School & District Management Opinion

Sending Out an SOS

By Deborah Meier — April 19, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

HELP!!! SOS!!! “Reformed” schools are literally becoming reform schools for the poor. It’s a sign of “the future” as some people envision it. Although, of course, these are not the schools for the reformers’ kids.

Mitt Romney “declared that this century must be an American century,” and President Barack Obama insists that “anyone who tells you that America is in decline ... doesn’t know what they are talking about.” Well, it’s hard to argue with Romney since his “must” is a preference, not a prediction. But I do worry about Obama’s statement because it contains truth, and it covers up a potential falsehood. (See “America’s Place in the New World,” by Charles A. Kupchan in The New York Times.)

But why should we care if we’re first? (See last week’s letter!) If the first is a nation we respect, being second is just fine. What we care about is the health and welfare of our nation’s people and their future prospects both economically and politically, not our place in somebody’s ranking system. We might also like a president who hopes for the best for other nations’ people, too. And, while American business may not be in decline, it has the advantage of transferring its own future health and welfare to almost any nation it chooses. The American people have a harder time following suit. Indeed, global business has no country. Our inventiveness won’t help if we off-shore the production of the inventions “made in America"—to nations that operate with 19th century sweat-shop wages and working conditions.

Under our unequal circumstances (99/1) it seems hard to envision how we will once again have an economy that works for everyone, not just the top 1 percent. And given the options of who might replace us, democracy doesn’t seem likely to be the winner either way. Our own democracy is fast crumbling—and for the very same reason: the inequality of power in our society run amok ... and fueled by fear.

So, Kupchan may be right that “the democratic, secular, and free-market model” challenged by state capitalism and religious fundamentalism will succeed in dominating the 2lst century.

As Henry A. Giroux writes in the Truthout blog:

Under such circumstances, all bets are off regarding the future of democracy. Besides a growing inability to translate private matters into public concerns, what is also being lost in the current historical conjuncture is the very idea of the public good, the notion of connecting learning to social change and developing modes of civic courage infused by the principles of social justice. Under the regime of a ruthless economic Darwinism which emphasizes a survival-of-the-fittest ethic, concepts and practices of community and solidarity have been replaced by a world of cutthroat politics, financial greed, media spectacles, and a rabid consumerism."

Is there another way?

Yes. That’s why I’m stuck trying to both hold onto the idea of “public space” and a public to go with it! Public education is one of several much besieged institutions that may soon disappear—think about replacing post offices and our local letter-carriers. Consider, too, an army made up of mercenaries, and who knows? Private police? Firefighters? Libraries? Highways? Where can “we” go to “hang out” together?

In schools (that) we trust *—that “belong” in some direct form to “we the people"—is part of my answer. So go read the book by that name, especially Chapters 9 and 10 on scaling up reform for democracy. Do you have a suggestion on a book laying out why we need public police, firefighters, libraries, et al?

Of course, the present system is not all it should be, re. democracy, especially for minority groups, and in our much too large urban districts with their tendency to become centralized in the hands of the local elite. Few are the mayors or appointed school board members who send their own kids to their local schools.

See also Will Standards Save Public Education? which I wrote in 2000 (foreword by Jonathan Kozol). I agree with virtually everything I said there, except that I was oblivious to the attack on the idea of a public system itself. I wasn’t yet noticing what lay ahead, and now that it’s so front and center, could it be too late?

The future is not yet written—when it is, there will still be those of us fighting for the next future. Which reminds me, read No Citizen Left Behind by Meira Levinson—a forthright defense of schools as institutions for teaching about democracy and justice. Democracy was never a foregone conclusion. It’s perhaps amazing that it remains a lively option, if not a foregone conclusion.

Many of us will be in Washington, D.C., from Aug. 3-5 (thanks to Save Our Schools) to once again show our support for public education and to produce an education agenda that we can share at both upcoming conventions. Over the coming months I’ll try to keep folks informed about how it’s shaping up, with input, we hope, from one and all. Will you be joining us?

Can we build a response that doesn’t rest on fear, but rather on hope?


P.S. I met with a bunch of early-childhood leaders at Sarah Lawrence College last week, plus Linda Darling Hammond who is knowledgeable about almost everything. I’ve got my fingers crossed on that and will get you (and our readers) more information about its plans soon. I’m off to talk at New Paltz and then I fly to Athens, Ohio, to speak at the university and to spend time at one of my favorite schools—George Wood’s Federal Hocking public elementary, middle, and secondary schools.

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