That is exactly the concern with the fate of public education. It goes without saying that the conservative movement seeks to eviscerate funding for public education, for the sake of both profit and theocracy. But the bigger danger is the fact that the trend toward corporate, for-profit education is frequently seen as the progressive alternative to the current education system. Groups such as Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst and others that seek to "reform" education by introducing for-profit charters and weakening teachers' unions are often supported by popular Democratic politicians and philanthropists, such as Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, a rising star in Democratic political circles and a current director on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, another group dedicated to the agenda of weakening unions and privatizing education. This popular support, combined with major support from the financial sector, has allowed the for-profit education agenda to spread like wildfire across the country, with unions and progressives who support public education a step behind in fighting back.
Fortunately, the tide may be turning in a significant way. The popular petition site Change.org, commonly seen as a site dedicated to building popular support for progressive causes, was recently pressured into allowing their promotional contracts with both StudentsFirst and another group with a similar agenda, Stand For Children, to expire. While the promotion of petitions by these two groups had rankled public education advocates for some time, a line in the sand was crossed when the site promoted a petition by StudentsFirst targeting Chicago's public school teachers, who had just voted to authorize a strike. This petition galvanized the progressive community, which responded—how else?—with a petition of its own asking Change.org to, at the very least, not interfere in ongoing labor disputes. The heap of progressive pressure ended up forcing Change.org to publicly announce that they would not be renewing their contracts with StudentsFirst and Stand For Children.
The major significance of this development is a publicly perceived divorce between promotion of progressive ideals, and the anti-union agenda of privatization: If, after all, a progressive petition site refuses to do business with the "education reform" movement, it carries the implication that this brand of reform is not the progressive one. But it's a problem that it even came to this in the first place. By its own policy, a progressive petition site like Change.org, which has done wonders to promote activism for positive social causes, would never consider a contract with an organization that opposed equal rights for gays and women, or environmental protection. But for some reason, engaging in contracts with organizations whose founders publicly brag about undermining collective bargaining for teachers is perfectly acceptable for a progressive organization, as long as they claim that their goal is to improve education and help students. If education is to be maintained as a public good, this mentality will have to go by the wayside.
Two weeks ago, kos wrote about the differences between the first YearlyKos convention in 2006 and the most recent Netroots Nation last month. By far the biggest difference, according to kos, is the mutual integration of the netroots movement and the labor movement:
About a month after that convention, a coalition of labor and netroots activists helped boot Joe Lieberman out of the Democratic Party. And baby step by baby step, we learned to tolerate each other. Then came respect. And now?We understand this concept when it comes to American manufacturing. We understand this concept when it comes to supporting hotel workers—so much so that Netroots Nation only came to Providence after the intended convention hotel had settled a fair contract with UNITE HERE. We certainly understand this concept when it comes to most of our public sector workers. But for some reason, we seem a bit slower on the uptake when it comes to the rights of our public school teachers to not only gain a fair wage, but to be able to do their jobs in a way that takes advantage of their skills rather than one that forces them to herd their charges down an assembly line of standardized tests.
This is where things have changed. For the first time this year, I could no longer discern a divide between "them" and "us." There is just "we." And I don't mean this in the corny "we're all in this together" way. I'm not saying that we're all part of the same coalition. I'm saying there is no longer a distinction between most of the old-school progressive institutions and the netroots.
Labor unions like SEIU and AFSCME have sophisticated in-house netroots operations. It's hard to find any advocacy group that doesn't focus significant effort on building their email and Facebook presence. If you want to be a factor in today's political world, you have to play online. It's virtually impossible to stay relevant otherwise.
Progressives love reform, and our public school system could certainly use improvement. But any reform that seeks to introduce a profit motive to education while weakening our teachers is simply not progressive, no matter whether the word "reform" is a part of a carefully focus-grouped tagline or not. We don't consider "tort reform" to be progressive when it limits the rights of ordinary people to seek redress through the courts against bad corporate actors, and we don't consider Medicare reform "progressive" when Paul Ryan seeks to privatize it to make insurance companies even wealthier at the expense of our seniors. We need to apply this same suspicion to all the players in the increasingly complex movement geared toward changing education policy.
The progressive victory regarding Change.org is a small but significant step in raising awareness about this issue, but solidarity is key: Progressives must hold Democrats accountable for supporting the for-profit education agenda just as much as they would for supporting attacks on any other union or worker group. The fight to save public education can be won, but it will require standing together to recognize the threat and oppose it everywhere, every time.