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SOS rings out across the USA... Floridians Join The Grass-Roots March Against A Corporate Takeover Of America’s Schoolchildren Continues

Ohanian Comment: Read this at the Substance site, and you'll see me standing at the Ellipse in my yellow T-shirt (Arne Duncan: In Need of Improvement) a gift from the Coalition for Better Education. I'm standing with longtime e-mail buddy Billee Bussard, author of this smart critique of the SOS event. What is especially encouraging about Billee's account is what's been happening in Florida after the march.

by Billee Bussard

Like the characters in the film "Close Encounters of A Third Kind" who felt an unexplained calling to a distant destination of historic significance, I was one of perhaps 60 or more Floridians who felt compelled along with thousands of others across this nation to travel to Washington, D.C. for the Save Our Schools demonstration and march to the White House on Saturday, July 30.

For weeks, something kept telling me, a 66-year-old retired journalist who had never even been to Washington, D.C. before, that I just HAD to be with the throngs of like-minded others who possess insights and an awareness about some scary stuff involving education reforms that now shape the destiny of our public schools, things that I began seeing nearly two decades ago as an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union. The scary stuff is what the money-motivated, corporate driven high-stakes testing is doing to children, some actually throwing up on the tests. But the scariest stuff is the greedy corporate and Wall Street motives behind testing that is being used to discredit public education, punish teachers and dismantle schools (in mostly low-income communities) so they can be privatized.

The 5,000-plus Washington demonstrators who stood in the sweltering sun for five hours that day, weathering a triple digit heat index, know as I do that high-stakes testing is a farce. Actor Matt Damon, one of a dozen who spoke from a stage on the grounds of the Ellipse (site of the national Christmas tree) during a three-hour program before the march, summed it best when he recalled what his mother, an expert on early childhood development, told public school officials in the 1970s: "My kid ain't taking that [test]. It's stupid, it won't tell you anything and it'll just make him nervous."

Hundreds of signs carried by the demonstrators as they listened to speeches from national education giants, including best-selling authors Diane Ravitch and Jonathon Kozol, reflected their anger and concerns about the Business Roundtable school reform agenda that uses high-stakes tests to close so-called failing schools and replaces them with charter schools or public schools operated by private management companies. It is a formula embraced by both Bush administrations and President Barack Obamaâs education secretary Arne Duncan that many see as part of a larger effort to destroy organized labor and turn schools into for-profit enterprises.

Among the messages the marchers carried:

"My Kid Is More Than Test Scores." "Keep Wall Street Greed Out of Public Schools."

"Who Profits From Testing." "Arne Sucks." "Florida Teachers Fed-Up: End High-Stakes Testing."

One sign, "Philanthro-Pirates: No Corporation Left Behind," refers to the billionaires and millionaires who are financing the dismantling of public education through foundations and multimillion-dollar grants that allow them to frame school reforms in recipient school districts.

The Washington march drew people from all walks of life, all ends of the political spectrum and all parts of the country, people who know instinctively and from first-hand experience that high-stakes tests hurt public education and hurt children. There were parents there as well as teachers, and people like me who no longer have children in public school but understand the value of public education to a free society and our democracy.

At least six marchers of some 60 Florida marchers were from Jacksonville, including Colleen Wood, a parent education activist, founder of 50th No More, and executive director of Save Duval Schools; and Donna Mace Yates, an elementary schoolteacher who launched the website http://www.wearredforpubliced.com/encouraging teachers to wear red in the classroom on Tuesdays to show their support for public schools. Yates gathered names of Florida marchers in the shadow of a Florida flag that flew on the demonstration grounds. Wood and two other Florida education activists were presenters at the conference seminars.

What those who gathered in Washington know from firsthand experience, numerous studies and growing bodies of evidence is that charter schools and vouchers programs that expand when public schools are labeled "failures" don't deliver a better educational bang for the buck than the public schools. A Jacksonville newspaper story (August 7, 2011) just a week after the march provided additional confirmation. "Of the 32 [Florida] traditional and charter schools that received F grades this year, half were charter schools," the Florida Times-Union article noted. Only one of the 13 Duval County charter schools operating last year received an A grade based on test scores, the story said. The first year score for the highly touted KIPP Impact Academy, a chain of schools supported by the hedge fund industry, got the only F. Despite the less than impressive performance of Duval charters, five more will be opening in the coming school year.

Organizers of the Florida Progressive Coalition, a group that is working to counter the "extremists ideologies that are in stark opposition to the progressive values that the majority of Floridians support." It interfaces with dozens of other grassroots groups, which it lists on its website.

