The Meaning of No

With just six days left, I sent in my ballot.  On that basis alone, the informed reader will know how I voted.

This past Valentine’s Day, the parties to litigation over the ironically-named Rhode Island Retirement Security Act (RIRSA) announced a negotiated settlement that, if approved, would represent an incremental improvement—or, more accurately, various possible incremental improvements, depending on which of six voting blocs you fit into—over the terms of the original RIRSA legislation of 2011.  The details of the settlement are to be found at ripensioninfo.org.  For those unfamiliar, I wrote an explanation of the destruction of public employee pensions in Rhode Island that was published in Labor Notes shortly after.  Many reports have since surfaced about the corruption involved in the whole pension heist, including Matt Taibbi’s reporting in Rolling Stone, as well as Dave Sirota’s most recent piece on the involvement of Enron money in financing Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s hit job.

What I want to take up here is the question of what this settlement represents, why many members of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island (ERSRI) will be voting “no”, and what that “no” vote means.  I base the following not on any expert knowledge of actuarial science or accounting, but simply on my existence as a public employee, my conversations with coworkers, and also the odd informational meeting on the pension settlement that I attended in East Providence earlier this month.

The first question is: what’s wrong with the settlement?  In many ways, the settlement represents some improvement for retirees and future retirees on the terms of the original pension reform.  The cost of living adjustment (COLA) on underfunded pension funds will now be made every four years instead of every five; the penalty for early retirements will be decreased; and perhaps most significantly, ERSRI members with 20 years or more of service as of June 30, 2012 will be moved back to the 100% defined-benefit plan (i.e. the old pension system).  But fundamentally, the real objective of the pension reform remains in place, namely the financialization of a significant portion of retirements for the younger generation of workers.  Half of my pension still belongs to investment bankers, and its value depends on the vagaries of the market.  Wall Street still wins.

So why would anyone accept this settlement?  It’s easy to see why the 20+ year members would want to go back to the old plan (though I’ve been told that even then, all is not roses).  There is also the prospect, for the more market savvy, that the defined contribution plan could yield much greater returns—if you know how to play the market, perhaps.  (That sentiment—“I want to hold on to my investments”—was definitely present at the East Providence informational meeting.)  But more generally, it’s likely that many ERSRI members will feel that this is the best we can get.  After all, the pension reform was approved overwhelmingly by the Rhode Island General Assembly.  In the lead-up to the approval of the legislation, my union sent out postcards encouraging members to get involved to stop the reform—but the postcard featured an image of a bulldozer bearing down on teachers and state workers.  That image was completely à propos of the actual situation, but it frankly did not inspire confidence toward a victory for pensioners.  For those of us who feel completely bulldozed, getting a little help scraping ourselves off the pavement may seem like a real step up.  In short, I do not think anyone voting “no” should feel resentment toward those who do not (vote).

But the question is different when posed in regard to our union leaders.  The union leaderships are, in point of fact, committed by the terms of the settlement to advocate for the settlement.  But more than that, they are running scared.  They are scared to death that the settlement might fail; they are scared to death of going through with legislation and its costs; most of all, they are scared of the possibility that a judge may rule in the only way that would be definitive, namely that public employee pensions are not actually guaranteed as property rights.  These fears are not necessarily ill-founded.  In particular, the costs of further litigation give reason for pause: while the unions will have to pay for their own lawyers out of union dues, the state has already said it will pay for its legal team by dipping into the public employees’ pension funds.  In other words, they’ll use our money to fight us.  True bastards.

Probably even more terrible is the prospect of Governor Gina Raimondo.  Raimondo’s campaign, recently announced officially but publicly known since 2011, is by far the best-financed gubernatorial campaign in the state, having garnered massive contributions from all over the country by venture capitalists appreciative of the treasurer’s contribution to their own enrichment.  To compound matters, it appears—so an inside source tells me—that some of the private sector unions are eager to endorse Raimondo for governor, as she is the most “viable” candidate, and unions love endorsing a winner.  Though the public sector unions are not likely to endorse her in any case—NEARI has already endorsed Linc Chafee redux Clay Pell—the approval of the settlement agreement will open the way for the private sector unions to endorse their darling without seriously endangering the unity of the union bureaucrats.  (If there was ever an argument in favor of breaking from the Democrats and building an independent workers’ party, this total mess of a situation is it.)

The bureaucrats also have a reason to fear that the settlement will fail.  If any one of the voting blocs in the settlement votes by 50% + 1 or more to reject the settlement, the whole thing will be scrapped.  If that does not happen (and they’re relying on passivity for it not to happen—see below), there is still the possibility that the next step, the judge’s fairness hearing, could turn up some argument that the judge will accept as a reason not to deem the settlement acceptable.  But most importantly, the final say on this deal lies in the hands of the Rhode Island General Assembly…in an election year…  And here lies the real rub.  Whatever we think about it, our fate is in the hands of people who overwhelmingly voted against us before, and whose leadership has just changed in a more conservative direction.

At this point, I should clarify a point that has been implicit up to now: there is no way to actively vote “yes” on this agreement.  The vote is happening by mail-in ballot which only allows for a “no” vote.  If you approve of the settlement, you are instructed to do nothing.  This has been widely confusing to union members, who are used to being able to vote “yes” or “no” on contract offers.  But this, of course, is not a contract offer.  It is, rather, a legal settlement which is no way required the mobilization or even education of union members.  As such, it is being carried out along the lines of a class action lawsuit.  In that context, it is widely assumed that it will be near impossible to make any real democratic decision on the way forward, when the parties concerned are only connected through the suit and may never be able to meet in person.  The legal team comes to a decision on how to move forward toward a settlement, and the only active possibility for the parties concerned is a “no” vote—if not, the “yes” is already assumed, even if the concerned parties don’t vote.  While this fact has angered some union members who view it as undemocratic or even a rigged process, it is more significant for the position that it forces union members into—namely, that of passive observers of a larger process they can’t control or even influence.

So to answer the question posed in the title: what is the meaning of “no”?  Clearly, it should not be understood to mean that retirees want their COLA every five years instead of four, nor that the majority of people are happier playing roulette with their retirement.  What it is, is the active expression of those who are paying attention, who understand how brazenly we’ve been defrauded by the likes of Gina Raimondo, Kurt Schilling, and other such corporate crooks.  It’s a rejection of neoliberal destruction of workers’ living standards and rights.  It’s a complete rejection of RIRSA, and a plea to return to a time when public employees were guaranteed a living from hiring to grave.  We never got a chance to vote on the pension reform—until now.  Here’s our vote.

