and more disarmed to fight back. But it’s encouraging to see that we can still annoy those who may have thought we were too cowed to do so, who thought protest was passé.

It’s encouraging, but just a beginning. We need to mobilize our allies. Our kids need to see adults engaged, and they need cheering on, too, as they learn how to resort to words, not guns, to protect schools designed to promote democracy and to use their social networks in the interest of a free education.

Forgive me, Diane, I’m on a soap box! I’m feeling precariously somewhere between elation and despair. I expect momentarily that the army will turn on Tahrir Square, just as I fear every day that Bloomberg and company will turn their “guns” on the schools in New York City that still offer the young an education in democracy. Yes, there are still plenty of successful models out there, but those without prestigious parent bodies are in danger first. They need to know we’ll all be there to protect them. Teachers need to know that they will not be penalized for their activity as the system strips job security and due process from them.

Next week I’m visiting a school in a small city in Ohio to encourage its reform work. Later, I’m going to Ann Arbor, Mich., for the annual celebration of a pioneering school that has tenaciously overcome challenges. Born during the period that spawned Central Park East et al (1970s and early ‘80s), these schools gather annually with colleagues and alumni to keep their work alive.

Soon after, I’m going to Poland at the invitation of educators there who are seeking ways to create public schools that serve democracy’s needs.

Maybe someday I’ll be going to Egypt for the same purpose?

Fingers crossed.


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