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Whose Voice Is Heard?

The "ed reform" crowd has been working hard at dressing its corporate wolves up in the clothing of civil rights sheep. Charter schools, high stakes testing, and the destruction of teacher job protections have all been billed as some version of the New Civil Rights battle.

This is a wise and powerful PR shift for the reformsters. Unlike the sky-is-falling crises of other reformy sales pitches ("OMGZ! Our failing schools will soon make the USA economically subservient to Estonia!!"), civil rights issue are real. The problems of systemic racism and social injustice are real. The needs of poor and minority students and their communities-- those issues are real.

But as post-Katrina New Orleans has thoroughly demonstrated, you can use a real problem to promote a fake solution.

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So how do we sort the policies and proposals, the reformsters and the shysters. How do we know if people work as true reformers and not, as Jitu Brown put it in Chicago at this year's NPE convention, simply colonizers.

The key question is simple: whose voice is being heard?

I don't mean whose voice is used to provide cover and camouflage. I don't mean the pretend plaintiffs for groups like Students Matter or the Partnership for Educational Justice; I mean the voices who are truly speaking, who are making the decisions, whose concerns are guiding the ship and calling the shots.

We can see the same old pattern playing out again and again. In Arkansas, Little Rock has become one more school system stripped of a democratically-elected school board by the state. In Massachusetts, the state ignored the voices of citizens in order to strip democracy from the Holyoke school system. I could get into the details, but at this point we have seen this story over and over and over again, from New Jersey to Chicago. In city after city, "reformers" have arrived to "help" by silencing the voice of democracy and community.

We use the Big Standardized Test to "prove" that a school system is "failing." Here are all the things we don't do next.

We do not offer this failure as proof that the state has failed to properly support and supply the school. We do not release additional funds and resources from the state to the local district so that duly elected school board members and local community members can best decide how to use the new support.

We do not bring together a group of stakeholders to ask them what they need to turn their school around.

We do not launch a drive to make sure that local stakeholders have the tools necessary to steer their schools to the solutions the community desires.

We do not hear politicians or policymakers or reformy astroturf groups say things like "We have no way of knowing what solutions are needed here, and we look to the community to take the lead and set priorities" or "It's most important that we develop a strategy that honors the democratic process and involves community members" or even "We want to be very careful to share resources with the community without trying to sell them something.  These are human beings, families, and children-- not potential market fodder."

Instead, people from outside the community bring in other people from outside the community, and the voices inside the community are dismissed, ignored, silenced. Occasionally local folks are allowed to speak-- as long as they're the Right Kind of People and they stay on message.

"We are here to get you your civil rights, but you're going to have to shut up and do as we say." There is no context in which that is not some kind of absurdist baloney, and yet that is repeatedly the message of reformy "civil rights" activists. "The tests are a civil rights issue. The charters are a civil rights issue. We are here to help, but to get our help, you will have to stay silent, because we know better than you. We ARE better than you."

Any real reform will involve the vigorous pursuit of democratic processes and the active involvement of local voices. Any real reform will be driven by decisions made by the people there in the community. Any real reform will be focused on engaging, involving, and amplifying the members of the community-- not finding ways to commandeer or cancel elected school boards and other home-grown local leaders.

Giving people permission to speak is not an act of reform; recognizing their right to speak is. Treating them as honored guests is not an act of reform; recognizing that you are a guest in their home is. Here's a hint-- if the students of your community have to stage a sit-in to get a meeting with you, you are not a reformer.

"Shut up while I fix this for you. I will tell you what you need," is not the motto of the civil rights activist. It's the language of the colonizer, and it has no place in true education reform.

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