I spent the weekend in Indianapolis at the fifth annual Network for Public Education Conference, both uplifting and disturbing.
Hundreds of teachers, parents, activists, elected officials, all dedicated supporters of public education sharing stories, both uplifting stories of how small groups of dedicated, caring sophisticated teams of teacher unions, parents and community activists can make a difference and begin to turn the tide, and, in other locations, how the forces of privatization, charter schools, “portfolio” models are unrelenting in their assault on public education.
The weekend alternated between speakers and workshops.
Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator described the worldwide attack on public education, Pasi has dubbed the movement GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement.
Finland should be a model for our nation, at least for states within our nation. The education system in Finland: no standardized tests, local autonomy, well-paid teachers and students at the top of the list on international lists. Yes, Finland is small, 5.5 million in a nation the size of Montana, very few immigrants, income equality, teachers selected from the top 10% of college graduates, free public education from pre-K through your PhD. .
I digress, we have a very long way to go to emulate Finland; however, Pasi was presenting how the worldwide assault on public education, in nation after nation, attempts to privatize education are waning. We still have a long uphill struggle; we are beginning to turn the corner.
Diane, in her keynote speech, described the theme of her new book, due on bookshelves next year, watch Diane’s remarks here. Diane is an optimist, she sees us beginning to win the war on public education. In her inimitable writing style she will skewer the despoilers with facts and logic.
Derrick Johnson, the new president of the NAACP, a dynamic speaker urged the audience to participate, to vote, to organize, and to realize, in the words of Frederick Douglas,
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground … This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
After forums around the nation the NAACP called for a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools until charter school information is totally transparent. and a wide range of other school initiatives are achieved. Read NAACP report here.
In addition to the keynote speakers there were dozens of workshops and panels, some truly inspirational and other troubling.
The Indianapolis Public Schools Community Coalition is struggling against a tsunami of privatization of public schools, Teachers, parents, faith-based leaders and activists are fighting against richly funded privateers, and the future of public schools in Indianapolis is in danger.
In Kansas City (Missouri) the superintendent, Dr. Mark Bedell is leading a coalition to reinvigorate public schools. KC is one of many cities with declining populations, declining industry, increasing unemployment, and increasing numbers of charter schools; the KC school population has declined precipitously, currently 26,000 students 14,00 in public schools in 12,000 in charter schools. The public schools coalition and a public school dominated school board are advocating at the state level, they were impressive, well-organized and a model for “fighting back.”
In a facilitated discussion of urban school districts we listened to an officer of the Los Angeles teacher union, on the verge of a strike. The LA elected school board hired a businessman with no education experience as superintendent who is pushing for a citywide portfolio model pushing to weaken the union, in a city currently overrun with charter schools.
Chicago continues to fight school closings and attacks on teacher rights. To say the least, it was troubling.
I met leader of a Nova Scotia (Canada) teacher union; Nova Scotia is poor, and getting poorer and faced with closing schools, inadequate funding and a ripe climate for charter schools, only Alberta currently have charter schools. Among the poorest sectors are Afro-Canadians, whose ancestors were loyalists, slaves freed by the British during the revolutionary war who fled to Canada. The union president feared that his province was ripe for charter schools.
I spoke with brave teachers from Oklahoma, who risked their jobs to strike, the salary, benefits and schools in Oklahoma are abysmal, with decision-making dominated by the wealthiest. In state after state anti-public school forces influence legislative decisions, in too many states dominate state legislatures.
New York City is a bubble, a favorable mayor, a powerful union, a new contract with many teacher empowering sections, proof that all politics is local and elections have consequences.
I left Indianapolis impressed with the brave people, teachers, parents and community folk, who are fighting the good fight.
For me, teacher unions are the core of the battle, listen to Billy Bragg,
And a wonderful updated version from a friend, it’s really good, give it s listen