SOS conference adds ideas to planning for the July 30, 2011 SOS march

The two-day conference held at American University in Washington, D.C. prepared many of the people who were in town for the hot but spirited July 30 SOS march for the planning that was to come following the march. Most of the participants in the conference, which was held on July 28 and July 29, 2011, told Substance they planned to continue to work to build the SOS movement.

Jonathan Kozol rallied the conference crowd of more than 300 people on the opening day of the SOS conference (July 28, 2011). Kozol noted that his work, which began in the early 1960s, had brought him to the first Civil Rights March on Washington and noted that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. never talked about having a dream of "accountability" in public schools, mocking the Obama administration's Race To The Top. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The two-day conference sponsored by the recently formed SOS (Save Our Schools) coalition was held at Washington, D.C.'s American University and was attended by at least 400 people. The conference, which was thought by many to be a showcase for progressive educational ideas, actually spanned the spectrum (and included at least one major workshop that promoted vouchers, charter schools, and militarism as the solution to the problems facing inner city schools and African American children), teachers and children.

Generally, the discussions at the conference involved teachers (who were the majority of those in attendance) and others discussing issues ranging from high-stake testing to various responses to the current attacks on public education coming out of the Obama administration and the "Race To The Top" program of the U.S. Department of Education under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Each day of the conference began with a stirring and informative speech by a celebrity writer of the movement. On Thursday, July 28, writer Jonathan Kozol spoke for nearly an hour, outlining the connection between the major March on Washington from the 1960s and the current event, which is to take place on Saturday, July 30. Kozol told the audience of more than 300 people in the auditorium of the Ward building at the American University campus of the link he perceived between the famous March on Washington keynoted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963 and the event planned for July 30 2011. Kozol dramatized a theme that was running throughout the four days of events (the two-day conference; the mass march; and a "congress" scheduled for Sunday July 31): Outrage among teachers and others at the hypocrisy of the Obama administration's attack on the nation's public schools, and the rhetoric used by administration officials to support their privatizaton and anti-public school policies.

On Friday, July 29, historian Diane Ravitch outlined all of the major lies and myths being perpetrated by the current government version of school reform. Ravitch, who was part of the group of government insiders that promoted corporate school reform during the 1990s and most of the 2000s, provided the audience of more than 300 with detailed refutations of each of the major claims and myths perpetrated since the current version of school reform began evolving into policy during the Clinton administration during the 1990s. The corporate reforms have evolved through the first 11 years of the new century, morphing from George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law to the Obama administration's current "Race to the Top."

Long time resistance to high-stakes so-called "standardized" testing was in evidence throughout the SOS conference. Above, Substance reporter George Schmidt (left), Tacoma Washington's Juanita Doton (the "button lady" since the early 21st Century), writer Susan Ohanian, and New York's Norm Scott (Ed Notes) share a moment after the screening of "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman" on July 29, the night before the SOS March on Washington. Schmidt, a veteran teacher with nothing but the highest ratings at the time, was fired from his 28-year teaching job in Chicago by Paul Vallas following the publication in Substance in January 1999 of the idiotic CASE (Chicago Academic Standards Examinations) tests in Substance. Juanita Doyon has led the resistance to high-stakes testing in the state of Washington since 2000. Susan Ohanian has written more than 20 books about testing, education, and the roots of the current corporate attack on public schools ("Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? with Kathy Emery), and Norm Scott, through ICE and Ed Notes, kept many of the words of the New York resistance alive prior to the current struggles against mayoral control and privatization documented in "The Inconvenient Truth..." Substance photo by Sharon Schmidt.In what many considered an appropriate finale to the conference, New York public school teachers and activists screened their video "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman," a detailed refutation of the claims of the corporate reform propaganda film "Waiting for Superman."

The film ended with a two-minute standing ovation from the audience, which by that time in the evening numbered about 250. Following the video, parents, teachers, and others involved in the production of the film answered questions from the audience. According to Brian Jones, a Harlem public school teacher who is one of the two narrators in the film, more than 4,000 copies of the film have been produced and distributed across the USA. Jones and his co-narrator Julie Cavanaugh, a Brooklyn public school teacher, told the group that the video was now in circulation in all 50 states and "on every continent except Antarctica". The audience shared a laugh when Julie Cavanaugh told them "apparently penguins are the only ones not yet having to face corporate school reform."

The conference had developed a web site prior to the event, but during the conference itself organizers were too busy to add daily updates to it. The URL for the website, for those who cannot access hotlinks, is

The guiding principles of the SOS group were widely publicized before the march, and were noteworthy for their lack of direct support for teacher unions. The perspective of the majority of organizers of the conference reflected an alternative narrative going back to the 1960s that posed the issues of race and "community" in opposition to those of economic class, and either ignored of attacked most of the unions that were representing the people who work in the nation's public schools. The "community" approach is distinct from a class approach in that it allows wealthy representatives of certain (usually minority) communities to place themselves as leaders in the struggle for reform, and pose their solutions in opposition to those organizations, mostly unions, that actually represent the working class people in the schools themselves. Those "principals", as announced on the group's website, were:

"For the future of our children, we demand:

"Equitable funding for all public school communities

"Equitable funding across all public schools and school systems

"Full public funding of family and community support services

"Full funding for 21st century school and neighborhood libraries

"An end to economically and racially re-segregated schools

"An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation

"The use of multiple and varied assessments to evaluate students, teachers, and schools

"An end to pay per test performance for teachers and administrators

"An end to public school closures based upon test performance

"Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies

"Educator and civic community leadership in drafting new ESEA legislation

"Federal support for local school programs free of punitive and competitive funding

"An end to political and corporate control of curriculum, instruction and assessment decisions for teachers and administrators

"Curriculum developed for and by local school communities

"Support for teacher and student access to a wide-range of instructional programs and technologies

"Well-rounded education that develops every student’s intellectual, creative, and physical potential

"Opportunities for multicultural/multilingual curriculum for all students

"Small class sizes that foster caring, democratic learning communities"

Following the first keynote, by Jonathan Kozol, there were 12 possible sessions (or workshops) on the morning of July 28. The names of the sessions generally reflected their content (although not in all cases). I've numbered them although the were not numbered in the program: 1. "Making Art Out of Truth: Poetry of Protest"; 2. "Parents Across America: The New Parent Involvement"; 3. "How You Can Help Get Congress to Transform 'No Child Left Behind' Now..." 4. "That Attack on Childhood — and Its Implications for 'Family Values' As Well As Democracy"

5. "Teaching Without Backup: The Lonely Heroism of the American Schoolteacher"

6. "It's a Class Thing: The Galvanizing Impcat of Multi-Issue Organizing for Public Education"

(This session was led by two teachers who advertised their union affiliation; this was rare).

7. "Taking an Activist Stance: Students' and Educators' Action Plan."

8. "The Global Classroom"

9. "Chicana/o Studies and 'Engaged Policy': The TCEP (Texas Center for Education Policy) Theory of Action."

10. "Building Black-Latino Parent-Student Power: There Cannot Be Progressive Change in Education Without Direct Black-Latino Parent-Student Leadership".



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