Monday, June 6, 2011

CPER Convening spurs hope in fight for education justice

By Tina Dove
National Director, Opportunity to Learn Campaign

What an introduction! Hundreds of education allies from across the country were in Washington, D.C., met recently for this year’s Communities for Public Education Reform (CPER) Convening. Four years in, the Convening hosted an impressive list of groups who truly represent the heart of the grassroots movement for education justice. 

The diversity was fantastic. Attendees came from all races, ethnicities, ages and geographic locations. Though diverse, everyone was united to fight for education justice through campaigns that support improving public education, especially schools in low-income communities. The CPER community is large and growing, with six CPER sites (California, Chicago, Colorado, Mississippi, New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania) and three affiliates sites (Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.) represented. 

After attending my first CPER convening as national director of the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, I am reflecting on numerous highlights from the experience. First, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, spoke passionately about the need for resource accountability in an era when far too often students, families and teachers are required to be accountable. She stressed that the federal, state and local governments have a responsibility to provide the resources our children need to be successful. 

She reminded us that it is the opportunity gap, not the achievement gap, where we must focus the national discussion if we are to turn things around for our most vulnerable children. Linda asked us to imagine a well-resourced school with health clinics, after-school programs, ESL programs for parents, arts and music classes, student-centered learning, and high levels of parent and community engagement. She then astonished the group when she revealed that this  is the reality for the average school in Finland. It begged the question, “Why is this not happening in American schools, particularly those serving our most vulnerable students, if competing internationally is our nation’s goal?” 

I was also moved by the efforts of local organizers—from Boston to Tunica, Mississippi, and from Chicago to Los Angeles, and places in between—all working to build a national movement. Clearly this work is paying dividends with organizers’ voices being heard in their respective states and districts. Whether it is the battle being waged in New York City by the Coalition for Educational Justice aimed at preventing teacher firings and school closures or the dropout prevention efforts being carried out by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, grassroots advocates are turning concerns into actions, taking their advocacy efforts to decision makers and raising the level of awareness of their causes.   

But as some speakers pointed out, their voices are not breaking through at the national level. It was encouraging to learn about efforts to change this reality. 

One vision of what is possible came when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed CPER attendees. He acknowledged the importance of the work communities across the country are doing and how it is critical at this time in our nation’s history. He received thunderous applause when he spoke of his and President Obama’s support for the DREAM Act—a grassroots effort that has mustered considerable national attention in recent years.

While the praise is appreciated, the battle is far from over. Despite years of bipartisan support over several Congresses and two presidential administrations, the DREAM Act is still not law. Worthy students are still being denied the opportunity to go to college and serve their country. And more states are passing laws that deny immigrant students access to college and subject immigrants to racial profiling and discrimination. Clearly the fight for justice is not yet won, and the actions of many of our so-called allies can at times be best described at trepidatious.     

As a former high school teacher, I was proud to see the work being done by the Alliance for Educational Justice. Their video promoting the National Rally & March for Youth Investment was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Much like the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Era, these young people took their passion to the streets, lifting their voices on the national stage to advocate for their futures and those of their peers. 

Joining their endeavor for sustainable school transformation is Communities for Excellent Public Schools, which calls for parent, student and community engagement and emphasizes that it will take all of us to strengthen our schools and communities. 

Finally, I am excited by the work of the Dignity in Schools Campaign on the issue of zero tolerance policies. Their efforts are sorely needed if we are to replace policies that punish and push students out of school with constructive alternatives that keep kids in school learning while addressing their problems in a manner that respects their dignity and human rights. This campaign, as it grows in strength, will have a significant impact on youth of color—boys in particular—and will help to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline.

I left the CPER Convening with a sense of optimism about the future of our fight for educational equity and justice. We have so many great, smart, passionate people involved in this movement. Our challenge will be to ensure that our voices are being heard by those holding the levers of power at the local, state and national levels. 

Through the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, I pledge to do all within my power to connect with advocates and the organizations they represent, to continue to learn about the realities of their schools and communities, and to work with them to hold public officials accountable. This movement is strong and I look forward to the work ahead.

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