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The Five Million Dollar Demonstration

If California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing--until I pay my bill.
Warren Zevon

It's a data-driven world, or so say the mystics and the statistics of Ed Policy World.

The question asked by media, most often, before and after the Save Our Schools March, was: How many people? Show me the numbers.

From the donation table and cooling tents near the edge of the Ellipse, I saw lots of Marchers arriving and leaving; a lot of Rally attendees camped out in the shade trees across the street, watching the jumbotron. From the center-stage microphone, however, it looked like an I Have a Dream moment--masses of sun-grilled citizenry, stretching to the edge of the lawn. Singin' songs and carryin' signs.

Crowd-counting is hardly an exact science. But I'm not sure that the precise number of attendees matters much. What's more important is the conviction that drove people to come to Washington, D.C. and stand around in scorching weather, cheering. Or, in my case, crying--when I heard this.

There are lots of summits and seminars, conferences and convocations--and lately, "nations"--meeting to share common goals and values. The hallmarks of these gatherings: nice hotels or resorts, Famous Speakers, networking and presenting to advance ideas, organizations and careers, glossy promotional materials. Most often, someone else is paying for the registration, hotel room and the raspberry cheesecake. These assemblies may be built on sterling values and intentions--but the modus operandi is "business as usual."

The Save Our Schools Conference, March & Rally were different. People were there for strongly held personal, not organizational, beliefs--and on their own dime. That includes speakers who normally charge thousands of dollars for a speech, but instead donated thousands and spoke for free. Facilities were bare-bones, and the conference cost participants just $40/day (including a box lunch). Parents, school leaders, students, teachers, journalists and icons of education reform mingled, chatted and tweeted (another huge difference: flattening the hierarchies). Nearly all the work--including months of planning, website development and buzz-building--was done for free.

Critics of the Save Our Schools March focused on attendance numbers, making fun of 60s-style protesters and their signs, recycling the erroneous assertion that naturally, the unions had to be behind this--and of course, taking potshots at Matt Damon. There wasn't a lot of pushback on real issues--it's hard to defend spending tax dollars on competitive awards to public schools with the best grant-writers, or federal intrusion into decisions that should be made in schools and classrooms. Several critiques were a mix of malevolence and inanity--little spite-fests hosted by people whose worldview was evidently threatened by a peaceful demonstration.

But--for those who insist on hard data about inputs and outcomes re: the March, let me throw this out:

It cost me nearly $1000 to attend the March--and I went cheap, making the long drive down from Michigan with teacher-buddies, sleeping on an air mattress while sharing a hotel room, eating the box lunch and buying wine at the party store nearby rather than running a tab at the hotel bar. The entire March was run on a shoestring; donations came in $10-$20 increments, and it's difficult to calculate just how much it would have cost to pay expenses for the stable of speakers and entertainers who generously gave their time, expertise and notoriety to the cause.

If (as the National Park Service estimates) there were 5000+ people at the Rally--and each of them spent hundreds to get there and stay over--and if we added the in-kind fees, donations and self-paid expenses from speakers, entertainers and celebrities--plus the nearly $100,000 raised in Pay-Pal donations through Meet-the-Expert Webinars (facilitated by a generous donation of technology from Powerful Learning Practice)--the figures tally up to millions.

Not as much as Arne Duncan can award the most compliant--er, aligned--states, with a wave of his tax-fueled magic wand. But a statistic to inform the mystics who proclaim that achievement will finally rise, if we just offer the carrot of NCLB waivers.

Guess what? The rank and file don't agree.

Why weren't there more people? Lots of them were teaching. Or taking classes to remain certified. Or guilty about leaving their families behind in the summer. Most people who would have loved to be there simply couldn't afford it.

There wasn't a lot of attention paid to state and local rallies held the same day, either. But as my friend Alice Mercer says, Think nationally--act locally.

Cost to host an amazing demonstration on the White House's back yard: $5 million, give or take.

Experience of meeting 5000 people as passionate as I am about real education reform: Priceless.

[Editorial note: Education Week Teacher is not affiliated with the Save Our Schools event; the views expressed in this opinion blog do not reflect the endorsement of Education Week or Editorial Projects in Education, which take no editorial positions.]

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