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Alan Singer

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Matt Damon Can't Save the Schools

Posted: 08/01/11 11:10 PM ET

Matt Damon gave a great speech at Saturday's Save Our Schools Rally in Washington DC. Matt's mom, a teacher from the Boston area told the crowd she was very proud of him. Diane Ravitch, Debbie Meier, Jonathan Kozol, who have been involved in what Ravitch calls the "Great School Wars" for decades, and John Kuhn, a superintendent of schools at a microscopic North Texas school district (two schools and 397 students) also spoke well. Kuhn, particularly, gave a rousing speech. But great speeches are not enough to build a social movement. Even John Stewart's humorous pre-taped comments won't do it. It was very hot on Saturday. But while I am glad I attended the rally, listened to the speeches, and marched around the White House, I was also very disappointed. Five thousand participants, many aging veterans of the 1960s and mostly White, will not create change or save the public school system.

The demands of the rally were actually quite moderate and reasonable, and that was part of the problem. People were not angry enough. They asked for equitable funding for all public school communities, an end to high stakes testing for student, teacher, and school evaluation, curriculum developed for and by local school communities, and teacher and community leadership in forming public education policies. Speaker after speaker said the problem in the United States is poverty, not the schools. But the organizers were not able to convey the urgency they felt to the general public or explain why these changes were necessary to "save the schools." Marchers chanted "Fire Arnie Duncan," but I did not here demands to fire or impeach the man who put Duncan in charge of the nation's schools, President Barack Obama. If Matt Damon had not come to help his mother out, it is likely there would have been no media coverage of the rally at all.

The march was supposed to be endorsed by over 50 unions and labor groups including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Educational Association, and the DC Metro Labor Council. None of these groups were evident at the rally. The biggest and most vocal delegation were Wisconsin teachers who have been battling a Republican controlled state government bent on decertifying unions, but their national organizations let them down.

Anthony Cody, a former high school science teacher who was one of the main organizers of the rally was interviewed on The Washington Post blog and asked about the poor turn out. Cody felt that "Teachers and parents are rather demoralized and afraid. Many lack the time and money to travel. Others are simply not sure anything can be done. One of the first challenges of any movement is to destroy the illusion of power that the system projects." He claimed, "This was the first protest of its kind, but it won't be the last." Cody felt the event demonstrated a "great sense of energy and power" and "offered compelling arguments for a shift" in educational policy. I wish I could share his hopefulness.

Public school advocates face a powerful coalition willing to dismantle public education in the United States for a variety of reasons. Teachers and teacher unions, branded as over-paid, liberals, and obstructionist in the right-wing media, make an easy target.

Desperate parents are grasping at "reform" straws hoping to offer a better future to their own children, even if others are left behind. Right-wing and religious ideologues want to operate their own schools. Clueless politicians who send their own children to fancy and expensive private schools, including President Obama, are eager to assign blame but short on solutions. Technology companies and publishers hope to deprofessionalize teaching so they can market their "wonders" to ill-prepared parents without interference. Anti-union / anti-teacher business groups, hedge fund operators and pseudo-philanthropists wanted to privatize education on a business model so they and assorted corporate vultures can pick at the carcass of public education.

It is going to be hard to defeat this coalition. We need organizers, not just speech makers, classroom teachers, not just college professors, young people, not just sixties radicals, and we need a much more ethnically diverse group.

John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in North Texas, made a number of key points that bear repeating. I liked what John had to say and the way he said it. We need more people like him. I have not been able to find the text of his Washington speech online, but have he gave a similar speech at a Texas Save Our School rally at Austin, Texas in March. These are excerpts from that speech.

I stand before you today proudly bearing the label of unacceptable because I educate the children they will not educate. I, day after day, take these children broken by the policies adopted by the people in this building, and I glue their pieces back together. And at the end of my life you can say those children were better for passing through my sphere of influence. I am unacceptable and proud of it. Look around you. Public school teachers, you are the saviors of our society and always have been. You are the first responders standing in this rubble while they sit in their offices and write judgmental things about you on their clip boards. You are our heroes, and 27 billion is not near enough for what you're worth. You are priceless, public school teachers of Texas. Fear Not. This is our eternal glory.

It is ours to educate. I will march into that classroom full of children who need me. I will walk proudly into that classroom.

Bail out the bankers and bankrupt the teachers. We will still teach. I'm not in it for the money. I'm not in it for the benefits. I'm in it because it is right. I'm in it because the children... need somebody like me in their lives. I will Teach these kids.

As people return home and prepare for organizing and the start of school I have a suggestion for future actions. I propose an annual day of absence the day before election day when all the teachers in the United States call in sick. People can go to the doctor during the day for appointments and absence notes and then gather at four in the afternoon in every town square to demand respect for schools, students, and teachers. Teachers can leave substitute lessons for our students explaining why we are missing and why learning is important.