Tuesday, October 23, 2018
If you were trying to make a buck on the side and were pretty sure that some new or improved technology would drastically undercut the market for cell phones within five years, would you invest in Apple stock or look for other opportunities? Well, that is the type of information I have for the Koch Brothers and Devos families of the world. Invest your money elsewhere. Vacate the Secretary of Education’s office. The days of charter and voucher growth are numbered. And regulation is coming to those charters and vouchers already in place.
Why am I suddenly confident, rather than nervous, about charters and vouchers? I got the chance to meet and listen to teachers from across the country at the Network for Public Education’s annual conference in Indianapolis this past weekend. For the first time in my professional career, I had a firm sense of public education’s future. I have litigated and participated in several civil rights and school funding cases, dealt with lots of different advocates, and watched closely as the teacher protests unfolded this spring. In Indianapolis, I saw something special—something I had never seen before.
I saw a broad based education movement led not by elites, scholars, or politicians, but everyday people. Those everyday people were teachers who were not just from big cities, small cities, suburbs, or the countryside, but from all of those places and as diverse as America’s fifty states and ten thousand school districts. The teachers weren’t just young or old, white, black or brown, men or women, straight or gay. They were all of the above.
So what then binds them together? Their opponents would say they are radicals or self-interested. But these teachers weren’t that either. As I sat down across the table and listened, I was struck by just how “every day” many of these teachers were. They had hopped on planes and come from across the country, but they were not any different from my kids’ teachers back in South Carolina--who had not even hinted at the possibility of a strike.
These movement “leaders” in Indianapolis were reluctant leaders. Like my kids’ teachers, these teachers struck me as the type who put their heads down, follow the rules, teach what the state asks, and care most of all about their students. And while these teachers were obviously disappointed in their states and concerned about the future of public education, I wouldn’t even call them mad. They stepped out on a ledge because they felt they had to.
One teacher, whom I recognized from this past spring's newspapers but won’t name, actually had a lot of good things to say about her teaching experience and school. She said her principal lets her teach how and what she wants and that her school is good place. If I did not know who she was, you could not have convinced me that she led thousands of teachers this past spring.
There is one stereotype, however, that fits these teachers well: studiousness. They read—a lot. They research—a lot. As a result, they know and keep track of stuff that normally only policy wonks and professors know. Details matter in education policy and these teachers were on top of them. If I were governor and starting a new watchdog agency—whether in education or some other area—these teachers are some of the first people I would hire.
Over time, I have come to realize that clients matter more than attorneys. Groups of committed individuals standing behind movement leaders are, as often as not, more important than leaders. Attorneys and leaders tend to be just vessels for something larger than themselves.
What makes this teacher movement special is that the leaders are also the followers. The leaders come from within the ranks, not urged on by outsiders, elites, or money. They are urged on by their own sense of right and wrong, by their heartfelt care for public education and the kids its serves. For those reasons, they won’t be going away, bought off, or fatigued any time soon.
Polling in several states suggests these teachers are going to take their legislatures by storm in a few weeks. But as important as those elections are, they will not decide the final fate of public education. Whether it is this year, next year, or several years from now, this otherwise complacent cadre of teachers will reach their goal. They have been awakened by states that overreached and pushed them too far. Now that they are awake, they won’t stop fighting for public education no matter what happens this fall. That, more than anything, tells me that the days of privatizing public education are numbered.
--image by Alvesgaspar, courtesy of Wiki Commons