Maryellen Butke’s campaign for state Senate will raise an interesting debate about the relationship, or lack thereof, between the so-called education reform movement and the progressive movement. While in name they may sound like close cousins, in practice they are often not.
Education reformers (or deformers, if you don’t like what they do) often push for charter schools at the expense of existing public schools, and charter schools often don’t allow its teachers to bargain collectively, putting the movement at odds with organized labor and often attracting big money from union-busting corporations.
By running for state Senate – especially for legendary progressive legislator Rhoda Perry’s seat – Butke’s campaign will become ground zero for this debate in Rhode Island for the next few months.
Yesterday, in a post about Senator Rhoda Perry retiring, I mentioned that Butke is a liberal who supports charter schools. Two of RI Future’s regular contributors, who follow education issues closely, quickly took umbrage with my description.
“I think a more accurate description of Ms. Butke’s positions would be pretty politically liberal on some issues and extremely conservative on others, particularly labor and education (her primary focus), where she and her Wal-Mart and Wall Street-funded organization have championed right-wing policies that have and will do major damage to public education in RI,” wrote Aaron Regunberg.
Pat Crowley, who works for the state’s largest teachers’ union, followed suit: “Got to agree with Aaron here. Labor issues can’t simply be shoved to the side. Especially when so many teachers are women, and so many retirees are women, the attack on their voice on the job is part of the national war on women. How liberal is that?”
Then, interestingly enough, Butke got a chance to respond with a guest post on Ted Nesi’s blog. She wrote:
I have never considered my views on education liberal or conservative. Though a lifelong progressive, it never occurred to me that teaching and learning in public schools was a partisan issue. At its core, education reform is about improving educational outcomes for kids. How could anyone – Democrat or Republican – disagree with that?
As it turns out, education is one of the most politicized debates we are having in this country today. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Those of us who believe in the tenets of change aren’t interested in partisan politics. We believe in accountability for the adults responsible for our children’s futures, in high-quality public school choices for parents regardless of demographics or geography, and in flexibility to let principals and teachers do whatever it takes to improve student achievement. This doesn’t mean we are anti-union and it doesn’t mean we have negative feelings towards teachers.
My feeling is that Regunberg, Crowley and Bukte somehow need to reconcile their somewhat disparate points if Rhode Island is to holistically improve the education it offers. We need to offer a better education to all students without making life any tougher for our hard-working teachers, who hold one of the most important jobs in our community. That’s the progressive solution to reforming public education.
I believe Butke when she says she isn’t anti-union per say, but some of the people that pay her salary and fund the organization she works for certainly are. That can be a tough dichotomy to reconcile.
Butke and I have long talked about getting together for a big picture discussion on how the charter school movement fits – or doesn’t – with the progressive movement. Here’s hoping that this post and her candidacy helps to make that happen … and that they can help Rhode Island to figure out how it wants to reform public education.