Monday, August 20, 2012

So You Say You Like Parent Empowerment? Careful What You Wish For...

All the hype around the coming release of a heart-wrenching, pro-privatization film "Won't Back Down" has got me thinking.  I completely agree with all the bloggers and activists calling out the false premise of the film as well as exposing the true agendas (See Jersey Jazzman's here, Rita Solnet via Valerie Strauss here, and Diane Ravitch here among others.)

An activist friend of mine recently tweeted:
Recognize: When/if parents+teachers organize real progressive community control struggles Corp WBD folks-"not what we meant!" 

Ah-ha!  All this talk about parent empowerment is a fantastic chance to seize the moment away from the corporate reformers and speak to real reform efforts.  Afterall, parents' and teachers' motivations are very closely aligned: quality, equitable, learning conditions meeting all children's needs.  Let the reformers with their big glossy Hollywood films get the people riled up and then educate folks so that they push for true democratic reforms which give actual voice to parents and push for policies which actually help children.  

Perhaps we can set up discussion groups after showings of the movie giving parents, community members, and interested persons a chance to speak about their vision of great public education. Of course we would be sure to present the actual facts behind the movie as well but also open the door to true collaboration.  This terrible movie would certainly open the door to more conversations.

I also think we need to start a letter/twitter/facebook campaign petitioning Michael Moore to make a documentary exposing education reform.  Enough of these Hollywood blockbusters like Waiting for Superman and WBD, let's get some REAL info out there!

At the end of the day, any way we can twist this twisted tale back into true grassroots possibility seems like a good idea to me! Instead of demanding charter schools and turnarounds, what if parents stormed the Boards and statehouses demanding true equitable funding?  What if enough parents were riled up that they held sit-ins until a library was placed in every school (like the parents at Whittier did)? What if hundreds of thousands were so inspired they took to the streets alongside all the people already out there?  And what about students getting so mad they all held sit-ins (like the students at Social Justice High School recently did) and walk-outs until we force actual change.

Any other ideas on how we could turn this propaganda into momentum?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Choosing Solidarity not "Choice"

I've been reading UIC professor Pauline Lipman's book The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism,Race, and the Right to the City. I have long been a fan of Dr. Lipman and have seen her at multiple education events around Chicago. She is a fantastic example of an academic/activist: someone who uses her research and expert knowledge to affect change through real grassroots movements.

In her chapter on "Choice and Empowerment" she does a great job of framing the reasons many progressive teachers and parents are drawn to charter schools. The truth is that many neighborhood schools, primarily schools in low-income neighborhoods of color, have been historically and chronically disinvested in. Add to that over a decade of top-down "accountability" measures which have effectively removed autonomy, creativity, and passion from teaching. She calls the choice of some progressive teachers to move to charters a "moral crisis" (p. 130) where they understand they contribute to a larger problem but still feel they have no other options: 

Some teachers working in social justice oriented charters also talk about a "moral dilemma."  They know charter schools are part of the neoliberal restructuring of public education which undermines the public interest and produces educational inequalities. They feel complicit in this process yet guard the space for teaching that they believe in a and a context of ideological support and collaboration of like-minded colleagues.  As one teacher put it, "I know charter schools are bad for public education, but I could never teach like this in CPS." (p. 131-132)

Parents which she interviewed also speak to the desire for better resources like smaller classes, more arts (in some select charters), more technology.  These parents "did not claim ideological allegiance to school markets or privatization.  Their choice of a charter school was tactical, pragmatic" (p. 135)  Parents, rightfully-so, want the best for their children.

The truth is that both the teacher's desire for autonomy and flexibility and the parents desire for greater educational opportunities afforded by greater resources are all possible in traditional public schools.  So this begs the question, "why not allow ALL schools this type of autonomy coupled with full-funding?"  Here is where the resistance to corporate education reform is coming to a head.