The power and the glory of the “no” vote—but also its ultimate futility—is that it’s utterly utopian.  There will be no return to the old system.  It’s impossible, and we were condemned to lose from the beginning.  Why?  Because public employee pensions, a product of the Keynsian phase of capitalism, have long outlived the conditions in which they were created, and are now a victim of the crisis of the neoliberal phase of capitalism, a.k.a. austerity.  The dynamic is this: after a generation of unbridled free-market fundamentalism, the bankers reached the end of the line.  The emperor had no clothes, the banking system was exposed as bankrupt (in more ways than one), and everywhere governments threw boatloads of cash at them to prop up the banking system.  This drove them into what are known as sovereign debt crises—no money to fund public expenditures that weren’t banks, no shred of will to tax the rich, thus the inexorable drive toward austerity and cuts.  Our unions were utterly unprepared to deal with this onslaught—lacking comprehension, lacking vision, lacking any recent experience of mobilizing the members for any kind of fight, they were completely powerless.  It would have taken a state-wide strike against the bill to potentially stop it—though even then, the example of Greece, where numerous general strikes and mass social unrest has not succeeded in stopping the austerity—does not bode well.  It was in this context that Rhode Island’s public employees were, as previously noted, bulldozed.  The problem now is that the very foundations of the old system have crumbled and been condemned, and no new structure built on them stands a chance.

In one way, the Great Rhode Island Pension Robbery is simply a question of stealing from the poor to feed the rich, a basic Wall Street smash-and-grab operation.  It would seem a simple solution: tax the rich!  As Homer Simpson would say, “in theory, communism works.”  Yet in another way, the question is much more difficult, because it’s material.  The rich are now so much richer in relative terms than at any time in living memory, and to get to that point they had to not only defeat us, but to imprison our hearts and minds.  The weight of their accumulated loot is now so great that the freeing of our minds looms as a monumental obstacle.  The task before us is not simply to fight for the greater taxation of the rich; it cannot be to restore a pension system whose time has long since passed.  Rather, it must be to formulate a vision for a thorough-going social transformation, one that posits human need and solidarity above individual gain, competition, and corporate profits.  This vision must then be translated into an actual program for change, one that calls for direct action, and that by moving people into action, convinces them of the necessity of that transformation.

What is the range of possibility?  What we’ve been doing so far has not worked.  We need a serious shake-up of all existing relations and institutions.  A “no” vote on the settlement by any one of the membership blocs will be a shock to the process, but one that we produced.  It will definitely produce a crisis for the labor bureaucracy headed into the fall elections, where the unions are once again stupidly throwing all their eggs into the Democratic Party’s basket.  Could it raise the prospect of an independent political vision and organization for the labor movement?  Could it at least raise the prospect of independent action by public workers to stop the attacks on the public sector and the ravages of austerity?  Voting “no” may not get us any closer to better pensions in this generation.  But it might just open the space for us to discuss the necessity of and the plan for turning this system on its head.

 

UPDATE:  It’s no rumor that private-sector unions want to endorse Raimondo.  In fact, it’s already happening.

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A Glimpse of Solidarity

This weekend’s March on Washington was a fantastic and exhilarating event.  Honestly, I did not get to hear any of the speeches.  They might have been pretty horrible—I imagine Eric Holder had nothing useful to say—and it will make a difference to the movement how the leaders from the front direct it.  It’s not irrelevant for socialists to discuss and analyze this.

But what was inspiring was the solidarity you could feel building among the people who went, from getting on the bus, to stopping at the rest stops in Connecticut and Delaware, to the march itself.  I had a particular experience of this because of the bright red t-shirt I happened to be wearing, which said: Stand with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Numerous times, people stopped me to ask if I was a Chicago teacher—clearly, something they admired and respected.  Let me tell you: as a teacher, it is not often that people stop you in public and express their solidarity or sympathy, much less respect.  The difference here was that I was in a crowd that understood that the Chicago teachers went on strike not just for themselves, but for their students, the majority black and brown students whose schools were closed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  They understood that the union was supporting the community, and they, the community, supported the union.

Somewhere around 3am on Saturday morning, the bus stopped at the Delaware House, a massive shiny interstate rest stop in the smallest state (well, except my own).  The men’s room was slightly crowded (but no line—under socialism, we’ll massively expand women’s rest rooms).  A man washing his hands asked if I was a Chicago teacher as I approached the urinal.  No, I’m a Rhode Island teacher, but I think what the Chicago teachers did with their strike, and engaging with the community before and after, is a model that all teachers’ unions should follow.  Another man was brushing his teeth at the sink, rinsed out his mouth, and asked:

“Don’t you think principals, at least, should be armed?”

“Look, we have a cop assigned to the school already…”

“But cops never get there fast enough.”

“But the cop is stationed in the school full time, and it’s not helpful.  Did you hear about the woman at that school in Georgia that stopped that guy from shooting up the school?”

I wasn’t about to convince this man brushing his teeth at a rest stop at 3am that we don’t need guns in school, much less that we need a socialist transformation of our world.  But the molecular processes involved in a mobilization like this, in every moment of it—from the build-up to the trip to the event and beyond—this is what gives me hope for the future.  It’s what sustains me as an activist and a socialist.  Who knows when the ideas will come to fruition, when those few comments will resurface and that man will begin to see things differently—perhaps never.  And frankly, who knows how or when the experiences and ideas of the people I traveled with and encountered will illuminate parts of the struggle for me (some of them already have).  But the arc of history bends toward justice, and the arc of our moment is bending toward radicalization and enlightenment.

As we got off the bus at 6:30am, a reporter from the Bay State Banner, the African-American newspaper in Massachusetts, stopped me and commented on my shirt.  She wanted to interview me: why did I, a white teacher, choose to attend the March?  Why did I think it was important?  What was the connection with Chicago?  And could she take a picture of the shirt, both sides?

I don’t know where the movement is going from here.  It looks to me like the Obama administration may get off the hook and not press federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.  It also looks like much of this energy will be channeled into voter rights and voter registration—only to be funneled back into the Democratic Party in 2016 (ready for Hilary!).  In my city, we’ve made some important connections—but the Black leadership here is still weak, and has a lot to do to connect with the community.  Right now, I think we can hold discussions, do film screenings, carry on study groups around The New Jim Crow and other books, and write about the numerous minute manifestations of racism in our city.  I think it’s likely different somewhat elsewhere, in cities where the Black community is better-organized and where there are on-going struggles for justice for the victims of police brutality, for prisoners, against school closings, etc.  There is still a long walk ahead of us to reach a place where we can say there is a coherent national movement.

Socialists have already made important contributions to this movement, from our ideas to organizing buses and raising important chants at the march.  But we should also learn a lesson here: when we can connect our experience as teachers, as workers, to the struggle against racism; when we can explain our politics not through formulas we’ve read in books but through our own stories; when we reach a point where we can lead our unions into antiracist struggles and show in practice what a multiracial workers’ movement can do to end racism; then, socialist ideas and organization will be relevant to masses of people, and those masses will make socialist ideas into a material force to be reckoned with.

In the meantime…be sure to wear your red Stand with the Chicago Teachers Union t-shirt.

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The struggle to Dump Gist: the Balance Sheet

Despite our best efforts, the Rhode Island Board of Education voted 7-3 in favor of renewing Commissioner Deborah Gist’s contract on Thursday, June 6.  The two-year contract provides for a two-percent raise in each of the two years—a slap in the face to all of Rhode Island’s teachers who have endured between one and four years (depending on the district) without any raise.  While not the three-year contract with four-percent raises that she initially sought, the deal maintains Gist as the highest-paid education commissioner in New England.  What clearer illustration of the real mission of corporate education “reformers” could we ask for: the highest-paid official in the state with the highest rates of unemployment and childhood poverty in New England!  Not to be outdone, recently-turned Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee, whose election as an independent in 2010 owed much to the efforts of teachers’ unions, came out with an expression of support for the deal.

