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An Incoherent Protest Against Education Reform, Brought to You by Matt Damon

By the time Matt Damon got to the microphone at the Save Our Schools rally last weekend, the few thousand public school teachers in attendance had been standing not far from the White House in the July heat for nearly three hours. Yet their enthusiasm had not flagged, and they cheered loudly as Damon said … not much, really. That teachers like his mother are “awesome,” that standardized tests are bad, and that people who have literally never taught anyone anything have no business being involved in education policy. Himself excluded, presumably.

Specifics, in other words, weren’t the order of the day. Rather, the event was a catalogue of broad grievances voiced by activists, academics, and rank-and-file teachers. Unfortunately, the more the rally turned to education, the less sense it made.

To be sure, teachers have good reason to be angry. K-12 education stands on the shrinking middle ground of the American labor market. Teachers haven’t fallen into destitution like many blue-collar workers, but they certainly haven’t reaped the windfall benefits enjoyed at the high end of our increasingly unequal society. Both Damon and Jon Stewart (in a taped address) correctly mocked the notion that teachers are overpaid. From 1969 to 2008, the average inflation-adjusted public schoolteacher salary increased by only 11 percent. Real GDP per capita increased by 123 percent during the same time.

2008, of course, was the year when the people who had been getting rich, while teachers just got by, blew the economy apart. Tax receipts plummeted, school budgets were hit, and teachers started losing their jobs. Conservatives in Congress fought rational counter-cyclical attempts to shore up the state and the local governments that provide 90 percent of school revenues. Then Republicans rode a wave of voter anger over the rising unemployment and insecurity to gubernatorial victories in states including Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, and Florida.

The newly elected governors promptly blamed the budget crisis on public employee salaries and benefits, slashed said benefits, and enacted historic limitations on collective bargaining. Meanwhile, corporate profits soon returned to record highs. It was no surprise that the largest contingent at the Save Our Schools rally came from Wisconsin, where teachers’ unions played a major role in the waves of public protest over Governor Scott Walker’s anti-labor agenda.

But Barack Obama isn’t Scott Walker, and few of the rally participants seemed willing to openly denounce the president. Instead, they focused their anger on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the affable ex-basketball player and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools. “Arne Sucks,” read one sign; “Duncan’d,” said another. Indeed, much of the rally consisted of people blaming Duncan for problems he has no ability to solve.

For example, firebrand activist Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and other accounts of terrible injustice visited upon low-income students, noted that American public schools are more segregated by race today than they were when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968. Therefore, Kozol thundered, Duncan was not merely guilty of rejecting Brown v. Board; he was working to restore the separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.

It’s an incendiary charge that makes no sense whatsoever. Duncan had nothing to do with the decades of demographic change, economic dislocation, and failed urban policy that helped to produce de facto segregation in many public schools. Duncan is not Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in a 2007 Supreme Court case that forbade school districts from combating segregation by racially balancing their schools. Duncan’s crime, according to Kozol, is trying to ensure that the resulting segregated schools give their minority students a good education.

The speaker after Kozol picked up the torch: “Hey, Arne Duncan! It’s poverty, stupid!” But Arne Duncan is not Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, whose job is to reduce and mitigate child poverty. Nor is he Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who should be doing more to reduce unemployment so children aren’t poor in the first place.

And it is surreal to hear people like Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond—once considered a candidate for Duncan’s job—stand in front of the White House and scold this administration for insufficient attention to children’s health care. Health care! Obama signed an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program for poor children 15 days after taking office. He gambled his presidency on the Affordable Care Act. It was like listening to someone criticize George W. Bush for not launching enough expensive foreign wars.

Duncan’s approach to being secretary of education has been to focus on education—specifically, turning around chronically low-performing schools, improving the quality of academic standards and tests, judging teachers by their success in the classroom, and supporting innovative school models, including charter schools. Was there a rally somewhere else on the Mall denouncing Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for focusing too much on the national free- and reduced-price school lunch program and not enough on better curricula in 6th grade math?

The charter school part of Duncan’s agenda, however, was all the connection the rally participants needed. Most charter schools are run by non-profit organizations. The best and most successful, like KIPP and Achievement First, are staffed by progressives with an almost monastic commitment to helping poor children learn. But some charters are run by for-profit companies, i.e. private corporations, and the use of the word “corporate” as a catch-all insult at the Save Our Schools rally was not limited to the people selling the latest Chomsky on folding tables near the back.

Again, it’s perfectly understandable for people whose jobs have been destroyed by reckless corporations and whose profession has been denigrated by corporate-backed politicians to feel ill will toward big business. But the Koch brothers aren’t getting rich by running charter schools. By the same token, Bill Gates didn’t cause the economic crisis or put Chris Christie in the New Jersey governor’s mansion. The fact that some hedge fund managers support charter schools and that the Gates Foundation (like every other foundation) is endowed with money earned in the private sector does not lead, ipso facto, to the conclusion that corporations have taken over American schools. Or, in the words of a self-described ’60s SDS member whose white-guy rapping shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the stage:

They’re working hard to take over our schools
And run them for profit like they do our jails
So they make up lies to say that we fail
While the failure is theirs because they’ve stolen our wealth
Whatever is good they preserve for themself
Now they’re saying that we hold the whole nation back
If we don’t pass the test their companies track
When the reality is they’re the ones who need testing
To see in whose pockets school profits are resting
From Murdoch to Klein to Gates to Rhee
The achievement gap hustle is one big crime spree!

Will Obama listen to any of this? Probably not. Obama was preoccupied with the debt ceiling circus over the weekend, and the rally leaders turned down an invitation to meet with White House officials earlier in the week.

It was hard to ignore the fact that in a nation of 3.3 million public school teachers and millions more parents, professors, and administrators, barely 3,000 people (according to Education Week) attended the rally. As much as the organizers profess to represent a broad grassroots movement, polls suggest that over two-thirds of Americans support charter schools, a number that has been steadily growing over time. Most people think teachers should be evaluated according to student learning results, and that—contra Save Our Schools—the federal government should either maintain or increase its role in K-12 education.

Most people, in other words, have a more complex understanding of education policy than your average Hollywood celebrity. That’s a lesson our nation’s leaders should take to heart.

Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C.