Sunday, April 14, 2013

Issue #109 April 14, 2013- Organize for Education

Organize and Activate…
"May you live in interesting times", is a phrase of unknown origin that sounds like a blessing, but is actually considered more of a curse.  Interesting times are ones of danger, uncertainty and often are unpleasant.  Compare that to times of peace and there is no doubt that most of us would prefer to experience the relative "boredom" of the latter.  During less interesting times people experience stability and go about their daily lives untroubled by upheaval and controversy of a scale beyond the immediate and common.  Of course stress and trouble are a part of these times, but not at the same level and intensity of "interesting times". 

In many ways Wisconsin had been experiencing relatively uninteresting times for the past decades in most aspects of our society.  For the most part we enjoyed stability in our social, economic and political activities.  That isn't to say that there weren't significant problems in our state, but rather that we were not generally uncomfortable with the way things were.  While it is true that we should not have been as complacent in our attitudes in many areas, Wisconsinites weren't demonstrating much in the way of significant interest in making changes in the status quo. 

All of that changed with the election of Scott Walker and the subsequent events of early 2011.  It was as though a small wound had been ripped open, exposing a much more significant injury just beneath the surface.  The elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees was the spark that ignited a blaze of action.  Suddenly the eyes of many of us were opened to a whole host of issues as well as the potential connections that existed between groups that had previously viewed each other with, at the very least, indifference if not even some antipathy.

Public employees, quite frequently white, middle class citizens, saw just what it was like to be outsiders and disenfranchised.  They realized just how fragile our rights and privileges are when they are taken for granted and left undefended.  We also saw just how fragmented and easily "divided and conquered" our society was, as Walker and his supporters ran roughshod over issues of social justice, fairness and equal opportunity.     

Yet we also found that "interesting times", while fraught with peril on one hand, are also times of opportunity as well.  Groups and interests that had opposed each other found a common enemy in the Walker administration and its policies.  We discovered areas of common interest and unity that had existed all along, but that were ignored while we pursued our own separate interests.  While there were opportunities, there were also long standing barriers that existed.  Trust between groups has been eroded over years of slowly entrenching positions based on actions or inaction. 

An example of this is found in public education.  This is an area where many progressive interests come together.  It is also a place were all races, social classes, religions, and any other demographic distinction should find a place.  Yet, because of many different reasons, trust in the public school system has been undermined, and for many groups our public schools have become another symbol of oppression and lost opportunity.  Conservative interests have actively worked to foster the mistrust of our schools and supporters of public education haven't been able to, or done enough to, counter these actions.     

There was also a need to mobilize a base, that had relied on legal protections, bureaucratic procedures and a small number of organizational "experts" to promote our interests.  If we had a problem, there was someone who we could turn to, or a policy we could access that would help us overcome our obstacles.  Along the way we became observers and not participants in important aspects of our lives.  We didn't take personal action to defend our rights in the workplace, in economic terms, or in society as a whole. 

Now, we are seeing Scott Walker and other conservative GOP leaders stripping away the legal and procedural protections that we have come to rely on.  This has had a devastating effect on many of us.  We see a conscious effort to change the way our society operates and to put a significant amount of power in the hands of a small number of people.  There is no doubt that there is a deliberate and purposeful plan that is being implemented to gain control of our society from a political and economic standpoint. 

One example of this is the efforts to privatize our public schools.  Our public schools aren't perfect, but they are the institution that is most likely to give all students an opportunity to learn.  Our schools are accountable to the public in a way that privatized voucher schools are not, and never will be.  Our public schools are also a place that is legally bound to attempt to meet the needs of every child, no matter what their needs may be.  Yet, Walker has articulated his plan to destroy public educator unions and then to move to privatize our school system.    

Question -"Could you have taken on the politics of vouchers before taking on the teacher's union?" Walker - "No, we put in place the foundations necessary." 19:00 into the interview.

The effort to destroy the public schools isn't the only venue where radical conservatives are working to change the landscape of our society.  They are working to dismantle and privatize virtually all aspects of our public sector.  At the same time they are removing protections and weakening their potential opponents.  It would be one thing if it were only radical conservative Republicans who were doing this, but it is difficult to find a politician who is willing to take a stand for social justice on a consistent basis.  Remember, President Obama didn't remove the NCLB mentality, but rather refined it through his "Race to the Top" policies.    

