Tom Ultican, retired teacher of physics and advanced mathematics, lives in California. He has attended every annual conference of the Network for Public Education, except for the first one in Austin, Texas. He met many of the people whose work he admired, and he left fired up to do his part in the struggle to save public schools from the privatizers. Now he has become one of the bloggers that everyone wants to meet! Join us in Philadelphia and share the enthusiasm!
In 2014, the first Network for Public Education (NPE) Conference was held at Austin, Texas. My first conference was the following year in Chicago. That was the year after the late Karen Lewis and the Chicago teachers union decided enough is enough and stood strong against a host of privatizers and education profiteers. Their powerful teachers’ union victory sent ripples of hope to educators across America. That year, Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Mercedes Schneider, Peter Greene, Jennifer Berkshire, Jose Vilson, Jan Resseger and many other pro-public education activists dominated social media.
NPE Chicago was held in the fabulous historic Drake hotel just up the street from Lake Michigan. When walking into the lobby, I was greeted by Anthony Cody the co-founder of NPE. Steve Singer from Pennsylvania and T.C. Weber from Tennessee arrived just after I did. During the conference, it seemed I met all of the leading education activists in America.
Particularly memorable was lunch the following day. I met Annie Tan in the hallway heading to lunch and she said let’s get a seat near the stage. So, I followed her to an upfront table. Turned out our table mates included Adell Cothorne the Noyes Elementary school principal famous for exposing Michelle Rhee’s DC test cheating. Jenifer Berkshire who had unmasked herself as the Edu-Shyster was also at the table. The Curmugducator, Peter Greene, and his wife were there as was well known education blogger and author Jose Vilson.
It strangely turned out that Greene, his wife, Vilson and I were all trombone players. Of course, everyone knows that trombone players are the coolest members of the band.
A highlight of NPE 2015 was the entertaining hour long presentation by Yong Zhao. He is the internationally decorated professor of education who had just published Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon.
Zhao’s presentation focused on the harm caused by standards and testing. He also made fun of the concept of being college ready and the recently broached kindergarten readiness was a new abomination making the rounds. Zhou made the logical observation that it was schools that needed to ready for the children. He also shared that what he wanted for his children was “out of my basement readiness.” Zhao claimed that on a recent trip to Los Angeles that he met Kim Kardashian in an elevator. He observed that she clearly had “out of my basement readiness.”
We met in the spring for the 3rd NPE conference. There was some thought about cancelling in the wake of North Carolina passing anti-transgender bathroom legislation. I am glad we didn’t. Many disrespected North Carolina teachers came to our hotel in the large downtown convention center complex to report and be encouraged. It was a great venue and I met more amazing people who taught me a lot.
The Reverend William Barber’s “poor people campaign” was leading the fight against the kind of cruel legislation emanating from the capital building an easy walk up the street. Barber might be America’s most inspirational speaker. His keynote address fired up the conference.
A major highlight for me was meeting Andrea Gabor. She is a former staff writer and editor for both Businessweek and U.S. News ξ World Report and is currently the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College. Gabor is also one America’s leading experts on W. Edward Deming’s management theories which are credited with the rise of Toyota among other successes. She was there leading a workshop based on the research she did in New Orleans which eventually led to her 2018 book “After the Education Wars; How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform.”
Gabor was an agnostic concerning charter schools when she went to New Orleans. Her experience there gave her insight into how damaging the privatization agenda had become. A New Orleans parent accompanying Gabor described how during her eighth-grade year she was in a class with 55-students. Their room was not air-conditioned and they were restricted to running the fan 10-minutes each hour to save on electrical costs. With the promise of never before seen large scale spending on schools in black communities, residents did not care about the governance structure. It was the first significant spending on education in their neighborhoods in living memory. Now, they have no public schools left and choice is turning out to mean the schools chose which students they want.
In early fall, we gathered at the Marriot hotel in the Oakland flats. The first evening, smoke from the big Napa fire made being outside uncomfortable. That night, KPFA radio hosted an event at a local high school featuring Diane Ravitch in conversation with Journey for Justice (J4J) leader, Jitu Brown. Two years earlier, Brown led the successful 34-day hunger strike to save Dyett High School from being shuttered by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. J4J, Bats, NEA, Black Lives Matter at School, AFT, Parents Across America and many other organizations had representative both attending and presenting.
