THE BLOG

Opt Out and Save Democracy

03/29/2015 12:50 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2015

"Opt-out" may be the most important political movement of this generation. It may seem, at first glance, a small ripple in the education reform debate -- an understandable reaction to the frustration over increased testing and test-prep in America's schools. I suggest that it is much more important than meets the eye.

That "first glance" is important in its own right. There is no reasonable argument in support of the tedious, stressful mess that education reform has made of the nation's schools. Even within its own circular, self-fulfilling paradigm, the testing and accountability era has been a dismal failure. Test scores are essentially meaningless as a measure of real learning, but even by this empty standard, no progress is evident. For this analysis, let us just stipulate that it has not even achieved the limited objectives on which policy is predicated.

The broader issue is hidden within plain sight: This growing struggle over the future of American education may be proxy for the future of our democratic republic.

Most folks who follow education policy debates are familiar with the players and high stakes. Dozens of AstroTurf organizations are funded by the same Daddies Warbucks: Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family Foundation. The incestuous network they've created, aided and abetted by the Brothers Koch and the publishing cartel, Pearson, ETS, McGraw Hill, are engaged in a hostile takeover of the entire education enterprise in America.

The Common Core and its primary architect, David Coleman, are parts of a well-oiled, cradle-to-grave machine. It has been going on for years, beginning when George W. Bush was Governor of Texas and helped the industry-led Phonics First movement begin the insidious commercialization of education. Many others, especially Mercedes Schneider in her wonderful book, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who's Who in the Implosion of American Public Education, have exposed this process in alarming detail.

Fed up by the dreadful experiences their children are having in school, parents and teachers are beginning to resist. In New Jersey, Illinois and New York, for example, the opt-out movement is gaining strength. A national organization called United Opt Out is working tirelessly to unite the many strands of this genuine grassroots effort.

Many of these parents may not be aware of the broader importance of this nascent national movement. They are just standing up for the well-being of their children. It is this simple, yet powerful, impulse that is at the root of every critical political movement in our history. Institutionalized social injustice is, at its core, the aggregate impact of highly personal injury. And millions of American children are indeed being injured in the stark, punitive, increasingly barren wake of so-called education reform.

The stakes are high already, but this battle is going to dramatically escalate. Mark my word. Every incremental growth in the opt-out movement is going to draw increasingly severe response. This is not even about education any more. It is about money. There is no reliable estimate of the overall investment in testing, the Common Core, and the various sub-industries education reform has spawned. As frequently noted, pre-secondary education is at least a $500 billion market and the capital invested to date will not be squandered without a fight. Hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars are in the pot, and these folks don't like losing.

In a way that sadly parallels other dimensions of public life, the profiteers have much of government in their pockets. Believe me, Bill Gates can get Arne Duncan on the phone more quickly than I can. All over America, "opt out" movements are encountering the bludgeon of federal policy. In Vermont, for example, one courageous principal spoke out and the Vermont Secretary of Education -- a quite reasonable woman -- immediately squashed the effort, pointing out that significant federal support was at risk.Compliance is sometimes a matter of survival for poor communities.

This is a passage from my forthcoming book:

In some ways the current direction in education policy is equivalent to outsourcing in the criminal justice system. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the criminal justice equivalent of the education privatization movement that is currently underway. CCA is a $1.8 billion company that builds and operates prisons and detention facilities on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the United States Marshals Service and state and local agencies. All of their incentives are perverse. Maximizing revenue depends on "customers" and "repeat" customers. In the decade ending in 2012 CCA spent nearly $18 million lobbying various government agencies to keep the market robust. In their own SEC filing they wrote:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

There is no profit motive in rehabilitation. Rehabilitation can suppress the repeat offender market.

That analogy might seem gratuitous, but it takes only modest revision of the language of the SEC filing from CCA to imagine it coming from a charter organization:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by proper funding of district public schools and decriminalization of certain activities that currently land young black fathers in jail, particularly with respect to drugs and controlled substances. Any changes that resulted in substantial job creation, fair wages and rebuilding of neglected urban communities might potentially reduce demand for alternative, impersonal "no excuses" facilities to house poor children.

The difference is that this time the education-industrial complex has picked on the wrong constituency. Prisoners, unfortunately, have no real political support.

Children do.

It is this power that offers the possibility of transformational change. If enough parents are willing to join the movement, keep their children home on test days, ignore the threats, the battle lines will be clear. School officials, local school boards, state legislators and members of Congress will be faced with a real school choice: Whose side are you on? America's children and families or a shadow government of plutocrats, investment bankers and publishing companies?

Opt-out! Even if your child likes tests, keep her home. Like every other powerful movement in American history, this one requires a snowstorm of small acts of defiance. Which side of history will you be on?