Just a few days back from Washington, Smith hosted at her home the showing of a film featured at the Save Our Schools Conference, An Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman. It is the antidote to the lies and myths in another, but much publicized film, "Waiting for Superman," that promotes the corporatist education agenda with false claims about the success of charter schools and corporate education reforms funded by billionaires, while framing teachers and teacher unions as obstacles to school improvement. About 20 people came for an event that was part of a meet-up for Democracy For American, Tampa Bay.

"The Inconvenient Truth" film notes that "In Finland, a system that now ranks #1 in the world, ALL students are given an equitable education with small class sizes and no high-stakes standardized test" . . . and 98 percent of the teachers belong to the teacher union.

Smith regularly Tweets about education reforms and legislation churned out by the ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group composed of the some of the largest corporations in the world. On Aug. 3, as many of the Washington marchers were recovering from their long trip, ALEC was meeting in New Orleans behind closed doors for yet another round of crafting bills to fatten corporate profits at the expense of average taxpayers. ALEC drafted bills circulated in state legislatures across the country that have influenced voting ID laws to make it more difficult for the poor and elderly to vote; and laws that promote privatization of Medicare and Medicaid, prisons and public schools.

On Aug. 6, Smith helped finalize the charter of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, a group under the umbrella of the Democratic Party that will work to keep progressives engaged with the party. Smith, elected president of the caucus, said it would, among other things, work to support lawmakers who support public education and who don't support corporate scripted school reforms. Smith has worked over the years as a teacher in Catholic, private and public schools. She is an ardent supporter of public education.

"One of the biggest benefits of the conference and march was the networking," she said, rattling off a list of new contacts she made who will keep each other informed about strategies that are working to thwart the corporate school reforms in their states and communities.

I told Smith about the Jacksonville group I met with earlier in the week, which is working on strategies to inform the public about the damaging corporate education reforms being pushed by the Florida Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott and by grant monies from billionaire-funded foundations. We plan to connect soon to exchange notes on grass roots efforts and ideas.

The negative impact of (Bill and Melinda) Gates Foundation grant money on Hillsborough County schools was one of the motivations for Sarah Robinson of the Tampa Bay area to answer my 11th hour plea on Internet education networks for some carpool companions to nationâs capital.

Robinson is, like Matt Damonâs mom, an educator and holds a masterâs degree. She is concerned about the blow to critical thinking skills from scripted curriculum that teaches to the test and that is prescribed in Gates education reforms. The 40-something mother also refused a few years ago to allow her son to be part of a testing scheme that uses data from bogus measures to help undermine and dismantle public education. She wasted no time upon her return from Washington to help spread the word about the rebellion occurring across this nation. This letter to the editor appeared Aug. 1 in the St. Petersburg Times under the heading: "'Reform' is anything but."

I just returned from Washington, D.C., and the Save our Schools March and National Call to Action, where thousands of teachers, parents, students and citizens from across the nation gathered to organize against the current assault on public education in the name of "reform."

As the effects of the federal No Child Left Behind Law have rippled across the nation, many grass roots organizations have risen up in protest. Of course, we Floridians have been dealing with this for over a decade. Heavy-handed policies that take away local control, emphasize high-stakes tests, vouchers, charter schools and other schemes that hurt public schools have become almost normal here.

Your praise of "innovators, such as Hillsborough's MaryEllen Elia" and Board of Education member Roberto Martinez, is a good example, even though both of these leaders are perfect examples of the hypocrisy of those in charge of education today. Neither shows respect for teachers and both are happy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on yet more standardized tests, instead of other meaningful ways to help teachers and students.

Sarah Robinson, Safety Harbor

Dave Miner, the other carpooler, is a lawyer and a self-appointed watchdog on school issues in Manatee County. What this Duval County Democratic Party activist has in common with the 65-year-old Republican and the Tampa Bay teacher is a belief the Obama administration has swallowed the corporate Kool-Aid on what is best for public schools. Robinson's frustration is compounded by the fact she, as I did, worked so hard to get President Obama elected.

