Sunday, March 24, 2013

Issue #106 March 24, 2013- April Elections, Resisting School Reform

April 2nd Elections Looming…
We are only about a week away from the April 2nd elections.  There are a number of important races that will be decided and everyone's participation is needed.  We know that spring elections are usually low turnout, so every vote will be even more important.  The ironic thing is that, while more people cast ballots in presidential elections, it is these local races that tend to have a greater impact on the individuals in specific communities.  So get informed, get involved and get to the polls (either on April 2nd, or vote early).

There are two major state wide races.  Both have significance in the continuing fight over the future of public education in Wisconsin.  In the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers faces Don Pridemore.  Evers is the best choice in this contest.  He has experience, and is an advocate for public schools.  Pridemore is inexperienced and appears to be a mouthpiece for the "reform" and voucher movement.  He might be a good selection to lobby for privatization, but not to lead Wisconsin's Department of PUBLIC Instruction. 

The second state race is for a seat on the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.  This race features Ed Fallone against Pat Roggensack.  Once again there is a clear difference between the two candidates with Roggensack firmly in the conservative camp.  She is getting significant support from conservative organizations and represents the movement in Wisconsin to consolidate power in the hands of the GOP majority.

On the local level, there are three seats up for election on the Madison School Board. 

Seat #3- Dean Loumas vs. Wayne Strong
Seat #4 James Howard vs. Greg Packnett
Seat #5 TJ Mertz vs. the now out of the race Sarah Manski

While there are many issues facing the MMSD and the school board will be at the center of all the decisions made, the most important issue of all is the commitment of any elected board member to defending public education.  We can debate curriculum, we can disagree about testing and data driven reforms, and we can have conflicting visions of how best to address the many challenges that face our schools, however we can't afford to elect anyone who isn't fully committed to public education.  Someone who supports vouchers or any type of privatization should not be a school board member, making decisions about our public schools.  Voters must pay close attention to the comments, backgrounds and connections that candidates have and choose wisely in these races. 

The race for Dane County Circuit Court features Rhonda Lanford versus Rebecca St. John.  Lanford is a strong candidate who doesn't have the unsettling baggage that St. John brings with her.  St. John has connections with conservatives who are tied to the Walker administration.  It is important that we have qualified and impartial judges to provide fair, legally supported and ethical judgments.  Rhonda Lanford provides the best choice for Circuit Court Judge in Dane County.  

Organize for the Future…
It is safe to say that there has never been a time in human history when people have had more access to information so quickly and in such volume.  Most of us are never more than a second or two away from resources that provide us with up to the minute news about virtually any topic imaginable.  This access to information allows us to inform ourselves and others about important issues and to share opinions quickly, reaching more people than anyone could imagine just a few years ago.   

However, information is a double-edged sword in many ways.  As an educator I find it difficult to argue against anyone becoming more informed and accessing as much information as possible.  Yet, at the same time this vast amount of information threatens to overwhelm us and often creates a sense of hopelessness and frustration.  We are inundated with images and stories that, too often, demonstrate the negative aspects of human nature.  Leaving us with the idea that the world is a hostile place and one that we can have little effect on.  

You can feel this hopelessness in many ways as people withdraw into "safer" corners of the world and seek to shut others out.  Instead of building community, we see some arming themselves and increasing the barriers between people.  Instead of supporting public institutions we see a movement to privatize services and to exclude others so that a small number can feel secure.  We see organizations and institutions pulling back and becoming conservative in order to preserve resources and to keep functioning, even when these cuts are counterproductive and even harmful to those who rely on them.      

With all of the access to information and the ability to get a sense of public opinion quickly there is still a sense of disenfranchisement felt by a large portion of the people.  We also see an effort being made to manipulate public opinion and to generate fear through the way specific demographic groups and certain organizations are portrayed.  The protests in Wisconsin were called "mobs", the Chicago Teachers Union earned the label of "thugs" (one proudly carried by Wisconsin educators as well).  Extensive damage was done to the state capital in Madison and the normal operations of a city were disrupted by hordes of educators in Chicago.  The list of negative imagery used to describe those fighting for progressive values is virtually limitless. 

We also see the challenge of sorting through the vast amount of information to find accurate information.  Public opinion is manipulated through words, but also through the use of data and "facts".  These "facts" vary based on the source and the way that they are used.  We have watched the job numbers in Wisconsin fluctuate more than anyone could ever have thought possible, with multiple sources quoted and the data altered beyond recognition.  The numbers and "facts" become a part of the argument and are used even when later proven incorrect.  Apparently, despite claims to the contrary, Wisconsin isn't really "Open for Business".    

