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Education Mon Jun 25 2012

Negotiating with Doom in the Schools Debate

The media is reporting, occasionally breathlessly, on the "standoff" and "contest" between the Board of Education--a proxy for the Mayor, who appoints it and controls it--and the Chicago Teachers Union, the democratically-elected collective bargaining representative for 24,000 public school teachers.

I watched an interesting debate over the weekend unfold on Twitter between a young academic in education policy and an award-winning teacher and activist. They were arguing about the supposed intractability of teachers and parents over the pro-privatization reforms of groups like Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). The academic was striking a "reasonable" pose:

You're going to have to compromise. That's politics. There are two sides with competing goals, let's get an agreement.

For a young academic looking to get into education policy, this is a smart position to take. Most of the money in education policy is on the side of organizations like Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform. If he ever wants to work in education policy, the good jobs are all going to be on the side of the pro-privatization reformers. Pro-privatizers have done a good job of conflating being against their version of reform (e.g., being with parents and teachers) as being pro-status quo. It's the surest way to keep yourself out of the education policy job market to be on the side of the straw man status quo.

Notoriously funded by tiny groups of immensely wealthy people, with no control by or buy-in from communities, no democratic structures that allow for parent participation, and in fact nothing other than the whims of their millionaire funders, these groups have unilaterally decided they deserve a spot at the negotiating table. They bought their button, in other words.

Why shouldn't we be heard, they ask. After all, although we don't live in your community, don't send our children to school there, don't vote there, don't have any meaningful membership there and, to what degree we do have some supporters there, they have no meaningful say in how we as organizations make decisions, we are rich. In other words, we are not rooted in your communities at all; we have no stake in the outcome of our programs and policies insofar as they don't materially affect us; nobody in your community has any say in how our organization is run; but we, for no reason other than our wealth empowering our speech, deserve a seat at the table and you must negotiate with us, or you--not we--are "politicizing children."

This is the absurd position they've taken. Their goals: liquidate teachers' ability to collectively bargain and privatize enough the school systems to reduce the public schools to last-resort catchalls, not unlike public County Hospitals. Use unreliable but easily consumed standardized test scores and fluidly defined "graduation" rates to allow parents to choose a school from a menu, encouraging competition.

That parents and teachers are unwilling to treat these demands as coordinate in legitimacy is then called out as "politicizing," or as being unwilling to compromise. Why should they compromise, though, with organizations that have no legitimacy outside of their cash reserves, and who have as stated purposes the de facto elimination of the two things parents and teachers care most about: keeping schools public and equal, and keeping teaching a competitive profession, drawing and keeping the best?

Parents and teachers see, in the middle distance, the death of public education as the incubator of civil society with the goal of equality, in the form of neoliberal privatization reform. Who says you have to negotiate with death to be reasonable? You don't negotiate with death. You fight death to your dying breath.

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Sherman Dorn / June 26, 2012 8:04 AM

The long-term clash of interests you describe is parallel to many other situations, such as the situation environmentalist activists face. The greatest problem is not knowing what conflicts are irreconciliable; I do not entirely agree with you, but I understand feeling under the gun!

I strongly recommend Bernard Mayer's Staying with Conflict: A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Disputes (2009) -- in it, Mayer explains how to maintain integrity when there is a long-term conflict with occasional opportunities for partial (NOT complete) reconciliation. He writes it for mediators, but I found it very useful when heading my local faculty union chapter.

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