The False Neutrality of Education Reform

Maryellen Butke (Photo courtesy of RI-CAN)

Mr. Plain recently received some pushback from commenters about his recent article, Butke’s Campaign Puts Focus on Education ‘Reform’. I’m not going to recount the slightly convoluted backstory (read the above-linked article, the preceding article about Senator Perry’s retirement, and especially Ms. Butke’s post to Mr. Nesi’s blog), but here is the key quote:

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.

On its face, there is very little to disagree with. Hell, I support both those things too! Right?

Ehh, no. This quote (which certainly was written without ill-intention) hints at the brilliant and subversive rhetoric that conservative corporate education reform has been pushing for years.  It reinforces false idea that education can be improved while simultaneously devaluing labor. In the quote above for example, “Offering a better education to all students” becomes positioned as the priority for education reform groups like Ms. Butke’s RI-CAN distinct and against the labor movement’s priority of respecting “our hard-working teachers.” Claiming the progressive solution is a compromise between two opposing points reinforces the myth that labor is not focused on providing an excellent education.

I’d strongly argue teachers unions and other labor groups are largely looking out for the students’ best interests, directly or indirectly, but others can engage in that debate. I instead want to direct attention to the false claim that improving education is a pursuit that should be above the fray of politics.

We should all be on the same page by now that we need to do better by our youth. If you disagree, you haven’t been paying attention. But this deliberately inoffensive claim is as about as far as Ms. Butke will go in her public rhetoric—the how is harder to come by. In her response featured on Nesi’s Notes she “welcomes debate on the how” but offers no answers. However she does claim no less than 6 times that reforming public education means setting aside politics. Others can attest to how political RI-CAN’s work beyond the op-eds has actually been, as there are enough tricks and ploys to fill multiple articles.

This would-be neutral stance ignores that there is nothing more political than educating a child. If you disagree, ask yourself why RI went without an equitable (but imperfect) funding formula for over a decade, why public school students in RI pay for transit and private school students don’t, or even why some textbooks cover evolution and others don’t. I may be accused of begging the question, “education is political because it’s political,” but the fact is these the answers to these questions will always be determined by the relative power of the groups involved, and students’ learning experiences can vary wildly across communities as a result. That people and power necessarily determine what our children learn should be undeniable. Still, Ms. Butke denies:

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?

I have no clue what “improving educational outcomes” actually means, so I guess I’m the lone dissenter. What I do have a clue about is that in a field like education, moves like these to depoliticize and take the “neutral” high ground are themselves politically charged maneuvers. Relentlessly asserting political neutrality performs two functions for the education reform movement:

1)   It builds the myth that the inverse is also true — that engaging in political work means opposing educational advancement. So, in a mind-bending twist of logic, teachers unions and other groups must defend themselves against the absurd charge that they don’t care about education.

2)   It allows the Gates, Waltons, and Broads of education to throw their hands in the air, claim innocence in the current state of education, and bestow themselves license to privatize schools and dismantle public education’s most promising aspects—democratic control, universal access, standard-setting fair and inclusive labor practices, etc.

When we consciously or subconsciously suggest education and politics are two different issues, we perpetuate the narrative. I believe this was the concern shared by the commenters above.

However, I do side with the overlooked conclusion of Mr. Plain’s last article: this is an opportunity to debate our most important but most frequently back-burnered issue, education. Let it be established that by declaring for political office, Ms. Butke no longer has grounds to claim the solutions to our educational woes are neither Democratic nor Republican. Platitudes like “Great teachers and great schools” won’t cut it when it comes to an up-or-down vote on school funding or collective bargaining.

Exactly how will you fix schools once in office Ms. Butke? (Of course, this goes for other candidates as well.) It is up to voters in District 3, myself included, to ask questions that push past the sterile rhetoric, and it is each candidate’s responsibility to answer those questions, in detail. If we ask often enough and listen hard enough, I’m confident voters will learn some things they don’t want to hear.

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Zack Mezera is an organizer with the Providence Student Union. He also likes thinking about religion and computers and stuff.

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