ICPE-Monroe County chair Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer gave the following speech at the Celebration & Rally for Public Education at the Indiana statehouse, February 20, 2017.
We are here once again to celebrate and rally to protect public education.
We’ve been here before.
Four years ago, we rallied to stop the spread of vouchers. Back then, in 2013, in the name of “school choice,” 37 million of our public tax dollars were siphoned away from public education to private, mostly religious schools. Today that number is near $134 MILLION.
Two years ago, we were here protesting the move by Gov. Pence and the state legislature to strip our then-superintendent, Glenda Ritz, of the role and responsibilities we elected her to perform. Today, there is a bill here in the statehouse that would now make that moot. The superintendent of public instruction will now be an appointed position instead of allowing the voters to decide. This is democracy in Indiana.
Now, in 2017, we are living in a Brave New World. Governor Pence is now Vice President Pence. And we have at the head of our nation’s education department a billionaire lobbyist, Betsy DeVos, who has no public school experience, no education background, and who has made it her life’s mission to destroy our system of public education. She has been quoted as saying that we must open up the “education industry because it is currently a “dead end, a monopoly.” She said, “government truly sucks.” Now she IS the government that she despises. A Brave New World, indeed.
We’re familiar with this rhetoric here in Indiana where DeVos’ friends in our legislature, as well as those donating to their campaign coffers, have said similar things. This is the narrative of corporate education reformers who disdainfully call our public schools “government” schools and who have been passing ALEC legislation for the past several years in order to dismantle it.
When we object, they accuse us of “defending the status quo” and argue that our schools are “failing.” They pass laws to void our votes while saying they want POLITICS out of education. SO: How do we fight back?
First, we must turn these words around and take back the narrative! We need to celebrate our successes in public schools, but we also must point out that the purpose of education is not to produce workers in the interest of the corporate world. My children are not widgets in a factory. I send my children to public schools to learn to become citizens for a democracy. They learn to respect people who think differently from them, who come from different backgrounds, and they find common ground. They find friendship. It’s not about a parents “right” to “choose.” We don’t ask for choices—we ask for healthy, vibrant public schools. No child is more deserving than another. The focus on personal choice distracts us from our collective, social responsibility for educating ALL of our country’s children. It also covers up the fact that “school choice” is actually about schools choosing the students—and creating separate (but equal?) systems of education that are not accountable, increasing the disparity in education outcomes and dividing our communities. This goes against our democratic ideals.
Second, we must organize and act. The outcry and controversy around the confirmation of DeVos should give us hope. Our country supports public education!
SO: Write letters to the editor, call your elected officials, form your own chapter of ICPE! We have some amazing parents from the Washington Township Parent Council in our midst and I’d like to give them a shout out for REPRESENTING all parents at education committee hearings and testifying. Thank you for standing up for public education. They are a great example of what engagement looks like. We should all do the same in our own communities.
Third, we must engage politically. There is NO WAY to take politics out of education. Many people are reluctant to get “political.” Politics is not about Republican or Democrat. Politics is about your relationship to power. We are in the middle of one of the greatest power struggles for control of our public community schools that we have ever seen. I think they WANT you to feel disenfranchised and hopeless about politics. Why else do they talk about government with such disgust when they are sitting in government seats? When we stand up for our schools, our teachers, and our kids—they accuse us of being political. Okay… LET’S OWN IT. YES. We ARE political. Because in a democracy, power is found in the collective and in our votes. We may not have enough money to buy ourselves a cabinet seat, but we have local positions for which we can run. I am here speaking to you as a mother, and as the chairperson of the Monroe County ICPE, and, although I am not speaking in my official capacity as one, I am also a new school board member. Do you want to help ensure that we fulfill the promise of public education and equity? Run for school board or help get someone elected. If we improve public schools for our kids, we are improving them for ALL kids. None of us can pretend to be neutral politically. As Desmond Tutu has said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Finally: we must remember: We are not defending the status quo. We are defending democracy.
P.S. JOIN ICPE-Monroe County if you are down here in South Central Indiana. Elsewhere in the state or close to Indy, join ICPE (of Vic Smith’s statehouse notes and Joel Hand our lobbyist) here. Interesting in starting your own ICPE group? Email me: tojanama.cathy at gmail.com. TIME TO ORGANIZE.