The Time is Right for Community Leadership

By Diann Woodard

In towns and cities across America you can hear the faint wisp of a collective sigh of relief—an exhale, if you will. In these communities, Americans have taken back their rights to govern themselves.

In New York, after 12 years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, voters said, “No more.” They voted for someone who ran on the notion that we all might be important. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio believes in public education and the idea that everyone should benefit from it, and he believes we know how to fix it. He believes this so much that his children attend public schools.

“The election of Bill de Blasio,” Dianne Ravitch wrote the day after the election, “represents a major national setback for the agenda shared not only by Mayor Bloomberg, but by George W. Bush, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the Koch brothers and many others. What they had in common was that they had the gall to call themselves ‘reformers’ as they determined to replace public education with a choice system that gave preference to privatized management over democratic governance.”

In the town of Bridgeport, Conn., a simple school board election became the pushback soon to be heard around the country. Bridgeport citizens said no to the mayor and School Superintendent Paul Vallas. The town was fighting to remove Vallas because he had not fulfilled the requirements needed to receive a waiver to lead the district. To ensure they rid themselves of Vallas, they supported and elected candidates in the school board elections that surely will vote Vallas out.

Vallas, the king of reform and the former school superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, came to Bridgeport and began to dismantle its public school system and privatize it. Connecticut citizens saw what was happening, reviewed the results in the other cities and wanted none of it. They beat back big business and won!

In cash-strapped Michigan, small towns (Benton Harbor, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor) voted to approve millages to keep their community schools. These towns know what happens if they lose their public schools: neighborhoods abandoned, schools closed, families moving.

Meanwhile, the political establishment in Colorado promoted a statewide referendum that attempted to advance privatization through a tax that would be dedicated to increasing funding for both charter schools and the public system, a measure that was soundly defeated—clear evidence the public isn’t buying politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths on education issues.

While these election results offer evidence of voters’ growing disdain for their taxes being used to finance private interests, they also show that the forces backing privatization are relentless in their pursuits. Paul Vallas will not disappear from the scene, no matter the final outcome of his status in Bridgeport; indeed, he has been selected as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s choice for lieutenant governor for the 2014 campaign.

Nor are the private interests reaping profits from operating school facilities financed with our taxes likely to relent in their pursuits. If we sit on our hands, the rising tide of public opposition to their so-called reforms will as likely subside as gain momentum. So it is incumbent upon us as school leaders to ensure the public’s belief in public education gains steam.

As school leaders, we are ideally positioned to help galvanize and advance the growing movement to resist the business model of school reform. Our knowledge of the children’s needs and the policy and political challenges that must be met in order to improve our schools is an invaluable resource for parents and voters who share our understanding of the value of education for all and the need for change to improve our schools.

Voters have shown us their disdain for the push to privatize public education. It is up to us as school leaders now to help parents understand how improvements to their children’s education can be achieved without sacrificing the principle of education for all. The time is right for school leaders to become community leaders.