Save Our Schools Group Shifts Course

By Stephen Sawchuk & Liana Loewus — August 21, 2012 6 min read
Participants gather last year for the Save Our Schools march and "national call to action" at the Ellipse in Washington. This year's event was a much smaller affair, with the goal of establishing a permanent foothold.
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A grassroots movement of classroom teachers, parents, and educators protesting test-based education policies is facing the first true test of its mettle: whether it can make the leap from loosely affiliated network to coordinated political body.

Last summer, the Save Our Schools organization held a conference and march in Washington that attracted some 3,000 people. Its second major event, a convention held here Aug. 3-5, attracted far fewer attendees—about 150—a step organizers said was deliberate as they make plans to ensure the group’s long-term stability.

“There was no intention this year to have a march or rally,” said Bess Altwerger, a Maryland-based teacher-educator, one of the initial organizers of the march last year who now advises the group’s 13-member steering committee. “The intention was to kind of start building an organization that can be more long-lasting, with longer-term goals, and really have an influence on the public dialogue.”

The transition hasn’t necessarily been easy, according to sources who cited financial worries and philosophical disagreements among the group’s volunteers.

Save Our Schools grew organically from several sources, including a Connecticut teacher’s walk to Washington to protest federal education policies and a Facebook call for a “million-teacher march.”

It coalesced into last year’s event, which was mainly focused on protesting the test-based nature of many education policies and the emerging role of new advocacy groups in championing such policies. The event featured speeches from the author Jonathan Kozol, Stanford University teacher-educator Linda Darling-Hammond, and New York University scholar Pedro Noguera, as well as actor Matt Damon.

An early challenge was determining how to keep the momentum from the rally going.

“There was not a whole lot of planning about what you do after that, and that was a mistake on our part, I think, though a natural one when you have a group so focused on one event,” said Bob George, a member of the SOS steering committee.

A transition team eventually oversaw the creation of a formal structure, culminating in the election of the steering committee last November.

Differences of Policy

But along the way, the group faced a fallow period during which it struggled to determine how to move forward without losing the spontaneity and diversity that characterized its initial action. While the group had put out four general principles before the 2011 march, former volunteers say that squabbling and infighting frustrated efforts to develop a specific platform.

People gather for the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action at the Ellipse in Washington last year.

“SOS didn’t have a coherent set of ideas, a mission, and a vision. The principles amounted to ‘no testing, local control, more money,’” said Nancy Flanagan, a former teacher and an opinion blogger for Education Week Teacher, who was elected to the SOS steering committee but later left her post.

“If you’re going to start a strong, functional national organization, you have to base it on something clear and specific,” she said. “You have to be for something, not just against ‘corporatizers’ or whatever.”

Members were divided, for instance, on whether to take a stand denouncing the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in all but four states.

Another point of contention appears to be who should be permitted to help lead the group. Mr. George, a vice president of Catapult Learning, a private tutoring company, came under fire for that affiliation given SOS’ criticism of the influence of for-profit corporations in education.

Mr. George said that he was upfront about that connection with his SOS colleagues and has worked only with private, not public, schools in his position.

The steering committee suffered turnover, with Ms. Flanagan, teacher-blogger Kenneth Bernstein, and Peggy Robertson, a volunteer with the anti-test movement United Opt Out, all leaving their elected positions. SOS leaders attributed the turnover to a number of factors, including the demanding and unpaid nature of the role.

This year’s convention appeared to be an attempt to put some of those debates behind. It marked the first time the steering committee had even had the opportunity to meet face to face.

“There was no cohesion last year,” said Michael Klonsky, a teacher-educator at DePaul University, in Chicago, and a member of the steering committee. “We have to have norms agreed upon. If we don’t do that, we’ll misunderstand each other.”

During a series of workshops, which were closed to the news media, committee members began to write eight planks for the new organization, on such topics as the role of labor, early-childhood education, civil rights, student voice, and community engagement.

The steering committee had originally planned to write separate policy planks for both national political parties for their respective conventions, but in the end dropped that idea as too ambitious.

Ms. Flanagan said she is still uncertain about the group’s future.

“If it was a meeting of kindred souls, that’s great, but I don’t see a convention or a conference in Washington, D.C., which only a few people can afford to attend, as being a real political vehicle,” she said.

Money Trouble?

There have been money challenges, too, a factor that SOS supporters say is a function of the small donations it receives from volunteers, in comparison to foundation support and wealthy donors that have bolstered advocacy groups such as Stand for Children.

“This is an organization with no corporate funding. We’re donating our own money and time because we’re passionate and we feel it’s significant, what’s happening in the classroom,” said Angela Engel, conference attendee and the executive director of the Denver-based nonprofit Uniting4Kids, which pushes for an end to high-stakes testing.

The national teachers’ unions, each of which donated $25,000 last year to support the SOS march, have not contributed since then. And at the National Education Association’s annual convention in July, delegates declined to endorse the group after several Florida delegates spoke against it.

“The unions have gone all in with Obama and are not making their differences a point of activity now,” said Stan Karp, a former teacher and editor for the Milwaukee-based Rethinking Schools magazine, who attended this month’s conference.

At one point, the SOS organization was heavily dependent on financial support from the education advocates and authors Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. (The two co-write an opinion blog for Education Week.) Ms. Meier added that her future contributions would depend on a solid plan for moving forward.

“No one—e.g., Diane nor I—is likely to continue to provide financial support until we all figure out best how to build a governance structure and agree on future steps together,” Ms. Meier said in an email.

The group has made progress on some fronts. It has incorporated as a nonprofit and is seeking tax-exempt 501(c)3 status from the Internal Revenue Service. An internal committee is now writing bylaws. Local and online networks of information coordinators keep the steering committee abreast of state policy developments.

“We plan to support and mobilize actions all across the country, national and local. We plan to be much, much more visible and active,” Ms. Altwerger said. “We don’t plan to be quiet. We don’t plan to be small.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as ‘Save Our Schools’ Striving to Plant Political Roots

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