Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Choice" and the language of reform

I'm in D.C. this week, thinking ahead to the summer's SOS conference which will be held here in August. It's here, the scene of last summer's SOS March & Rally, that teachers, parents, students and community activists will gather to adopt an education platform that we can organize around at upcoming Democratic and Republic conventions.

So much of ed politics is based on the language of reform. I sure you've noticed the catch words and phrases that are thrown around by the corporate reform groups. It seems like their debasement of teachers and attacks on their union rights is always couched in, "it's all about the kids -- not the adults" rhetoric. It's as if the interests of children, their parents and teachers are somehow at odds. Every corporate reform group, it seems, has taken on a name like, Stand for Children, or Children First, or We Love Children, as if the adults who run these organizations weren't drawing fat salaries for themselves while they pour millions of dollars into grown-up politicians' political war chests in order to ensure legislation that favors privatization.

Another piece of corporate reform lingo comes wrapped in the word choice. It's become a buzzword behind school vouchers, privately-run charter schools, school segregation, and more recently, the so-called Parent Trigger, which gives a group of parents the power to close their neighborhood school and hand it over to a private (often for-profit) firms to essentially own and operate.

There's nothing wrong with choice, of course. Real democracy is all about a community's ability to make informed decisions about community life.

Schools will now get to "choose" ground beef or pink slime for their students.
But in my mind at least, there are two very different kinds of choice. One is a limited kind consumer choice, which we all enjoy -- the choice offered by marketeers -- say between smooth and chunky or caff and decaff. The other has more to do with power -- the ability of people to define phenomena themselves and make the important decisions that affect their lives and communities.

An example of the former was the announcement yesterday by the USDA, that schools will be able to choose between purchasing ground beef and pink slime (meat mixed with ammonia-treated filler).
A USDA official with knowledge of the decision says the agency wanted to be transparent and school districts wanted choices. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement. The USDA buys about a fifth of the food served in schools. -- AP Wire.
Remember, it's all about the kids.

An example of the latter is the choices made by teachers in classrooms every day about what's most worthwhile for students to know and experience. These decisions are the heart and soul of democratic education. But with corporate reform, increasingly these decisions are being taken out of the hands of educators and left to corporate school operators or the power philanthropists to make.

Public space in general is being eroded with the selling off of public entities and with that, public decision-making. Powerful conservative forces are pushing for less regulation over corporations and their products, and more teacher evaluation based entirely or largely on student test scores. The result in schools is the overall weakening of the teaching profession and the dis-empowerment of teachers, parents and communities over their schools. The New York Times reports that teacher morale is at a 20-year low.
Many of the teachers also report that their schools have been hit with budget cuts, often resulting in layoffs, the loss of important enrichment courses and lags in technological capability in classrooms. The dissatisfaction was across the board, though worse in urban schools and those with large minority populations, the survey found.
Another good reason for us to show up in D.C. this summer.

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