Bringing a Book to a Knife Fight
Considerable verbiage has been spilled on the damage done to our institutions during the last three years and the terrifying realization that, as a democratic nation, this is something that ultimately we’ve done to ourselves. We awaken every day to experience yet another episode of our progressive illness -- a national bipolar disorder with the poles intensifying and moving further apart. Pathological and verifiable evidence of this disorder can be found everywhere we look—but it is especially painful to see it, in its full ugliness, in the debate over public education.
For example, the remarks delivered by NYC mayor and 2020 extreme long-shot, Bill deBlasio, at the National Education Association forum in Houston a couple of weeks ago (starts at 1:35). Not to be outdone or outshouted by anyone to his left, Mayor deBlasio unleashed a torrent of invective at charter schools promising, should he become president, to do to the sector what the Mother of Dragons did to King’s Landing. It was a juicy, New York cut of red meat tossed to those who decry charter schools as an “existential threat” to education.
One week earlier in Las Vegas at the National Charter Schools Conference, I heard the argument from the other pole: “Progressives are posing an existential threat to charter schools. Every last one of our schools will be shuttered if we don’t fight together. They’re bringing a knife to this fight; and we’re bringing a book!”
This last twist on The Chicago Way, though meant as a call-to-arms and an upping of the ante, struck me as actually a rather appropriate response for a bunch of educators. Are we not people who use and believe in the power of our words? We should bring a book to a knife fight. We should all be bringing books to this fight! A resounding librazo to our collective heads is exactly what we all need.
I do not dismiss the seriousness of what is happening or what we are experiencing individually at our schools. I have founded two charter schools in my part of Queens. I know what they mean to the folks in my community and I will not let them be slandered or threatened as they are very good public schools in every sense of the word. But I do not want to hear “existential” any more unless it is preceded or followed by the name of a French philosopher, or unless the subject is the environmental catastrophes that are making bigger and bigger chunks of our planet uninhabitable.
We can never up the ante enough to satisfy “the base.” DeBlasio may have thought he hit a home run at the NEA but a few days later, more extreme voices called him a hypocrite who has coddled the NYC charter schools. Meanwhile our madman-in-chief demonstrates daily how far his nativist base can be pushed. The center has not held.
If everyone whose life revolves around the education of our children were to sit around an enormous virtual table to discuss the goals and means of our work, we would find consensus on many more issues than we’d find disagreement. I am convinced, these points of consensus could be articulated as a democratic and progressive vision for public education. If we can’t do it now, when will we find the courage to do it?
Let others be the purveyors of red meat. Let us please be the purveyors of sanity.
If you're in, join us in Albuquerque this November.
Steve Zimmerman is the Director of The Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools