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U.S. Dept. of Ed. Protesters Turn Fierce Rhetoric on ‘Corporate’ Reform

By Michele McNeil — April 04, 2013 3 min read
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As they kicked off four days of protests at the U.S. Department of Education, organizers of Occupy DOE 2.0 today used inflammatory—and, in one case, racially insulting—rhetoric to rally opposition against high-stakes testing, “corporate” education reform, and the “dismantling of public education.”

Standing in front of the Education Department’s headquarters in downtown Washington, Miami-Dade County teacher Ceresta Smith referred to former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee—founder and CEO of the advocacy group StudentsFirst—as an “Asian bitch.”

Another organizer, former teacher Shaun Johnson, called teachers “meek” and urged them to start speaking up, “cracking skulls,” and losing their jobs in protest of policies they say are destroying public schools.

United Opt Out National, which hosted the Occupy DOE event, held a similar event a year ago. Both are offshoots of the Save Our Schools march in 2011.

This year’s event, set to include a march to the White House on Saturday, drew a couple dozen people on its opening morning. Attendees later in the day heard from speakers including education historian Diane Ravitch, and on Friday are to hear from Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, among others.

The first round of speakers railed against educators, politicians, corporations, Democrats, and Republicans for supporting “corporate education reform.” In addition to Rhee, targets included Cory Booker, a Democrat and the mayor of Newark, N.J.; President Barack Obama; U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican thought to be an eventual presidential contender; and companies such as Pearson and McKinsey. Some even criticized teachers’ unions—which often fight against testing used to rate teachers—for being too weak.

Speakers urged teachers to opt out of administering high-stakes tests, and parents to opt their children out of these tests. They alleged that states and school districts are building data systems to allow corporate America access to information about their children.

“The corporations are teaching our children,” said Peggy Robertson, a parent and longtime teacher who works as an instructional coach in a Colorado elementary school. “We do not need these tests.”

Smith, the Miami-Dade teacher and an African-American, was particularly critical of Rhee and other nonwhite leaders, such as Booker, for embracing “corporate reform,” such as high-stakes testing, that she says hurts minority children. In her speech, she suggested that while some black teachers have been indicted in a cheating scandal in Atlanta, Rhee suffered no consequences in the wake of testing irregularities when she was chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, which she headed from 2007 to 2010. (The federal Education Department’s inspector general found no evidence that district officials were engaged in widespread cheating during that time.)

“We are in a real war, and it’s hard to identify who the real enemy is,” Smith told the crowd. In an interview after the speech, she was largely unapologetic about the language she used about Rhee. “It was loaded,” she said. “But she’s aligned with those corporate reformers.”

Robertson said such heated rhetoric stems from frustration that parents, teachers, and other advocates feel they aren’t being heard.

“She was speaking from the heart,” she said of Smith.

Ravitch, in an interview, said that people are emotional about issues such as when a district like Chicago announces the closings of 54 schools, or when teachers stand to lose their jobs over test scores.

“The whole secret of this movement is raising public awareness,” she said, adding that advocates aren’t emotional because they’re losing but because they’re starting to win. She pointed to successful teachers’ strikes and to a “zombie” march by students on the Rhode Island Department of Education to protest linking test scores to graduation.

In her remarks to the crowd, which had grown to more than 50 when she spoke just before 3 p.m., Ravitch criticized the Education Department for being allied with “some of the wealthiest people in America” and “aligned against public education, against teachers, against children, and against good education.”

“What we have is a destruction strategy,” said Ravitch, who pointed to state and federal policies supporting charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay.

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