By Ruth Conniff
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Deep in the heart of Texas, in the very center of what public-school advocate Diane Ravitch called the "education-industrial complex," public-school activists from every corner of the United States met last weekend to launch a nationwide movement to defend public education against corporate takeover and phony, test-driven "reform."
The Network for Public Education, founded by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody, met for the first time in Austin on March 1 and 2 to sound the alarm about high-stakes testing, mass school closures, and the corporate take-over of public education, and to rally a nationwide movement to resist.
Karen Lewis, the dynamic president of the Chicago Teachers Union joined Texas school superintendent John Kuhn on stage at the Lyndon Johnson museum at the University of Texas, to give a barn-burning joint keynote address:
"There could not be two more different people on the planet," Lewis said. "John Kuhn is a white male. I am a black woman. John Kuhn has worked as a Christian missionary, and I am a recently bat mitzvahed Jew. John Kuhn is management. Karen Lewis is labor. But I am going to tell you that what we have in common are the values [that] make this country great."
Those values, Kuhn said, are what led the Chicago teachers out on strike to fight not for themselves or even for their schools, but "to keep the fading light of democracy burning, and to fend off a new generation of robber barons."
School closings, a "test-and-punish" model of education reform that labels high-poverty districts as "failing" and invites their takeover by private companies, and the replacement of democratically elected school boards with "CEO's" are among the threats to the basic, democratic institution of public education, Kuhn and Lewis pointed out.
"Where do we go for redress of our grievances once we've surrendered our elected school boards and our constitutional guarantees?" Kuhn asked. "Do we march into the board room of a charter management group or some foundation?"
"School reform, the way it's being presented, is only backed by the assurances and sweet words of the American corporate elite and their spokespeople," Kuhn added. "But the public education system is backed by the full faith and credit of us, the people of each state."
"Public education is our trust fund," Kuhn said. "It's our nest egg. It belongs to us and our kids and our kids' kids."
"They can't take it away from us without a fight," he added, "because we love our kids more than they love their portfolios."
Local pro-public-school activists from Seattle to Newark, from New Orleans, Providence, and Milwaukee, and many other communities, compared notes on their battles to save their local schools from privatization, over-testing, and closure.
California teacher and author Anthony Cody, who, along with Diane Ravitch, founded the Network, invoked the civil rights movement in his opening address. "We fought for public education to fulfill its promise," Cody said. "We can't let it die on our watch."
"Let's not fool ourselves. When we go along with what's happening, there's a point at which we're doing serious harm to children," said Deborah Meier, longtime teacher and education scholar (and the person who persuaded Diane Ravitch to rethink her position as a No Child Left Behind advocate when she was assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush.)
Bob Peterson, the head of the Milwaukee teacher's union, gave a rollicking description of the Wisconsin protests of 2011, after Governor Scott Walker's assault on teachers and other public employees' collective bargaining rights. The walk-out by teachers and students, and the massive marches that included cops, firefighters, and middle-class Wisconsinites from all over the state, showed how ready people are to defend democracy, the public schools, and the American middle class, Peterson said.
"We need to build schoolhouses that are centers of resistance and renaissance for our communities," said Peterson.
Katie Osgood, a Chicago teacher, described her realization that school policy in Chicago was "deliberately sabotaging our schools."
Teachers are resisting school closings in Chicago, as well as a stripped-down, test-based curriculum, Osgood said, because "we know the kids who are affected by these policies by name."
"We are used, as teachers, to being the ones who follow directions," Karen Lewis said. But in this case, "the directions are unethical."
Teacher-bashing, and tying teacher performance to standardized tests, has created a climate of fear Lewis said teachers, parents, and community members must band together to resist.
"It is hard to organize people who are living in fear," she said.
But Lewis and her comrades in Chicago have done just that.
Mike Klonsky, the education scholar and blogger in Chicago, pointed out that, in polls "parents support the teachers union 3-to-1 over Rahm Emanuel."
Jitu Brown, a neighborhood organizer and activist on the South Side, described the passionate community commitment to the struggle to save neighborhood schools, including one family that sat in at a Chicago school building slated for closure, even when the police came and sat on top of them.
"A movement is built by people who feel like that," he said.
"When your baby or grandbaby goes out the door with that bookbag on, and you kiss that baby -- at that moment we're all the same," said Brown.
But the current package of education "reforms" exacerbates inequality, Kuhn pointed out, calling it "the relentless campaign to increase expectations while reducing resources."
"The corporate elite plan a wonderful, creative education system for their own children, and a militaristic, stripped-down schools for other people's children." said Lewis. And then they have the temerity to call this system "the civil-rights issue of our time," she added, looking incredulous.
Diane Ravitch closed out the conference with a call to arms.
"I'm angry to see powerful billionaires beat up on teachers who make less than their secretary," she said.
"I'm furious the Democratic Party has merged with the Republican Party around the Republican Party's agenda for education," she added.
"We are, through charter schools, rolling back the Brown decision," Ravitch added. "That's wrong."
Instead of creating a segregated, two-tier education system that allows private companies to cash in on public education funds, "every dollar from the taxpayer should go to public schools," Ravitch said. "For-profit schools should be banned."
Ravitch thanked the students, parents, administrators, teachers, investigative reporters and education researchers all over they country who are building a new movement of resistance to the corporate raid on schools.
The list went on and on. Among the 500 attendees at the conference, the variety of ages, races, and accents were testimony to the broad-based movement Ravitch described taking shape.
"We will win," Ravitch said, "because we are many and they are few."
"We will win," she said, "because they are going to get bored and go back to their yachts and polo ponies. They're hedge fund managers. They hate losing."
"Call them losers every chance you get," Ravitch said wickedly. "They hate that."