I personally confronted then presidential candidate Barack Obama about his education policies at a Jacksonville fundraiser in 2008 at attorney Steve Pajic's home. Obama told me he gets a lot of heat from his own family members (his sister is an educator in Hawaii) and friends on testing and accountability. It was about a five-minute private exchange with a man then considered a long shot for the presidency, a relatively long time considering all the people at the fundraiser eager to meet him. I was puzzled why he spent so much time with me until I saw a Time Magazine article with pictures of his deceased mother, both as a young woman and middle-aged, that my daughter sent me with a note about our striking resemblance. After his election, I again confronted Obama on his support of a year-round school calendar, handing his Southern Regional White House Strategist a 52-page research paper I presented in 2003 to the Florida Political Science Association outlining the failed history of school calendar change as an education improvement strategy. I have no idea if it ever reached him, but it does seem these days he talks less about moving the nation to year-round school calendar, as first promoted by the first President Bush during his education summit. Miner, who first got curious about school reforms as a Manatee County school advisory council member when his now grown children were school age, is concerned about the deterioration of the quality of education due to scripted curriculum, prep time for high stakes tests and the associated waste of taxpayer dollars. He religiously lobbies the conservative members of his own party who voted for former Republican Jeb Bush, the governor who successfully launched the corporate agenda for public education in Florida. Even many of the Tea Party folks Miner encounters âget itâ that high stakes testing is a waste of taxpayer, Miner said. My own awakening on the ulterior motives behind corporate-directed public school reforms began in 1992 with a simple examination of the claimed merits of the year-round school movement. Duval County was looking to expand its year-round school pilot program, as were a number of other Florida counties. Some 40 feet of floor-to-ceiling research and two decades later, I soon hope to complete a book that shows how those calendar reforms tie into the public school agenda mapped out decades by the corporate elite and Wall Street investor class.

The 24-hour road trip with my two new Florida friends provided a rare block of time for three people from different parts of the state to have an in-depth exchange about what has been happening in our school districts and connect the dots between the national, state and local corporate school reform players and the Florida politicians who are delivering on an agenda crafted by millionaires and billionaires. None of us plan to rest in our efforts to educate our circle of friends and our community about school reforms tied to testing that is wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, diluting the quality of education and creating a generation of neurotics.

The Washington gathering of somewhere between 5,000 to 8,000 was relatively small considering the millions who are educators, as noted by author and education watchdog Susan Ohanian, whom I finally had the pleasure of meeting in Washington. She ripped into the education community and the teacher unions in the states surrounding Washington, D.C., for not participating in greater numbers.

In this nervous economy, perhaps their decisions were driven by their own economic and political considerations. The march after all was held on the eve of a debt-ceiling crisis that many predicted would see the nation default, with ripple effects across the country. Such financial considerations almost kept me home. The trip was a $1,000 outlay, which included two nights in a hotel, meals and $700 for an overdue new set of tires to carry me safely on the 24-hour drive there and home. No small ticket item for a widow on a fixed income.

But I suspect, based on the Internet replies for carpoolers to Washington, that for every diehard activist that stood in the blazing sun that day there were at least 20 other equally passionate activists at home who wished they could be there--and they were not necessarily teachers or union members. The unions provided some seed money to make the grass roots gathering possible, then wisely distanced itself so it would not be so easily discredited as a money-motivated labor movement event. The right-wingers and big corporations have spent millions to effectively demonize anyone or anything associated with organized labor, including the teacher unions.

What is going to stop the corporate education reform bulldozer is not union groups or political parties, but an ever-growing crop of dedicated grass-roots groups that keep popping up like weeds all over this nation and that have the ability to rapidly respond to corporate moves on our public schools thanks to rapid information sharing on the Internet, on blogs and Twitter. Those who showed up in Washington represent just the tip of a grass-roots iceberg. The march to save public schools and prevent a corporate takeover of America's schoolchildren has really just begun.

Picture Caption

One of the biggest problems facing those who oppose the corporate agenda is that the leaders of the two national teachers unions, the American Federation (AFT) of Teachers and the National Education Association (NEA), have both sold out to the corporate agenda. AFT national president Randi Weingarten invited Bill Gates to speak to the convention of the AFT in Seattle in July 2010, ignoring Seattle's militant labor history and Gates's union-busting record while chiding delegates who objected to the invitation. Union members later discovered that Weingarten and Gates had worked out a deal where Gates's millions would pour into Tampa, Pittsburgh and Denver to finance merit pay experiments. By the time of SOS in July 2011, one year after Weingarten's fawning over Gates in Seattle, AFT gave a tiny $25,000 to the SOS march, but undermined it by refusing to mobilize the union's 1.5 million members for the event. Locals from many cities took up some of the slack.

An article, "How Billionaires Rule Our Schoolsâ by Joanne Barkan, in the February 2011 issue of Substance available at the march and at the American University SOS conference the day before provides an in-depth look at failed school reform efforts funded through foundations of âphilanthro-piratesâ Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Walton (Wal-Mart) family members. The lengthy article is also posted on-line on the Substance February 2011 homepage.

Soaring above the podium during the July 2010 AFT convention in Seattle, Bill Gates is shown above on the Jumbo screen following the praise showered on him by AFT president Randi Weingarten. Weingarten failed to mention that Gates's work has been behind a great deal of union busting both at home and across the "global economy" and that the workers at Gates's own Microsoft (whose main "campus" was a few miles from the union convention) are not unionized, thanks mainly to a militant stand against unions in the tech industries financed in part by Gates. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.

Billee Bussard is a retired Jacksonville journalist and Democratic Party activist.

— Billee Bussard
Substance News


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