Conference of anti-reformers brings the noise / by Christopher Stewart

Imagine me at a conference hosted by the good folks at Socialist Alternative. Thoughts of a pastor at the Mustang ranch or a fish on a bicycle  should come to mind. Well, this past Saturday I continued my self-education process by attending a panel discussion sponsored by Public Education Justice.

I'm dedicated to consuming world views that run counter to mine, and nothing could be further from me than a forum totally against school reform.

That said,  I'm completely freaked out by what I heard. I know there is a gulf of opinion in the big debate about schools, but I'm sometimes shocked at how off-the-rails the anti-reform cult has gone. As I saw last Saturday, they have erected an alternative reality where fighting for the intolerable public education status quo is the new noble movement of oppressed peoples.

First up, Glenn Ford from the Black Agenda Report.

He started the session with a blistering critique of neo-liberal politics that featured an unrelenting sketch of Barack Obama that placed the President at the center of a plot to support empire. From there Ford walked the crowd of mostly uncolored Seward Cafe types through the common anti-reform narrative: super-rich foundations have hired black faces like Corey Booker - or started "astroturf" organizations like Black Alliance for Educational Options - to target a doltish black community for support of school choice, vouchers, and charter schools. Speaking in a dramatic stuccato he connected the dots between national players involved in idealogical effort to privatize all things public; to create markets where there should be none; and to undermine working people. It was Diane Ravitch with a tan.

The big applause line is when Ford call for the replacing our leaders, "starting with President Barack Obama," followed by "our union leaders" who have been complicit in the reform movement. As an Obama voter I hope half of Ford's call comes true.

Scanning the room I could see the danger of Ford is his utility as an ornament for folks seeking a black opinion they can assert is authentically against attempts to improve public education with remedies that are unpopular to unions (hey, his blog is called "Black Commentator" after all). The unshaven Left needs a black voice to say the things that would draw charges of racism if they said it, much like the white Right needs Herman Cain. The irony in Ford accusing BAEO of pushing views that do not enjoy broad-based support in the black community is that his own views on the President and Corey Booker are shared by virtually no portion of the black community. In short, Ford is afro-turf that blackwashes the white leftist fringe so they can discount the valid black voices that are simmering for change.

Did anyone notice that the room was roughly as black as a Pearl Jam concert?

Next up, Michael Brunson, the recording secretary from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

Brunson gave details of how the CTU had become more radical in the face of a "war" on the public schools of Chicago. It started with an internal teachers' group called Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) that started as a book club amongst front line educators. They were seeking a more grassroots vision of what unionism could be, and to be supported even as their union leaders had lost touch with them. They quickly trained their sights on taking over the CTU leadership - and they won. We they took power they agreed the call was "to be more militant" than their predecessors." And, when preparing for contract negotiations they "doubled down on PR," hired "skilled labor attorneys," and sent union officials to meet with front line teachers to talk about the contract. At the same time they encouraged their teachers to talk to parents and students about their cause.

The socialists in the room loved this story. It seemed to inspire a mist in the room. Of course, I was not misty, I was thrown. That students in one of America's worst performing school districts - where social conditions for city youth is coming undone - teachers walking out on students for several days was seen as a success because it reaped material benefits for adults.

How is it that the super-rich school reform funders are to be feared for their motives when the "socialists" see lost learning time for students as a leverage point to gain air conditioning?

How are charter schools the enemy when their students in Chicago didn't spend days in the unsafe streets while their teachers wore red shirts and blogged slogans stolen from bigger revolutions of underclass people around the globe?

I'm not sure.

Finally, Rob Panning-Miller gave a peevish accounting of unpopular activities including a host of "astroturf" groups that have infiltrated the education landscape in Minnesota. This included school districts - and even the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers - becoming charter school authorizers; and sin of all sins, hiring Teach for America Teachers.

"I asked the local former leader of TFA why they're even here in Minnesota" he snipped. "He told me it's now about leadership."

The crowed laughed. It would have been kinda of cute if it weren't for the academic catastrophe happening in the schools where TFA teachers are willing teach.

Although this was a forum on education there was one striking omission. Amongst the talk about public education workers, their rights, and the need to fight the big business cabal attempting to Walmart-ify schools, there was no direct discussion about the racialized predictability of student achievement that assigns millions of black and brown youngsters to diminished lives. That is, except when Ford said "I'm going to say something provocative," then relieved the crowd with the assertion that "there will be no measurable improvement in test scores for black and brown students" until the American system of capitalism equalizes conditions for everyone.

And that's what they wanted to hear. A black man that will let them off the hook for the expectation that black and brown children will learn while in their care. Again, the irony embedded in his words is that there is an effort to "de-professionalize" teaching, even as he says that teachers can make no difference. We should value teachers because they are workers, not because their work can produce a desired effect.

The truth is I love an underdog, and for that reason I could easily be a socialist. But rooms like this one are not the underdogs. These people are not oppressed. All of the "worker" histrionics are the political equivalent of dressing in drag for people with college educations, middle-class benefits, and overblown self-concepts that they see as aligned with words like "revolution" and "solidarity."

As a final note, I was tracked down by a teacher before I left. She wanted to talk to me about TFA and how they have a plot to take over Minneapolis Public Schools. In the middle of her pitch I told her that I represent a community that is a third party to these discussions. Unionists and school reformers are in a massive battle over public education, and the black community is not very present in either group's leadership. That makes us consumers of the debate. One group continually tells us that our kids can't learn because we're poor, our parents are jacked up, and our kids are deficient in too many ways.

The other group tells us that our kids - as they are right now - can learn.

Which group do you think wins?