If education reformers are going to promote "choice" off the claim that the "status quo" is insufficient (which in low-income communities, no one is disagreeing) then they must first give the full resources and autonomy granted to charters to the neighborhood schools.  This purposeful starving of neighborhood schools and strangling of creative best teaching practices has become too obvious to ignore, even by the most "pro-choice" advocates.

The obvious "choice" to fund charters, selective-enrollment, and magnet schools over neighborhood schools in the current CPS budget is exactly why so many parents, teachers, and activists came out to actively call-out CPS during these school budget hearings.  It is not fair.  Not to the teachers, the parents, and certainly not to the kids.  Parents and activists planned a large-scale protest for the scheduled Facilities Task Force meeting where CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was scheduled to speak. I, along with countless others, had planned to attend until the event was unexpectedly canceled due to "security concerns".  Our city's leader of the school system is literally afraid of the growing voice of resistance to CPS' corporate-dominated plan to expand charters while underfunding neighborhood schools.

In my opinion, this growing tide of resistance must continue to demand equal access and freedom to create community-centered, democratically-run neighborhood schools.  They must continue to demand the funds to implement a community's school vision.  But we need more support, especially from the charters and turnarounds which CPS and the Mayor are using as hammers to smash neighborhood schools around the city.  Members of the charters and turnarounds should join in this fight so as not to be complicit in the destruction of opportunity for many children and families in disenfranchised communities everywhere.  Charters must no longer be used to divide us in our shared struggle.

 I call on parents, teachers, and students in the charters to stand in solidarity with your neighborhood school counterparts.   I ask for teachers in the charter schools to actively write, speak publicly (when possible-I know most are not protected by union protections), and advocate for the types of services, resources, and autonomy which supports great teaching.  I also urge them to speak out about the corporate practices and cost-cutting measures in too many school which undermine teaching and learning. It is important that we remain a united front committed to getting funding and flexibility in ALL schools for ALL kids while pushing for freedom of dissent and fair-work practices for all.

This need for solidarity and acknowledgement of the greater unfair politics behind the charter movement will become increasing important as CPS and the CTU move towards a possible strike.  Charter school teachers, parents, and students will you be willing to support your brothers and sisters if they are forced to walk the picket line?  Will you speak to the media when the first headlines come out saying you agree in their need to strike if CPS does not address the major inequities in the system?  Will you resist the ways CPS and Mayor Emanuel will point to your schools as examples while they never acknowledge policies which undermine the neighborhood schools?  Will you do all that is in your power to support public education in our city and our country?

In a time where we are taught to be consumers first, to aggressively go and "get yours" before looking at your neighbor, I call on all of us who fight for quality, equitable education to change the discourse.  Let all educators stand united-brother and sister-in the fight for great schools for every child.  Acknowledge that is it access to resources and autonomy which draws many to the charters and then fight for that for all teachers.  Meanwhile, the unionized teachers of Chicago will fight for YOU to have protections from arbitrary firings and for workplaces which do not demand unsustainable work loads and additional duties due to cost-cutting or corporate greed.  And surely all parents can unite in the battle for quality, fully-funded schools with low class sizes, comprehensive curricula filled with music, art, gym, and world language, recess, and creative, fun, responsive teaching not centered around standardized tests and threats of punishment.

I have been hard on charter schools and alternative certification programs like Teach for America on this blog.  But I promise, if you come and support public education with me and my colleagues around the country, I don't care if you come from a charter or TFA or wherever.  (Be assured, I will keep pushing back on you if your claim your organizations are better or ignore the unfair differences teaching in different settings thanks to current neoliberal education policies.)  But if you march with me, rally with me, speak out about the true causes for struggling schools (poverty, deliberate inequality, racism and NOT "bad teachers" or their unions) then we are united. 

I highly recommend Dr. Lipman's book.  I also applaud her for being both an academic and an activist.  She is an example to all who fight for social justice.  Will you join the fight alongside people like her? 

Do Parents Know What They Are Choosing With "School Choice"?

