Thursday, June 10, 2010

Grannan: A little-noticed but triumphant victory for public education

Guest post by Caroline Grannan.

In what looks like a close race but was actually a crushing defeat on June 8, state Sen. Gloria Romero, the candidate of the billionaires and privatizers, was shut out of the November runoff for California state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Two candidates who do not represent the charterizing “education reformers” – Larry Aceves and Tom Torlakson – split the non-Romero vote (along with a scattering of less visible hopefuls).

It’s Aceves’ and Torlakson’s vote-splitting that makes the Romero smackdown significant, even though their numbers were close, with each of the three winning between 17 and 19 percent of the vote.

Torlakson, a state assemblyman and former public school classroom teacher (his website emphasizes that he’s still a “teacher-on-leave”), was supported by the California Teachers Association. Of course, with teachers’ unions ranking up there with Satan on the list of top villains to the pundit class, that endorsement was supposed to seal his fate.

And Aceves is a public school educator – a little-known retired superintendent from an obscure school district within San Jose (which is a sprawling metropolis cut up into several school districts), with a background as a teacher and principal and no prior experience with elected office.

There’s no doubt that this is a largely ignored office and that almost no voters know a thing about the candidates other than what’s in the ballot statements. The pundits’ wisdom would have us believe that voters admire “education reform” and revile educators – and especially (invoke your personal charm or superstition to ward off evil) teachers’ unions.

But it looks like the punditry may have lost touch with reality, as it’s evident that voters looking upon educators favorably and saw that as a useful qualification for the job.

As to Romero, while I vigorously oppose the forces that boosted and funded her campaign, I’ve never seen her and had no reason to expect her to be personally unpleasant. Her concession was awfully surly, though: “The victors in the race for superintendent of public instruction were two different wings of the same status-quo education establishment,” she posted sullenly on her website. “The interests of the reform community … lost.” Her statement took an angry jab at public schools and their students and teachers, too, in her peevish comment about “an education morass which remains complacent with failure.”

She really doesn’t need to be so cranky, as there’s undoubtedly a cushy job awaiting her in the bounteously funded charter school industry.

A brief digression into political theory: There’s a concept called the Overton Window, conceived in a right-wing think tank, that describes how ideas and policies may shift from unthinkable to popular, or the other direction. Here’s how the Mackinac Center, where that concept was conceived, describes it: "Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. ... The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. ... Actions outside of this window … are politically unsuccessful.” If advocates want to make the unthinkable into the possible, the strategy? “Shift the window."

I’m hoping that that creaking sound we heard was the Overton Window shifting, so that the billionaire-promoted charterization/privatization “reforms” are moving toward the unpopular end of the scale – Romero’s fate might even suggest the term “politically suicidal” – and educators and even (yes) their often-reviled unions are viewed favorably once again.

Now let's hope that Aceves and Torlakson get that message and try to outdo each other as supporters of public schools, teachers and kids – and, please, please, that they resist the noxious blandishments of the billionaires.

The headline news from the election is our governor’s race, but it was the Republican contest that was in the spotlight – a battle over who could be more mean-spirited and engage in more ridiculous magical thinking about running the state with less and less revenue. (And while pouring more and more millions into TV commercials.)

But now our Democratic candidate, former two-term governor (1975-’83) Jerry Brown, strides onstage.

So, how’s Brown on schools? Well, as Oakland mayor from 1998 to 2006, Brown (who himself attended parochial school in my part of San Francisco) turned his back on Oakland's public schools to found and promote his two pet charter schools.

Despite that, I have some hope. It's clear what he has learned from that experience, though he has yet to publicly acknowledge it.

Long story short, Brown's two Oakland charter schools (Oakland School for the Arts, OSA, and Oakland Military Institute, OMI) have struggled desperately for survival and would never have made it this far if he hadn't been knocking himself out for years raising more money than God for them. I know from sources within the OSA community that he remained deeply involved with the school even after he became California Attorney General, even attending parent meetings. I also know from those contacts how troubled the school has been.

What Brown cannot have failed to learn from this experience is that it's really, really hard and really, really expensive to run a school. (I heard him speak about the two schools before they started up. His message then was that he was going to show those stupid educators in public schools how it was done.). His relentless fundraising demonstrates that he has learned that running a school requires vastly more resources than state funding provides.

Wouldn't it be admirable, principled and appropriately humble if he would man up and acknowledge those things publicly?

By the way, I've posted a couple of times on different local blogs about Brown's schools, and he has posted comments in response (or at least someone purporting to be him; an impostor just doesn’t seem that likely). At one point he tried to deny that OSA had had rough times, but he shut up when I pointed out that I had contacts there and was commenting from an informed position.

Now it's time for him to come clean, take the lessons that he has learned from his adventures in the charter world and apply them to supporting all public schools throughout California. That means positive support in every way, including pushing for increased revenue (yes, the word of death – taxes) and committing to funding our schools adequately and fully.


You may be interested in my October 2009 posts about Jerry Brown's charter schools (part one and part two). -- P.P.


nikto said...

I can't understand politicians like Gloria Romero---She serves the Latino community, but instead of acting like a true activist for the needs low-income latinos, she has bought the corporate line 100%.

So in reality, this latino politician actually represents wealthy white financial interest$ over the needs of her own constituency's communities.

She is hoodwinking her own people!!

How much longer can she continue to get away with that crap?

Romero is a traitor to all the impacted working people who think whe is on their side, latino and otherwise.

NYC Educator said...

Your mouth to God's ear about moving the window--but somehow you haven't got me remotely enthused about Jerry Brown. If he were running around with Linda Rondstadt instead of pimping for charter schools...or doing almost anything but pimping for charter schools...robbing banks maybe--what do you see in this guy who tries to make a false case until he determined you knew what you were talking about?

Caroline said...

He's not Meg Whitman, and if you followed her appalling efforts to be meaner, more racist and more coldhearted than Steve Poizner, you know what I mean.

Brown was a decent mayor in many ways and wasn't that bad a governor either. His actions regarding schools (and, yes, his efforts to lie about their success when he thought he could get away with it) are appalling, but I can only hope that his future views will be colored by the fact that he has learned what it takes.