Staying in character with her entire tenure thus far, Gist’s attitude at the conclusion of the deal was polarizing, magnanimous and condescending.  After the vote had been taken, Gist gave her acceptance speech, clearly delighted about her victory over the opposition.  In response to the forum put on by the state teachers’ union federations on May 20, she said (and I’m quoting from memory) that she had read the transcript of that forum twice, and that “I used my ‘coding skills’ from my graduate work” to determine that “we really all have the same goal” for public education.  I’m not sure how she could have read this teacher’s comments and concluded that we’re on the same side.  Perhaps it’s graceful for the winner of a tough political dogfight to come out with such “healing” remarks.

Prior to the Board of Education meeting, conventional wisdom on our side was that anything less than a three-year contract would be a win.  It seemed unlikely that the Board would simply vote down a contract—that would have left the state without a leading education official as of Friday.  But rumors were circulating that there might be a twelve- or eighteen-month extension offered, which would have been a clear invitation to leave the state.  In the end, however, the two-year contract was clearly a victory for the state’s top union-basher.  You could hear it in the comments of Board of Education members Larry Purtill (of the National Education Association of Rhode Island) and Colleen Callahan (of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers): they were voting no, reiterating their opposition to Gist’s privatizing agenda.  But they were only able to sway one other member of the board.  The end was a frustrating and demoralizing defeat for the real “stakeholders” of public education: teachers, parents, students—in a word, the “public” in “public education”.

I appreciate the good intentions of RIFuture editor Bob Plain, who summed up the night by saying, “Both labor and management can claim some victory this morning.”  It’s true that Gist’s supporters were timid in advancing their defense: of the five (by my memory) Board members to comment before the vote, three were in opposition, one recused herself from the vote, and one supporter spoke in terms that warned the Commissioner to listen to her critics and engage them in a productive dialogue (hardly likely from her).  It’s true that the unions and the public education proponents did much to reshape the terms of the discourse around higher education in the lead-up to the vote.  But I think Bob is wrong: this was a clear victory for Gist and for the corporate education reform movement, if a narrow one.

That said, defeat does not always mean utter rout—and this situation is quite the opposite.  In fact, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, the working-class movement is peculiar in that it prepares and advances itself in the struggle precisely through defeats.  The advance for us is not in the stern warnings to the Commissioner to shape up her attitude—though that is an indication of how strong our campaign was.  No, the advance is to be found in the mobilization that preceded Thursday night’s Board meeting, going back to late April.  The opening acts included the successful forum sponsored by the Coalition to Defend Public Education on April 27, followed the next week by two simultaneous conferences put on by NEARI and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, on May 4.  These meetings generalized the consciousness of those who attended them about the anti-union attack and the push for privatization that we’re all facing.  They were an indicator of something larger beneath the surface.

The next step in the process was the aforementioned mass meeting put on by NEARI and RIFT on May 20, where more than 600 angry teachers showed up to voice their opposition to Gist.  This meeting was called with not even two week’s worth of notice—and still garnered a mass audience.  What was even more striking to me about the meeting was the incredibly advanced consciousness of the teachers who spoke.  It seemed that so many more teachers than I had ever imagined were aware of the influence of corporate “reformers” and their “philanthropy”.  One of the teachers who spoke, someone I’ve never met before, introduced us to the term “educapitalists”!  I walked out of that event deeply energized, and with one unshakable thought: if we had a political party that spoke like those teachers spoke, we would be unstoppable.

The mobilization for the Board of Education meeting on May 23 was not large, but the CDPE was able to plan for it effectively, dominating the list of speakers in the open forum.  Our message was out front—and the Commissioner had no one to speak on her behalf at that meeting (a mistake she did not repeat on June 6!).    This set the stage for a serious public debate over the merits of a commissioner who has to her credit only failed goals and federal Race to the Top money which has been unspent or handed over to the private sector.  And, it meant that the unions, though slow to mobilize, could call for a rally in front of the Board of Education meeting not even 72 hours in advance, and still draw a crowd of a couple hundred teachers and public education supporters.

The rally—and what led up to it—represent the most radical thing the unions have done in my 15 years as a member of NEARI.  It was not large—certainly nowhere near as large as the rallies at the State House they’ve called over the past six years (all two of them).  But it was a direct confrontation with the enemy, and it meant so much greater a determination on the part of the people who participated.  It has also had an effect on the discussions among teachers: though many of my colleagues were not able to go to the rally or to the mass meeting in May, everyone was talking about it.  The unions’ mobilization has brought to the fore all the questions that teachers need to be asking: How much more can we take?  How much more are they going to throw at us?  How do we start to fight back?

We must also state plainly that there are not two, but rather three teachers’ unions in the state: NEARI, RIFT, and the Providence Teachers Union.  The first two have taken some real steps forward; the last one is a real roadblock, due primarily to its leadership.  NEARI led the charge this time, and took real steps to mobilize the rank-and-file—in itself, a major accomplishment and a real break from the passive approach they’ve taken to the rank-and-file in the past.  NEARI locals are all led by full-time teachers, so there are no full-time union organizers in the locals.  That said, the locals have largely followed the state leadership in outlook, meaning that many of them now have a very passive rank-and-file, and are often kicked around by their local administrations.  This mobilization has changed the terrain, and may offer us a real opportunity to start organizing at the shop-floor level within the locals in a serious way.

The RIFT state leadership followed NEARI’s lead, and it’s very clear that Frank Flynn and Colleen Callahan were working very closely with Larry Purtill and Bob Walsh on this campaign.  More importantly, they followed NEARI’s lead and mobilized the rank and file from RIFT locals, including Warwick, Cranston, Pawtucket, Johnston, etc.  But the real glaring, gaping hole in all of this—once again—was the PTU.  The PTU mobilized only members of its Executive Board to the May 20 mass meeting, as well as to the Board of Education meeting last week.  (Well, E-Board members and members of the opposition, formerly known as Teachers for a Democratic Union).  They did not send out the email notification of the rally at the Board of Education meeting until 1:20pm on June 6!  Steve Smith, the top-down, conservative president of the PTU made confused remarks both times, and then proceeded to leave early both times.  The real tragedy of all of this is that the PTU sets the tone for the state.  It was the PTU’s acceptance of Race to the Top that imposed it on the rest of us.  The PTU’s utter contempt for its rank-and-file means that the rest of the state’s teachers are fighting an uphill battle with part of their army—really, the shock troops of the front line—still asleep back at the barracks.  The PTU has to be transformed, and the current leadership needs to be removed.

