Reason for optimism at Network for Public Education conference

The movement to support public schools is big, diverse and deeply committed. That’s the obvious take-away from the fifth annual conference of the Network for Public Education, which took place last weekend in downtown Indianapolis.

The network has grown like crazy since its start a mere five years ago, boosted by the reputation of co-founder Diane Ravitch but also by a hunger among teachers, parents and activists for a way to voice their concerns about the threats facing public education. The conference drew nearly 400 people.

And they came from all over – from California, New York, Washington and Puerto Rico, and from across Indiana, where public schools have been under fierce attack from the Republican-dominated state government and bunch of generously funded advocacy groups.

The mood in Indy was optimistic and determined. Teacher walkouts last spring in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, and the public support they garnered, were still on everyone’s minds. The expansion of charter schools has slowed, studies have found that vouchers don’t work and news media have caught on to how unregulated school choice promotes segregation and inequality.

When the network began, it may have looked from the outside like a mostly white organization of educators. It’s not. Three of the five keynote speakers at the conference were people of color: Seattle teacher and Black Lives Matter activist Jesse Hagopian, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym and NAACP national President Derrick Johnson. Session topics included diverse schools, the racist origins of standardized testing and how promotion of charter and private schools can fail students of color.

A few highlights from sessions that I caught:

  • Retired Fort Wayne teacher and network board member Phyllis Bush (my personal hero) presenting the first Phyllis Bush Grassroots Award to activists from Save Our Schools Arizona.
  • Audrey Watters patiently explaining how the Gateses, Zuckerbergs and their forbears have misled us for at least 100 years about how technology would transform education. (Seriously, if you’re not following Watters on Twitter and reading Hack Education, you’re missing out).
  • “Four pissed-off moms” from Save Our Schools Kentucky recounting how public-school supporters have fought off – for now – an attempt to bring charter schools to Kentucky.
  • “A Nation at Risk” author James Harvey and journalist John Merrow swapping stories about media coverage of education, the federal role in education and other topics.

Derek W. Black, who writes the Education Law Prof Blog, attended the conference and was inspired. “In Indianapolis, I saw something special — something I had never seen before,” he wrote. “I saw a broad-based education movement led not by elites, scholars, or politicians, but everyday people.”

The beautiful thing about the conference was that people fighting very different local battles came together with a shared sense of purpose. They may not agree 100 percent on charter schools, standardized testing, equity and other issues, but they are united in wanting high-quality, democratically governed public schools that serve all students – and serve them well.

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