2014’s Best and Worst Players in Public Education

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TIME magazine’s decision to demonize public school educators and due process with its now notorious Nov. 3 cover story was a ” here we go again” moment in  year that seemed full of them. The economy began to pick up steam but the attacks on public education continued – in the media, courtrooms and at the ballot box. While there were undeniable setbacks, the year also saw real momentum build against high stakes testing and educators notched some key victories at the local and state level.

As 2014 draws to a close, let’s take look back at some of the individuals and groups who emerged during the year who either made you stand up and cheer or made you hiss and boo (and hopefully get even more politically involved). This is by no means a definitive list. There are many more onions to give out, but there are also as many, if not more, apples. Use the comments field to tell us who you would nominate.

Let’s get the boos and hisses out of the way first.

The Onions Go To …

David Welch

David Welch

Deep-Pocketed Privateers

While “Koch” is the name most people associate with the relentless and widespread corporate raid on the nation’s public institutions, the billionaire brothers Charles and David have plenty of company — particularly among the wealthy “reformers” who demonize teachers and the public education system to either reap the benefits of school privatization, impose misguided “reforms”, or both. There’s the band of education reform foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli Broad Foundation. And then there individuals who aren’t billionaires necessarily but certainly have enough wealth to play major, if not decisive, roles in political races and in courtrooms. In 2014, David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of Students Matter, was the individual most responsible for attacks on teacher due process in California last year by bankrolling the Vergara v. California lawsuit. It’s not that everyone shouldn’t play a role in influencing public policy, but clearly the wealth of individuals like Welch, Art Pope in North Carolina and others tip the scales heavily in favor of corporatist reform ideas. And don’t expect the mounting evidence showing these schemes don’t benefit students to compel them to rein in their agendas.

Campbell Brown

Campbell Brown

Campbell Brown

The future of education is on everyone’s mind, which is why the issue attracts so many strong opinions – including from a dizzying array of celebrities. Many of these folks receive an undue amount of reverence and attention from the media. Case in point: Campbell Brown, whose former career as a longtime CNN news anchor has given her public assault on teacher due process a brighter spotlight than it deserves. Brown isn’t merely voicing an opinion, however. In August, a group she founded, the Partnership for Educational Justice, filed a lawsuit on behalf of a small group of parents challenging teacher tenure in New York. In announcing the legal action, Campbell praised the plaintiffs’ bravery and said she was “just proud to be holding [their] coats.” Since then, Brown has filled the op-ed pages and cable news programs with shoddy data and discredited talking points to buck up her argument that due process for teachers is an obstacle to student achievement. There is no evidence supporting this claim and Campbell has actually been challenged by some in the media, not only for her feeble arguments, but also because she has refused to disclose the funders behind the Partnership for Educational Justice. Brown likes to talk a lot about “transparency” in the education debate but the public isn’t allowed to know who is proud to be holding her coat.

High school testingHigh-Stakes Testing Zealots

What better way to describe the loyal devotees of high stakes “test and punish” testing regimes? Unfortunately, many of them are still calling the shots, ignoring evidence that these tests shortchange our students and are a lousy and unfair measure of teacher performance, and also disregarding the outrage of millions of parents. When none other than Arne Duncan says that standardized testing “is sucking the oxygen out of the room,” it’s safe to say that the conversation is moving in the right direction. Still, legions of high-stakes true believers are out there, hands over their ears, yelling “What about those PISA scores!” “What’s wrong with accountability??” “Bad unions!”

“People who don’t know what they’re talking about are talking about increasing the use of commercial standardized tests in high-stakes decisions about students and about educators,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, “when all the evidence that can be gathered shows that it is corrupting what it means to teach and what it means to learn.”

 bright-red-apple-on-desk-of-teacher-in-classroomDemocrats for Education Reform

The term “education reform” has acquired a bit of a stench over the last few years, as the ideas with which it is most closely associated – high stakes accountability, vouchers, merit pay, charter schools, not to mention teacher bashing – have not worn well with much of the public. For some reason, a group of folks thought that attaching the word “Democrats” to their organization’s name would serve as some sort of disinfectant to make these misguided policies less odious to segments of the public. But make no mistake: With the help of Koch Brothers cash, DFERs (as members like to be called) are behind many anti-public education and anti-union state referendums. In 2013, the California Democratic Party passed a resolution calling on DFER to cease using the name “Democrats,” saying their program is clearly a front for a right-wing corporate agenda.

MichiganCapitolThe Worst Governors in America

The 2010 elections produced a cataclysmic shift in statehouses across the country as a crop of right-wing governors were voted into office. The damage these governors – Scott Walker of Wisconsin. John Kasich of Ohio, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rick Scott of Florida, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, and Rick Snyder of Michigan – have since inflicted on their states’ public education systems and workers’ rights has been overwhelming. Unfortunately, all of them, with the exception of Corbett of Pennsylvania, were re-elected in 2014.

