Federal Opinion

We’re Ready for the Battle

By Deborah Meier — November 15, 2012 3 min read
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Dear Pedro,

I quote from a wise old villain: “You can only win at the negotiating table what you have won on the battlefield.” Or something like that.

We need first and foremost to pick our battleground—with sufficient troops—even if we don’t and may never have sufficient money. Our immediate goal cannot be getting to the current political/policymaking table. There’s no point in joining “their” table, even if invited, unless and until the troops are out there causing trouble.

The fact that you, and Warren Simmons, and James Comer, who led the panel at the Coalition of Essential Schools last week, are not at the table is absurd, but not a tragedy. Nor is it an accident or a personal critique of your credentials, ideas, and past leadership. It’s precisely because you are who you are that you are not at the table. Instead, you must help us build our own table.

We have barely begun the organizing we need to engage ALEC and their allies on the political battlefield. Nor have we thought through who must be involved in designing the kind of table that meets our needs (and how many such tables we’ll need), where we can hammer out our priorities and begin to coordinate actions here, there, and everywhere. With some more victories under our belt we can start worrying about who sits at whose negotiating table.

As I sat over breakfast yesterday with Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union, I realized that she and her colleagues have moved mountains in less than three years. I am awed and optimistic. Their particular story—what the CTU organized around—cannot be replicated. We’re not all “lucky” enough to have Rahm Emanuel as an opponent.

Furthermore, Chicago, Karen reminded me, has had several dramatic turnovers in the leadership of the CTU, which has created a unique backdrop for the current conditions. Even if the CTU story is unique, its work will spread because it once again seems “possible” to dream.

Just as watching the revolts in Cairo and Madison, Wisc., buoyed the spirits of so many of us, the CTU strike and the recent elections will do something similar. Maybe it’s important that Barack Obama won the presidency this time around without all the high and unrealistic expectations we placed upon his victory in 2008. Maybe we need also to look at what it means that four states voted in favor of legal marriage for gays and lesbians, that some prominent leaders of the new reform education leadership were defeated, as signs—early signs—of something stirring.

Giving you a more direct response to the three points you raised in Tuesday’s blog is on my agenda—once I’m home again and working on my own keyboard! But perhaps thinking of such key organizing ideas has to be closely aligned with who we are organizing with: our marching partners. Maybe we let Annenberg and Gates et al carry too much of our “small, self-governing schools” message 20 years ago. The heart of the message got lost in the hype.

At the time, I thought that there was a stirring at the roots, inside many schools, and that the conversation was already moving our way. Against a lifetime of knowing better (it’s embarrassing to admit), I thought our wise words and good examples might change everything, if we just had the resources. I was not alone. We were as a result almost totally unprepared for the onslaught of the “corporate reformers” and their sometimes well-meaning allies. Suddenly we were confronted with the need to defend the very democratic basis of the idea of public education. The attacks were so varied and so many, we had little energy left for building the resistance needed. I think we’re ready now.

We’ve survived, as George Wood said at the opening session of the CES Fall Forum. No more discussion is needed about whether CES should meet again next year. We’re going to meet forever. For some of us, it’s home, and we need a home as we face the future.

But we also need to be just one small part of a larger organizing mindset, within a strategy for next steps. Which brings us back to your last blog. Thanks for raising the important questions; I’ll need some time to mull them over, once I get back home.

In short, Pedro, I’m heading home feeling a lot better than when I left a week ago. The Coalition gathering in Providence, R.I.; speaking to teachers and students at Illinois State, Lake Forest College, and the University of Massachusetts; meeting with Karen Lewis in Chicago, as well as about a dozen members of her team for lunch today, has had an impact. It’s okay to get knocked down occasionally, as long as we get up again, perhaps a little wiser. There simply is no way to know when and how the democratic forces will rise up, as they did here in Chi-town, and say, “Enough of that! We’ve got a different plan.”


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.