Thursday, August 18, 2011

Democracy Revisited

I'm standing on Washington's Ellipse, at the Save Our Schools march, when the chant starts from the crowd.

"This is what democracy looks like!"

"This is what democracy looks like!"

From where I'm standing, democracy looks like the backs of a lot of people's heads, punctuated here and there by an umbrella raised against the relentless sun. But I get the point. There's a lot more to democracy than election day.

Textbooks teach kids that we elect officials who pass laws. But that's only the beginning. The SOS march is a great example. Many of the parents, teachers and scholars at the march worked hard to make Barack Obama our nation's 44th president. But we've been deeply frustrated with his education policies. So we're here to press for changes. And we are indeed a marvelous mosaic.

As we depart the Ellipse and head for the White House, democracy looks like 74-year-old Jonathan Kozol, marching in suit and tie despite the 100-degree heat.

It looks like the purple-clad member of Omega Psi Phi, in town to celebrate his fraternity's centennial, who breaks into a few impromptu dance steps in support of the marchers.

It looks like our Parents Across America group, whose members came from communities all across the country.

As the march proceeds down Pennsylvania Avenue, the sights and sounds around me summon up other images from a long year of democratic engagement.

I remember the November evening I spent on the second floor of Charlotte's government center, surrounded by high school students fighting to keep their school. The Board of Education had targeted nine schools for closure, and anxious citizens had filled the chamber hall to overflowing, sending many of us to an auxiliary room upstairs. The room was dominated by supporters of Waddell High, a school with low test scores and a problematic reputation, but where students had found a home, and friends, and teachers who cared deeply about them.

One by one the students who had signed up to speak were called to tell the board why Waddell should be spared. The room filled with smiles and high fives as their classmates wished them well, applause when they appeared on the closed-circuit television screen, and warm welcomes as they returned, beaming from the rush of standing up in front of a packed house and saying what they wanted to say.

I remember a sunny, windswept afternoon outside that same government center, spent with a motley but enthusiastic group of people willing to look like fools to make a point.

CMS had launched a massive expansion of standardized testing that disrupted learning and angered parents across the system. In an effort to get the school board to pull back, a group of us had organized protests, petitions and letter-writing campaigns.

Although the school board was scheduled to take a crucial vote that evening, the public wouldn't be allowed to speak. So we had decided to dance in protest, stepping to Greg Gower's marvelous "Test Teacher Anthem." The wind scattered our posters and buffeted our sound, but we had fun anyway.

Most of all, though, I remember the May morning when several dozen Shamrock fourth graders, clutching backpacks and pillows, climbed aboard two chartered buses to head to Raleigh, our state capital.

Although a fourth grade Raleigh trip has been a North Carolina institution for generations, no one at the school could remember a time when Shamrock's students had gone. It takes time and effort to plan the trip, as well as a good bit of cash, and no one had been able to muster the energy or the funds – until this year.

The students had been looking forward to the trip for months – the bus ride, the nature museum, the planned stop at a Golden Corral restaurant on the way home. They knew they would have fun. They also had a purpose. It was budget-cutting season, and we had just learned that our beloved media center specialist, Margaret Hollar, had been handed a pink slip. Along with cameras, snacks and cash for souvenirs, the students carried letters to our state representative, calling for more funds for schools.

Once we reached the capital, the students made their way over to the old Capitol building, fronted by statues of the three Presidents North Carolina claims as native sons.

They trooped up the marble stairs of the current legislative building to see the chambers where members of the House and Senate make the laws.

They marveled at tarantulas and dinosaur bones and photographs of children who had worked in textile mills a hundred years before.

But for me, the highlight came when they met Becky Carney, our state representative, and crowded eagerly around to hand her their letters, their first foray into the democratic fray.

Democracy, of course has never been easy. It's full of combat and compromise, winners and losers, and fighting hard can make losing that much more painful. And these days it seems the deck is often stacked against folks at the grassroots, stacked by cash from billionaires and corporations, by a reeling economy and by a powerful federal government that seems more interested in rhetoric than reality.

In that regard, it's been a tough year.

As the long night of November 8 faded into the early morning of November 9, the satisfaction of speaking out gave way to weary despair when a grim-faced school board voted to close every school on its list, including Waddell High. When school opens next week, Waddell's building will be occupied by the students of a language immersion magnet. Waddell's students will be scattered across several schools. Eight other schools will have closed for good.

Although our testing fight helped stall a crucial piece of test-related state legislation, and brought the issue to the forefront of public debate, we lost two crucial school board votes, each by a one-vote margin. In June, when the superintendent who had pushed the testing suddenly left for a plush job with Rupert Murdoch, we hoped that his departure would slow what we had come to call testing madness. But we were disappointed. The interim superintendent is pressing doggedly forward, an approach backed by our Chamber of Commerce, the Gates Foundation, the federal Department of Education, and many companies that stand to benefit from a testing expansion. So there's a long haul ahead.

We did have one bright spot, though. A campaign to raise education funding at both state and county levels helped lift budget allocations high enough to restore a number of proposed cuts. So just before school let out, our school board voted to restore the jobs of all the pink-slipped media center specialists – including Ms. Hollar's.

On the last day of school, one of the fourth graders who had carried a letter up to Raleigh ran over to Ms. Hollar, grabbed her in a hug, and happily exclaimed: "We saved your job!"

That's what democracy ought to look like. A fourth grader lit up with the joy of having stepped into the democratic fray and made a difference. It's a faith that can be hard to hold onto. But it's the faith we need.

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