The Democracy Gap

The 49er says that there’s a democracy gap in the education reform movement.

By *The 49er*
democracy gap 2Recently I was told by the organizer of a project I’m involved in to incubate independent charter schools that we are *creating choices for parents who don’t even know they want the option yet.* Huh? Doesn’t that seem backwards? Shouldn’t parents be clamoring for new schools rather than having people from outside their communities provide them with *choices?*

Futures so bright…
I often find myself raising the question these days as to whether or not there is sufficient demand for all of the new schools being created. Will the new schools be welcome in their intended community even though people from outside the community are leading the efforts for change? If there were an election, would a majority of people living within 2 miles of the school vote for its existence?
nacsa miami

Charter school authorizers typically look at the business plan for sustainability, the academic vision for the school, and the people behind the school. (Note: if you want to learn more about charter authorizers, they’re convening in Miami this week.) Notice the order of the last sentence. The business plan for success is more important than the school’s plan to achieve academic success through its curriculum, or, more importantly, the people the school hires. Notice that one major component is missing completely: the parents and students that the school is going to serve. Where are their voices in this process?

Too often, the reform movement doesn’t ask these difficult questions, let alone answer them. We like to brag about waiting lists at charter schools, but we don’t actually build up grassroots champions of our issues. As a progressive reformer (yes, I promise it’s not an oxymoron), I have seen too many fake displays of citizen activism. For example, Students First claimed to have thousands of members in each state, but getting people to click on a petition doesn’t make them a member.

possiblePay for Possible
Take the recent *Don’t Steal Possible* rally that I heard EduShyster attended. How many people would show up at one of these rallies if Eva Moskowitz didn’t close down her schools? I know that unions (not just teachers) use very similar tactics, and I think it’s wrong in all cases. After seeing the 2008 Obama campaign in action across the country, I have learned how to tell the difference between the real grassroots and astroturf, and often both sides of the reform debate fail here. [Obligatory editorial interjection: the 49er and I strongly disagree on this question!]

On the education reform side, there have been some heated discussions on this topic recently as advocacy organizations make a big push to hire organizers who actually live in the communities where reform efforts are concentrated. However, many of these organizers, who were active with the Obama campaign and labor unions before joining the ed reform movement, don’t seem to truly comprehend what they are supporting. Many of them simply don’t know who funds their work, and they view their work as transactional rather than transformational. They are often following the money, not the cause.

Let’s face it; there is little activism in this field that isn’t funded by one side or another. [Obligatory editorial interjection #2: more strong disagreements here!] Recently, we saw that the AFT poured significant funds to Students against Sweatshops, the group that has been protesting TFA across the country. While there are some shoestring grassroots activists on both sides of the debate (heck, I didn’t take a salary at the start of my reform job since we didn’t have a dollar in our bank account), most well-organized groups are funded by someone. Yes, there is a difference in getting from funding from Walton or AFT/NEA, but it’s still an interest controlling the organizing.

changeA Passion for Change
EduShyster may claim that the *holisticrat* side is fueled more by passion than money, but I also know a lot of reformers who are driven by passion as well. If you read this description of Tennessee’s Achievement School District Chief, Chris Barbic, then you can clearly understand that he is motivated by passion. My point is that while there are some people in both movements who are motivated by money, the passion to improve education in this country can also be found on both sides of the reform lines. However, passion alone does not make a system democratic.

I am not like William Buckley who would rather trust the first 2000 names in the telephone book to run our country over the faculty at Harvard. As I see parents across the country get riled up on things that aren’t even happening in schools (i.e comprehensive sex education, Common Core assignments that were never given to students…), I don’t exactly trust them either. Should we trust government bureaucrats or parents to draw zoning lines, or should we just get rid of them entirely? These questions are decided through indirect democratic means at best, so how can we strike a balance between the ideas of technocrats (to which I’m usually sympathetic) and the democratic wishes of our citizens?

Facts “Я” Facts
While I don’t have all of the answers, I do have a few suggestions. First, let’s make sure that everyone understands the same facts. Facts are facts, and are different from opinions. It’s clear that some people never learned that in school. Both sides of any argument should be able to put together facts and context to back up their story. Of course, there is context around facts and that gets dicey. For example, it sounds awful that only 35% of 4th Graders are proficient in reading on the NAEP. However, its standards are a bit higher than what we normally define as grade level. That statement is a fact, but whatever conclusion you make from it is an opinion. It’s important to remember that in the education discourse.

