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Grassroots and Astroturf School Reform

If you were asked to list the great leaders of education reform in America, would many of the names belong to people who achieved riches and fame in some other field? What nascent education reformers Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg, and Mark Zuckerberg all have in common are the ability to invest vast sums of money into privatized education reform endeavors, and their confidence that this will do the trick. The field of hopeful reformers is now also widening to include musicians and athletes. This will not end well.

Prime Prep Academy, the charter school founded in Texas by former Dallas Cowboy Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, is facing the closure of two campuses for not meeting the standards of the state education code. Awash in contention since its founding in 2012, it wasn’t the internal squabbling, lawsuits, accusations of theft, or open meetings violations that led the Texas Education Agency to come down on the celebrity’s pet education reform project. The final straw was the Texas Department of Agriculture announcing that about $46,000 that the school was supposed to have spent as part of a federally-subsidized reduced and free school lunch program had not been properly documented, and would have to be repaid. Look closely; the school itself, and the reasons for its shuttering, are emblematic of what corporate-led education reform in America looks like.

The foundational concept of charter schools is that public schools have failed, especially in urban communities, to provide students with rigorous academics in a safe environment—a situation that market-driven solutions can allegedly rectify. But at Prime Time Prep, preparation for anything besides sports isn’t exactly the focus. As Bob Sanborn, CEO of nonprofit school ranking organization Children At Risk said of Prime Time Prep, “It’s a world-class failure when it comes to academics. This is a bad school.” Parents complained about the shoddy curriculum and lack of discipline. Teachers complained about being overworked. Students complained about not learning. According to the New York Times, another nonprofit school-ranking group in Texas gave the lower grades at Prime Time Prep an “F.” The school’s basketball team is, however, ranked sixth in the nation, and its games are shown on ESPN.

The fact that, almost on a whim, a professional athlete with zero experience as an educator or administrator can parlay his celebrity into the creation of a school is indicative of what neoliberals mean by “reform.” It’s a common formula. First, insist that a crisis exists, but misdiagnose the cause. So, in this case, insist that America has an educational crisis that, if solved, would also help to eradicate economic disparity (rather than admitting what we actually have, which is an economic crisis causing educational disparity). Second, insist that the public civic institution at issue is being incompetently run and therefore requires a free-market solution. Then demand little to no oversight or financial transparency as necessary conditions for operating efficiently.

We see this not only with neoliberal reforms to education, but with reforms to other traditionally public civil institutions like prisons and the military as well. Not only does this fake reform charade distract from the real issue—poverty—but it serves as a Trojan Horse for corruption. The efficiency that neoliberal “solutions” boast is simply the means to monetize swaths of largely powerless citizens—students, prisoners, and soldiers. The “reform” itself becomes a larger problem than what it is meant to address.

Standing in opposition to the corporate education reforms of the neoliberal business class (the Astroturf) are the comparatively unmonied grassroots activists in the proverbial streets. As John Tierny recently wrote, somewhat dramatically, in The Atlantic, “It’s always hard to tell for sure exactly when a revolution starts, but even I can see that a new one is taking shape in American K-12 Public Education.” What Tierny cites in his description of “revolution” are teachers and parents refusing or opting out of standardized tests, legislators beginning to listen to their constituents’ complaints about market-driven education “solutions,” and growing criticism of vouchers and the corrupt testing industry.

Grassroots reformers don’t hire PR firms, and their tactics reflect it. For example, take the Journey For Justice Movement, a ragtag group of education activists who confronted secretary of education Arne Duncan in Washington, D.C. about widespread public school closures. Or look at the group of over 400 Long Island principals who signed a letter of protest against New York’s new and completely untested teacher evaluation system. This is what real reform should look like. It should move from the bottom up. It shouldn’t be associated with wealthy institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the right-wing lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It should make the argument for better public funding of schools, putting control of school policy in the hands of trained educators, less standardized testing, and collective bargaining for teachers.

The wild alchemy of public relations propaganda has allowed neoliberals to claim just the opposite as “reforms” in popular vernacular—school closings, opaque finances, charters, merit pay, tenure elimination, and standardized testing. The status quo has painted itself as an inventive, courageous, and levelheaded underdog.

Photo by Max Wolfe
Photo by Max Wolfe

Despite the financial odds against them, the signs of grassroots resistance are real and encouraging. Across the country, parent and teacher groups are mobilizing to take back control of their schools. One example, the Education for Liberation Network, addresses things that market-reform won’t touch, like social justice issues and the school-to-prison pipeline. Another group, Parents Across America, empowers parents from Seattle to Florida to fight for reforms like full-day kindergarten, smaller classrooms, a well-rounded curriculum, and diversity, by providing them with the resources to engage with the media and build alliances with teachers.

An interesting aspect of Parents Across America, and another way in which it differs from market-driven reformers, is that it emphasizes the varied needs of local communities. There is no single catchall approach that will work for every school. Each community has different needs and goals. Hence the grassroots reform groups across America are each dedicated to the individual cities in which they live. There are robust teachers groups actively working for education reform through social justice in Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Portland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and, of course, Chicago.

One of the most vibrant grassroots groups in Chicago, a city riven by the draconian reform policies of mayor Rahm Emanuel, is Bad Ass Moms. Founded as a response to the unprecedented closing of fifty Chicago public schools, BAM has fashioned itself as an advocate for the educational justice of children from working-class families. The group itself is composed of women from all different backgrounds, but as In These Times reported,

[u]nited behind the idea that all schools should be great schools, not just the ones their kids attend of the ones the Board of Education deems worthy of saving, BAM activists say they want to amplify the voices of working-class families whose schools are being defunded, over-tested and disproportionately closed by the city’s so-called education reformers.

BAM aims to address a wide range of social justice-related education issues, rather than focusing entirely on a single point of reform like other similar organizations in Chicago—such as teacher layoffs for Parents 4 Teachers, or over-testing for More Than A Score. By keeping a broad view, groups that are not affiliated with think tanks or the largesse of rich donors can stress the need for economic and social justice as a vital part of any real education reform, and not just talk about piecemeal policy changes.

Perhaps the best example of genuine, grassroots organizing for education reform is that which comes from the students themselves. In places as diverse as Louisiana, Philadelphia, Denver, and Portland, students themselves have made their voices heard. There have been sit-ins, walkouts, and various acts of defiance by students expressing their outrage at bad budgets, school closures, and systemic racism. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, 8-year-olds protested against austerity measures in their school district. And it makes sense. Who are better positioned than the students to articulate what the last few decades of market-driven education reform has wrought?

Valerie Strauss wrote in the Washington Post last year,powerful corporate interests are mining new profit centers while poor children of color, who were the intended beneficiaries of reform, are getting stuck with the shaft.” And that’s exactly where real reform should come from. Not from business leaders or entrepreneurs, not from the Walton Foundation or Bill Gates, but from those families and communities who are getting the shaft.

It seems doubly unfair that the victims of neoliberal faux-reform should be tasked with the burden of opposing it. (What sort of chance do non-elite citizens have against the coffers of Bill Gates or the influence of celebrities? How can average people affect systemic change?) But these rhetorical anxieties have already been answered by the examples of most major social reforms in American history. Real change can only come at the insistence of those who require it most. It’s the only way things have ever changed.