(Not Really) Progressives

Politics is such a dismal swamp that I’ve tried to avoid writing about it in recent months. (You’ve been following my tech stories, right?) But the dispiriting news of how progressive stalwart Sarah Manski won a primary race for a Madison school board seat and promptly withdrew from the general election was just too much to take. Her name stays on the ballot, the other progressive candidate becomes the default winner, and the third-place finisher–a Latina whom progressives denounced as a rightwing flunky (evidence of this is sketchy)–is squeezed off the ballot for the April election.

Not a great day for democracy. I see a bigger problem with progressives struggling to deal with educational change and with independent leaders of color–notably, Kaleem Caire of the Urban League of Greater Madison– who do not toe the progressive party line. I write:

Like it or not, we’re in an era of change and choice in education. Extending public vouchers to private schools in Madison may be wild overreach by the governor, but Madison parents already have choices for schooling.

If they don’t like their neighborhood school, parents can open-enroll their child in any Madison school or even in a suburban district. They can pack up and move to a suburban district. They can enroll their kid in a public charter school like Nuestro Mundo. They can send their child to a private school. They can home-school. They can sign their kid up for one of the many online schools.

This is a good thing. As long as academic programs address state educational standards and meaningful accountability is in place, why shouldn’t parents be able to pick a school setting they feel best suits their child’s needs? More to the point, why shouldn’t the district’s response to the painful achievement gap demonstrate this flexibility?

Progressives struggle with this. In the face of the Walker ascendancy, they’re basically fighting a rearguard and probably losing action. They want to restore the old model that standardized education, tightly controlled alternatives, and protected teachers with an industrial-style union contract — and sadly also did a wretched job of educating black children. African American leaders like Caire are still expected to fall in line, despite the old system’s manifest failure.

Because he hasn’t, Caire is shunned. The latest instance is the upcoming ED Talks Wisconsin, a progressive-minded education-reform conference sponsored by the UW School of Education, the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, the mayor’s office and other groups. Discussion of “a community-wide K-12 agenda” to address the achievement gap is a featured event. A fine panel has been assembled, including Mayor Paul Soglin, but Caire is conspicuously absent.

How can progressives not bring the Urban League to the table? Agree or disagree with its failed plan for the single-sex Madison Prep charter school, the Urban League has worked the hardest of any community group to bridge the achievement gap. This includes launching a scholars academy, the South Madison Promise Zone, ACT test-taking classes and periodic events honoring young minority students.

But Caire is branded as an apostate because he worked with conservative school-choice funders in Washington, D.C. So in Madison he’s dismissed as a hapless black tool of powerful white plutocrats. Progressives can’t get their head around the idea that the black-empowerment agenda might coincide with a conservative agenda on education, but then clash on a dozen other issues.

To read more, please go here.

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