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What Next for K-12 Schools Post-Election?

Dear Pedro,

There were two post-election possibilities for me: I'd head off to visit friends and allies in Providence, R.I., and beyond to get some comfort, or to celebrate. But it's not an altogether comfortable celebration since President Obama faces more deadlock. Listening to CNN as I write this, I think how many commentators keep focusing on the deficit, living within our means, etc. They have bought into the conservative narrative that leads to austerity and that is poised to lead us all over the cliff. Enough!! Enjoy the moment.

Now, what next? By the time I get back home (Nov. 17) I'll have a little clearer set of ideas since I'll be seeing think-alikers at the Coalition of Essential Schools' Fall Forum and then I'm speaking several times in Illinois, including Chicago, and at a student conference in Massachusetts. I'll be seeing individuals whose opinions will be interesting to listen to, including Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union.

I have more sympathy than many of my dearest colleagues for the labor movement's reluctance to go on an all-out campaign on behalf of even the most traditional labor rights. What would Robert Wagner—whose leadership in establishing what we know as the Wagner Act in 1935 (also known as the National Labor Relations Act)—say about the absence of serious support from the Democratic Party and the president on these questions? Thus proud and pleased as I am by CTU's action, I know it wouldn't be as easy in New York City, which has serious legal and monetary penalties for striking. The first question is would they LIKE to, but ... can they contemplate a labor solidarity action of some sort nationwide? Or, are they prepared to slowly sink below the horizon, meanwhile having a "seat at the table."

There were always good reasons for unions to claim they had even more power than they did. But they can't base their actions on perceived powerlessness; otherwise they stand to lose even more. That's what Chicago has reminded us.

When disaster strikes (like Sandy) we don't expect the police to volunteer their time, nor the firemen, nor doctors and nurses—although no doubt many do go above and beyond their obligations. But we do expect teachers to make up for the impact of poverty and austerity politics on schoolchildren. Teachers do, in fact, give a lot—even in terms of money, not to mention extra hours. But they do so voluntarily, just as the rest of us do when times are hard for our neighbors and fellow citizens.

No, the attack on teachers plays to some special emotions with roots somewhere else: (1) Theirs is one of the few large unions left in America and getting rid of it will be useful to a lot of people. (2) Actually many Americans—above all, those of color and those from poor communities—probably have had deeply humiliating memories of some of the schools and teachers they knew as students or as parents. Remember, a lot of people failed schooling. (3) We've a sad tradition—at least for the past half-century—of assuming that anything public is mediocre and private is better, regardless of the facts. (4) There's money to be made by some if schools are privatized, but to get one's hands on that market requires eliminating the power of teachers and their unions—by whatever means necessary. (5) Which all comes together in a incredibly well-financed—and relentless—attack on teachers and public education, going back at least to the 1983 Nation at Risk Report, long before many voters came close to being adult.

Maybe what's impressive is how popular teachers and public education still are (especially since there's also another specifically American reason for concern)! Most citizens don't think "like a State"—that's mostly a sin of policy wonks. But many Americans do "think like a millionaire."

So, under such circumstances, what next?

A one-day nationwide action? A one-hour nationwide action? A one-hour nationwide teachers' action? A one-day citywide ... townwide ... schoolwide ...?

Our lives are stressed these days, but stress is in part a result, so research tells us, of a real or perceived powerlessness, not on having too much to do. That's why I miss being in school, where on a moment by moment basis I could make a difference in the lives of my students, their families, and my colleagues. It created energy that I'm having a hard time revving up these days. Even small successes can give us energy for trying larger victories.

It also needs, as you suggest, looking not only to the "get rid of" No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, charters, etc. approach, but how we could make K-12 schooling what it should always have been—liberating.

Deborah

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