Occupation of Department of Education continues through weekend

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (left) (Pic by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Dawn C. Montgomery, via Wikimedia Commons)

Parents, educators and supporters of public education began an occupation of the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., Friday to demand support for well-funded, high-quality public schools and an end to publicly funded private schools.

United Opt Out National, which actively opposes mandatory or high-stakes testing in K-12 public education and is leading the four-day occupation event, writes that “it is time to end Wall Street Occupation of Education.” Opt Out also opposes the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind policy and Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s education policy that funds No Child Left Behind initiatives.

Ceresta Smith — a Miami-Dade teacher and parent, and the administrator of United Opt Out — recently told Education Week that her ”greatest concern is [that] the implementation of DoEd policies have many accepting fiction as true fact. High stakes test scores do not indicate that students have learned deeply, claimed ownership to knowledge and learning, obtained the ability to work with others, or developed the ability to think creatively.”

Smith told The Florida Independent in January that “opting out means taking a stance and making a statement in which you refuse to continue to engage in high-stakes testing.” It also means and end to “supporting polices and legislation that support the over-emphasis on high-stakes testing. You can opt out by refusing to have your children submit the test.”

United Opt Out also demands an end to “the use of public education funds to enact school ‘choice’ measures influenced and supported by the corporate agenda.”

School “choice” is a movement that seeks to secure taxpayer dollars for, among other “choices,” privately owned charter schools. Florida has been at the forefront of this movement, which has substantial links to conservative politicians, large business and corporations and well-funded political organizations.

National School Choice Week organizers wrote that their supporters “believe that parents must be empowered to select the best schools for their children, and that elected officials must do more to expand access to great public schools, public charter schools, private schools, virtual schools, and homeschooling.”

National School Choice Week, held early this year, was supported by former GOP Govs. Jeb Bush and Haley Barbour and current Govs. Butch Otter, Bobby Jindal and Rick Scott, as well as the Koch-affiliated tea party group Americans for Prosperity, and the American Federation for Children PAC, which has invested in political campaign contributions in Florida since 2003.

“Choice” advocates also gave their support to Florida’s Parent Trigger bill, which would have allowed parents of students attending a failing public school to petition the school district to implement a turnaround option, which included converting the school to a charter school (most likely run by a for-profit company). The Parent Trigger bill was defeated during Florida’s 2012 legislative session.

The Florida Independent has reported that organizations that lobbied to support the Parent Trigger and charter schools bills include the Florida Charter School Alliance, the Florida Coalition of Public School Options, the Foundation for Excellence in Education (led by Jeb Bush), the Foundation for Florida’s Future (also led by Bush), Students First, Parent Revolution, the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council (known as ALEC). Though it claims to be “bi-partisan,” ALEC has political and financial ties with conservative, pro-market groups and the Republican party.

The Florida Charter School Alliance’s board of directors includes Jim Horne, president of the Horne Group and a former Republican senator; John Kirtley, the Florida corporate tax credit scholarship program founder; and the executive director of former Gov. Bush’s education foundation, Patricia Levesque.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian and a former supporter of the “choice” movement but who now opposes such policies, wrote early this month:

Race to the Top seems to have catalyzed a national narrative, at least among the mainstream media. The good guys open charter schools and fire bad teachers. The bad guys are lazy teachers who get lifetime tenure just for breathing and showing up. Most evil of all are the unions, who protect the bad teachers and fend off any effort to evaluate them. Anyone who questions the headlong rush to privatization and the blind faith in standardized testing will be smeared as “a defender of the status quo” who has “no solutions.”

Ravitch also points to the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and many other private funders who continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to support teacher evaluation projects, school vouchers and charter schools.

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