So what more can be done from here?  The obvious first point is that the struggle against high-stakes testing, and in particular the use of the NECAP test as a graduation requirement, is at the front and center.  There have been indications that Gist and others may be looking for ways to back down from their hardline stance on this requirement.  They are caught in a contradiction: if 40% of Rhode Island’s seniors in the class of 2014 don’t graduate because of NECAP, it’s Gist’s failure to deal with.  I don’t expect she (or her successor, if she’s looking to duck out gracefully in the next two years) will admit defeat openly on this count—there will be some maneuver involved.  But there is a major opportunity for us to raise a single demand around the NECAP that also brings up pointed questions about every aspect of curriculum, instruction, resources, and control of public education.  The work of the Providence Students Union has led the way on this area; now is the time to start organizing parents and teachers around local opt-out and boycott campaigns, and perhaps a generalized, state-wide protest campaign targeting the whole requirement altogether.

Second, the unions need to start talking about state-wide contractual protections for teachers on the evaluation system.  Currently, the mandates come down from the state—and they are carried out an enforced inconsistently by local district administrations.  But the real kicker is that teachers’ protections against abuses of the evaluation system (and there are many opportunities for abuse!) are entirely up to the local to guard against via contract language.  It raises the even larger discussion of a state-wide contract for all teachers, and eventually the need for a state-wide school district—a reform that would likely face much opposition from local powerbrokers in their little fiefdoms in each district, but that could give a unified teaching force more power to set the terms of its working conditions.

Third, the rank-and-file mobilization of the past few weeks should give rise to organizing within the locals.  A state-wide district is a long way off, and it means that we need to use the momentum we have from this fight to push forward on the local level.  Teachers in Rhode Island have been kicked around in the last two rounds of contract negotiations, battered by the economic crisis on the one hand, and the barrage of a national anti-teacher campaign financed and driven by the “educapitalists” on the other.  The next steps now involve pushing forward on issues such as class size, compensation, protections against the evaluation system, and a re-establishment of our seniority rights.  These fights will necessarily come up against the limits of what Gist has pushed from the state level, particularly on the evaluations and seniority.  But I think we should understand that despite her victory, she has come out of this fight a wounded beast—and there is now more space for us to push back at the local level against her attacks.  Who knows—our administrators may be happy to have to cave in to our resistance!  It is likely too late to organize real activist campaigns around those contracts that are up this September.  But a disproportionate number of contracts, including Providence, Cranston, Bristol-Warren and others, are up in September 2014.  We have a precious year to prepare.

Lastly, there is a looming, all-important question: the gubernatorial race.  This entire episode raises a very pointed question about Rhode Island politics: will the unions continue to be subservient to politicians that turn around and screw us?  This has been the case time and again, and it’s never been more obviously the case than it is now.  The 2014 gubernatorial race is shaping up as a three-way race between current Governor Chafee, State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.  All three are now Democrats, meaning that the race will be decided not in November, but in September.  Raimondo and Taveras are open enemies of teachers, having savaged our pensions and fired all the Providence teachers, respectively.  Chafee has aided and abetted these attacks, and proven time and again that he is no friend of workers (and also not very competent as a human being in general).  It has never been more clear that workers—and especially teachers—have no candidate to vote for, only candidates to vote against.

There must now be a serious conversation about how to approach the 2014 elections.  Do we abstain from the elections?  I would argue that abstention, while perhaps not the most fruitful approach, would be better than supporting one of our enemies.  More usefully: do we run an independent candidate as an alternative to our enemies?  And most importantly of all: do we now start building a party for the labor movement in our state?  We should answer yes to these two questions.  Doing so will naturally raise all sorts of difficult ancillary questions.  But avoiding the questions now will lead us to further disaster in the future, and make waste of the progress we’ve made through this fight.  We need to launch local contract campaigns for September 2014, and we need an electoral strategy that strengthens those fights, rather than undermining them (which has always been the result in the past).  For the first time, I can say confidently that our teachers’ unions in Rhode Island have made a real advance, even in defeat.  We must now chart a course for victory.

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Open Letter to Chafee and Mancuso: Dump Gist!

The Honorable Lincoln Chafee
Governor, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
82 Smith Street
Providence, RI  02903
 
Members of the Rhode Island Board of Education
c/o Eva Mancuso, Chair
80 Washington Street
Providence, RI 02903

Dear Linc and Eva,

I’m assuming that by now you’ve received dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of letters about this matter.  You will shortly be receiving a petition signed on-line by over 1,000 people on the issue.  And now, even I, humble high school foreign language teacher and public education blogger and activist, am haranguing you about it.  The matter is this: when it comes up for consideration this week, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist should not have her contract renewed.  Period.

So you ask: why not renew Gist’s contract?  There are so many reasons in her practice over the past four years, that I barely know where to begin.  Let me cover the basics by saying that Gist’s tenure has been a reign of terror on teachers.  The Commissioner has repeatedly issued edicts that affect educators and students, and done so as though her word were law.  From the day she pronounced teacher seniority a dead letter, to her support for the firing of the Central Falls High School Teachers, to her ill-conceived implementation of a disastrous teacher evaluation plan, Gist has made no secret of her contempt for Rhode Island’s teachers.  Her modus operandi has been seriously demoralizing to teachers all over the state.

But what of students?  Well, in the first place, an attack on teachers is an attack on students.  Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.  A commissioner who demoralizes teachers will demoralize students as well.  Let me make it more concrete: Gist’s policies have increased the weight of testing on students in Rhode Island tremendously.  While the Commissioner herself may not have implemented new tests—the NECAP was already in place when she arrived—she has held firm on the requirement of “partial proficiency” on the NECAP for high school graduation, despite all the evidence that this is bad policy.  But the secondary effects are even greater: the teacher evaluation system means that teachers implement more in the way of assessments so that we have “data points” for our evaluations.  Students complain that they are being evaluated in EVERY class, and it’s true.  So even if an educator could be completely “professional” and try to hide from the students that she or he is feeling from administration, the action of the testing would give it away anyway.

At this point, you stop me and object: but what about RACE TO THE TOP!?  To which I retort: race to the top of what?  And who’s left behind?  And who falls to the bottom?  You see, Gist’s grand achievement—the winning of a federal Race to the Top Grant—is not a big win for teachers, not a boon for students, not a boost to our public schools.  Quite the contrary: the vast bulk of the funds has been earmarked for data collections systems, consultants, and charter schools.  Gist even stated clearly in 2010 that Race to the Top would not solve anyone’s financial crisis—and indeed, it hasn’t   What is has done is to advance the real agenda of Deb Gist and the education “reformers” she’s in league with: to privatize public education even further.  This is the real content of Gist’s tenure: she has done all she could to attack teachers’ unions while finding ways to stuff public tax dollars into the pockets of private individuals and corporations.  As a taxpayer, I want my money back.  As a teacher, I want my profession back.  As a member of the public, I want the “public” put back in “public education”.

