Denver Direct: SCHOOL REFORM AND REACTION by Phil Goodstein – The Naysayer – November, 2013

Friday, October 25, 2013

SCHOOL REFORM AND REACTION by Phil Goodstein – The Naysayer – November, 2013

Historian Phil Goodstein

 In 2010, Democratic Park Hill state senator Michael Johnston led a successful attack on teacher tenure in the General Assembly. Unions, he hinted, were the major obstacle to school “reform” and the failure of academies to serve as successful factories pouring knowledge into the heads of students. Such is the ideology of those who have crusaded to transform public schools into an annex of corporate America, complete with intense money-making opportunities. The more they have advanced, the more they have claimed further “reform” is necessary while they have endlessly demonized teacher unions.

This year, Johnston has been in the forefront of a campaign to hike taxes to pay for what he promises will be a uniform, well-financed Colorado educational system. Far from seeing that Johnston’s support is thoroughly ominous, the state’s major teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association (CEA), signed onto the effort, leading the petition drive to place Johnston’s scheme on the ballot as Amendment 66. In campaigning for the proposal, the labor group has said nothing about Johnston’s past record or the way that more money has not benefited the schools. On the contrary, increased financing has usually landed up in corporate pockets while teachers are treated ever more like wageworkers. If the CEA had the slightest integrity, it would openly say this is what school “reform” is all about, clearly separating itself from the likes of Johnston and his past attacks on teachers.

By collaborating with a man who has viciously attacked it in the past and making Amendment 66 its passion, the CEA obscures why schools are in such crisis. Money by itself will not improve education. It will simply strengthen corporate domination of the schools. Those behind that push, such as Johnston, have a thorough contempt for unions and anything that interferes with their domination of society. Understanding this is the first step the CEA must take if it actually wants to represent its members, improve their lot, and make schools more than drudge-inducing institutions that more resemble prisons than temples of learning.

Given the CEA’s conduct on Amendment 66, nothing is to be expected from the candidates of its Denver affiliate, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), in the November school board elections. Especially since John Hickenlooper arranged for Michael Bennet to become superintendent in 2005, there has been no question that “business” is the watchword of Denver Public Schools (DPS). Bennet had zero experience with public schools. Accentuating the practices of Wall Street, he responded by increasing the bureaucracy of the system, complete with numerous new, highly paid experts. Amidst this, the school board became polarized over him and his thoroughly arrogant successor, Tom Boasberg, another product of corporate America who often shows himself to be ignorant about the subjects upon which he speaks.

While challenging those readily backing the Hickenlooper-Bennet approach, the DCTA has had the amazing ability to back nonentities for the school board. Even when they have won, the teachers and education have lost. This reflects that, no more than the CEA, has the DCTA had the wherewithal to stand up to the corporate model of education. On the contrary, it has collaborated with schemes for incentive pay which are designed to measure teachers as if they are assembly-line workers. As much as the “reformers,” it is silent about the social and economic factors that are central to learning and school success. But raising those issues requires probing the essence of capitalism, a topic which most unions are thoroughly afraid to touch.

Despite how bad the DCTA slate is, its opponents are considerably worse. More than anything, they are the embodiment of the Bill Clinton–Barack Obama wing of the Democrats. Some, particularly Rosemary Rodriguez and Barbara O’Brien, are tired hacks who have had stellar records of non-achievement on city council and as lieutenant governor. Hovering behind them are the usual suspects: Jared Polis, Michael Hancock, Diana DeGette, Federico Peña, Daniel Ritchie, Elaine Berman, Terrance Carroll, Happy Haynes, and the crew of “Great Schools Denver,” an organization which has assured that “reform” after “reform” has failed to dent their intent efforts to destroy schools as places for imagination, questioning of the world, and a commitment to personal autonomy.

Despite the way Clinton and Obama have both warred on public schools, the parent of the CEA, the National Education Association, readily backed them, reflective of labor’s endless efforts to bind itself to its class and political enemies. In exchange for such support, the Wall Street Democrats have escalated their attacks on unions while embracing bipartisanship. Indeed, the school board campaign is the epitome of cooperation between the Republicans and Democrats. Money for the “reform” ticket has poured in from such GOP bigwigs as Bruce Benson and Sam Gary. Candidate Mike Johnson, a Country Club lawyer who rides around on a tractor, is a past Republican candidate for the legislature.

Among the prime backers of “reform” are professional minorities. These are people such as Peña and Haynes who have gained and held elective office by blatantly playing on their race, sex, or ethnicity. Their goal has not been to transform a society which judges people on the color of their skin or background; on the contrary, it has simply been to provide an opening for a favored few of their groups to gain positions of wealth, power, and prestige in an exploitative system. The more the public schools have been “re-formed,” complete with massive charter schools, the more polarized and segregated they have become. The whole purpose of the programs of Great Schools Denver is to provide a spot for the children of middle class to rise on the shoulders of their brothers and sisters as a new generation serving the one percent.

Michael Kiley at least has added a little fire to the campaign. He is the DCTA-backed challenger for an at-large seat against Barbara O’Brien. He has had the integrity to lay out her record: a supporter of school vouchers who served as lieutenant governor under “education governor” Bill Ritter. In office, Ritter was another champion of “reform.” Despite his endless commitment to improving the schools, the worse they have become.

At least that has been the message of O’Brien, Great Schools Denver, and the ruling DPS clique. It they could show a solid record of achievement, the schools would not need further reform; instead, they would build on past accomplishments. Far from this being the case, among the institutions most in need of “reform” are charter schools which have especially reached out to ethnic and racial minorities. Many of them have had atrocious achievement records, ones that make everyday neighborhood schools sterling examples of educational success.

O’Brien is blind to this. That is not surprising. She heads a “reform” outfit, Get Smart. She and her backers lack the wit and sophistication of the old sit-com “Get Smart.” The very fact they can be proud of the name is indicative of their utter denseness. Against this, Kiley has observed that the “reform” label is nothing but a cloak for thorough demagogues who are part and parcel of the very worst of the establishment.

The Denver Post unwittingly reported Kiley’s accurate description of O’Brien’s record. It quickly backed off, attacking him in an editorial for daring to outline her past “achievements.” More than anything, the Post ran the editorial because bold reportage about the politics and character of the school board election is exceedingly rare. Monthly neighborhood newspapers have had far better coverage of the race than anything, except Kiley’s charges, appearing in the Post.

Election forums make sure that crucial issues are not discussed. In part, this is the doing of the League of Women Voters. In association with Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation and city television station Channel Eight (a frequency only available to subscribers to cable television), it has staged forums. Its moderators and panel members are selected to assure that no questions of substance are asked and there is little spontaneity in the candidate debates. Not surprisingly, the product is utter banality. This helps assure that regardless of who is elected, the most dull-witted of policy will continue in place. The result will be that no matter how much money the schools get, they will remain in permanent crisis as they miseducate one and all to assure that the scoundrels in power retain their hold on all popular discourse.

The Naysayers next meet on Saturday, November 2, Enzo’s Pizza, 3424 Colfax (between Cook and Madison) 5:30 PM Phil Goodstein will speak at the Colfax Tattered Cover on Monday, November 18, 7:30 PM.