Lessons from the Defeat of Achievement First in Rhode Island

In a stunning upset, the Defenders of Public Education defeated the Corporate Reformers 7-1 in a match that was called early on account of the decisiveness of the Defenders’ victory.  Hooray!

The Board of Regents voted on Thursday to deny further development of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academy’s quest to bring Achievement First to Cranston.  This was a “small, complete victory”, in the words (not intended for our victory) of BoR chair George Caruolo.  Mary-Ellen Butke’s assertion that it was “only a vocal minority” that opposed the plan shows just how out of touch with reality she really is.  Yes, it was only the elected school board, the superintendent, the Cranston city council, and hundreds of Cranstonians opposed to it—clearly a minority!

I recommend a couple blog posts: Kiersten Marek’s short response really gives a sense of the thrill of victory.  Tom Hoffman’s blog has been extremely insightful all throughout.  I think he’s right that the fight will now shift to Providence, and that it will be completely problematic for the reformers.  That said, I don’t think it’ll be a walk in the park for us, either.  I also doubt that the charters will lose interest in Rhode Island: for venture “philanthropists”, defeat anywhere is unacceptable, and I’m sure they (if not Achievement First itself) will be back.

But before we get too far into what comes next, I want to reflect for a moment on the lessons of this victory.  We won this battle, but the war is still on—and it’s important to understand what worked and why.

1.  Protest Works.  Simple as it may be, this assertion is often quite controversial—if for no other reason than that so many activists have been to countless meetings where their demands, their arguments, their voices were all completely ignored.  Perhaps protest isn’t always enough—but without it, there’s no chance of winning the movement’s demands.

In this case, it was clear that there was solid opposition to the plan from everyone in Cranston—except Mayor Fung.  That was clear from the public forum on June 1, which had to be moved from the City Hall to the auditorium of Cranston East.  The isolation of the AF forces—and the fact that they were all from other places—was crystal clear.  This forced the Mayoral Academy folks to resort to all sorts of tricks at subsequent meetings of the Board of Regents, only to be put off until September.

When the mayors held their statehouse “rally”, it seemed that the pro-corporate forces were starting to line up their support, and those of us who are so accustomed to losing these battles prepared to fight and lose.  But what turned the tide was the rally in Cranston, with several hundred people from across the spectrum showing up to voice their opposition to a plan that would gut their schools even further.  This was clear from the letter Governor Chafee sent to the BoR, in which the opposition from Cranston is indicated as the key reason he cites to put the brakes on the whole project.  Much as Regent Shimberg was indignant at the rejection of the AF proposal, the BoR was clearly following the lead of the governor on this question—and they were all responding to the pressure from below.

One last note about this before moving on: I was personally unable to attend the rally, but from eyewitnesses it’s clear that a subtext of the rally was tremendous anti-corporate feeling.  One of the speakers from Providence was one of the most popular speakers—a promising sign in a city that often prides itself on not being Providence.  But along with that was a sense that we don’t want corporations taking over our schools.  They’ve already screwed up the rest of the economy, why would we hand our schools over to corporate plunderers?  I would argue that this gut-level anti-corporate sentiment is characteristic of the class of American wage workers, the vast majority of the population—and that it is nowhere represented in the American media portrayal of ou society.

2.  The Importance of democratic institutions: the Elected School Committee.  One of the fascinating things about the struggle in Cranston was the role played by members of the School Committee.  Their solid, informed, determined opposition to Achievement First was crucial in mobilizing the numbers of people they did.  Would Supt. Nero and other administrators have felt confident enough to speak up without the support of the people who employ them?  I don’t know any Cranston administrators personally, but I doubt they would have spoken out on their own.

The school committee members then also had access to the PTOs and other such avenues to put out the word about the rally, and to galvanize opposition.  Frankly, I find this stunning, and a vindication of what institutions that are democratic in form can do when they’re given democratic content, i.e. actually used to mobilize people in their own interests.  This is always the point about democracy: it’s useless if the “demos”, the people it organizes, are not actively engaged in every aspect of it.  That requires leadership—and the Cranston School Committee clearly provided that.  It’s an unusual example in a country where school committees—even elected ones—are often simply do-nothing bodies, rubber stamps for administrators, or patronage networks.

I think this aspect of the struggle is crucial for moving forward in Providence.  In his letter, Gov. Chafee points to the “broad support” for the AF charter school in Providence, citing mayor, city council and school board support.  Of course, Taveras is an anti-teacher union basher; the school board is appointed, and clearly serves the mayor’s will; and the Providence City Council is half windbags and toadies, half newbies who don’t know what they’re doing.  The untimely passing of Councilman Luna will make it even harder for Providentials to have a voice on the Council, and all the other potential progressive allies are both brand new and also less talented than Miguel.

The people of Providence have no voice through their institutions, which are less democratic in form than those of Cranston—and completely lacking in democratic content.  Given that previous struggles to stop school closings, teacher firings, etc., have run up against the brick wall of bureaucracy, the struggle for an elected school committee is going to be the motor for developing the voice of the people.  It’s that organized force, successful or not, that will be able to impact the existing institutions.  But if it’s successful, so much the better—for we’ll have an institution that we fought for and won, accountable to the grassroots and not to the powerbrokers.  This is not to say it will always be roses—but again, like protest in general, without this struggle and hopefully its eventual victory, we are certain to have the will of the corporate “reformers” and their paymasters imposed on us.

3.  Allies or Frenemies?  If you haven’t heard the term before, you can probably guess what it means.  This is an important question, precisely because the grassroots should never simply rely on the people in power, even if they do the right thing every now and again.  Even suppose we were to win an elected school board, and get activists on that board: anyone in that position would come under a lot of pressure from the powers that be to bend to their will and abandon their base.  Now flash back to our current crew of bureaucrats and politicians—and you see how urgent it is to get this question right.