So now you know my assessment of Deborah Gist, one that she has failed.  But please be aware that it is not just Gist, and not just Rhode Island, where this drama is being played out.  All over the country, people like Gist are doing the dirty work of a handful of wealthy individuals, in reality nothing more than racketeers benefiting from the privatization of our public schools.  But in each case, ordinary people—teachers, students, parents—are standing up to these attacks.  From the Seattle teachers who boycotted the MAP test, to the Philadelphia students who walked out against the financial starvation of their schools, to the Chicago teachers who went on strike—and got majority support from the parents—our side is on the move.  Back in Rhode Island, we are organizing and growing in number.  We want to stop the degradation of our public schools at the hands of people like Gist, yes—but we also want to transform them into democratic institutions that nourish and promote the best in our society.  From the bottom up, we are reclaiming the institution that was in the first instance a demand of the labor movement: free, universal, public education for our children as a safe haven from the exploitation of the labor market.  We refuse to allow that same market to now take control of this institution for its own nefarious purposes.  We are the people, asserting our right to a dignified existence, to vibrant and democratic public schools, as against the designs of the powerful.

Governor Chafee, Chairperson Mancuso: are you with the powerful, or are you with the people?

Sincerely,

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Winter Storm Duncan misses Providence

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was scheduled to visit Providence today and tomorrow.  His original plan was to visit for a breakfast celebrating the schools operated by United Providence, which I describe below.  Someone must have tipped him off that we were planning a protest, because then he added a “town hall meeting” to address the question of safety in schools.  In the end, Winter Storm Nemo and the subsequent closure of Providence schools on Monday appears to have scotched his plans–but not before we prepared to confront the Front Man of Corporate Reform.  Below are the remarks I had prepared for our protest.

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On one hand, I have to express my shock that Secretary Duncan would have the nerve to speak about “school safety” on a day when the Providence Public Schools did not think it safe to have school.  On the other hand, the callous elite obliviousness Duncan has displayed today is in fact one of two main characteristics of his tenure as Secretary of Education.  The other his is single-minded drive for privatization of public schools, no matter what the social cost, no matter who gets hurt by his schemes that parade as education “reform” but are in fact simply a way of transferring public funds and public property to individual interests in the private sector.

This is, after all, the man who claimed that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing” that ever happened to New Orleans.  He retracted the comment later, but how could someone make such a comment about a disaster that killed over 1000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, predominantly Black and poor?  Simple: Hurricane Katrina allowed charter schools to tear apart what was left of the public system, to divide up the city’s student population among unaccountable and disconnected bureaucracies that could then profit off of their little chunk of formerly public sector capital.  In this case, a natural disaster was the pretext for a smash-and-grab crony capitalist operation.

Here in Providence, our seemingly increasingly frequent natural disasters have not yet been enough for such a whole-sale privatization to occur.  Without a natural crisis as an opening, Duncan has been forced to resort to artificial crises produced by the Federal Department of Education, in collusion with venture philanthropists such as Bill Gates and the Walton family, with charter school operators, textbook and test-writing companies, “data collection” outfits, and of course, state education departments and officials, such as our own Commissioner of Education Deb Gist.  Using the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind, Duncan and his acolytes have gone a step beyond the Bush administration, putting funds behind the school “turn-around” measures mandated by that disastrous law.

Race to the Top, touted as an alternative to NCLB, was in fact a massive extension of it.  When Rhode Island was granted RTTT funds to the tune of $75 million, Commissioner Gist made sure to emphasize that no school district would see any of this money going to alleviate the budgetary crises that almost all of Rhode Island’s districts face.  Instead, certain schools in Providence were arbitrarily declared to be “failing” and essentially put into receivership using RTTT funds.  This is where the UP model comes in: it is essentially a tripartite arrangement between the PPSD, the PTU, and the UP corporation for the sake of bamboozling the first two and channeling the funds to the third.  In the process, the PPSD and PTU appear to have lost all control to a malevolent, dictatorial and ignorant bureaucracy run by a private corporation.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what Arne Duncan has come to Providence to celebrate.

Let me just end my remarks by pointing back to Chicago, where Secretary Duncan started his education career as CEO of Chicago Schools.  On Duncan’s watch, something like 20 schools per year were closed and turned over to private charter school operators.  Meanwhile, the schools left in the public domain were underfunded, the teachers’ rights curtailed, the curriculum brutally standardized and the students shoehorned into it.  Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, also a former Obama administration official and Duncan’s colleague, has presided over a city with a massively rising rate of violent crime.  Emanuel has announced his plan to close 100 more Chicago schools in the next year.  It’s stunning that Secretary Duncan cannot make the connection between the closing of schools and the murder of teenage children like Hadiya Pendleton, shot on the street after taking an exam on January 29.  To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, some school violence comes from those with guns, and other school violence from those with private sector friends and Federal Government funds.

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The Attack on Seniority: Cruella Strikes Again

The Providence Journal reports today that Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deb Gist is back at it, announcing a major attack on teachers’ seniority rights.  She declares that any district that uses seniority in placements, layoffs and promotions will face retribution from RIDE.

The arrogance of this tyrant knows no bounds.  Since Gist arrived in Rhode Island almost four years ago, teachers here have lived under a reign of terror.  Gist’s modus operandi has been to announce a new policy, stunningly reactionary in nature, and then to act as though RIDE policy has more weight actual law.  Certainly district contracts are minor impediments to her; state labor law is to be blatantly disregarded; and really any mildly democratic process for determining educational practice in this state is inferior to her magisterial will.  It’s particularly stunning to me that she has announced this renewed attack on seniority even as the Portsmouth lawsuit on teacher seniority is still pending.  Clearly, even the legal system has no validity in Gist’s eyes.

What is so bizarre about this woman is the extent to which she gives the air of being blissfully unaware of the interests she’s working for, downright scandalized by the suggestion that she’s undermining public education for the sake of corporate profit.  But look at her background: a graduate of the Broad Academy, a recipient of funds from right-wing organizations, this woman is no joke.  She is the deliberate tool of the corporate education “reformers”.

I was unfortunate enough to have a personal conversation with her in September 2011, when the Board of Governors first voted down the Achievement First application for the school in Cranston.  She came up to me before the meeting and tried to shake my hand, which I refused.  Stunned by my rebuff, she tried to explain to me that she and I believe in the same things: quality education, support for top-notch teachers, a program to increase student achievement.  I think she was genuinely confused by my assertion that we stood for diametrically opposed policies in public education.  She denied my claim that her Race to the Top application was all about supporting private companies who were invading the public sector.  Completely lacking in cynicism, utterly convinced of the righteousness and universality of her outlook, Gist is the most dangerous type of corporate reformer: the True Believer.

Let me say what Rhode Island teachers have been thinking since she arrived: Gist Must Go.

——

Now let’s turn to the question at issue: seniority.  I’d encourage everyone to read this excellent defense of teacher seniority.  Every point this teacher makes is completely applicable to Rhode Island.  To be clear: Gist’s edict is simply a union-busting attack.  If bad or incompetent teachers persist in Rhode Island schools, this is not because of seniority, but because of administrative incompetence or malfeasance.  Rhode Island school districts have long had their own evaluation systems and mechanisms for removing teachers who are harmful to students.  If substandard teachers have persisted, it’s because they’re protected by the administrators they kiss up to.  Now imagine if good teachers—those that advocated for their students against the wishes of their administrators—had no protections!

