Opponents of current reform trends in education (and even just those with some skepticism) have had few ways to get their messages out in the past decade. While charter school chains have found wealthy investors and enthusiastic politicians, public school teachers have traditionally relied upon their unions to publicly advocate on their behalf. However, until very recently both the AFT and the NEA have openly supported reforms such as the Common Core State Standards despite rank and file concerns, and both unions offered endorsements to Democratic candidates who have openly courted the same money that has backed charter school expansion, CCSS and evaluating teachers by high stakes tests, many teacher concerns have had limited means to reach the public. Add to that a media that has seemed completely incapable of asking a single teacher about the combination of reform forces that have potential to greatly damage public education, it has been lonely work to try to raise alarms.
That may be changing.
First, there are some in the media actually asking hard questions about how such a narrow slate of characters have managed to push nearly all 50 states in the same curriculum direction without having a robust public debate. The luster of charter schools as the proposed cure all for urban education is coming under question with more and more reporting of the opportunists who have rushed into the poorly regulated sector of education. As Common Core has begun to reach classrooms with plans to begin mass testing of students and to implement value added measures for teacher evaluations, union leaders have backed away from initial support of the standards themselves. They are joined by a small but growing movement of parents at the grassroots who are choosing to “opt out” their children from the increasing testing regimen that has characterized education reform of the past decade and a half.
These are all developments that promise to change the direction of our education reform discourse. But it is likely not enough. Proponents of Common Core, mass testing, test-based teacher evaluations and the rapid expansion of charter schools have the ears of major media figures, federal and state governments and are able to call upon deep pocketed allies to pummel those who try to slow down their goals. Eva Moskowitz’s allies unleashed more than 3 million dollars in a 3 week advertising blitz against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio when he dared give her only 80 percent of what she wanted. They also seem to recruit new front people easily — former NBC and CNN personality Campbell Brown has joined Michelle Rhee’s campaign against teacher job protections by taking the Vergara lawsuit on its first cross country tour to New York.
The balance of voices is changing.
The AFT announced the formation of a new lobbying group, Democrats for Public Education that will be chaired by former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and DNC vice-chair Donna Brazile. Ms. Brazile addressed the AFT convention:
Why does this change the balance? For starters, it says that the leadership of America’s teacher unions is pivoting from hoping that reforms will be both disruptive AND productive to realizing that many reforms threaten the very nature of public education. More importantly? It provides media allies for defending public schools and their students and teachers. Although the research on many reform efforts’ problematic outcomes is solid and growing, voice and access has been much slower. What does Donna Brazile bring that academic research and the concerns of parents and classroom teachers does not? Access. Ms. Brazile’s phone calls get returned. Mr. Strickland and Ms. Granholm are known in all 50 state capitols and Washington. While Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and pro-reform politicians have had the media’s ears all to themselves and have, to date, successfully portrayed their opponents as not caring about kids, now there is an organization headlined by well-connected and well-known allies to provide the alternative perspective. In an age of media driven by sound bites 24/7, that matters.
How did Democrats for Education Reform, the hedge-fund financed group that has donated to numerous Democrats in exchange for support of charter school expansion, respond to the announcement? “Welcome to the jungle, baby” was it.
Think about that for a second. They could have written about welcoming a public debate. They could have written about their “disappointment” that such prominent people could not see the value of their ideas, but that they look forward to engaging the public. They could have written a spirited defense of charter school innovation for students.
Instead, they offer what could be Gordon Gekko’s back-up tag phrase. Someone is either arrogant or worried — and someone is not thinking about the kids first and foremost.