Organizing for Education. . .
There is a tremendous amount of misinformation and destructive rhetoric being touted as fact about our public school systems in recent days. While this isn't a completely new phenomena, the most troubling thing is that now there is significant legislation and policy that supports the rhetoric. Supporters of public education face a real battle on many fronts as we seek to defend a valuable societal resource.
We are trapped in a cycle of anti-public education rhetoric, followed by implementation of anti- public education policy which then creates circumstances that allow anti-public education forces an opportunity to continue their attacks.
We are facing well funded, corporate forces who are willing to bend and twist the rules in order to profit from their activities.
Educators find themselves trapped in the middle. We are a strange combination of superhero and supervillain. On one hand, we are considered first responders with a duty to serve and protect our students and families. At the same time we are given little support in many circles and our activities are scrutinized and critiqued at every turn.
Educators have not been idle while their profession, schools and students are under attack. While the overall picture presented in the media and in political circles may be bleak, some positive strides have been made as well.
What we are seeing is a need to counter the misinformation and misleading data provided by the education "reformers" with a different set of data and narratives that show the power, and potential, of our public schools. This means changing the dialog about our schools. It also means organizing our efforts in different ways. Our opponents have the resources and the access to power here in Wisconsin that allow them to dictate the debate. While we can't give up and must continue to testify at hearings, present our views in the press and engage in other more traditional policy impacting actions, we also need to look for other ways to get our message out.
One of the primary problems in the debate over public education policy is the fact that every school has different needs and different issues are of importance to different communities. While all involved in our public schools recognize the need to deliver quality instruction to all students and to provide the maximum educational opportunity possible, how we deliver this instruction and what quality and opportunity mean are often debated.
On a larger, policy making scale, these issues become highly politicized, generalized and often lose their focus on the actual students, families and communities involved. Those who work and learn in our public schools become political "footballs" and pawns in a game that benefits groups and individuals who are distant from the classrooms where the real work needs to be done.
The challenge is to find ways to get the different groups in schools talking together. Often there are barriers to having these discussions. They may be institutional, personal or societal barriers, but whatever the source, the effect is the same. We see discussions about public education happening, but it is happening in isolation with the same people talking to each other in the same ways. Often offering up the same solutions that haven't resolved our problems in the past.
Breaking these barriers and changing the way we talk about our schools is challenging. The primary difficulty is that the major parties involved are so segregated. Educators talk only to educators, parents only talk to parents with similar backgrounds and experiences, political figures and other leaders talk to constituents who have the same ideological ideas, and so on. This isolation of thinking only builds more barriers to real conversation and problem solving around our public schools. The current climate is toxic to compromise and proactive solutions.
Many participants in discussions about public education also feel powerless to enact change in the system. This is true for families, community members and even many educators. We feel caught up in a system that is large and bureaucratic in nature. As individuals we have little real power to act in ways that can positively impact the overall picture.
It is possible to combat the isolation of ideas and the feelings of powerlessness. One positive way to share information and make positive change happen in public education is to make personal connections between the different groups and interests in each school community. We have been trying something new in my school community for the past year. A few parents and educators have organized a group called SCAPE (School Community Alliance for Public Education) that meets regularly to discuss issues related to school reform as well as issues of policy relating to our school and district. We have spoken and written to local decision makers and have acted on several issues that were defined by members.
The real strength of the group is the fact that we are making an effort to break down some of those barriers that exist in the conversations around public education. Having educators, families and community members in the same room talking about issues changes the dynamics of the discussion and gives insights to all parties involved. The group consists of over 50 educators, family members and community members with a range of backgrounds and expertise. We have met in different neighborhoods and are working to increase the diversity of our group's demographics and increase our diversity of ideological beliefs as well.
The premise of SCAPE is to get dialog about public education started and then determine ways to influence the policies being implemented in our schools. We are encountering many of the expected challenges in our efforts, but are firmly committed to this process. A process that seeks to widen the involvement of all in discussions about public schools, something that our society could use much more of.
The Good, The Bad, and
The Ugly. . .
The Good- While most sources focused on the struggles of UPS and FedEx this holiday season, the successes of the U.S. Postal Service should be highlighted instead. The USPS provides another example of how public services are often vilified, usually under appreciated, but continue to provide valuable, quality service to all Americans.
Yet, we continue to hear about how workers need to sacrifice in order for business to prosper. Until we change this dialog and give respect and power to the people who do the work, we will continue to see the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us increase.