As the struggle continues it becomes more and more difficult for individuals to speak out against the wrongs that are being done in the name of "balancing the budget" and "preserving American values".  Now, more than ever, we need the support of others to work to move our society in a more socially just direction.  It is vitally important that those of us with the connections, the knowledge and the ability to act do just that, act in the defense of those who are silenced and act in the name of a society that is truly "Of the People, by the People and for the People."      

Defending Public Education…
We have reached a critical period in the evolution of public education in Wisconsin.  It is difficult to find a time when public schools faced more significant challenges to their existence.  Wisconsin appears poised to follow the patterns established in other states around the nation in opening our educational system to privatization initiatives.  The proposed expansion of the voucher system into new districts across the state threatens public education to the very core.  We don't have to look too far away to see what happens when the education "reform" movement gets a chance to operate.

It is important that we do everything possible to resist the ability of private schools to access public money.  The simple reality is that the privatization of schools has very little to do with improving educational outcomes for students.  It is all about accessing the financial opportunities that educational enterprises offer for entrepreneurs, and reestablishing the dominance of the elite over the rest of the population.  An elite that sees their power threatened by the increasing diversity in America's population and the wave of anti-establishment activism generated by the Wisconsin Uprising, the Occupy Movement and other similar efforts. 
It is clear that there is a concerted effort being made to undermine the public's trust in our educational system and to play on the fears of the white, male citizens who face a future where they will be in the minority.  The established "normal" is threatened by the changing demographics and the continuing efforts of those previously disenfranchised to exercise their rights to equal opportunity.  Controlling education not only provides financial opportunity, but also is a tried and true way to keep "others" in their place in society.  

One way to achieve their goals of undermining trust in public education is to make it appear that our schools are failing and need to be "reformed" or even totally replaced.  The current wave of testing and standards serves the multiple purposes of supposedly improving education, drawing attention to the "failures" of our public schools, while highlighting the struggles of specific groups.  Drawing attention to Achievement Gaps isn't done to improve the opportunities for the groups affected, but rather to divide and conquer groups that otherwise might find common cause in protecting public education.  Why else do we find the supposedly superior "reforms" mostly enacted in schools serving the urban poor and not in suburban schools?  Why else have private, voucher schools tried to avoid sharing information on their demographics and academic results (that don't compare favorably to the public schools).         

When it comes to defending public education there are many possible alliances that could be forged.  Unfortunately, we have lost control of a significant amount of the debate in the media and other public forums.  This can be seen in the fact that while most people involved in public education on a professional level (educators, school boards, administrators) are against the expansion of vouchers, the general public's opinion is mixed and many feel like they need more information.  We need to reclaim the debate and take the offensive in the battle over vouchers specifically and public education in general.

I am realizing more and more, just what it means to be an educator and to belong to a union that represents public educators.  This is more than just an issue of protecting wages, benefits and working conditions.  It is about defending an institution that, while not perfect, provides the best opportunity for the most people to receive a quality education that they can use to improve themselves, their immediate personal circle and society as a whole.  We have an obligation to speak out for ourselves, but more importantly for the families we serve.      

In some ways it may be too late to stop the expansion of vouchers.  School "reformers" have the ear of many legislators and certainly have the support of Governor Walker who sees this as an excellent opportunity to not only cement his alliances with powerful allies, but also to strike another blow to public sector unions in Wisconsin.  However, we must continue to share the facts about voucher schools and let the public know the reality of what is happening.  We must also work to make sure that we connect with those who currently send their children to public schools.  We may not be able to halt the legislation, but we can certainly do everything possible to make public schools a more attractive alternative to vouchers.  What if, when given a choice, most people chose public schools and voucher schools were left empty?

Now is the time to form alliances, establish communication and develop relationships that will allow us to defend our public schools from privatization efforts.  We have excellent schools here in Wisconsin, and we have dedicated educators who work hard every day to try and educate the young people in our state.  It is up to all of us to reach out, educate and organize for our schools.

Buy Local…
Spring Break has arrived for many schools.  This means some "free" time for educators, students and families and an opportunity to look for ways to spend money wisely and effectively exercise the power of the wallet.  If you are traveling, try and seek out local establishments that have ties to the community and that value labor.  For those of us staying around town, this is an excellent opportunity to take the time to find businesses that support worker's rights and develop shopping routines that support progressive values. 

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