As the defense linked above states, seniority was put in place even prior to the growth of teacher unions in the 1960s, precisely for reasons of preserving academic freedom and constitutional rights, and guarding against favoritism and corruption.  This protection takes on even more significance in the current climate, where teachers—those who know best and have the greatest interest in protecting their students—have been undermined, demonized, turned into the “problem” with public education.  What happens when we refuse to administer damaging and pointless standardized tests to our students?  What happens when we oppose parts of the Common Core Standards, particularly those that emphasize “informational text” and “correct interpretation” and instead expose our students to literature, interpretation and debate?  Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions—and the drive to undermine our employment security leaves our students vulnerable to the whims of unaccountable bureaucrats.

This danger is compounded by the utterly ridiculous state evaluation system now demoralizing teachers all over.   Does Gist mean for districts to lay off teachers on the basis of these evaluations?  Here’s the trick: the evaluation really depends almost entirely on the “student learning data”, i.e. test scores.  If you’re unfamiliar with the evaluation system, check it out on RIDE’s website.  Here’s the Final Effectiveness Rating Matrix, found on p. 58:

eval matrix

“PP” is Professional Practice, determined by classroom observations; “PF” is Professional Foundations, the measure of how much extra stuff a teacher does beyond the classroom (e.g. involvement in committees, student mentoring, curriculum initiatives, common planning, etc.).  Notice that in order for these aspects of teaching to really impact a teacher’s rating, they have to come out to a “1”.  What really matters is the test score data: if that data is not sufficient, even the teacher who gets a “4” on the “PPxPF” rating will be rated Developing.  In reality, even the best teachers, if they happen to teach disadvantaged and challenged students, will face the chopping block before those teachers whose students have greater socio-economic advantages.  Even the claim that the student achievement data is based on “goals” set on the basis of baseline data and expectations, there’s still far more chance that the teacher of socially disadvantaged students will not make the goal.  And that’s not to mention the cases where the “student learning objective” goals are imposed on teachers by administrators!

I want to raise one more clarifying question about Gist’s latest declaration.  Does she intend to take action against those districts that have replaced seniority in placement, promotion and layoff with a hybrid system?  I’m talking about “criterion-based hiring”, the system of “speed dating” that Providence put in place in 2011 after Taveras fired the teachers.  In my district, we have a modified form of this process in place now.  Rather than asserting seniority rights, teachers now have to put in an application for a transfer or promotion.  Seniority is included in the determination of who gets placed where, but it’s only 25% or so.  Is this reduction of our rights to one-quarter still too much?

And my last point: the attack on seniority has often relied on the argument that seniority protects the “old bad” teachers from layoff, while subjecting “good, young” teachers to the budget axe repeatedly.  But let’s be clear: it’s not teachers who decide to lay off teachers, ever.  It’s the administration and the school committees who decide that.  And why do they lay off teachers?  Because public education has suffered from a chronic crisis of funding practically from its foundation.  So when Gist gets Race to the Top funds and then immediately declares that the funds will not solve budget crises in the local districts, she simply gives her blessing to the conditions that have resulted in a massive decline in teacher employment in the years since the global financial crisis led to a years-long push for austerity and cuts in all public sector services.

——

I want to close with one last point: this is why we need a political alternative to the Democratic Party, and to bourgeois politics generally.  Remember, it’s Democrats for Education Reform.  More specifically to Rhode Island, we’ve seen a failed strategy on the part of our union leaders to “play the game”, prostrating ourselves before opportunist politicians in the hope that they’ll return the favor.  We were all-out for Obama in 2008 (and 2012!), and we got Duncan and Race to the Top.  We were all-out for Chafee in 2010, and we got pension “reform” and more of Gist.  In fact, right after the 2010 election, my Uniserv Rep informed us that despite our “victory” with Chafee, we would be overplaying our hand if we called for Gist’s ouster!  We win—so let’s not enforce our real demands!

The alternative to this losing strategy is to rely on ourselves.  Look at the Chicago Teachers: their strike did more to advance the struggle against Rahm’s corporate reform agenda than any Democratic Party election campaign (oh, and Rahm’s a Democrat, too).  Look at the Seattle Teachers: their boycott of the MAP test has electrified teachers around the country, and posed the question of teacher and parent control over education very clearly.  It’s the struggle from below that transforms the terms of the discourse around public education (or any area of public concern, for that matter).  So why not a petition calling for Gist’s firing?  Why not a mass mobilization that reaches out to parents’ groups for support?  Why not a one-day strike against this union-busting attack?

And then, long-term, as we fight against these attacks, we need to formulate our own program for public education: democratic, well-funded, and controlled by the public and not the Walton family and Bill Gates.  We need to be in a position to put our people up for the top spots, not supporting turn-coat careerist politicians.  And in the end, we need to abolish the system in which there are top spots, in favor of all power to the teachers, parents and students.  Whose Schools?  OUR SCHOOLS!

 

Posted in Analysis, Chronicles | 4 Comments

The Future of Our Schools: Some Reflections

I was very excited to receive Lois Weiner’s new book, The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice, in the mail.  Here’s my review of it for Socialist Worker.  Read my review, then read the book.  Then, get all your friends to read it, and discuss how it applies to your situation.

That’s what I want to do now, with this blog post: beyond what I already wrote in the review, I want to talk about the relevance of Weiner’s outlook to Rhode Island.  Some of this will apply to the work done by the Coalition to Defend Public Education and the Teachers for a Democratic Union in Providence; some of it will apply narrowly to my own suburban context.  I hope you’ll bear with me through this; I invite your comments on any aspect of what follows.

The Parameters of the Assault

“At the same time, teaching has become more demanding that it was just a few years ago, due to larger class sizes, cuts in support services, and more autocratic administration.  Working with young people is harder because of the social devastation caused by unemployment and increased poverty.  Teachers are worried, tired, and often frightened.”  (18)

“Laws requiring children’s compulsory attendance at school make children captive in classrooms.  When I say this to teachers, they are startled, and understandably so.  They don’t view their students as prisoners.  However, it’s critical for union activists to remember that students are indeed captive and if teachers are not doing their jobs well enough, students can be harmed.”  (22)

“Neoliberalism has succeeded in making many schools that serve children of working and poor families little more than training grounds for the factory—or prison.  It’s both morally essential and practical that teachers and unions stand up for children’s human needs.”  (25)

When I read the first quotation, I thought that Lois Weiner must have been spying on my professional life for some time already.  All of the above apply to my suburban district, and I’m certain it applies in the urban districts as well.  It’s a description of an institution under attack, and all the people inside it are under attack and have to learn how to work together.  I fear that much of what we’ve seen prior to September 2012 consists of the tightening of the screws and the taking out of the pressure on each other.  In my building, I certainly have seen the pressure applied to teachers, who then take it out on the students in the form of harsher discipline and more punishing pedagogy.

Of course, there are promising signs that this tide is about to turn.  The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and now the teachers at Garfield HS in Seattle are fighting back not just in their own interests, but for their students as well.  The Seattle example is striking because here is a relatively small group of teachers in one school, whose action—not initiated by their union, only endorsed after the fact—has shifted the terms of the national debate around standardized testing.  By their own direct action in the school, “on the shop floor” if you will, they are taking on an aspect of the neoliberal attack that affects teachers and students differently, but both negatively.  It lays the basis for solidarity between teachers, parents and students.  And, it’s a question of the way that testing provides an avenue for private interests to get their hands on public schools’ money.