When leaving the inspiring session with Jitu and Diane, I ran into San Diego Superintendent of Schools, Cindy Marten. A San Diego teacher carpooling with me had what appeared to be a heated exchange with Marten. However, when Marten was appointed Deputy Secretary of Education by Joe Biden, that same teacher lauded her saying “don’t worry my Superintendent will take care of us.”
We were one of two conventions that weekend at the Marriott. The other was sponsored by the nascent California marijuana industry. When returning to my room in the evenings, the sweet smell of pot wafted down the hallways but as far as I know there were no free samples.
In the main hall, a Seattle kindergarten teacher, Susan DeFresne, put up a series of posters that covered all of one very long wall. Her artwork depicted the history of institutional racism in U.S. schools. Six months later Garn Press published this art in the book The History of Institutional Racism in U.S. Public Schools.
In Oakland, I saw a new younger leadership appearing. It is also where I met activists, board members and researchers from Oakland who would become invaluable sources for my articles about the public schools they are fighting desperately to save.
One of our keynote speakers was a recipient of the 2017 MacArthur Genius award, Nicolle Hanna-Jones. Today everyone knows about her because of the 1619 Project.
Indianapolis was a trip into Mind Trust madness and home of the second most privatized public education system in America. Diane Ravitch jubilantly opened the conference declaring, “We are the resistance and we are winning!”
Famed Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg, was one the first featured speakers. He labeled the business centric education privatization agenda the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and buttressed Ravitch’s declaration stating,
“You are making progress. The global situation is getting better.”
One of the most visible people at NPE 2018 was founding board member Phyllis Bush. She was dealing with the ravages of cancer and seemed determined not to let it slow her in the least. She had always shown me great consideration so the news of her demise not long after the conference was sad, but in the last years of her life she helped build NPE into a great force for protecting public education.
Last year, I was also saddened to learn that the woman with the walker, Laura Chapman, had died. Her research into the forces attacking Cincinnati’s public schools and the spending nationally to privatize public schools made her a treasure. I really enjoyed our breakfast together in Indianapolis and will miss her.
There were many outstanding small group presentations at NPE 2018. One that I found personally helpful was put on by Darcie Cimarusti, Mercedes Schneider and Andrea Gabor. Darcie did significant research for the NPE report, Hijacked by Billionaires: How the Super Rich Buy Elections to Undermine Public Schools. In her presentation she demonstrated LittleSis a program she used for her research. It is a free database and orthographic mapping facility. LittleSis is viewed as the antidote to “Big Brother.” Gabor and Schneider shared how they search for non-profit tax forms and explained the differences between an IRS form 990 and form 990 PF, the forms non-profits must file.
Jitu Brown and the Journey for Justice (J4J) came to Indianapolis with a message:
“We are not fooled by the ‘illusion of school choice.’ The policies of the last twenty years, driven more by private interests than by concern for our children’s education, are devastating our neighborhoods and our democratic rights. Only by organizing locally and coming together nationally will we build the power we need to change local, state, and federal policy and win back our public schools.”
J4J introduced their #WeChoose campaign consisting of seven pillars:
- A moratorium on school privatization.
- The creation of 10,000 community schools.
- End zero tolerance policies in public schools now. (Supports restorative justice)
- Conduct a national equity assessment.
- Stop the attack on black teachers. (In 9 major cities impacted by school privatization there has been a rapid decline in the number of black teachers.)
- End state takeovers, appointed school boards and mayoral control.
- Eliminate the over-reliance on standardized tests in public schools.
Jitu Brown introduced Sunday morning’s keynote speaker, Jesse Hagopian, as “a freedom fighter who happens to be a teacher.”
In his address, Hagopian listed three demands: (1) End zero tolerance discipline and replace it with restorative justice; (2) Hire more black teachers (he noted there are 26,000 less black teachers since 2010) and (3) Teach ethnic studies including black history.
For me personally, I had the opportunity to cultivate deeper friendships with the many wonderful individuals who I first met at NPE Chicago. That included once again speaking with my personal heroine and friend, Diane Ravitch.
I am excited to see everyone in Philadelphia to ignite a new wave or resistance to billionaire financed efforts aimed at destroying public education.
COVID-19 interrupted our 2020 plan to meet in Philadelphia and again interrupted us twice in 2021. This year we will finally have what promises to be a joyful rejuvenation for the resistance.
I do not think it is too late to be part of it. Go to https://npeaction.org/2022-conference/ and sign up for the conference. It will be the weekend of April 30 – May 1.
As we said in Texas (my home state), y’all come!
Thank you, Tom!