Education Takes Center Stage at Netroots Nation
The Schott Foundation's Patrick St. John attended Netroots Nation to participate and report on education conversations at the conference.
Bloggers, activists, and policymakers converged on Providence, Rhode Island, last week to swap ideas, skills, and strategies to move the progressive movement forward.
There were a number of panels and workshops at Netroots Nation on education — and I was glad to see that every single education session was packed beyond capacity, which is indicative of a larger, important trend. The education reform debate has shifted dramatically in the blogosphere over the past two years. Where once corporate "reformers" were the dominant voices (assuming education was discussed at all), now the grassroots voices of students, teachers, and parents are being heard above all.
Much of that shift is a result of a growing understanding that the education reform debate is in fact political, and the privatization of public higher education is real and ongoing — often in the guise of liberal rhetoric. The progressive veneer of corporate ed reform wore away quickly once it was taken up by the far-right, in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, and in the dens of reactionary free-market policy groups like ALEC.
On Friday morning, Schott Foundation President Dr. John H. Jackson and Dr. Diane Ravitch participated in a panel discussion, "What Progressives Can Do to Stop the War on Public Education." Moderated by teacher and Daily Kos blogger Kenneth Bernstein to a packed crowd, the panel laid out the attacks public education is facing, and possible strategies for resistance.
Saturday's panel, "Education as a Right-Wing Wedge Issue — and How to Stop It," was four current and former teachers recounting their experiences both in the classroom and community, and linked those to the larger struggle for educational equity.
Several panelists took direct aim at progressive-sounding ed reform groups. Sabrina Stevens criticized self-described "progressives" for supporting charters as a magic bullet solution, given that it's tantamount to the privatization of public education: "progressives shouldn't even be asking whether schools should be public." Referring to the city's new all-charter school system, Karran Harper Royal put it bluntly, to a roar of applause: "New Orleans is not a model to be replicated." Royal also pointed out how apologists for privatized education will cherry-pick data about everything from average GPAs, to graduation rates to persuade skeptical parents.
Martha Infante and other panelists noted how important it was that new and veteran teachers get a chance to interact informally face-to-face, as many administrators work to separate them to weaken solidarity and community in the school. Ms. Stevens connected that to the larger issue of teacher evaluation, and how "merit pay" is yet another mechanism that drives teachers apart and kills any collaborative nature to the school — with children ultimately paying the price.
The last education workshop of the weekend was the Education Caucus. The workshop was formatted as an open discussion where a room packed to the doors with students, teachers, and other education advocates brainstormed messaging and strategies for moving forward a genuinely progressive, evidence-based vision of public education. Co-facilitator Patrick Crowley drove home why better narratives and messaging is so important: "the teachers I talk to and work with every day feel beat up by the language used to describe us and our profession — they say 'we can see what's wrong, but how can we get the public to realize it too?'"
The debate around public education is intertwined with almost all other debates: from economics, to criminal justice, to public health, to civil rights. These next few years may prove to be decisive: will we go down the path of privatization, or the path toward opportunity for all? Thankfully, more and more students, parents, teachers, and community members are realizing the stakes at hand, and are organizing to ensure opportunity and equity for all students, not just a lucky few.