 “NCLB’s purported aim of increasing educational opportunity masks its key purpose: to create a privatized system of public education that has a narrow, vocationalized curriculum enforced through use of standardized tests.” (148)

“NCLB’s passage follows on the failure of the civil rights movement’s reforms to equalize educational opportunity.”  (151)

“NCLB definitively breaks this pattern by presuming that if children are not succeeding in school, responsibility rests with the school—and not the children.  But in so doing, it destroys the structure and organization of a publicly funded and ostensibly publicly controlled system of education begun more than a century ago.”  (152)

These three short quotations encapsulate the pedagogical program of neoliberalism.  It’s precisely this that Antonio Gramsci criticizes about Mussolini’s fascist education reform in Italy in the 1920s in his essay On Education.  That should give us some perspective!  I think it’s worth recalling one of Gramsci’s points from this essay: he argued in favor of the classical curriculum, which featured the teaching of Latin.  In many ways, it seems a conservative argument, akin to the arguments made by neoconservatives in the 1980s (and today in Arizona, among other places) against women’s and ethnic studies programs.  But Gramsci’s point was quite different.  His notion was that the classical model, through the study of Latin and its evolution over time, gave students an opportunity to explore the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  They gained insight into the foundation of great civilizations, and how they’re ruled.  This made sense for the education of the rich men (and it goes without saying—European) whose future was to be the rulers of society.  Gramsci makes the point that this type of education—the complete opposite of the narrow, vocational curriculum Weiner criticizes—is essential to the training of students to become rulers of society.  And he himself is a proponent of making all students ready to become rulers of a society that is governed collectively and thoroughly democratically.  You can see why reactionaries from Mussolini to the Walton family would tremble at this thought.

But it also points to something important: the failure of the last round of radicalization.  I don’t see this as a failure of individuals, but rather a) a failure of politics: much of the momentum from that radicalization was absorbed by a Democratic Party that was never much of a friend, and that abruptly followed the right-wing march of the GOP from the mid-1970s to the present day; and b) a failure of momentum.  I’ve written about this last part a bit in a piece published on this blog—one of the most frequently viewed as well.  In sum: As the mid-1970s approached, the last battle of the civil rights movement was fought out in Boston, where the Democratic Party organized racist white mobs to stop the integration of Boston schools through busing.  They were ordered to integrate the schools by a federal judge, but it was the last pro-civil rights ruling from a federal judge in that era.  The next ruling forbade the formation of “mega-districts” so as to integrate the cities with the suburban districts for the sake of racial integration.  Shortly thereafter, the right-wing attack on affirmative action kicked into high gear, accompanied by the massive assault on unions.  The economic attacks went hand-in-hand with the racist attacks. And our side was adequately prepared to face neither.

The last point: NCLB undermines the basis of public education.  The focus on the collective responsibility for education may resonate with liberals—hence the reason that so many ed reformers are liberals.  Note that there’s a Democrats for Education Reform, but not a Republicans for Education Reform.  But it’s also a failure of the US political system to adequately represent the real politics of our society.  I’m convinced that a large number of people who call themselves “liberals” believe that the government should take care of the society, and that public control of sectors such as education is appropriate.  These people are actually social-democrats (in an era when the Social-Democrats of Europe have become neoliberals).  But we never even had a social-democratic formation in the US to represent this portion of the population.  The emergence of a left alternative to the Democratic Party—even one that took this simple social-democratic step—would be a major breakthrough for the fight to defend public education.

Social Movement Unionism

“No small group of officers, however intelligent or conscientious, can by themselves, or with the help of the dwindling number of politicians who support public education, substitute for the informed involvement of a mobilized membership.  Democracy seems inefficient because it can be messy.  Decisions take longer because more ideas and voices are involved in the process.  However, the democratic process yields decisions that are often wiser, precisely because the problem has been seen from different, even contradictory perspectives.  And in the end, the process generates decisions that will be more strongly defended—by more people.”  (35)

“…social movement unionism is at the heart of that struggle.  It is the alternative to the service or business model.  A social movement union casts the union’s strength as a function of its ability to mobilize its members to struggle on their own behalf.  Union power comes from the bottom up, as it does in social movements.  Union leaders offer direction and support for organizing, rather than telling members that their role is to let union officials set union policy.”  (36)

“I use the term ‘social movement’ union rather than ‘social justice’ union, which may be more familiar to some readers, because I think ‘social movement’ union addresses the need for unions’ internal transformation, especially the need for union democracy.  Social movement unionism gets at the relationship between the union’s organization and its vision of social justice.”  (36)

This portion of Weiner’s book is truly visionary.  We all know that the union movement in this country is in a deep crisis.  But part of that crisis was the effort of politicians—aided and abetted by union leaders—to paint the union movement as antithetical to the civil rights movement, to movements for women’s liberation, and to movements that saw the importance of international developments (most crucially in the last radicalization, the movement against the American war in Vietnam).  Absent the connection, the unions collapse back in on themselves, becoming even more isolated from the rest of American society, easier for the bosses to attack.  And they become complicit in all the oppressions fomented by capitalism—most notably the racism that keeps teachers of color out of the profession, that keeps non-white children in substandard schools; and the sexism that sets the terms for a profession dominated by women.

But I also can’t help but think that this portion of the book is also something of a distillation of the experience of progressive union activists.  In particular, the first quotation is so reminiscent of the way the Chicago Teachers Union, instead of ramming the agreement with the CPS down members’ throats, instead stayed on the picket line for two additional days so that members could read and digest and discuss and debate the new contract.  And when they voted to end the strike and accept the contract, the attitude of the leadership toward the no-voters was not one of hostility; rather, the message was: we understand why you’re voting no, and we look to you as some of the readiest and best fighters to uphold our contractual rights.  The CTU experience is foretold/studied/recapitulated again in the following lines:

“It’s critical for parents to feel that the union is not putting teachers’ personal interests ahead of their children’s well-being, and one way to do that is to formulate bargaining demands that take into account what we hear from the people we are serving.”  (47)

“The commonsense advice here is that preparing for work stoppages of any duration means building deep support among members and the public.  Teachers unions cannot ‘go it alone’ and win.”  (58)

“The ideal of social movement unionism relieves you from needing to know all the answers when you are elected to union office.  Your job is to mobilize the membership and revitalize the union’s organization so that members tell officers what to do.”  (66)

This set of quotations speaks for itself.

