Sunday, August 05, 2007

On naming Charter Schools after Cesar Chavez

American Liberalism, Education And The Legacy Of The Civil Rights Movement: More On The Cesar Chavez-Charter School Controversy

Sherman Dorn almost always has thoughtful insights into educational blogosphere debates, but he has completely missed the import of the controversy over naming anti-union charter schools after Cesar Chavez. Contests over political symbols — and the legacy of the civil rights movement and its leaders who have passed on are political symbols — are never just about the symbols; they are always struggles over very real and substantive political matters. Indeed, political struggles over symbols are a crucial dimension of contemporary politics, given the post-modernage of proliferating mass media. The point of informed blogosphere commentary should be to tease out the political content from the clash over the symbols, to make explicit what is implicit, in order to improve our common understanding.

Seen in this light, the Chavez naming controversy is one small skirmish in a much larger battle over the meaning and place of the legacy of the civil rights movement in the struggle to determine the future of American education. With the advent of the modern civil rights movement in Brown v. Board of Education, the struggle for equal rights under the law was inextricably linked to the quest for quality education for communities of color. A half century later, much of the promise of Brown remains unfulfilled and much of the civil rights agenda has yet to be enacted. But there has been some real victories and progress. Significantly, American political and educational discourse have been fundamentally transformed: political legitimacy now rests with the quest for equality. There is no clearer indication of this fact then the rhetorical approach taken by the ultra-conservative Roberts Supreme Court when it slammed the door shut on fulfilling the promise of Brown in the recent Louisville and Seattle cases: it wrapped itself in the mantle of Brown, claiming that its prohibitions of modest voluntary school integration programs represented the vision of that historic decision. Today, even the forces of reaction feel compelled to acknowledge that public consensus for racial justice, and to seek to appropriate for themselves the symbols of the civil rights movement.

The real issue here is not, therefore, what would Chavez do, but what vision should inspire American education and charter schools. More precisely, the real issue is what understanding of the legacy of the civil rights movement will prevail in the battles over the future of American education.

The great leaders of the civil rights movement — men and women like Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Phillip Randolph, Cesar Chavez, Ella Baker, Dolores Huerta, Bayard Rustin — were all of the democratic left, democratic socialists and social democrats who believed that full civil rights could only be achieved with economic democracy and justice. They understood that a flourishing public life and vital public square were central to that project, and advocated for their reinvigoration, not their diminishment or their dismantling through expanding markets. For these leaders and their movement, the growing economic inequality that comes with the extension of markets was a primary barrier to the attainment of full democratic citizenship for people of color in the United States: the purpose of the public sphere was, in no small part, to introduce a measure of “liberty and justice for all.” In the political world, these men and women were the leading advocates of a strategic alliance between the civil rights community and organized labor as the lynchpin for progressive change, and served either as union leaders or outspoken supporters of the union movement.

This civil rights agenda was deeply political in the fullest sense of the word, in the best of the traditions of the anicent Greek polis and the American founders: it sought to provide political democracy for all and to extend that democracy into civil society [thus the term civil rights] and the world of the economy. At its center was the idea of active democratic citizenship: the civil rights movement was committed, above all else, to winning for people of color in the United States the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship. This is the significance of the struggle to vote for African-Americans in the South and struggle for full citizenship rights for immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Of considerable importance here were two central democratic beliefs. First, the attainment of full citizenship could not be won by others and then given to Americans of color: it had to be the fruit of their own hard work, their sacrifice and struggle. And second, the power of Americans of color lay in their collective strength, through community institutions such as churches and unions. When acting as separate and isolated individuals, they would never advance.

The moves by the right and the neo-liberal center to appropriate the symbols and language of the civil rights movement invariably involves an effort to jettison this central political agenda of democratic citizenship and self-emancipation. It is perhaps most evident in the reduction of King, the main icon of the civil rights movement, into a few of his most general aspirational statements in the “I Have A Dream” speech. [How many anti-union charter schools are named after King, as well as Chavez?] But there is much more at work here then an attempt to smooth out the hard “economic justice” edges of civil rights movement leaders. Most importantly, it is an attempt to replace the historic commitment to democratic citizenship and community self-empowerment with a philosophy of consumer individualism and elite driven change from above. In a metaphorical form of “urban development,” the right and neo-liberal center would like to pave over the public square, and replace it with a market. This attempt comes into particular focus around naming an anti-union charter school for union founder and leader Chavez simply because the hypocricy of such a move puts into stark reveal the contradiction between the historic civil rights movement and the appropriation of its legacy by the right and neo-liberal center. The incomprehension of the reaction to such a reworking of the civil rights movements symbols comes from a lack of understanding, in part self-conscious and in part simply thoughtless, of what was central to the civil rights movement. If a racially segregated charter school was named after Chavez or King, does anyone doubt that there would be no shortage of voices of protest, many from the very same quarters which defend an anti-union charter school so named?

Education is a field where this contest of ideas for the legacy of the civil rights movement is perhaps most evident, both because of the ways in which Brown had meshed the civil rights agenda with the quest for quality schooling for communities of color and the fact that so much of the promise of Brown remains unfulfilled. The classic work of Chubb and More, Politics, Markets and America’s School, is an elaborate if unconvincing brief for why schools ruled by the market, rather than schools democratically accountable to the public, are more effective. Such an agenda can only move forward at the expense of the democratic project of the civil rights movement. At stake may well be the nature of American liberalism itself — whether it will renew or abandon the historic agenda of the civil rights movement.

Charter schools are now the crucial battleground for these competing conceptions of education. On the one hand, the right has seized much ground in the charter school movement [in part, because progressives were sleeping on their watch], and has been developing a generation of market-driven charter schools, in which there is no voice for teachers, parents and students. Denied the right to voice and democratic citizenship in those schools, their sole choice is to exit to another school: all power remains with the charter school operator, often a for profit corporate outfit. On the other hand, there has finally emerged the beginnings of a growing movement of progressive charter schools, often self-consciously conceived in the mold of the ‘freedom schools’ of the civil rights movement, where teacher, parent and student voice is at the very heart of what the school is and does. We might call this a ‘civil society’ — as opposed to a market — conception of charter schools: it sees much virtue in introducing a revitalizing pluralism into the public square and public education, but is steadfast on the insisting upon the importance of ‘the public’ and democratic citizenship in our civic life and our education.

This is the context for my response to Sara Meade’s thoughtful questions. If one distinguishes between market driven charter schools and civil society charter schools, and one understands that the former seeks to replace the civil rights agenda of democratic citizenship and collective self-empowerment while the latter seeks to fulfill it, one has the framework for understanding which charter schools are open to teacher voice and unions and which are antagonistic to it. That is why, for example, the Green Dot Charter Schools — which self-consciously understand themselves in terms of the civil rights agenda of democratic citizenship and collective empowerment are also union schools — are proudly union.

Joe Williams’ comments help clarify the answer to Sara Meade. It is entirely appropriate to tell teachers in charter schools that they need to organize themselves into unions, in the tradition of the civil rights and labor movements’ commitment to self-empowerment. But it is no less important to point out that there are charter schools operators that are functioning like the 21st century Wal-Mart equivalent of George Wallace standing in the school house door, antagonistically opposing unionization and fighting at every turn efforts of teachers to gain a voice in the their schools. That is simple truth-telling.

Lastly, Chavez, Randolph and Huerta — trade union leaders all — would never have told teachers denied a voice that the only solution was the market option of ‘exit,’ leaving the school in the unchallenged hands of the anti-union operator. Democratic citizenship and collective self-empowerment means that one stays and fights the good fight.

Leo Casey
From Edwize
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