Modern American society is frequently portrayed as being involved in an epic, life or death struggle. We use the imagery of violence and war to describe the conflicts that arise on a regular basis. Our media thrives on this constant turmoil and the fear that it generates, and many of our social, economic and political leaders use the strong emotional responses to generate support for their positions of power. We find ourselves being lead from one crisis into another, with our beliefs, our well being and our very fabric of existence constantly under siege. This sense of crisis is magnified for the general population during elections, policy debates and other times of discussion, but is always present in cable newscasts, on talk radio, and in political discourse.
Yet with all of this rhetoric and conflict that exists it is reasonable to wonder if it is real, or a creation of a small number of people who seek to gain and maintain power. In other words, are the people of
really as strongly divided as we appear to be, or are our differences magnified
by external sources like the media? A
look at polls and other sources of data give us contradictory information. On one hand states like America are seeing more polarization, and
an increase in communities and districts that are highly partisan
politically. Yet, other surveys show a
majority of citizens having very similar interests and ideals when talking about
our social and economic needs and wants.
This division between what we want, and how we get it to happen creates
a sense of tension and conflict that contributes to our social, political and
economic divisions. Wisconsin
In order to navigate these challenges that we face, we must find common ground and compromise. This has been a driving force in the political evolution of humans and a major reason why
's founding documents have
the characteristics that they do. The
ongoing struggle to unify a diverse society has its roots in the political
philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes wrote about the need of humans to escape
a state of nature where life was "nasty, brutish and short." In order to elevate their status, people
needed to cede some of their power to a larger entity, the state or
government. Just how much power and
control people needed to give up has become a central facet of our ongoing
political struggles, and is very evident in modern American political debate. America
These struggles go well beyond "pie in the sky" philosophy. When we talk about taxes, rights, regulations and other legal controls placed on our lives, we get to some very fundamental issues. These debates are also clouded by the issues around race, gender, social class and other divisions that exist in our society. These divisions are rooted in a number of historical, emotional and other contexts and are often sources of intense conflict. Whenever we attempt to reach consensus around any issue we find ourselves confronting a variety of challenges and long standing conflicts that go back for generations.
Yet, if we are to really thrive and survive as a unified nation, we must find ways to work through these conflicts and arrive at socially just and sustainable compromises. There should be room in our debates for a variety of viewpoints, but we must also be aware of the existing barriers that exist for many citizens and the simple fact that we have a long history of inequality in a nation built on the concept of "liberty and justice for ALL."
This brings us back to the question as to whether the issues that divide us are ones that we can overcome, or if they are insurmountable? It is obviously very difficult to try and address all the needs that exist in our society at any given point in time. A large, socially and economically diverse nation like
will always face challenges
around issues of equity and opportunity.
No nation in the world has solved these challenges in a truly fair
manner. What we need to do is identify
key issues that will make positive change happen in our society, and then work
to address the problems that we face in a unified and socially just
Identifying these key areas of conflict help us focus our attention, and channel our energy in ways that will make positive change happen. This is especially true because we know that, while compromise and collaboration are the heart of our democracy, there are those involved in policy making who don't keep the greater good in mind when making decisions. It is because of these simple facts of human nature, that power corrupts and greed is a part of all of us, that we all have a responsibility in creating policies, legislation and institutions that really represent our ideals. Left to its own devices, even the most noble of political systems will fall prey to corruption, greed and become unjust. We are all stewards of a very valuable social contract, one that is too frequently forgotten or ignored.
Debates around public education are providing us with an opportunity to defend some of these core values that are shared across our entire society. Education is widely held to be one of the most important tools that provides opportunity and equity in our society. Yet, it has long been a resource that has been unequally distributed among our citizenry. Surveys show us that most Americans value education, like public education and want to support educators, students and schools in providing this valuable resource. At the same time, inequitable school funding policies, conflicts around pedagogy and other barriers cause challenges that we must work to overcome.
With any challenge or problem there are multiple potential solutions. The same holds true in education. However, it is important that we look carefully at the rationale, motivation and potential impacts of any reforms or solutions that are offered. When we look carefully at the current ideas for improving public education it quickly becomes clear that there are two main competing camps that emerge. These two sides see very different purposes for education and have different visions for what our schools should look like.
