Challenging Corporate School Reform and 10 Hopeful Signs of Resistance

About a year ago I was invited to Portland to give a talk about who was bashing teachers and public schools in the wake of the release of the pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for Stupidman. Since then, it's been a year from hell for many teachers; at times it seems the people making education policy have completely lost their minds, and the attacks on public schools and those who work in them or rely on them have morphed in ugly and sometimes dangerous ways.

But it's also been a year of pushback, heroic resistance, and movement building. There are cracks in the corporate reform movement, recently reflected in the collapse of the coalition that supported NCLB, and there are signs of resistance everywhere (e.g. recent Tacoma strike).

So today I want to take a closer look at the corporate school reform movement because I think it can help expose where that movement is vulnerable to the most hopeful development of the past year, and that's the steady growth of a deep, broad and at times quite militant pushback against corporate reform.

There's been some discussion about whether the phrase "corporate school reform" is the right label for a set of proposals coming from private foundations like Gates, Broad, and Walton and their well-funded partners in elite corporate, media, and political circles. Some call it "market reform" or "neo-liberal reform." Some call it "de-form" instead of "re-form." Some call it "Rhee-form" with an R-h-e-e for Michelle Rhee, one of its most high profile representatives. I think my own favorite term is "reforminess," a label borrowed from comedian Stephen Colbert's rightwing TV persona whose beliefs and ideas are strongly held but have only a tenuous connection to reality, a quality he calls "truthiness."  [BTW, even though I'm a big Colbert fan, you may have noticed his show has a steady stream of "reformy" heroes as guests: Kopp/Canada/Rhee/Guggenheim. It's because one of Colbert's chief producers is the wife of the self-appointed education pundit and corporate reform cheerleader Jonathan Alter.]

The corporate reformers like to call themselves just the "reformers" and counterpose themselves to the "status quo." And there's no doubt that the corporate/foundation crowd has successfully captured the media label as "education reformers."  If you support testing, charters, merit pay, the elimination of tenure and seniority, and control of school policy by corporate managers you're a "reformer."  If you support increased school funding, collective bargaining, and control of school policy by educators, you're a "defender of the status quo."

This bears no resemblance to reality or to the substance of the issues under debate. As Seattle's own parent activist Sue Peters put it so well in a blog post a few months ago, "The current crowd of education reformers like to dismiss any of us who disagree with their agenda as 'defenders of the status quo.'  Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not a defender of the status quo in public education because the status quo is currently a beleaguered, underfunded system [that] has been ravaged by damaging policies…pushed by those who want to privatize our public schools." 

Now I've also spent a large part of my adult life criticizing the flawed institutions and policies of public education—as a teacher, an education activist, and a policy advocate. Rethinking Schools has been pressing for radical reform of public education since it was started 25 years ago. But with debate about education policy now sharply politicized and polarized, it's important to be specific about the policies we oppose and why, and the alternatives we need to address the very real problems our schools face.

So I'm going to use "corporate reform" to describe a specific set of specific policy proposals and political forces driving current education policy at the state and federal level. This corporate reform movement advocates the following:

  • Increased test-based evaluation of students, teachers, and schools of education.
  • Elimination or weakening of tenure and seniority rights.
  • An end to pay for experience or advanced degrees.
  • Closing schools deemed low performing and their replacement by publicly funded, but privately run charters.
  • Replacing governance by local school boards with various forms of mayoral and state takeover or private management.
  • Vouchers and tax credit subsidies for private school tuition.
  • Increases in class size, sometimes tied to the firing of 5-10% of the teaching staff.
  • Implementation of common core standards and something called "college and

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