The Board of Regents definitely turned over when Chafee came into office.  Angus Davis and some others among Gist’s supporters were thrown out, while more “progressive” people found seats on the Board.  It was nice to see the reformers be set back, but it was curious that Chafee did not sack Gist as well—the Commissioner is, after all, a gubernatorial appointee.  After the unions, and particularly the NEA, had campaigned for Chafee, it was frustrating to hear NEARI staffers say that we shouldn’t call for her resignation because “we don’t want to overplay our hand”.  In other words: election’s done, shut up and take what comes next.  As a result, the unions have been a bit quieter than they could or should be on some key fights, from the teacher firings in Providence to the pension issue to the destruction of seniority and the quiet acceptance of contracts around the state that make serious economic concessions.  This is a model that grassroots activists—however they vote individually—should not follow.

So the BoR voted down the AF plan, and all is right with the world.  We’re very happy with particular regents, such as Colleen Callahan and Robert Carothers, who respectively moved and seconded the motion to deny AF.  But let’s not forget the role of these people, who votedin our favor and may well do so again.  Callahan is an RIFT staffer who’s played a key role in developing the new evaluation model, which accepts the notion that “student achievement data” should be part of a teacher’s evaluation.  It’s shameful that the AFT has bought into the propaganda around this punitive system, and worse that they’ve worked to develop it.  I can’t help but think that part of Callahan’s being convinced of this system has to do with her role as part of a board that regulates the labor of teachers without their input.

Carothers’ story is that of a friendly, liberal college president whose historical mission at the University of Rhode Island was to privatize and destroy the old “public” nature of the institution.  I never felt any sympathy for fraternities until my time at URI, during which it became clear that he had used the bad behavior of the frats at various points as an opportunity: seize the frat house, refurbish it, and bring in a new grant-funded program that expands the private penetration of the public university.  When I was there over a decade ago, URI was then only about 25% funded by the state; the rest of it came from skyrocketing tuition and private grants.  Carothers himself was always able to put on a friendly face and paint himself as the champion of the students’ interests.  I remember once when his position was in jeopardy because of conflicts with certain people on the Board of Governors for Higher Education, he had a group of students who “occupied” the library in support of his administration.  Carothers must lie at the polar opposite end of the personality spectrum from Deb Gist, and he will consider the public sentiment before he takes action—but he is caught up in the same neoliberal frame of reference as the most brazen of the corporate reformers.

One other note about the regents themselves: not a single one of them voiced skepticism about or opposition to Achievement First itself, as a charter management operator; quite the contrary, several of them went out of their way to praise AF as a “high-performing” and “successful” charter.  They didn’t do this because they themselves think charter schools are an attack on public education; they did this because of the opposition from Cranston.

The last person on this note is the Governor himself.  I’ve never had a very high opinion of Chafee, frankly—he has always seemed mushy, dimwitted, and too eager to please.  His letter to the BoR shows that characteristic mushiness, that ability to “agree with everyone” when the parties hold diametrically opposed views.  This was obvious just from the discussion amongst the regents themselves: Shimberg insisted on the part of the letter where Chafee endorses the idea of an Achievement First school in Providence, while Callahan pointed to the part about “sharing best practices” in the following paragraph as the heart of the matter.  There is so much that’s problematic in his letter about charter schools, so many of the corporate reformers’ assumptions that he’s swallowed uncritically.  But the larger point is that he had something for everybody—and thus, really, nothing of value for anybody.  Chafee tries to bring together the Cranston folks with the Achievement Firsters, the fans of Diane Ravitch with the graduates of the Broad Academy, the people with the corporations.  It won’t work, and if we stupidly assume that Chafee is on our side, is opposed to charters, is at odds with Gist, etc., we will end up on the losing end.

4.  The Struggle must be State-wide.  I’ll conclude on this point, which I think leads logically to the question of “what next?”, and partially answers it.  The fact is: had this all been focused on Providence, AF would likely already have a contract.  Providence is not well-enough organized to fend off the attack on public education.  It’s central, because it’s the trend-setter for the state, the place where solutions can be found within the city.  But it’s also not sufficient, because the attacks on public education in the surrounding districts can be replicated and expanded in the capital city—and once rooted there, they set the tone for the rest of the state.  The reaction of the real “stakeholders” in the Cranston schools was the key to the defeat of AF—and now the whole state is on notice.  We have a good opportunity to advance the struggle from our newly-won position on the battlefield.  This position can be greatly fortified by the struggle for an elected school committee in Providence.  But it can only be held long-term if we can build alliances with people in other districts, if we can bring them into the Coalition to Defend Public Education and expand the reach of the best grassroots effort to defend public education this state has seen yet.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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2 Responses to Lessons from the Defeat of Achievement First in Rhode Island

  1. Tom Hoffman says:

    Nice post and thanks for the kind words. I definitely agree with 1 and 2, kinda shrug at 3. I think the Commissioner has a contract with the regents, so she’d have to be actively fired by them — she’s not an appointee of the Governor.

    On 4 I don’t disagree that a statewide organization is essential, but just don’t buy in too much to what is turning out to be the RI “reformers” biggest fallacy — that urban ed reform models will easily spread to the suburbs. The wider fight for public sector union rights is definitely statewide and flows back and forth as you describe, but this fascination with suburban replication is unique to RI, not very well thought out and maybe literally entirely attributable to Mayor McKee’s family ties and ambition.

    And as a side note, I’m now particularly convinced that anyplace that is not getting a boost from the new funding formula is not high on their list. It’s pretty clear that the reformers see that as their slush fund.

  2. Pingback: Get Motivated!: Be A Part Of The Peaceful Revolution « Bristol Bull Raker

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