Teaching Profession

Education Policy Critics Take Heated Message to White House Door

By Nirvi Shah — August 09, 2011 4 min read
People march to the White House during the "Save Our Schools" rally in Washington, D.C., on July 30. Marchers chanted and carried signs expressing their demands after hearing speeches nearby.
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The rousing speeches that boosted teachers’ morale at a July 30 rally here and at others around the country showed many people’s disaffection with standards- and testing-based accountability, but the potential long-term effect of the activism is unclear.

“There are tremendously high spirits,” said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action, which sponsored the Washington rally and march near the White House as part of four days of issues-oriented events. “Everybody thought the march and conference that preceded it did exactly what they wanted. They delivered the right message.”

While the events got the attention of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the White House, the loosely organized group has no specific policy proposals or immediate plans to weigh in on education legislation, including reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Instead, in the next several months, it will work to hone and expand its platform, raise money, pick leaders, and contemplate another rally.

Generating Momentum

The Save Our Schools group formed about a year ago, when a few teachers and teacher-educators envisioned a march on Washington to send a message about concerns over current education policy. Its work culminated in the rally near the White House, followed by the march. Speakers ranged from such prominent education figures as Linda Darling-Hammond, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Pedro Noguera, and Diane Ravitch to actor Matt Damon. Student poverty was cited as public schools’ most pressing problem.

At the Rally

Save Our Schools created position papers outlining its views on high-stakes testing, equitable school funding, unions and collective bargaining, and changes to curriculum. After the march, organizers said a call for high-quality early education would be added to the platform.

However, organizers say formal policy prescriptions aren’t among their goals.

“What we’re talking about is creating the right conditions, not prescriptive policies,” said Sabrina Stevens Shupe, a former teacher in Denver who was one of the event’s leaders.

Organizers estimated the size of the crowd to be 5,000, but a rough count by Education Week put it closer to 3,000. Before the event, organizers said they expected 5,000 to 10,000 people. Critics of the organization and march said the teachers involved don’t want the American education system to progress. In criticism after the march, the Education Action Group, based in Muskegon, Mich., echoed sharp words from the Washington-based Center for Education Reform prior to the event. The Michigan group, which supports charter schools, viewed the attendance figures as a mark of apathy for the Save Our Schools agenda.

“There is no mass movement to maintain the status quo in our nation’s public schools,” the EAG said in a statement.

Financial Support

The Save Our Schools gathering also drew hundreds of teachers and parents to American University on July 28-29 for workshops and seminars on topics such as fostering activism and engaging parents.

Nsenki Kabassu, 7, attends the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in Washington. His mother, Monica, is a teacher in Clinton, Md.

One day, organizers met briefly with Secretary Duncan and members of his staff. However, although they have denounced the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s continued emphasis on high-stakes testing, organizers declined an invitation to meet with Roberto Rodriguez, a White House education adviser. They cited a busy schedule.

Plans for the Save Our Schools efforts predated a spate of actions by state legislatures to curb teachers’ collective bargaining rights and tenure, said Bess Altwerger, a teacher-educator and a member of the organizing committee. But such actions further galvanized the group.

Eventually, both national teachers’ unions threw their support behind Save Our Schools. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers donated about $25,000 each to the effort, although most of the rest of the donations came from one-time gifts provided through the Save Our Schools website, according to organizers.

Support totaled about $125,000, organizers said. Ms. Ravitch made a sizable donation, and Mr. Kozol and Ms. Meier pledged support to keep the efforts going.

Ms. Meier and Ms. Ravitch co-write an opinion blog for Education Week’s website, and other edweek.org opinion bloggers or former employees of the newspaper were among the organizers or endorsers of the event. The endorsers included Ronald A. Wolk, the paper’s founding editor and the chair emeritus of its nonprofit parent corporation, Editorial Projects in Education.

Elaine Mulligan, a former special education teacher now working on a federally funded technical-assistance project in special education, is unsure of the event’s long-term effect. Still, she attended and brought a friend.

“Maybe,” she said, my friend “will tell someone, and maybe they’ll tell someone. I hope that everybody does the same thing.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Education Policy Critics Take Heated Message to White House Door

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