Second, technocrats should be able to simplify their ideas so that the average parent can understand them. Most parents don’t understand an ESEA waiver; much less know of its existence. Simplifying many ideas could make them more palatable to the general public. Finally, we need to stop operating in groupthink. When you have an idea to improve a school or even create a new one, talk to others who have different viewpoints. I firmly believe that we grow as people through challenging, open conversations. While they may be painful, having critical, open, and democratic conversations can move us forward in creating a better education system in our country.

*The 49er* is the moniker of a D-List education reformer and a regular contributor to Send comments to


  1. In re: *creating choices for parents who don’t even know they want the option yet.*

    I think with effective modeling one could predict how many kids in each cohort of rising kindergarteners (or whatever) will have parents that want a particular charter school as a choice. And this could be extrapolated out to new schools.

    I also think some parents don’t realize they want a choice until after their child has his or her first experiences in public school. At that point, it is often too late to get into a charter school with a waiting list.

  2. I am passionate about war and peace, but I don’t propose setting up a separate military to show how I could do it better (with, of course, some funding that assures me a six-figure salary). I accept that there is some expertise involved, expertise I don’t possess. As an educator, I’m not a vested interest, I am an expert in my field. There may be two sides to ‘reform’, but they’re not equally credible, however they’re funded.

  3. Chris Barbic’s passion for Achievement School District is an exemplar of, exactly what? Profiteering? He and his friend in crime Kevin Huffman have systematically eviscerated the Memphis communities of color with cold, surgical precision and given their schools to private investors and real estate moguls.
    He’s made Memphis City schools the playground for the billionaire boys club. Achievement is hopelessly polluted with corporate dollars. It’s sociopathic leaders have a goal to make TN the first all Achievement School District State.

  4. I’m not familiar with the situation in Memphis. Can you explain (without bombastic language and name-calling) who is profitting and how? And how were communities of color “eviscerated?” Are there lots of for-profit schools?

    1. Everyone is trying to profit, and that includes outside organizations like KIPP (who succeed by self-selecting for motivated students and involved parents and who dump problem children back into the public school system while keeping the per pupil funding) and insiders like the former mayor, Willie Herenton. Memphis is becoming the Dodge City of charter schools, and there’s very little quality control or accountability. At present, there is no statutory authorization for for-profit charters in Tennessee (just for-profit virtual schools, which are an unmitigated disaster), but considerable financial “profit” can be built into the salaries of the people running the schools. God knows it isn’t going to the teachers on charter school staffs, who are generally paid considerably less then their public school counterparts.

  5. 49er –please give examples of unions fomenting fake grassroots protests or other political action. I know when my union asks me to phone bank for a candidate, I do it on my own time and for free –not because the union has shut down my school for the day, or because it’s remunerating me.

    It really galls me that Eva Moscowitz and the rest of the charter industry gets to do PR for itself while public schools cannot. Can you imagine a public school paying for a billboard for itself? Or shutting down and enlisting the kids in some partisan political action? The double-standard is obscene. But double-standards and charters are inextricably linked, aren’t they? The definition of a charter is a school that doesn’t have to follow the same standards as a public school. The unfairness is built-in. One has to play by the rules; the other doesn’t. Guess who’s going to win.

  6. Don’t get me started on the naivete displayed in this blog post. Sure. There is a democracy gap – your corporate reformers and charter school profiteers pay hardily for access to “democracy” in the form of lobbyists and campaign contributions and political favors. While your run-of-the-mill public school teacher has very little access to influencing “democracy.” And, no, the unions don’t count since a) they also take money from corporate reformers (who, as stated in this article, then have an “interest controlling the organizing;” and b) don’t have much sway in right-to-work states. Most teachers don’t feel like they have representation or anyone working for their interests. What is happening in education is the same thing happening in the national political scene – those monied people or groups contribute mightily to political campaigns to elect people who will ensure that they continue to proliferate laws and circumstances that will enable the 1% to remain the 1%. With education, the ed reform groups, supported by the 1%, pay mightily to elect people who will support ed reform that continues to enrich the monied people or groups, no matter how often the ed reform methods have been shown to be the opposite of what we need to educate our students. What I see is that there is a passion – but that passion is centered around the need to win at all costs and good old-fashioned greed.

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