A Better Place: Reflections on Education and the DNC

by Pamela Grundy

From the nosebleed seats high above the packed arena, President Barack Obama seems impossibly far away, a tiny figure casting a long shadow at the center of the Democratic National Convention stage. The crowd is on its feet; cheers and applause swallow up his opening words.

It is a quiet speech, laced with humor and humility, surprisingly subdued after the emotional appeals that have filled the space much of the evening. But as he nears the end, his words capture the spirit that has been building through the week.

“Yes, our path is harder – but it leads to a better place,” he says. “Yes our road is longer – but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon . . .”

His words resonate with the gatherings I attended during DNC week – one on bringing together agencies, women and communities to improve women’s health around the world; another on collaborating with students, teachers and parents to improve public schools.

They resonate with the past six years of work I’ve done at high-poverty Shamrock Gardens Elementary, where people from many walks of life have worked to make the school a better place for each child that passes through its doors.

But best as I can tell, they would have sounded out of place at the week’s two big-headline education presentations, sponsored by the corporate reform groups Democrats for Education Reform and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. (I say as best as I can tell, because in a set of amusing but unfortunate-for-democracy developments the group of pencil-toting moms that gathered to raise questions about corporate reform strategies was escorted by security from one of the events and barred from entering the other.)

Corporate reformers employ a set of metaphors that differ sharply from those employed by President Obama, and their actions reflect those differences. Instead of pulling people up, reformers such as Michelle Rhee talk of sweeping them away. Instead of invoking journeys made together, big-money funders such as Eli Broad laud “creative destruction” and “disruptive innovation.”

The charter school movement, which fragments neighborhoods and districts, leaves huge swaths of students behind (and frequently doesn’t get the ones it “rescues” very far). And reformers don’t seem to be learning much from their mistakes – calls for school closings continue despite evidence that the practice does more harm than good, and the high-stakes testing bandwagon rolls on regardless of a stream of scandals and a glaring lack of positive results.

Despite these groups’ efforts to use their DNC events to position themselves at the heart of the Democratic party, by the end of that inspiring week they seem less Democratic than before. Maybe if we’d been able to hear what they had to say I would feel differently. But we weren’t.

* * *

The day after Obama’s speech, as delegates head for the airport, we in Charlotte turn to cleaning up. City crews work quickly to sweep away confetti, put chairs and trash cans back out on the streets, unwrap the plastic-swathed newspaper racks.

Disruptions to education, however, will take more time to fix.

This becomes painfully evident at the next meeting of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Board of Education, the Tuesday after the convention ends. Apart from an upbeat presentation about the smooth opening of school, the meeting focuses on problems rooted in the Obama administration’s decision to embrace corporate reforms such as high-stakes testing and closing schools.

The meeting opens with a group of CMS employees calling on newly hired superintendent Heath Morrison to address the “crisis of heart” that plagues many of our schools, as pressure to raise test scores has created “a pervasive and toxic workplace culture permeated by fear, stress, mistrust and hostility.”

Morrison promises the board that the next meeting will include a report on last year’s closing of several “failing” schools, a move that opened deep community rifts, led to significant overcrowding at nearby schools, and has yet to produce the promised benefits.

Then comes the presentation on the new state exams mandated by North Carolina’s Race to the Top grant, which requires the state to make test results a key component of teacher evaluations. CMS staff explains that there will be 32 new state exams this year, with more to come. In a surprise development, they note that the state will be requiring districts to pay for printing and scoring the exams. But although the exam scores will figure into teacher evaluations, and count for 25 percent of high school final grades, more than two weeks into the school year no one yet knows what they will look like.

* * *

I came to the DNC fired up about battling for my vision of educational improvement, and deeply disappointed in my president’s education policies. The event worked its magic on me, reminding me that despite the disappointments, I’m proud to be a Democrat. I loved being on the delegate-crowded Charlotte streets, basking in the camraderie created by smiles and high-fives, dancing in a multi-hued crowd to the strains of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” We became part of that week’s educational debate, and found plenty of support among the rank and file. But as the president said, the road is long. Keeping the White House is only the beginning. Stay tuned.

Pamela Grundy is the co-chair of MecklenburgACTS.org and a co-founder of Parents Across America.