Getting Schooled

Ari Paul Mar 30, 2012

It started as an act of political theater during the early days of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampment at Zuccotti Park. Public school teachers and adjunct lecturers hosted a “grade-in,” a public display of the endless work educators do after 3:30 p.m. and on weekends. These teachers, who came from various groups opposed to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s assault on public education and frustrated with the bureaucracy of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), saw a unifying theme in their frustration.

“Our problems stem from the fact that we have no power, no voice in the classrooms,” said Kelley Wolcott, an eighth-grade English teacher in Red Hook, Brooklyn. And so Occupy the DOE (Department of Education) was born.

Wolcott, a member of the UFT reform group Teachers Unite, ticked off the threats facing New York City public education: the cap on the number of charter schools has been lifted, budget cuts have caused class sizes to increase, the layoffs of several hundred school aides, school closings and a new tenure system that put the burden of proof on the teacher. To top it all off, eight of the 13 seats of the main DOE decision-making body, the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), are appointed by the mayor, making protests against City Hall policy a vain endeavor. Yet, because Bloomberg has the support of most of New York City’s dailies, he is still able to spread the idea that all the problems are caused not by his near-complete control, but rather by pesky union contract terms.

The choice to bring the Occupy name into this new approach is not just because of its Zuccotti Park roots, but because Bloomberg’s education policy is a blatant attempt to corporatize what should be a public good. Mayoral control of schools came to the city in 2002, replacing the system of local district boards, and the Bloomberg administration has used its power to bring the private-sector model of management to schools. A school’s success or failure, a multi-faceted and subjective judgment, is measured using a strictly quantitative method. (Think of Bloomberg’s rigid health-code grading system for restaurants applied to educating children.) Wolcott notes that this turns principals from pedagogical leaders into mere plant supervisors who pressure teachers to produce good numbers by sidelining students who need more help because they could jeopardize test scores, while the rest learn to simply correctly answer standardized exam questions rather than think critically.

“This only leads you to one method of education,” she said. “It’s this data craze. It’s not even quasi-scientific. The value-added model always ensures failure.”

And why is this happening? Partly, it is because of the widely held belief that private-sector practices, which may work well for producing a variety of consumer goods, are a cure-all for the government’s institutional problems. But more troubling, many believe, is that the support of hedge-fund managers and other financiers for charter schools is proof that they are investing now for a payout later (a 2010 New York Times story notes that hedge fund managers are among charter advocacy groups’ most loyal, and lucrative, supporters). Wolcott couldn’t say for sure what the market value of the $1 million student city public school system was, but, he guesses, “It’s well into the billions.”

The OWS movement has been as much about confronting corporate control as it has been about deviating from traditional methods of reform and creating new types of resistance. For Occupy the DOE, that has entailed bringing its activists to PEP meetings to protest not only its policies but also its inherently anti-democratic processes. And while the UFT has advocated for more community input into education oversight, it still supports mayoral control. In fact, when the State Legislature reauthorized mayoral control in 2009, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said, “this legislation will provide the transparency and accountability, as well as parent participation, which will allow our school system’s progress to continue.”

Occupy the DOE, on the other hand, wants to end mayoral control outright. Bloomberg supporters point to the problems of the old board of education, which was rife with corruption and institutional failure, and the movement acknowledges this. But its members believe that the city can create an elected decision-making body that ensures equal input from parents, students and teachers. The movement, along with the UFT, supports legislation currently pending in Albany that would allow Community Education Councils to veto charter schools being located in public school buildings, a practice called co-location. These councils replaced district school boards after the implementation of mayoral control.

The movement combined protests with courting sympathetic lawmakers who may become more empowered to help if popular opinion sways against the Bloomberg administration.

“Messaging is key. Most of this is a war of perception because the other side is very effective in messaging,” Wolcott said.

Occupy the DOE, with its focus on the 1%’s stake in so-called education reform, points out something the mainstream debate about education ignores. While it is easy to blame the right wing for this assault on education workers and the public good, the mess was created by liberals. Bloomberg, a Republican by convenience, has been elected three times by liberal voters. Diane Ravitch, an early supporter of the charter school movement who has since radically changed her position, told me in an interview several years ago that President Barack Obama is farther to the right in terms of education than George W. Bush was.

Davis Guggenheim, the director of the pro-charter schools film Waiting for ‘Superman,’ also directed Al Gore’s environmentalist documentary An Inconvenient Truth and a 17-minute Obama re-election campaign film. There are also groups like Democrats for Education Reform, whose board of directors includes several financiers. While liberals tend to support unions, collective bargaining in education is the one thing it is safe for them to pick on.

There have been some victories, Wolcott said. For one thing, protests at PEP meetings have focused media attention on the issues, and teacher involvement has forced the UFT leadership to get more involved. “It’s interesting to see how we are shifting the conversation in many ways,” she said. “We can influence public opinion and get traction on ending certain policies, like closures and co-locations.”

Indeed, last month a Quinnipiac University poll showed that voters trusted the UFT more than City Hall. Certainly, some activists believe that Bloomberg’s education policy lost popularity after public outrage led to the resignation of Schools Chancellor Cathie Black. As president of a newspaper company, Black once joked that the best way to deal with school overcrowding was more birth control.

But just as educational progress cannot be measured with cold, quantitative data, neither can the progress of this offshoot of OWS. If anything, according to Wolcott, the popularity of OWS tactics has invited more people in different communities to speak out about the privatization of education.

“Our presence has at least given people an alternative space to air their grievances,” she said. “There’s a real discontent that’s building.”

As this newspaper went to press March 22, Occupy the DOE planned a protest outside the offices of the New York Post for, according to a statement, “publishing the Teacher Data Reports of some 1,800 fourth through eighth grade teachers, with full knowledge of their many flaws from inaccurate class rosters to statistically irrelevant sample sizes and the massive opposition to their focus on high stakes standardized testing as the only means of assessing teachers and students.”

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