I got into a bit of a Twitter tussle the other day with a self-styled “education policy expert” for a Michigan corporate education reform group. While this person has never taught in a public school, and has little background or experience in education at all, he is now the Education Policy Director for this organization. After exchanging tweets for a few minutes (he had just written a pretty negative critique of one of my blog posts), during which I had challenged his credibility as an education policy writer for the reasons above, he bowed out of the conversation because, he said, it had gotten “personal.”
In my experience, this is a pretty common pattern: A person who works for a well-funded, anti-public education organization, whose full-time job it is to seek out social media articles and blog posts on specific topics (i.e., charter schools, teacher tenure, teacher evaluation systems) and then respond with forceful and negative responses, engages in a back-and-forth about a particular topic or issue. After a number of exchanges, the corporate reformer beats a hasty retreat, usually accompanied by the lobbing of a final “closing argument”, such as, “I don’t know why you keep making policy debates personal”.
Here’s the thing: attacks on public schools and teachers ARE personal. These “debates” may not be personal to these “policy analysts,” whose interest in this dialogue is not related to kids, schools, or learning. But to teachers and parents with children in these schools, being told your schools are “failing,” teachers are “lazy,” and that your schools should be shut down, or funding should be slashed, or that local control should be replaced by “Emergency Managers”…well, it all feels pretty personal to me.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this debate is the uneven playing ground upon which these battles are waged. On one side we have cabals of poorly-paid operatives, working in dark, windowless basements for corporate education reform operations like The 74 and the Education Post. A quick glance at the staff rosters for these groups reveals that they are staffed by dozens of 20-something alums of elite liberal arts schools with no background in education, but who are eager to move up in the world of journalism by writing about whatever they are told to write about in order to advance their careers. There appears to be very little ideological belief shared by these “drones”—they just tap away at their keyboards, typing out comments on targeted blog posts, and suppressing Amazon ratings.
Journalist Lee Fang corroborates the insidiousness of the tactics employed by the “reformers”:
I mean look at what American Majority is doing. They’re going out and they’re organizing folks, they’re hiring, they’ve got something like two dozen people going out and training people to go online, make lots of screen names, mess with liberal websites, go on Amazon and give one star to liberal books… That’s not expensive to do but that’s how people view the world these days and being able to manipulate things…I’m not advocating this strategy, I’m just giving it as an example. You can change public opinion which then changes public policy by doing these sorts of very strategic things that the left just doesn’t do for a whole variety of reasons.
While the reformers are well-funded, well-organized and fully-staffed, public education advocates are represented in this debate by a rag-tag group of teachers and activists, all of whom have other, full-time, jobs. These part-time warriors do battle on their lunch breaks, planning periods, and on the weekends, in between planning lessons, attending workshops, and dropping their kids off at piano lessons and soccer practices. What they may lack in funding and organization is more than made up with passion, experience, and knowledge.
So, it’s abundantly clear that there are two sides to this debate, and that each side comes to this dialogue from very different places:
For them, this is about “school choice”; for us, this is about diverting public tax dollars into private bank accounts.
For them, this is about “disrupting the education sector”; for us, this is about challenging your attempt to privatize one of the most important pillars of our society—our public schools.
For them, this is about power and profits; for us, this is about children and learning.
Here’s what I want the reformers to understand: As much as you may want to make this an antiseptic, de-personalized debate about issues of policy and legislation, for those of us dedicated to the health and vitality of our public education system, this is deeply personal stuff.
And I’m not sorry about that.