Thursday, December 22, 2011

When single-issue advocacy causes multiple-issue empowerment

Education journalist Joy Removits recently wrote this article on the education "reform" lobby. The article was not particularly remarkable, but I did discern a bit of pivoting on the part of some of the organizations, such as Students First, Stand for Children, and DFER (Democrats for Education Reform) Removits wrote about. In particular, they talked about being "single-issue" advocates and financially backing politicians only based on their advocacy of issues the reform lobby pushes. For example, Removits wrote,
Melton stressed that StudentsFirst is a single-issue group. "We support candidates that have positions on other issues we don't support," he said.
Now, I can see agreeing with someone on one issue even when you disagree with them on most others. I, for, example, agree with Ron Paul's position that the War on Terror and the War on Drugs have been disasters, and have resulted most detrimentally in a War on Civil Liberties and a War on Dissent. But would I go so far as to vote for Ron Paul? Would I back him financially if I worked for the ACLU? I'd really have to weigh the pros and cons overall of a potential Ron Paul presidency. For example, Paul is also opposed to most civil rights legislation, saying naively that racial discrimination is "ancient history."  Would ending the War on Drugs, aka The New Jim Crow, be better for our society and specifically for blacks, Latinos, and poor people than would keeping civil rights legislation in tact? Even then, the positions taken in his name make it clear that he should not be in any sort of position of political power. 

Even more recently,Whitney Tilson of DFER fame wrote something (h/t Alexander Russo) that pushed back on the idea of single-issue advocacy. I blogged about the limitations of his revelations in my last post. One of his basic points was that poor people aren't going to ally themselves with powerful people on school reform when the powerful are at the same time voting against other measures meant to help poor people such as housing, healthcare, and jobs. From Tilson (as he perceives poor people and/or people of color would respond):
Even if I put aside the jobs issue, and even if I believed that you were genuine in caring about the admittedly lousy schools in my community, I don’t like or trust you one bit because on every other issue, you are waging war against me and my people.  If you really gave a tinker’s damn about my community, you’d see that the issues go far beyond the schools: job training, unemployment benefits, healthcare, social services, immigration, voting rights, etc.  On EVERY one of these issues, everything you stand for is contrary to the interests of me and my people. 
As I said in my post, I think this is an astute observation. You're not going to get poor or working class people to go along with education reform if you're killing them on every other issue they care about. I would push Tilson's analysis a step further. I don't agree with many of the specific education reforms that he and those Removits wrote about do, but even if I did, I have no confidence that meaningful education reform can happen if those empowered to legislate those reforms are at the same time generally anti- certain groups of people, anti-science, and anti-intellectual.

Rick Scott, for example, wanted to drug test the urine of those who need some help from public assistance. We want to reform your schools but let us invade your privacy and question your integrity first. Or how about by supporting politicians who want to cut off health care for women, particularly for poor women? We want you to get a better education and go to college, but first we're gonna make sure your mom has no access to family planning or cancer prevention services. Also, what about being beholden to foundations funded by corporations who treat their employees and the communities they live in so ruthlessly? The wealth of the Walton family, for example, comes in part due to their ruthlessly efficient management and employee practices. We want to help your children with better education but first let us exploit you and help to sustain the awful conditions of poverty you live in. But when we look for philanthropy, we can't trust you, we'll give the money we made exploiting you to other rich people who say they want to help you. Finally, what about gay people? How can education be improved for everyone when some education reform-minded politicians don't accept gay peopleWe support better education and schools for all kids, but if you're a gay or transgender kid, you're an abomination. Will school will get better for the gay kids in that elected official's district? I don't think so.

How is education improved by supporting politicians who say climate change science is a hoax? Can positive science education reform come from people who think we should "teach the controversy," i.e. teach creationism side-by-side with evolution? What kind of social studies education are we going to get from decision makers who want to make up their own facts and de-emphasize teaching the influence of founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson because he's not Christian enough for them? Some reformers think that Rick Perry's (the man who held a Christian-centric, fundamentalist prayer rally as a way to solve political problems) anti-intellectual ideas for higher education are "visionary."

