• Sabrina Stevens

Image by Sally Mahoney

How can we make 2016 the year we reinvent public education? It’s a tall order. But if we set a few key intentions for our work, we have a shot at making real progress.

For starters: let us please, PLEASE not get so caught up in the Presidential race that we ignore state and local elections. That might be hard, given that the 2016 election basically started in 2014, and has only gotten uglier and weirder as the months wear on. But progressives have long had the bad habit of over-focusing on federal and Presidential politics at the expense of down-ticket candidates and the important public officials who work in state and municipal government. This is a problem in all issue areas, but it’s a particularly big deal in education, given the intensely local nature of school governance.

Especially now that the Every Student Succeeds Act has replaced No Child Left Behind as the law of the land, we need to focus on recruiting, developing, and electing local- and state-level officials who are strong advocates for full and fair funding of schools, and for equitable education policies. Likewise, we need to vote out anyone who is not making our students and our schools a top priority. Are your school board representatives turning public schools over to private interests? Organize them out of a job. Is your city council authorizing tax breaks for big business while local schoolchildren don’t have a library? Send them packing.

Make no mistake: whether it’s a local, state, or national race, it’s hard work to elect a candidate, and even harder to unseat or recall bad electeds already in office. But we draw on the same time and energy to do any of those things, and it’s our local and state leaders who ultimately control what happens to our local schools (and thus, our property taxes, or our children’s education, and even our careers).

Let’s put our energy and resources where they can make the most difference. Recent local organizing victories in places like Philadelphia’s City Council and Mayoral race set a worthy example for those of us who want to do more than rail against bad education policies in our cities and towns, and advocate for better policy and people who will actually enact it.

We also need to ensure that we don’t just pay attention to dismantling the testing juggernaut that transformed a nice-sounding phrase like “No Child Left Behind” into a source of near-universal disgust. Don’t get me wrong: I am as opposed to test-and-punish ed policy as anyone could be. But we can’t forget that No Child Left Behind once had (and for some organizations, still has) legitimate political cachet for a reason: namely, the decades-long neglect of students of color, students with special needs, and students living in poverty.

We cannot allow state and local officials to revert to ignoring our neediest students—who are now the majority of American public school students. Organizing, policymaking, and practice that uplifts these students and our communities need to be at the center of everything we do.

Let’s make this the year we move toward building socially, racially, and economically just learning and teaching environments in every community. To do that, we must look beyond education to ensure just living environments in every community.

The inequality and injustice that surrounds us is neither natural nor inevitable. As our country grapples with huge conversations on race, class, and social justice, the moment is ripe for us to raise public awareness and invest in solutions.

People made and continue to make decisions that impoverish and segregate our schools; people made and continue to make decisions that consign almost all of our students to outdated and undemocratic approaches to schooling. That means we the people can decide to do things differently. Let’s resolve to do so.

Sabrina Stevens is Midatlantic Regional Progressive Education Fellow. She’s also a mother, writer, education advocate, and former teacher based in Washington, DC. She is a founding member of EduColor, a collective that works to elevate the voices of people of color in the education policy dialogue.


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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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