What has been difficult for many opponents of the conservative agenda to come to grips with is the fact that despite the grim reality created by conservative policies and the facts that call conservative ideology into question, politicians like Walker continue to receive significant support from the general population.   
Obviously as sense of justice and a belief in the values we espouse isn't enough to change the political trends in Wisconsin, or across the nation.  As much as we may dislike it, acting politically is a necessity in defeating the agenda that is harming our state.  Many activists have a strong idealistic view of the world, and politics is anything but a place of idealism.  Politics is a competitive, cooperative, compromising world where ideals sometimes take a back seat to successfully navigating the maze of opposing interests.  Yet, despite our sometime reluctance to engage in politics, activists in Madison and surrounding communities have seen a tremendous amount of success in recent elections.   

The final results of the last Madison School Board race are in. 

Political success is only one part of the equation.  Political success is often unreliable and seldom lasting.  The sweeping successes of 2008 become the dismal defeats of 2010.  If we are to create lasting results we must work to change the "hearts and minds" of the people who make up the society we live in.  Otherwise we may change the veneer, but will be left with the same festering, divisive wounds that existed prior to the Walker election. 

We are seeing this work in many places around the United States.  I attended a conference on April 6th where organizers from places like Walmart and North Carolina spoke about building solidarity where the rights of workers are severely restricted or nonexistent.  We heard a speaker from Chicago Teachers' Union speak about organizing the community around their public schools.  It has been done in other places and it certainly can be done in a community like Madison, Wisconsin.      

We must continue to look for new ways to engage all citizens in the efforts to preserve and protect the public institutions that are the foundation of our society's labors to provide equal opportunities for all people.  Clearly we haven't done enough to garner the support of many sectors of the citizenry.  I'm excited to be a part of one of these efforts through a group called SCAPE (School Community Alliance for Public Education).  We are seeking to engage educators, families and community members in a dialog around public education and use this dialog to drive positive actions in defending our public schools. 

We held a meeting last week at the Boys and Girls Club in the Allied Drive neighborhood that was attended by a diverse group of people interested in talking about our schools.  Topics were many and varied and at times issues caused some discomfort for participants.  Yet, the fact that people of different demographic groups, professional backgrounds and experiences were able to converse about difficult topics like racial inequality in our schools was a significant step towards finding common ground.  Once we establish common ground it becomes possible to work towards finding solutions to the challenges we face.  

The Future of Public
Education in Wisconsin?…
What is it exactly that we are defending and what are the attacks that are being directed at public education in Wisconsin and across the nation?

Remember that public education is a human created institution and has its strengths and its flaws.  Part of defending something is recognizing these aspects that exist in all of our efforts to provide services to the people.  Unfortunately, most of what the public hears about our schools is the negative side of the equation.  We are flooded with data that describes our schools as money pits where students are not respected, educated or supported.  The educators who work in public education are as maligned as the institution itself.  Public educators are portrayed as leftist, lazy and incompetent.

These attacks have lead to a real problem with morale in our public schools.  Educators feel attacked from all sides and are unable to do their jobs in the manner that they would like.  Facing a lack of respect, loss of income and uncomfortable with their working environment many are leaving the profession, or moving to "greener pastures".    

By portraying our schools as failing and our system as broken, "reformers" seek to undermine public confidence in our schools.  They use this lack of support to promote budgets that harm our schools, and policies that make educating our young people even more difficult.  There are many vehicles that are used to carry out this agenda.  The may involve curriculum and standards, or they may involve budgets, but the purpose is clear. 

Once again, "interesting times" lead to opportunity, as administrators, educators and families from across the state find themselves united in a common condition.  Diverse interests from previously unconnected areas are finding common ground in opposition to the "reforms" offered by Walker.  This unity is what it will take to turn around the future of public education in Wisconsin.   

Another thing that we must do is share important information with parents and families.  Schools are only part of a child's educational development.  In fact, a significant amount of learning takes place long before a child enters the school system.  If we can help inform parents about the important role that they have in education they can see themselves as partners in the process, not as outsiders.  

While in some ways the future seems bleak, it is true that the economic and political pendulums tend to move back and forth as time passes.  It is our job to make sure that we do everything possible to move our society in a positive direction.  

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