When reformers see fit to hand over the reigns of a sacred, public, democratic institution to people who hate the government, how is that supposed to work out? How can these education "reformers" imagine that anti-intellectuals can have anything of substance to offer to the intellectual pursuit of education? Is getting your questionable education reforms passed really worth empowering people who don't value knowledge-based education, public or otherwise? At some point, being anti-science and anti-intellectual means you're anti-education. If you have disdain for the creation of knowledge, or for knowledge itself even, you can't really be trusted to oversee the reform of one of our society's principal mechanisms for generating and transferring knowledge.

The problem with a single-issue approach to education reform is that students don't lead single-issue lives. Democrats and neo-liberals who support decision-makers who would use their power to crush the Democratic party (through a war on unions of all stripes), who hate gay people, who deny climate change science, who support the disastrous Wars on Drugs and Terror, who don't even have the support of the saner members of their own party, who sell their states off to the highest bidders are acting irresponsibly and short-sightedly.

Do we really want to employ a pyromaniac to fix our fireplaces if it means giving him the opportunity soon thereafter to burn down our homes? When I do the calculus, I don't see children or students, public or knowledge-rich and meaningful education winning. I see homo-phobic, poverty-criminalizing, anti-intellectual, knowledge-agnostic, right-wing ideology winning and I have yet to understand why any self-described liberal or education reformer would support that.


  1. Good column and good points. But the currently faddish package of so-called education reform nostrums is bogus in and of itself, even if its backers were little angels on every other issue.

    By the way, off topic, but I think that all voices need to DEMAND that the reformers send their own kids to the very same schools they push on poor kids, or be publicly pilloried as hypocrites and frauds. Sorry, but that goes for the editorial boards that push reform fads too, every one of them. You first, Wall Street Journal editorial board members. Yank the kids outta the elite private and shove them kicking and screaming into the nearest KIPP or other "no excuses" charter. No excuses for you.

    The Kopp-Barth kids? Every one of them in KIPP schools or the family needs to be publicly scorned and disgraced. We should have been demanding this unyieldingly from the beginning of this current wave of so-called reforms, but were caught off-guard and didn't have the full perspective early on.

  2. Caroline, that's an absurd argument. If 1) I believe that there is an achievement gap, and 2) I support schools that try to close the achievement gap by giving intensive training to kids who are behind, and 3) my own children are NOT, in fact, behind or in need of extra training, then it's silly to expect me to send my children to a school that's not aimed at their level. In fact, it would be morally wrong for me to send my children there, taking up spots that could be given to other more needy children.

  3. Right, Stuart Buck. It would be morally wrong to send all those kids to the same school. Anyone can see they are not cut from the same cloth.

  4. Um, no, I didn't say or imply that. A little remedial reading seems to be in order.

    For that matter, here's a very close analogue to the KIPP idea: some kids are in high school but don't know how to read. If I suggest a intensive remedial tutoring program, out of a desire to help them, it's not a cogent or intelligent argument to say that I should be putting my own kids (who are reading just fine) into the same program.

  5. Rachel, you make some very good points. I am very alienated in the current situation. I tend to prefer traditional methods, but when I seek others to work with, I quickly find myself in the company of those whose general views on politics I find repugnant. It makes a big difference. Literacy is, after all, a means to an end. I don't want to see good methods used for reactionary, destructive ends. It is all very disappointing.

    On another note, I see what you are saying Stuart; of course students shouldn't be placed in programs they don't need. But Caroline points out another huge problem: two Americas. We now have an elite that is almost entirely cut off from the day-to-day reality of most Americans. We have people proposing reforms that will never affect them. It is nauseating to have Presidents and other elected officials sending their own children to private schools to get ahead, while proposing something else for the rest of us.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.