In a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, Bill Keller notes that the 1989 fatwa against author Salmon Rushdie was never about religion, but about political advantage. Similarly, argues Keller, the present upheaval in the Middle East over a “cheesy anti-Muslim video” is neither spontaneous nor religiously-motivated, but political organized.
I have been thinking the same thing about the apparently bipartisan effort to “reform” the schools that seems to have begun with No Child Left Behind but that probably must be traced back to A Nation at Risk and even to Sputnik and the National Defense Education Act in the late 1950s. It’s not about the schools; it’s about politics. It’s not about lack of student achievement or about the need for choice; it’s about securing political dominance for a peculiar version of a conservative political position.
I thought this long before Rachel Maddow went on the air to highlight campaign finance and the role that teachers unions play in getting candidates of an apparently liberal or moderate stripe elected. Nonetheless, her data make it easier to make sense of the politics of school reform.
One wonders how self-proclaimed liberals (Barack Obama, for one example; Democrats for Educational Reform, for another) got tangled up in this and why they don’t see what they are supporting and how they are being used. I suspect they are blinded by their abiding belief in their own goodness and efficacy (a defining trait of those who participate in Teach for America, for example). They really do believe that if THEY create schools that are similar in every way to public schools (curriculum, one teacher-one classroom, test score mania – I’m really having a hard time figuring out what the “re-form” is), those schools will be better just because THEY are the ones running them.
So here I sit in Tennessee where the unions are so eviscerated that a teacher being sexually harassed by a colleague can’t even file a grievance against a principal who won’t follow his own SOP and report the incident. And I’m watching the aftermath of the Chicago Teacher Strike and the upcoming election in Idaho that will determine the efficacy of the teachers union.
Teacher unions are like every other social, political and economic institution. Some have great leaders, leaders that are smart and good; others have not-so-good leaders -- smart but not good, good but not smart, neither smart nor good. This doesn’t make unions bad or even unnecessary. But unions, with or without good leaders, are perceived as a “problem” for those who view them as organized political opposition. And so there is money, lots of it, to support those who bring to school “reform” enormous energy in the service of the same old strategy repackaged into charter schools, but no real ideas about how to reconstruct the way we educate.
The sad thing is that charter schools could be incubators of experimentation (and a few are!) Charter schools could be the places where we test the usefulness of a whole wave of intriguing educational research. But they won’t be as long as their most substantial support comes from those motivated by a desire to eviscerate democratic dialogue.