Now get ready to stand up and cheer.

The Apples Go To…

manholdingstopsignSusan Bowles

In April 2014, kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles of Lawton Chiles Elementary School in Gainesville, Fla., posted a letter on Facebook telling parents of her students that she was refusing to administer the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading (FAIR), saying it was simply wrong to give the test to her young students. “I know I may be in breach of my contract,” Bowles wrote. “I cannot in good conscience submit to administering this test three times a year, losing six weeks of instruction. I am heartsick over the possibility of losing my job. I love my job. There is nothing I would rather do than teach. I have cried and cried over this, but in the end, it’s not about me. So, come what may, this is my stance.”

Bowles’ courageous post quickly went viral and Florida’s overtesting regime found itself under even more scrutiny. Bowles kept her job because a week later, the Florida commissioner of education announced “in light of all the attention focused on this issue over the past few days” that students in grade K-2 would no longer be required to take the FAIR test. Bowles self-described act of “civil disobedience” demonstrates what can happen when one determined educator stands up and says enough is enough.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

Many lawmakers in Washington have been fighting for schools and students but special recognition has to be given to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren for leading the charge on one of the most pressing education issues of the year: skyrocketing student debt. In June 2014, Warren introduced in the Senate the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, which would provide relief to some 40 million Americans struggling with student loan debt. “Exploding student loan debt is crushing young people and dragging down our economy,” remarked Warren while introducing the bill. “These students didn’t go to the mall and run up charges on a credit card. They worked hard and learned new skills that will benefit this country and help us build a stronger middle class and a stronger America.” Unfortunately, the bill was blocked twice from advancing in the Senate, falling only two votes short in the second attempt in September. These setbacks won’t stop Warren and supporters of the bill. “The next step,” Warren said after the vote, “is we’re gonna have to keep hitting on this.”

Moral Monday protesters

Moral Monday protesters

Education Voters

“I hope people will see that we have no choice but to be politically active. I know a lot of people are turned off by politics, but we must be involved to give teachers and students a voice,” said Jessica Fitzwater, a music teacher in Frederick County, Md., and the 2014 NEA Activist of the Year. Luckily for students across the country, thousands of teachers and education support professionals worked diligently this year to push for common sense education policies at the local and state level and hit the hustings for candidates who support public education. Some of the most dedicated and inspirational educator activists can be found in North Carolina, where the Moral Monday movement has attracted thousands of people from across the state and given educators a platform to tell the governor and the conservative legislature that they’re destroying public education. Now with the 2014 elections over and state legislatures scheduled to go into session in January, educator activists in North Carolina and around the country will be ready.

“Educators are not the type of people to back down when it comes to what is best for students,” says Florida teacher Lucia Baez. “Regardless of which party came out ahead, we will do what is best for students. Their future requires we all work together.”

demsforpublicedDemocrats for Public Education

2014 saw the formation of a much-needed and long overdue new organization to advocate for public schools. Democrats for Public Education (DPE) was launched in June by Ted Strickland, former governor of Ohio, and political consultant Donna Brazille. U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin was soon named co-chair. According to the group’s mission statement, DPE believes every student should have “access to a strong and safe neighborhood school with well-prepared and supported teachers, deep and engaging curriculum and social services to meet their mental, social and physical needs.”  Their message is clear: public education is a fundamental civil right and schools cannot be improved by cutting funding and attacking the very profession that is charged with teaching our students.

fergusonteachersFerguson Educators 

Every year, teachers and education support professionals step up and show extraordinary dedication and bravery in the face of unforeseen disasters and crises. We saw true heroism at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, and at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma in 2013. In 2014, in the wake of the violence, chaos and unrest following the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the nation once again saw educators go above and beyond in serving and protecting their students. Educators from Ferguson-Florissant NEA, Jennings NEA, Normandy NEA and Riverview Gardens NEA, banded together to assist in the community’s recovery and to bring a degree of normalcy back to the lives of their students.

Because many Ferguson schools shuttered due to riots, these educators took the opportunity to comb the streets, cleaning up broken glass, tear gas canisters and other debris. The district also offered free lunches and mental health counseling to students and their families — critical services in a community where many kids don’t get proper nutrition unless they are in school. Educators also organized food drives to assist families who were too afraid to go outside during the unrest and sold I LOVE FERG t-shirts to raise money. Elementary school teacher and Ferguson-Florissant NEA member Carrie Pace helped create a makeshift school at the local library, where parents could drop off their children for a day of art and science projects. “Our community values education, as all parents do,” Pace told NBC News.  “I hope that it’s healing in some way, if nothing else I think it is a total breath of fresh air for the kids who can be here.”