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Education for everyone

Tide turning from reform back toward public schools

On March 1 and 2, a group of education activists from Indiana attended the Network for Public Education National Conference in Austin, Texas. People from across the U.S. gathered, united by a single purpose – to support public education. What could have become a great deal of whining and gnashing of teeth about the sorry state of the corporate education reform was instead a powerful convocation of like-minded advocates and activists.

NPE board member Anthony Cody opened the conference with a speech emphasizing the entire audience was unified in support of public education and against corporate reform and “hedge fund managers who have discovered a passion for the poor.”

In her keynote address, education historian Diane Ravitch movingly recalled heroes of public education, naming students, teachers, legislators, superintendents and advocates. When she called out the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education as heroes, all the letters we have written, all the calls we have made, all the presentations we have given, all the testimony we have spoken, all the frustration and sadness we have felt suddenly seemed worthwhile.

Momentum is building, and it feels as though we are approaching a tipping point. The 500 activists at the conference represent thousands more across the country who are questioning the wisdom and speed with which education reforms and untested policies have been implemented and ask for virtually no accountability for charter schools and for voucher-funded parochial schools. Parents and teachers are protesting the vast amount of instructional time devoted to preparing students to take tests whose only real value appears to be to label students, teachers, schools and communities as failing.

Parents are questioning how children’s private information is being accessed and sold, and parents are calling for legislation that allows them control of their children’s data.

Throughout the country there is a growing sense of outrage over the bill of goods corporate reformers have sold legislators. The primary way in which these reformers have operated is by writing stock legislation that governs legislation at the state level and threatens local districts with punitive action. Throughout the country, there is a growing sense that parents and educators have been right all along; public schools are not failing. The corporate, for-profit reformers view children as data points and test scores; their view is unacceptable.

Parents and teachers know that the joy of learning comes from imagining, creating, playing, thinking, experimenting, problem solving and being ready to learn. The joy of learning comes when a child has an “aha moment” when he/she finally gets it. Parents know that play contributes to learning; that children need the physical activity at recess and in gym class just as much as they need “rigor” sitting at a desk; that art and music help children learn much more than learning to practice for a test.

The momentum to reclaim our public schools is growing, but for it to continue, more parents, teachers, administrators, students, grandparents and concerned citizens need to stand up and protest the attack on public education. Public education is a human institution created for the common good and is an essential factor in our democracy. It should not be a marketplace commodity. It should guarantee equity for all students rather than be a competition where there are winners and losers. We need to speak louder and defy the power and money behind corporate reformers and the legislation proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council .

And we can do it. In Ravitch’s words, “We will win because everything these faux reformers are doing is failing or has already failed.”

The Network for Public Education has called on Congress to investigate high-stakes testing. The revision of No Child Left Behind is long overdue, but neither the Bush nor Obama administrations nor Congress has done anything except increase the stakes. NPE has issued a call for formal hearings to investigate the “over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools.”

The message is clear: We can reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning – not profit centers for corporations, entrepreneurs, snake-oil salesmen and consultants.

Winning means preserving public education for the common good and for all children. It will take more effort, more voices, more action.

Phyllis A. Bush (above left), Terry Springer (above right) and Anne Duff are members of Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education and The Network for Public Education. They wrote this for The Journal Gazette.