I don’t have the resources, as a retired teacher, to gather with like-minded compadres across the country on a regular basis. I have more time now, and more energy, and most definitely a clearer picture of what’s happening to America’s best (now endangered) idea: a completely free, high-quality, fully public education for every child. Assembling an umbrella gathering of voices and faces unified to the cause of reclaiming public education is a major challenge. I know this, in my bones, from lived experience.
So it was gratifying and heartwarming (using those phrases in the deepest possible sense) to have seen firsthand that the movement is robustly alive, at the Network for Public Education (NPE) conference in Chicago, last weekend. And when I say “movement,” what I mean is this: People, like me, who have no particular resources or organizational funding/backing, who got on a plane to be in a room with those like-minded compadres--because they’re terrified that America might lose public education. People who think it’s not too late. People willing to stake their professional energy on doing right by all kids, keeping democratic equality as critical and central goal of the education system.
People, in other words, who can’t be bought off--the go-to strategy of the corporatizers, privatizers, business-over-community leaders, self-aggrandizing ed-entrepreneurs and feckless policy-makers.
As conferences go, it was good. Plaudits to all the volunteers who put in endless hours to organize, a generally thankless task that often bites you on the backend. I wouldn’t dream of critiquing any features of the conference. There was plenty to do and see, and plenty of time for networking.
What I found most interesting and important was the core focus on public education. There was lots of excited talk about recent successes of the Opt-Out movement, and even more jawboning around whose governor is worse. But the NPE has--as far as I can see--kept itself from issues-based divisions and factions that have derailed other groups with a similar mission.
This “we have bigger fish to fry” perspective is so important--and I think that’s what drew so many parents, students and folks from non-union areas to Chicago. It’s no longer solely about testing, or teacher evaluation, or tenure, or the Common Core. It’s about the survival of a cherished public good.
So, while it’s fun to parse what happened in the Randi, Lily and Diane Show, the biggest takeaway was not whether the NEA and AFT will continue to take Gates/Broad/Walton money. (My guess is that they’ve got years of Gates funding already committed and so saying they’ll stop, eventually, was a cheap PR “win.”) I agree with Peter Greene--the biggest achievement is that the national union leaders were there, and willing to answer uncomfortable questions in public.
When Lily Eskelsen Garcia talked about the sixth grade Common Core Standards she appreciated, the crowd went still and tense. I was sitting next to a woman I’d never met--a parent who identified herself as a “public school advocate, not a teacher"--and she breathed out a barely-audible supportive remark about the Common Core. Aha. It was not a monolithic, ideologically pure crowd.
Eskelsen Garcia, in a small-group blogger meeting after the plenary panel presentation, talked about Opt-Out as a temporary strategy, rather than a solution to the testing leviathan. She talked about grade-span testing as a viable alternative to mandated testing in grades 3-8. None of these ideas--from selective, voluntary use of Common Core Standards to returning to grade-span testing-- would ring the chimes of most public education activists, who would see them as selling out, not getting what you want, halfway measures.
From a pragmatic point of view, however, they might be small victories. And they might keep the momentum of preserving public education moving forward. I love bold and clear-cut visions. And I defend gotcha questions, especially when they’re aimed at high-profile leaders in education and policy-making.
But Organizing 101 is all about keeping focus on the central goal. I want to be able to disagree and deconstruct and diverge on issues, while linking arms with defenders of public education. Truly public education, that is, not using public money to leave difficult kids behind or give a bright young thing a resume'-boosting job.
The Network for Public Education conference felt more unified around that goal than any meeting I’ve been to. Ever. So--all good. Next year, 1000 people. Snowball rolling downhill.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.