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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Howard Dean at the DNC takes on the assault on public education

by David Atkins

Howard Dean had a small meeting with a bloggers and activists at the PPL blogger building here in Charlotte, where I'm spending most of my time (the people and activities are usually more interesting here than on the convention floor.) The meeting was started with AFT President Randi Weingarten speaking about the need for engagement in public schools so that all kids, not just a select few in charter schools, reach their potential. She then compared that need for everyone to have an even playing field to the labor movement, which attempts to do for adults the same thing that even access to public education attempts to do for children. It was a powerful and evocative message, a parallel link between the two issues that isn't readily apparent at first glance.

Howard Dean expressed his support for Randi as the most progressive union leader in the country, and expressed his anger at those who attack teachers without having any idea what is going on in public schools. Pre-K from 0-3 years old was a major focus of his early remarks: it's hard to teach kids who are severely damaged in the first place. Dean also said that he worried about private for-profit charter schools because they end up the same way that private prisons do. Metrics were not a problem in and of themselves, but we have a long way to go before we have really good ways of evaluating the quality of a teacher. I think he's right on all these fronts.

Weingarten mentioned that the AFT took a page from Howard Dean's 50-state-strategy playbook to engage on the ground in local communities everywhere. It's difficult because one in four children live in poverty, and many communities still don't have broadband. Howard Dean also stepped up to say that while partisan Republicans in Washington are intransigent, Republicans at a local level can often be worked with to help improve communities. Only when communities are improved can the schools be improved. I'm not sure I share the governor's optimism given my experience with local Republican legislators, but perhaps the mileage may vary in other local communities.

My brother Dante asked about the image development problem, in which the unions are seen as recalcitrant to "reform," even as younger activists embrace the conservative "reform" agenda as a cool new approach. Here Weingarten's response was less than encouraging, simply falling back on the idea that what matters isn't so much the narrative as who is doing the work, and that we have to be "sacrosanct on the issues." Unfortunately, that's not going to work. Never has before, and it's not going to now. Labor is going to get killed with that perspective. The narrative is of all-consuming importance.

I deal a lot with activists who think that it doesn't matter how one manages relationships and perception as long as one pounds the pavement and works hard. Sadly, that's not how the world works. Perception is everything in politics, and labor is unfortunately losing that battle.

One good line, though, was that recklessness isn't reform. Governor Dean interjected that it's about lousy public leadership with Republicans who don't give a damn about their communities, and are happy to simply ignore and shunt away as hopeless huge groups of children in poorer communities. He's absolutely right about that.

On the issue of firing bad teachers, Weingarten said that the "reformers" did raise a needed question of the protocols for firing inferior teachers. Dean noted that most people don't like to fire people, but it's also important to hold the administrators accountable for not stepping in quickly to take action when teachers aren't doing their jobs.

On the subject of charter schools, Weingarten cautioned that it's not even about charters anymore, but rather vouchers, similar to Medicare and other issues on which the Right is pushing similar systems. Dean said that charter schools shouldn't be rejected out of hand, but tighten the rules so that they can't cherrypick, and that the public system should learn about the innovations coming from them. Dean brought up the successful charter schools being run by AFT as an example of this phenomenon.

The room came to a consensus that the the biggest problem is for-profit charter schools, though it's important to remember that supposed "non-profit" charters can be run by for-profit organizations.

Finally, I asked the Governor what steps we can take politically as progressive activists against the neoliberals who are supposedly on our side of these issues, but are not. His response was that, again, personal relationships are everything. There is no hope of building relationships with the likes of Scott Walker. But Dean said that even with the Deval Patricks and Corey Bookers of the world, it's important for progressives and union leaders to hold person-to-person meetings to communicate our perspective, and that good progress had been made on those fronts where healthy relationships had been developed.

I'm not sure I fully buy that answer--but I will say that my own experience of politics has shown me that even in the rarefied air of major public policy and elected officials, high-school-style personal politics carry just as much weight as financial incentives and constituent groups. All of life is basically high school. All of it. And while personal relationships won't solve our systemic corruption, obviously, they can go some way toward mitigating the damage if progressives can begin to establish them.