The other day, I was speaking with the administrative assistant for my floor at the psychiatric hospital where I work.  She happens to be a charter school parent. I've never really spoken to her about my views on charters, since I understand that the neighborhood schools in her area are woefully underresourced and under attack.

Still, a few months ago, I saw that her child's school was in the news.  Apparently, the charter school where her 12-year old daughter attends, is not performing well.  So, in true ed reform fashion, the charter school board decided to change charter management operators (again) and to perform a "turnaround" on the four failing schools (See this Tribune article  and also, former charter school teacher Seth Lavin breaks it down here saying "My point is that we, the reformers, are a disaster as a movement if we’re radically changing our own radical changes months after they start and, in the process, tossing students from school regime to school regime like an airline rebooking someone’s flight.")  When I questioned my colleague about this big change, she answered, "Oh my daughter had mentioned that many of her teachers were being laid off.  I told her to stop telling lies.  Why would a school tell the kids about lay-offs like that?  But I guess she was right.  I'm going to have to apologize to her when I get home."

This parent had no knowledge about the happenings at her child's school.  And this woman is an excellent parent, both she and her husband are very involved in their children's lives.  But the school obviously did a horrible job keeping parents informed and engaged.

I went on to ask if her daughter had ever had an uncertified teacher. My colleague looked shocked saying, "I thought all teachers are certified."  I explained that schools like her daughters often use teachers from alternative certification programs like Teach for America, and that it's possible her child's teacher was not only uncertified, but had never worked with children in any capacity before entering that classroom.  She was horrified.  "Well, I am going to ask about her teacher next year. I had no idea."

If we live in an educational world where "choice" is prized above all else, surely parents have a right to fully understand exactly what "choice" they are making.  I find it unconscionable that organizations like Teach for America went to Congress to lobby for their untrained novices to be labeled as "highly-qualified".  Parents should at least be notified that their child's teacher has not completed a training program.  Frankly, if TFA is so confident in their novices' abilities, a simple letter home stating they have not completed their training should not be an issue.  Yet they spend their money lobbying to hide their recruits' certification status.  And when it comes to something as major as a school "turnaround" shouldn't parents have some sort of input or voice?  It's possible there were such events, but if an involved parent like the one I work with didn't know anything about it, and had to read about the changes in a Tribune article, then the school is not doing a good job of communicating.
It seems to me that charter proponents spend a lot more time and energy on the promotional/marketing side than on actually creating great schools.  "Looking good" becomes more important than actually "being good".   The current parent trigger fiascoes also demonstrate the idea of "looking good"--saying nice words like "parent empowerment" and "parent voice"--while actually turning schools into places with far less parent and public input.  Corporate-run schools like the charter in Chicago can do whatever they darn well please.  And my colleague's only way to "voice" her displeasure would be to remove her child from the school. 

These charter school parents are being given a false promise.  Like all parents, they want what's best for their kids.  And when all the resources and media-hype are being showered on the charters, I fully understand why a parent would choose to send their child to one of these schools.  Still, parents should know about the shortcuts the school takes.  They should know if their child's teacher is certified.  They should have input in whether or not a school is closed or gets "turned around".  At least in Chicago's neighborhood schools, parents can sit on Local School Councils.  Although far from a perfect system--especially since any school "on probation" has far fewer rights--at least, in theory, elected parent representatives can vote on budgets and principal hirings/firings.   And, not that it means much to an appointed school board, but at least--by law--CPS has to allow parent/community input before voting on major school actions like turnarounds or school closures.  But charter school parents do not get to share in any of the hard-won rights resulting from decades of struggle here in Chicago.

This exchange with my co-worker left me once again convinced that we need to fight for transparency in the truths behind corporate school reform.  One of the greatest forms of activism is simply to expose practices and ulterior motives of the pro-privatization crowd.  Behind the civil-rights rhetoric is something scary and wrong.  So let's continue to speak truth to power.