“Language is a weapon of politicians, but language is a weapon in much of human affairs.”
“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”
― Maya Angelou
What you call something becomes an intellectual shorthand.
Positive or negative connotations become baked in.
Hence the Colorado Democratic Party’s criticism of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).
After impassioned debate, delegates demanded DFER remove “Democrat” from their name.
It just makes sense. DFER is a group of hedge fund managers pushing for school privatization – a policy the Colorado Democrats vocally oppose.
In fact, one of the organization’s key founders, hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, was quoted in the film “A Right Denied,” thusly:
“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”
So by a 2/3 vote, the Colorado Democrats passed a motion saying in part:
“We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private, or run by private corporations, or segregated again through lobbying and campaign efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the Party’s name, I.e., “Democrat” in their name.”
To which I say “Hurrah!”
However, which is more inaccurate – the term “Democrat” or the word “Reform”?
Members of the nefarious school privatization propaganda squad are, in fact, Democrats.
However, they certainly aren’t progressives.
They don’t adhere to the traditional views normally associated with the party.
So the Colorado Dems motion is a positive move toward taking back what it means to be a Democrat. And in that spirit, it should be celebrated and emulated by every state and national party association.
The Democrats have always been a big tent party with lots of different ideas being accepted under that umbrella. But putting corporate profits over student needs does not belong there.
My point is that the larger verbal slight of hand isn’t with the organization’s party affiliation. It’s with the term “Reform,” itself.
DFER is not alone in calling what they advocate “Education Reform.”
My question is this – is what they’re proposing really reform at all?
And if so, what kind of reform is it? Who does it benefit? And what does it conceal?
The word “Reform” has positive associations. It’s always seen as a good.
We always want to be reforming something – turning it from bad to good. Or at very least improving it.
And when it comes to education, this is even more urgent.
No one really wants to be against education REFORM. The only reason to oppose it would be if you thought the way we teach was perfect. Then we would need no reform at all. But this is nearly impossible. Human society does not allow perfection because it is created by human beings, who are, in themselves, far from perfect.
However, the term “Education Reform” does not mean just any kind of change to improve teaching.
It has come to mean a very specific list of changes and policies.
It means increasing the number, frequency and power of standardized assessments to drive curriculum and teaching – More high stakes tests, more teaching to the test, more evaluating teachers based on student test scores, more school closures based on low test scores.
It means reducing democratic local control of schools, reducing transparency of how public tax dollars are spent while increasing control by appointed boards, and increasing the autonomy of such boards at the expense of accountability to the community actually paying for their work.
It means transforming money that was put aside to educate children into potential profit for those in control. It means the freedom to reduce student services to save money that can then be pocketed by private individuals running the school.
If the goal of education is to teach students, “Education Reform” is not about reforming practices for their benefit. It is not, then, reform.
If the goal is to increase profits for private businesses and corporations, then it truly is reform. It will increase their market share and throw off any extraneous concerns about kids and the efficacy of teaching.
However, this is not the goal of education.
Education is not for the benefit of business. It is not corporate welfare.
Education is essentially about providing positive opportunities for students. It is about providing them with the best learning environment, about hiring the best teachers and empowering them with the skills, pay, protections and autonomy to do their jobs. It’s about providing adequate resources – books, computers, libraries, nurses, tutors, etc. – to learn. It’s about keeping kids safe and secure, well-nourished, and healthy.
In short, it’s about everything bogus “Education Reform” either perverts or ignores.
Calling the things advocated by groups like DFER “Education Reform” is pure propaganda.
We must stop doing that.
Even if we use the term to criticize the practice, we’re helping them do their work.
It’s just like the term “School Choice.”
Despite the name, the reality has nothing to do with providing alternatives to parents and students. It really means school privatization.
It’s about tricking parents and students into allowing businesses to swipe the money put aside to educate children while reducing services.
In short, it’s about increasing choices for charter and voucher school operators – not parents or students.
In that way, it is a more limited version of faux “Education Reform.”
So I propose we stop using these signifiers.
Henceforth, “Education Reform” shall be Education Sabotage – because that’s really what it is.
It is about deliberately obstructing goods and services that otherwise would help kids learn and repurposing them for corporate benefit.
Likewise, I propose we stop using the term “School choice.” Instead, call it what it is – School Privatization.
Anyone who uses the older terms is either misguided or an enemy of authentic education.
Perhaps this seems petty.
They’re only words, after all. What does it matter?
It matters a lot.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
We cannot effectively fight the forces of segregation, standardization and privatization if we have to constantly define our terms.
We have to take back the meaning of our language, first. We have to stifle the unconscious propaganda that happens every time someone innocently uses these terms in ways that smuggle in positive connotations to corporatist ends.
To take back our schools, we must first take back our language.
To stop the sabotage, we must first stop repeating their lies.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!