A couple of days ago, at a union meeting of leaders from adjacent school districts, I listened to Jeanette Deutermann, the leader of the Long Island Opt-Out movement, parents who will not allow their kids to be subjected to New York’s obsessive testing. Deutermann spoke eloquently of how the upsetting experience of her child during the state exams led her to start asking questions about them, the answers to which were deeply disturbing. She shared her concerns with some friends, tied into what opt-out movements in other states were doing, and the Long Island movement was born.
Deutermann is clearly looking for a way to work with teachers. She doesn’t want to get them in trouble, but she knows that it is only through a close alliance of parents and teachers that the powers in Albany will be more fearful of an enraged public than the corporate leaders sponsoring the current testing regime as a tool to discredit public schools.
In response to Deutermann’s remarks, I spoke about the need for teacher unions to support the Opt-Out movement if we are to maintain our credibility with our parent communities. At the very least, I maintained, we ought to be encouraging our own members to opt their kids out of a testing regime that we often claim is tantamount to child abuse. Addressing the concerns of several leaders that there were risks associated with defying the education department both for individuals and school districts, I tried to bring my colleagues back to their roots.
I observed that the brave souls who started our teacher union movement took far greater risks than I was talking about. That, for example, the brave teachers who undertook the first strike on Long Island did so with a law on the books that permitted the state to terminate them for striking. However, they knew what all who strive for social justice know – that there is always risk in confronting injustice, but the risk of tolerating it is greater. Those who take the battle on are not fearless. They get scared, but they do what they have to anyway.
I don’t know if I convinced anyone. I do know I’m sick and tired of union meetings where leaders find an assortment of excuses to avoid taking action. Too many of our unions have adopted a service model instead of an organizing one, the one that brought us from what was essentially serfdom to economic security. I know too that if we rise up and use our numbers to unite with pro-public education citizens and confront the privatizers, the testocrats and the plain stupid, we can save public education and our profession.