We May Not Like What Teach for America Has Become, But Maybe Progressives Can Bring It Back to Its Roots
The Save Our Schools Conference and March was the single most inspiring protest I have attended in the last thirty years. To see public school teachers from more than forty states rally in defense of their maligned profession, and to hear the most important education scholars of our time tear apart the business/testing model driving education policy in this country, made me feel that I was part of a movement that was not only going to change school policies, but reinvigorate justice-organizing in a nation that has lost its way.
At the “Activism” panel at the conference, I had an epiphany which I want to share, not only with education activists, but all people committed to progressive political change. And it has to do with how we should relate to initiatives like Teach For America and charter schools, which began with a progressive mission, but now are deluged with corporate money and seem to be committed to the business/testing paradigm that encourages privatization of public education and degrades the teaching profession.
So here it is: If historical circumstances have moved these initiatives rightward, different historical circumstances can move them back leftward. And it can happen pretty quickly. Under the debt ceiling deal, working-class and poor communities are going to suffer levels of hardship unseen in our lifetimes, making the prospect of schools, reformed or not, elevating people out of poverty seem improbable, if not absurd. Cuts in food support, housing grants, health care, youth recreation, and college access grants, all part of the debt reduction formula, are going to have heart-rending effects on students in working-class communities, putting incredible pressure on every school and teacher.
To think that Teach for America corps members and charter school teachers and administrators will be permanently immune to the rapidly escalating pain and hardship of students and families they work with defies common sense. Many will start to rethink the business/testing model of pedagogy they have been exposed to; some will become justice fighters for the communities they are working in. And when that happens, progressives, whether in teachers' unions or not, should be right there with them, encouraging them to participate in the broad struggle for democracy in America, and to use their position as educators to help organize beleaguered communities to rise up in protest and demand a fair share of the nation’s wealth.
An impossible dream? Not really. Something like this happened seventy years ago during the heyday of the industrial labor movement. During the prosperous 1920s, the nation’s largest corporations, such as Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and U.S. Steel, organized company unions and employee representation plans to prevent their workers from joining trade unions. The strategy was so successful that not one major industrial corporation was unionized when the Depression struck.
But Depression conditions, leaving one-third of the labor force unemployed and another third working part-time when Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency, produced a rapid change in working-class attitudes. Organizers for industrial unions, largely ignored during the 1920s, found workers receptive to their message in the three most important open-shop industries—steel, automobiles, and electricity —and began to quietly infiltrate company unions. By the time the CIO was founded in 1935, company unions in the automobile and electrical industry began to affiliate en masse with the new CIO unions, giving them an immediate base in the heart of America’s largest companies. The great sit-down strikes in the automobile industry, which led to the unionization of General Motors as well as U.S. Steel, would not have happened if company unions in the car industry hadn't become part of the CIO. The same dynamic occurred in the electrical industry, where both Westinghouse and General Electric ended up being organized by CIO unions.
If company unions, supported by the most powerful and wealthy corporations of the era, could move in a progressive direction in response to rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, there is no reason to assume that the same thing could not happen to charter schools and Teach for America in the coming years, as the American economy goes into freefall and working-class communities experience unspeakable hardship.
Given this, it behooves us, as progressive organizers and justice fighters, to keep the lines of communication open to people in these organizations, and be there to work with them if they join us in resistance to policies that concentrate economic sacrifice amongst America’s poor.
Anything less than this would be selling our movement short. To stop the political juggernaut moving this nation to the right, we need to mobilize the broadest coalition of activists and organizers, including people we may have sharply disagreed with in the past.
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