Not Hate Mail, but Teachers Send “Disappointment Mail” to Obama

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Vturin S. aka Nemo /

October 22, 2012; Source: CNN (Schools of Thought Blog)

Although it is difficult to tell from some of the coverage of nonprofits engaged in education reform, there are many teachers unhappy with the Obama administration’s comfortable marriage with school privatization, particularly with the charter school and high-stakes testing emphases in the Race to the Top program. As the NPQ Newswire previously noted, educators Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody initiated a campaign for teachers (and administrators, parents, and students) to write to President Obama to let him know how they felt about the education reform policies being pursued by the president and the very pro-privatization Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The letters, which can be viewed here [PDF], are quite powerful, especially since, in most cases, they feature personal statements from teachers who otherwise support President Obama, not mere signatures on pre-written text. Ravitch’s own letter is particularly powerful. She writes, “Please, Mr. President, stop talking about rewarding and punishing teachers. Teachers are professionals, not toddlers.” She also asks the president to “stop encouraging the privatization of education” and to “speak out against the spread of for-profit schools.” In Twitter communication with NPQ, Cody writes that he compiled and sent 378 letters to the White House on October 18th as part of the Campaign for Our Public Schools that he and Ravitch initiated.

We wonder what the reaction will be when Secretary Duncan reads this from a Florida teacher: “My state accepted Race to the Top funding. Teachers were informed that the airplane was being constructed as we all flew in it. What? We make things up as we go? It feels demeaning though I guess this is the new normal in many areas to pass a law and then fill in the details as time goes on.” Or, what will the president, a former Chicago resident, think when he sees this from an elementary school teacher in Chicago: “Four years ago, I was your biggest fan…As a CPS teacher who was just on strike as a proud member of the CTU, I was highly disappointed with your lack of support for us. I felt betrayed…Stop blaming public schools and public school teachers.”

It’s an odd thing for educators. On the broad issues of school privatization, there isn’t a huge difference between the president and his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Remember that, in the debates, Romney even lauded the Race to the Top program. The policy difference between the two candidates is more along the lines of the macro issues, with Romney’s plan likely leading to a gutting of much of the federal domestic budget, unavoidably including, it would seem, federal spending on education. But some of the president’s major education reform supporters, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, are big into charter schools and, despite occasional denials, high-stakes testing. How can teachers get their point across to Obama and Duncan to counteract the juggernaut of education reformers who favor a path toward increasing privatization and corporatization of public education?—Rick Cohen

  • Michael Wyland

    The challenge for defenders of public education is to find an argument that doesn’t end with the refrain, “We want to do the same things we’ve been doing with minimal interference, minimal accountability, and more money and staff.” Regardless of the validity of that strategy, the problem is that too many people believe public education is failing. Defending the status quo or, worse, advocating additional spending and employment with little or no accountability for outcomes is not a winning strategy.

    Discussing education is about as difficult as discussing health care. There are too many facets to the issues. There is too much blame and praise to go around.

    Another problem is that there is nothing approaching consensus about what public education is or should be. If one don’t achieve consensus on mission, vision, values, and strategic direction, it’s almost impossible to agree on implementation strategies and resource allocation. We’ve managed to avoid that discussion for decades because there was enough money to implement multiple strategies and provide something for everyone.

    Now, the money is getting tight, there aren’t enough hours or days in the school year for the ever-expanding curriculum, students are less ready to learn, schools are stretched with human service and social service duties that current teachers’ grandparents would have never considered. Administrative ranks have swelled as mandates and “good ideas” have proliferated, with little or no opportunity for “sunsetting” a function whose need has ebbed with time and demographics.

    Can public education (“government schools” to their detractors) be a desirable choice for taxpayers in a competitive environment? If antipathy to choice is the strategy, public education has conceded much and half-lost the battle.