On one side there are those who seek to privatize and standardize our current system of public education. They have used the current inequities, so clearly observable in our Achievement Gaps and inequities in educational outcomes, to foment a sense of crisis around education. Their solutions focus on creating a system of private schools, establishing artificial measures of accountability, and centralizing control of educational policy making decisions. The potential impacts to public education are devastating.
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While they use the language of freedom, choice and equity, the results of their policies do little if anything to positively change our current system. If anything, the changes that are being touted by "reformers" in
will only perpetuate and expand existing problems. Few who work in schools, or who understand
the implications of these "reforms" are able to offer any positive
rationale for implementing them. Wisconsin
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Our public school system is set up to serve the public. All the public. It is not set up to serve just parents or just students. We all depend on a society in which people are reasonably well-educated. But a "choice" system says, "No, ...
Another day, another story of a taxpayer-funded voucher school closing its doors in the middle of a school year. A private
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The information that the Conservative "reformers" use is based on faulty logic, questionable data and fear based rhetoric.
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Can we stop pretending it doesn't?
Education "reformers" have built a strong case in the mind of the public. They have worked hard to marginalize educators, demonize educator unions and to undermine confidence in our public schools. Yet, their solutions don't produce measurably better results, and in fact often expand existing gaps in equity and opportunity. This leads us to question what the motivations and rationales are for these "reformers." Once we decide to do this it becomes clear that there are a small number of well connected individuals who will see immense profits, economically and politically, from the destruction of our current public education system. These individuals are using their political influence, and the general apathy of the voting public to expand their control of the debate and the outcomes around public education.
Just like "Right to Work" legislation harms a majority of workers, so to do education "reforms" harm a majority of students. Both of these initiatives find support among the same circles and for many of the same reasons. However, there is a different narrative that offers an alternative to the one currently being touted as the solution to our educational problems. This version of school reform seeks to return our public schools to the control of educators, students, families and communities. Instead of centralizing power in the hands of plutocrats, it disseminates it to the hands of those who are qualified and invested in the system. While lacking the widespread political voice that privatization has, this reform movement has a grassroots base and builds on the values that our national identity is rooted in.
It isn't simply a movement that exists in opposition to privatization, but rather is one that has a vision for a public education system that meets the needs of students as well as the needs of our larger society. It is based on sound educational practices and on the developmentally appropriate needs of our students.
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While the word "crisis" and the metaphors of war are often overused, in the case of public education we are seeing them quickly becoming a reality. If we are really going to create a viable system that meets the needs of all citizens it is important that we recognize this and decide which side of the struggle we are on. The future of our society is truly at stake.
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The Ugly. . .
The Good . . . Organized labor may be getting a bad rap in the press and in political circles, but history shows us that nothing can keep workers down forever. As the challenges increase, so to do the solutions and opportunities for a labor movement that is working to revitalize itself and return to its activist roots.
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The Bad . . . While labor organizers at the grassroots level work to make positive change happen, we see the establishment and political leadership failing to see the power that labor brings to the table. In fact, much of the political debate around organized labor misses the intent and purpose of unionized workers. Unions are organized to magnify the power of the individual through collective actions. They are not simply financial resources for political candidates who don't really represent the workers who finance their campaigns. Until labor finds a way to exert its influence beyond the "checkbook" we will continue to see policies and legislation advanced that actually harms the majority of working Americans.
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This disconnect between what workers are asking for and what they get for their investment is clearly demonstrated in our widening economic gaps. In the end we are seeing the "American Dream" dismantled and replaced by a relatively rigid class system. A system based not on the merit that is lauded by "Market Based Reformers" and "Capitalists", but one that rewards existing wealth and perpetuates existing class structures.
Many Americans like to believe we live in a meritocracy. But it's not a view that holds up if you look at the data. Like the graph below, on how students perform on the SAT , by family income:
The Ugly . . . A large part of the problem arises from the fact that our democracy has become one where few who are able to actually participate. This means that those who are elected are not truly representative of the entire population and are not accountable to all citizens. We are facing a crisis in our society that threatens the foundation of our political structure. Those who currently hold power in states like Wisconsin (in this case Conservative Republicans) are doing everything they can to restrict voting rights, silence dissent and cement their stranglehold on the power that they claim to loathe.
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One Wisconsin Now deputy director Mike Browne weighed in on the liberal group's expectations and priorities for the 2015-16 legislative session.
In the end we are left with a polarized system where anyone who disagrees with the majority is silenced and branded as an enemy of the state. This in a system where dissent should be the driving force of change and positive policy creation.
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