Pushing for Public Education

Superintendent H.T. Sanchez and other Tucsonans went to Austin to organize the fight to save public schools

Being pro-public school doesn't seem like a controversial notion. But at a time when Arizona's superintendent of public instruction lends his voice to a robocall pushing vouchers ("You may be able to send your child to private school for free!") and charters, a public-private hybrid, are all the rage, advocating for preserving and improving our public school system rather than dismantling it can sound downright radical.

That's why attending the Network for Public Education conference in Austin, Texas, the first weekend in March felt like entering an alternative education universe. It was a full-throated celebration of public schools, which a keynote speaker called "our trust fund; our nest egg."

Eight Tucson-area residents joined the 400-plus attendees at the conference, including Robin Hiller, who is Executive Director of NPE (she also heads Tucson's Voices for Education), and TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez. In the course of keynote speeches as well as in 30 panels and workshops spread over six sessions, participants condemned vouchers unreservedly. Charters, at best, were viewed warily, and high-stakes testing was denounced for turning our schools into "testing factories." One student wore a T-shirt pleading, "Don't test me, bro!"

The term "education reform" was disparaged at the conference—not because the attendees are anti-reform, but because the term has been co-opted by the conservative-led school privatization movement.

"We're not against reform," said Julian Vasquez Heilig, an associate professor of educational policy and planning at the University of Texas, during his talk that opened the conference. "We want to reform the 'reformers.'"

Hiller sat on a panel looking into the "opt out" movement, where parents refuse to let their children take high-stakes tests and teachers defy their districts by refusing to administer the tests. TUSD's Sanchez participated in a panel with other superintendents discussing the challenges of "leading schools and districts in an era of high-stakes accountability." (I was on of a panel that looked into charter schools, virtual schools and vouchers.)

Though a major thrust of the conference was the fight against the "education reform/school choice" agenda, the atmosphere was more upbeat than negative. It felt like a gathering of the progressive education tribes. K-12 teachers and administrators, university scholars and parents from around the country who had heard of one another's efforts and had read each other's news articles and blog posts met face to face for the first time. The overriding feeling at the conference was, "We're not alone."

Hiller found the experience energizing. "People here have seen the bylines and read the articles and blog posts," she said as she looked around the auditorium on Sunday morning. "Now we can put faces and voices together with those bylines."

Sanchez was impressed by the positive energy. "This isn't a gathering of angry people," he told me. "These are people who want public schools to be the best they can be. But at the same time, the conference allowed me to understand how wide and deep the frustration is with people who want to bring down public education."

The Network for Public Education is only a year old, but in that short time it has developed a large national following. One of its goals, according to co-founder Anthony Cody, is "to endorse candidates who support public education. We don't have a litmus test. Being in favor of educating our children in the community isn't a left wing idea."

For most of the participants at the conference, though, NPE is the center of a grass-roots movement, a virtual gathering place and educational clearinghouse for a growing number of people who are speaking out against what many refer to as the "corporate reform" agenda. The organization sends out daily email blasts and Facebook posts alerting its members to the most important education news and ideas around the country. 

Diane Ravitch, who gave Sunday's keynote address to thunderous applause and standing ovations, is NPE's superstar. She's an education researcher and historian whose trajectory parallels changes in the education landscape over the past 40 years. In the 1970s, Ravitch wrote about education from a mildly progressive/liberal perspective, but she grew impatient with the slow pace of educational progress. When the first President Bush took office in 1989, Ravitch was asked to serve as assistant secretary of education research, where she advocated for the "education reform" she now rails against. She helped the second President Bush implement No Child Left Behind.

But as she took a long, careful look at the agenda she was promoting, she realized the data showed it was failing. Worse, it was hurting our children and damaging our system of education. In 2010, Ravitch published The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Last year, she followed with Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. Both books are considered required reading for people wanting an analysis of the failures of the conservative "education reform" movement.  Ravitch also details the strategies, inside and outside of schools, that she believes will strengthen education for all our children.

NPE is a mostly volunteer organization. Marshaling the talents of educators and parents, it has created a dynamic website and a professional appearance, but it runs on a shoestring. The organization recently held a fundraising drive and brought in a little more than $20,000, which helped pay for the conference. To put that figure in context, the Walton Foundation, funded by the Walmart fortune, spent $164 million on "Systemic K-12 Education Reform" in 2013 alone (the Arizona Charter Schools Association received $600,000), and the Walton Foundation is only one of many deep-pocketed groups funding the charter/voucher/privatization push.

Despite the huge funding disparity, Ravitch is optimistic that the movement NPE represents will prevail. "We are not outgunned," she said in her keynote speech. "We are outspent, but we are many and they are few. We will win."

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