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Thompson: Weingarten Gets The Right Balance In Oklahoma City

Randi_Weingarten_2008_croppedAfter watching AFT President Randi Weingarten wow an audience of religious and labor leaders in Oklahoma City, I’m convinced that the union has reached the proper balance between resistance and collaboration.

She presented The Principles that Unite Us, a plan for communities and labor to unite for educational and social justice. It is also a counter-attack against corporate reform.

Weingarten started by recognizing the insight of the pastor’s opening prayer. This week, our 91% low-income district again closed schools due to the cold. Too many children would have been waiting for school busses without coats, gloves, and hats.

Randi and the AFT embrace the old-fashioned idea that educators must model democratic practices. The effort to improve the lives of poor children of color must be “rooted in communities.”  

Weingarten took her stand at the Fairview Baptist Church, which is led by some of Oklahoma’s most dedicated civil rights leaders. That postage stamp of urban America illustrates the bitter conflicts that continue to divide us. A few blocks to the southeast was Ralph Ellison’s old neighborhood, where The Invisible Man was inspired.  The “No Trespass Zone” where Governor “Alfalfa Bill” Murray placed a machine gun to enforce “Jim Crow” segregation was a few hundred yards away.

School patrons are justifiable angry about the past and present. That is why, a few blocks to the north, the California-based Parent Revolution found an audience. Its organizer urged parents to “go to war” against the school district. If their “parent trigger” goes into effect, it is not clear that the Oklahoma City Public School System will survive.

A few blocks to the south, new skyscrapers, high-dollar homes, and condominiums demonstrate the transformative power of the private sector. Some see the booming downtown as an advertisement for the potential of market-driven education reform.  On the other hand, that dynamism was subsidized by hundreds of millions of dollars of tax breaks, including $300 million that would have gone to the city’s schools. Even though the gap between Oklahoma’s rich and poor is growing faster than almost anywhere in America, there is no sign that corporate leaders will share any of their bounty. In, fact, the current debate is over the size of proposed cuts to the education budget.

Weingarten brings a plan for both resistance and cooperation to a state that is divided over education policy and other issues which call into question whether the public sector, as we know it, should survive. Privatization has done as much harm to Oklahoma prisons as market-driven reform has done to schools. We’ve always had unconscionably high levels of child abuse, but now it is going through the roof, as social services are cut dramatically. And, yet, reformers who say they are committed to children remain preoccupied with no child and no teacher going untested. They never seem to acknowledge the obvious question. If they win and the union is crippled, who will take its place in the fight for social justice?   

I hope all stakeholders, including school reformers, will take a look at The Principles that Unite Us. It opposes:

Strategies [to] take away the public's right to have a voice in their schools, and inherently create winners and losers among both schools and students.

The creation of charter schools for the purpose of privatization.

School closures [that] have become a strategy to transfer students from public to privately operated schools.

It supports:

High-quality early childhood programs that nurture learning and social development.

Community Schools that provide supports and services for students and their families.

Expanded learning time, collaboration and whole-school reform, with all stakeholders at the table.

-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via


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