The Importance of Democracy

“Teachers are victimized, as their students are, by the absence of democracy in the schools, which robs them of the autonomy they need to respond  creatively to their students’ needs.”  (116-117)

“Spurning activism outside the union goes hand in hand with crushing it within the organization.”  (119)

“…many of the movement’s errors can be encapsulated in the notion that democracy is a luxury that we can separate from economic struggles.  A consistent struggle for democracy is, in fact, essential to win the battle to protect public education.”  (188)

If it isn’t already obvious, the thread running throughout this book is the primacy of democracy in education.  We in the system are all deprived of democracy by an increasingly autocratic and top-down modus operandi on the part of the rulers of the system.  And those rulers are increasingly beyond even the limited system of formal democracy in this country.  The other aspect here is this: the process of our unions collaborating with the bosses is deeply intertwined with the process by which our unions have become profoundly undemocratic.

“Most Americans have more immediate, sustained contact with the schools than they do any other governmental institution, unless they are incarcerated.  Schools generally have some neighborhood ties, even those in monolithic urban systems and communities that are so fragmented that they are barely identifiable as being communities.  These two factors together can make educational reform a classroom for the Left to learn how to build a popular, democratic movement that can help challenge the premises of American capitalism, as well as improve the lives of millions of teachers and children.”  (129)

This is a fantastic vision of what could be, of the role that the struggle to democratize public education could play in the transformation of the society at large.  It’s also why the right wing is so paranoid about “social experiments with the schools”, even as they perform plenty of those experiments of their own (to the detriment of teachers and students!).

And, it’s an important consideration about society under neoliberal capitalism: the system has so deeply rearranged the economic life of this country in the private sector, that the old bonds that held communities together have been torn asunder.  We could wax idyllic about this in an unhelpful way.  Remember the company towns?  Remember the ethnic enclaves of cities like Boston that provided the basis for racist resistance to school integration?  That said, the old urban neighborhoods with a close-knit culture could also provide a basis for organizing, for example when the Communist Party organized neighbors to fight evictions through direct action in the 1930s.  And the potential for union organizing in a company town looks very different from the prospect of organizing Wal-Mart, with its reputation for destroying the economies of small towns.

Given this, we can see quite clearly the opportunity provided by public education for organizing to take back what should be the common property of the society.  The schools provide a base from which to organize and to take up broader demands.  Wayne Au makes the point that standardized testing essentially measures what we already know about the socio-economic status and challenges of students in different schools—but that paradoxically, this knowledge is turned on its head, and testing heralded as the means by which to eliminate social inequality.  Now imagine that instead, we start with the struggle to push back standardized testing—whether in Seattle or in Providence or wherever—and then use that as a springboard to raising broader demands about funds for early childhood education, the need for play and recess in the elementary grades, the need for school breakfast programs, etc.  And from there: the need for significant public investment in public and social services for the poor, and the demand to racially equalize (and integrate) these services.

That all sounds well and good, the skeptic may say, but what about the current sorry state of the schools?  What about the fact that buildings are deteriorating, that the testing craze is turning schools more directly into prisons, that teachers are increasingly pitted against their students through evaluations based on “value-added measures”?  How can we defend public education when we don’t agree with much of what’s going on in public education?  Weiner’s answer is sharp:

“The more accurate and politically effective response is that schools can do more and better if we have well-prepared and well-supported teachers at work in well-resourced schools, and yet, even with these conditions, schools are hostage to powerful forces that depress achievement—factors that are beyond their control.  This more nuanced defense of public education and teachers undercuts one of the most difficult problems we face in defending public education, neoliberalism’s exploitation of historic inequalities in education.  This is especially true in the United States, where the rhetoric of the civil rights movement has been totally hijacked in defense of charter schools and improving ‘teacher quality’ by eliminating seniority and tenure.”  (191)

Beyond the Urban Core: Suburban Districts and the NEA

“The crisis in education is at its core the same for prosperous and impoverished school systems: their isolation from democratic control and domination by political elites and bureaucracies, which reduce parents, students, and citizens to passive recipients of a service.  Excellence and equity are not at odds with each other but are rather ‘irreducible conditions of each other,’…” (114-115)

“…the NEA lacks the ideological sophistication of other progressive unions in the United States and of its counterparts in Europe that are connected to social democratic parties… The NEA’s failure to name the problem [acceptance of the "there is no alternative" neoliberal mantra] has kept it from generating a class-conscious, anticapitalist critique that would guide development of the program needed to derail NCLB and the neoliberal program for education.”  (166-167)

These two quotes put so much into perspective for me.  On the first: being a radical in a small, suburban district can be a stultifying and frustrating experience.  We are facing a crisis that is far larger than any solution we can think up within the confines of our district.  I’m often stunned at how provincial people are in my district, just 12 miles from Providence.  Despite the awesomeness of the people I worked with locally, it made for a very unsuccessful attempt to organize against the budget cuts in the district.  It’s a funny situation: all the major pedagogical decisions are made by people at the top of US society, but the structure of “local control” in suburban districts reduces “democracy” to an exercise in tightening the purse strings, and attempting to squeeze even more blood out of the rock called the town council.

This is where the question of democracy—real democratic control of all aspects of education by the people most directly affected—emerges.  The school system is undemocratic in so many routine ways that we no longer notice it.  I joke with my students that school is about “shut up and obey”, and they laugh—until I explain how I must “shut up and obey”, and enforce that on them.  Another example: I recently surveyed my upper level class, and asked which of four possible units they’d like to study.  We don’t have time for more than three, and maybe not even that much.  But then one of the students told me that she was so used to being told what she was going to learn, that the concept of being asked her opinion in the matter was completely foreign.  If the lack of democracy is so thorough-going in my school, it is all the more so in schools where the majority are non-white—in other words, just about every urban school in segregated America.

Last point: the NEA in many ways paints itself as the more liberal of the two teachers’ unions.  It’s also by far the larger.  Yet when it comes down to it, the NEA is constantly hamstrung, tied down by whatever the AFT has decided it will go for, no matter how contrary to teachers’ interests that may be.  Perhaps because NEA locals tend to be in the areas that are not at the heart of the US economy, they tend to be much more removed from the realities of working-class America.  As a result, the NEA gets dragged along by whatever current trend in US education—and we are the more powerless as a result.

Diane Ravitch

“Ravitch’s defense of teacher unionism and public education is constrained by an ideological commitment to defending US capitalism at any cost.  Because she can’t or won’t acknowledge what has been wrong with US society and public education, she can’t devise a compelling alternative to the neoliberal reforms.”  (194)

One last note about this book: Lois Weiner has been doing this for a long time, and as such, she has what Utah Phillips called “The Most Dangerous Idea in America”: a long memory.  Today, Diane Ravitch is a hero for her condemnation of the corporate education reform movement, and rightly so.  But this was not always the case.  In the 1970s and 80s, Ravitch was on the neoconservative end of the scale, advocating for a very traditional (i.e. white, western, bourgeois) approach to the humanities.  Though she identified as a Democrat, she had no qualms accepting the post of Deputy Secretary of Education under Bush I.  Her defection from the Dark Side is only a very recent occurrence, and so it should not surprise us that she still holds to a number of reactionary or suspect ideas.  I may be putting words in Dr. Weiner’s mouth, but I can imagine her saying: if Diane Ravitch is a hero for our side, it simply means that it doesn’t take much to be radical these days.

After all, reality itself is becoming more radical by the day.

Posted in Books, Musings and Questions, Union Reform | 3 Comments