Passion for public education on display at the 2016 NPE National Conference

By: David Monahan

I was thrilled to attend the National Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) on April 16 and 17 in Raleigh, North Carolina. NPE shared the Convention Center with a local Comic Con, but even without capes and masks our event had the true superheroes: educators fighting for children and our communities. The theme of this year’s conference: “And Justice for All: Strengthening Public Education for Each Child.”

Some groups are canceling events in North Carolina in solidarity with those oppressed by the state legislature’s passage of HB2, which nullified local ordinances protecting the LGBT community. But with the news of HB2 coming so close to this conference, NPE President Diane Ravitch boldly announced: “We are going to North Carolina on April 16-17 to join in solidarity with those who are under assault and to defend the American values of democracy, equality, and justice: for African-Americans, for Hispanic Americans, for LGBT people, and for everyone whose rights are endangered by this out-of-control, reactionary, mean-spirited legislature.” And that spirit was felt all weekend.

NPE’s mission aligns closely with CCFC’s. NPE supports adequate funding of our public schools, and the opportunity for every child to participate in a full and rich curriculum that includes the arts, physical education, history, civics, foreign languages, literature, mathematics, and the sciences. It was great to attend the conference and hear from groups and individuals—many of whom have partnered with CCFC in the past—about the battles they are waging nationwide and in their cities and towns. When I met folks who had not heard of us, their eyes lit up when I explained that CCFC advocates against corporate marketing that targets children. “That’s great, we need you!” was the typical response. It’s heartening to know that educators and parents fighting the shortchanging of our public schools are steadfast in the belief that schools should not accept corporate advertising dollars.

For the opening keynote, Diane Ravitch introduced the Rev. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP, whose impassioned speech set a tone for the conference. Rev. Barber illustrated the common theme of oppression in passing a law like HB2 and in underfunding public schools. Public education doesn’t just serve the community, he said, it creates the community, and by allowing state dollars to go to private schools, lawmakers are segregating bodies, segregating budgets, and segregating curricula. He brought the crowd to its feet with his closing refrain: “Take this state to school, and stand up for our children!” You can see Rev. Barber’s presentation and the keynote addresses by Dr. Phil Lanoue and Bob Herbert here.

Another local advocate, Attorney Jessica Holmes, presented some eye-opening information at the session on “Public Schools Under Attack.”Holmes noted that North Carolina presently has a budget surplus of more than $400 million, and yet its schools are so poorly funded that it ranks 46th among states in per pupil funding, and 51st in the increase in teachers’ pay in the last ten years. Doesn’t a budget surplus come after all the necessary bills are paid, Holmes asked? Attorney Wendy Lecker of the Education Law Center lamented the failure to adequately fund public schools, noting that a thriving public education has historically been recognized as vital to our very democracy. This left me thinking—isn’t the underfunding of public schools in impoverished areas another deliberate means of voter suppression, like voter ID laws and limits on polling places and hours? After all, each student left starving for education today translates to another person less likely to vote down the road.

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters and a member of NPE’s Board of Directors, and Rachael Stickland, co-founder, with Leonie, of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, gave a great presentation on “The Fight for Student Data Privacy Post inBloom.” They also described the Student Privacy Toolkit they are developing with CCFC, which will be available for free in the Fall of 2016, to help parents and teachers navigate the complicated world of student privacy. 

Speakers presented important information about early childhood development at the session entitled “T-E-S-T, NOT P-L-A-Y is a Four Letter Word: Putting the Young Child and the Teacher at the Center of Education Reform.” Author and educator Nancy Carlsson-Paige said our poorest children and children of color are most affected by the disturbing lack of play, activities, and the arts in early education today, which are most underfunded in their communities. Denisha Jones of Howard University and the Badass Teachers Association said screen time stimulates visual needs but destroys a child’s need for human interaction. Jones suggests we counter the catchy acronyms of standardized testing advocates with one of our own: PLAY = Personalized Learning for All Youth! And Michelle Gunderson of the Chicago Teachers Union said sadly, today’s kindergarten, with so little time for activities and the arts, is like the new second grade, but a bad second grade. All three speakers touted an important resource for parents who want to fight back—the Defending the Early Years website. 

I learned a lot from these and many other sessions. Overall, I was struck with the enthusiasm and determination of all assembled. I left Raleigh certain that these advocates are not only prepared to persist in their fight on behalf of the interests of children, they are determined to win.