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Whose 'Egypt Moment' in Education?

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Those who favor the current wave of education "reform" like to dress themselves in the robes of the Civil Rights Movement. In a previous article, I questioned the validity of their logic. Now they've taken to the struggle underway in Egypt. Unfortunately, it seems that no freedom movement -- no matter how diametrically opposed to their agenda -- is safe from association with these people.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein recently appeared at Teach for America's 20th Anniversary celebration. He asked the attendees, "Is this our Egypt moment?"

This was a rhetorical question. But the answer is "No."

The people of Egypt aren't just fighting for "change." They want democracy, independent unions, and an expanded public sector. Meanwhile the billionaires behind education "reform" (and their hired lieutenants, like Klein) are fighting against democracy, against unions, and to privatize the public sector.

But Klein, oblivious to this extreme irony, continued: "Will we seize the moment? We will talk to each other and go home. I challenge this group to seize the moment."

Seize the moment and do what?

Egyptians overthrew a dictator and are pressing for a democratic government. They want to have a say in public affairs. As chancellor, Mr. Klein fought for less democracy in the governance of schools -- for unqualified mayoral control (dare we say, "dictatorship") of education, in fact. In New York, the Panel for Educational Policy officially makes decisions - but it is stacked with mayoral appointees who are summarily dismissed if they vote the "wrong" way. The public can offer testimony to the PEP all night (and have been known to do so until the next morning), but, like every Egyptian election for the past 30 years, the outcome is never in doubt.

Furthermore, if the billionaires behind the "reform" efforts were really so democratic-minded, they would allow their wealth to be taxed. Then there could be a public, democratic discussion about how best to use it. Instead, their largesse comes with tremendous strings -- privatization, charter schools, high stakes tests -- that effectively determine education policy while bypassing any kind of democratic process.

The working people of Egypt are demanding independent unions. As I write these words, several strikes are in progress across the country with this central demand. And the fact that Mubarak finally stepped down at the very moment that strike activity began in earnest is not lost on many commentators. Mr. Klein, and his co-thinkers, meanwhile, have a distinctly anti-union bent to their "movement." They have targeted teacher unions as the primary obstacle to progress in education. Their faith in this view is not shaken by the fact that non-union schools (such as those in the southern United States) are consistently outperformed by unionized ones. Their biggest propaganda effort, the film, Waiting for Superman, pointed to Finland as a model of educational progress, but forgot to mention that Finnish teachers are 98 percent unionized.

Many Egyptians want to expand the public sector. They feel that Mubarak's free-market oriented, neoliberal economic policies have destroyed their standard of living, and so they prefer to concentrate their resources in the service of people than of profit. As Chancellor, Mr. Klein fought openly for privatization. He famously advised Americans to stop thinking of education as a monopoly and to start thinking of it as a "business." Charter school CEO Eva Moskowitz said of Klein, "If you're the U.S. Postal Service, you don't exactly embrace FedEx, but this chancellor has done that." Today, Mr. Klein is the CEO of News Corps' education division, so he is seizing the moment to fight specifically for Rupert Murdoch's slice of the education market.

Some of us have long insisted that democracy could never come to the Middle East through bunker busting bombs. Rather, we argued that democracy comes from below - from the efforts of ordinary people to organize themselves to win a better life. The events in Tunisia, Egypt, and now several other countries (including Iraq!) are a massive confirmation of that view.

Likewise, we have long treated with suspicion "movements" of the wealthy to fight for school "reform" (however benevolent sounding). Instead, we believe that schools will only improve when parents, teachers and students are given greater power and control over the the educational process.

In our view, the real "Egypt" moment in education is happening right now in Madison, Wisconsin. There, teachers, students and parents are linking arms in the tens of thousands to defend (yes, defend!) collective bargaining. Camped out in virtually every square inch of the capital building, the protestors chant, "This is what democracy looks like!" and "What's disgusting? Union busting!"

Home-made placards are filled with references to the struggle in Egypt. "March like an Egyptian" and "One dictator down, one to go" have been popular.

Now, perhaps I will be accused of trying to "use" Egypt in the same way that Klein is, if only for the other side. To that potential accusation, I respond: let the people of Egypt decide who their allies are.

The other day I saw a remarkable picture of Egyptian workers on strike and marching - in defiance of a military ban. Fighting for their lives, with the whole world watching, one of their number is holding up a sign that reads:

"Egypt supports Wisconsin workers. One world, one pain."

I've also just learned that someone in Egypt called up a local Madison pizza shop to order pies for the protesters in the capital building. Solidarity is delicious!

Make no mistake. For those of us who are determined to defend public education, this is our Egypt moment.

Let's follow our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin and seize it.