Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How inBloom Was Killed By the Left and the Right; Our New Political Reality

News of inBloom's demise came as a wonderful surprise for activists, as well as interested parties across the state. The venture, which would have made data from school children available to a private corporation, drew resistance from teachers and activists and parents alike from day one.  Among of the most vocal critics of this endeavor were parents (it seemed from my perspective that New York parent advocate Leonie Haimson led the charge (see here as well). Rightly so. Their concern of the privacy of their children's data was probably the most legitimate objection to inBloom. People would have to be deaf, dumb, blind and greedy in order not to have given those concerns the full hearing they deserved. I myself do not want my child's data being shared with a corporation under any circumstances. As recent events on the national news scene have shown us, data cannot and will not ever be kept private.

But just behind yesterday's victory lies a new reality -a sort of joining of political ideologies to be sure-  that troubles a great many people. It is a joining that is as strange as the times in which we live and work. It is comprised of what moderates would characterize as members of the extreme left of the political spectrum finding political agreement with members of the extreme right. I can't speak for the right, but I can say that this is an alliance that makes some members on the left feel rather uneasy.

The issue of having strange bedfellows comes up from time to time on several (left leaning) mailing lists to which I suscribe. It usually comes in the form of a question:

 "Do we have a natural alliance with the Tea Party?"
When posed, the question typically raises all sorts of opinionated responses from list members ranging from 'hell no!' to 'sure. Why not?'. Thing is, the question isn't often posed. This joining is more of an accident that keeps happening over (and over) again.

Those of you not knowing what the connection left-wing activists and the conservative right may be, you're not alone. It isn't easy to see the common ground between conservatives and the progressive left. Not easy, that is, until you see it -and once you see it, it's actually kind of hard not to see. The fact is that when a topic turns to anything related Common Core, or the general intrusion and growth of the federal government around the issue of Education, time and again people from the right have found that their views and anger match perfectly our own.

But perfectly aligned opinions around the issues of anything that is related to President Obama's Race To the Top initiative aren't the only thing we on the left and they on the right have in common. We also share some of the same methods. Education activists rely on social media in the same manner that the Tea Party movement does. Neither left or right is averse to taking to the streets to demonstrate. This is because both sides rely on applying pressure to their elected officials in order to bring about the desired change. (And, of course -no one- and I mean no one, is afraid to call a reporter to try to get the press to cover their cause). We have our awkward meetings at strangers' kitchen tables and our petition drives and so do they.  The edu left sells t-shirts to help fund the cause as does the political right (this is pretty cool design right here).

The similarities are, actually, a bit erie.

Regardless of all of we have in common, these similarities between the left and right have taken a great many people by surprise. When the New York Times asked Common Core cheerleader Michael Petrilli what his impression was of the backlash in New York  (a left-wing state if ever there was one one according the Times)  against the Common Core, his response was to allude to this very emerging alliance:

  “It’s bizarre,” he said. “New York is in some interesting company, right up with the reddest of the red states. 

Seattle blogger Melissa Westbrook, who herself wrote an awesome piece announcing the death of inBloom shared something that struck me as a sign of the times back in February (around the the topic, of all things; of student privacy):

 They may be people whose positions on most issues that [many] avidly dislike. But I have talked with a Tea Party legislator in WA State on student data privacy and she is absolutely on the same page. No, it's big government, no it's local control - she wants to protect children and that's exactly what I want.

When prompted to discuss the matter, many express deep reservations about agreeing with the idea of anything related to anyone associated with the right wing. As one very brilliant blogger put it, to align with an organization that seeks to take out some of the very public institutions many are fighting to protect is not in the best interest of someone trying to save public education.  Sure, our interests align when a then topic turns to Common Core (or student privacy). But what happens when the topic turns to equitable healthcare? Or the role of race in education? On those topics for the Tea Parties' (as a for instance) position seem to be so far off to the right has to be actually destructive to many of our existence as public educators.

But they have to be prompted to say so. And in the meantime, the new reality of left-wing and right-wing fighting for the same thing continues to grow.

The demise of inBloom is another prime example. It did not come solely from the activists on the left. inBloom was able to survive, to hold on by a thread, as long as the elephant in the room of national education -the government of New York State- remained on board. As Leonie Haimson wrote in her post yesterday, New York was also the "only [state] in which legislation was needed" to pull out.  It takes a lot to move a legislature (particularly the legislature of this state) and activists of any ilk, would never be able to do it alone.

And in New York, the legislative pull away from inBloom came from a place where all legislative shifts come: It came from angry voters. The expressions of deep reservations, from voters in the suburbs, is what moved the legislature in New York (and New York's pull from inBloom is what ultimately killed the company). It was the suburban moms, who stalked out their legislators on the soccer and baseball fields on Saturday afternoons and in community BBQs throughout the summer that undid this mess.  They are the ones who, after making their position absolutely clear that the government was intruding in their privacy by allowing the collection of data about their children, actually ended the awful idea of making children data available to Big Data.

We often remember the leaders of armies who win battles. But it isn't a leader who actually wins that battle. It is the army the fights it. This battle was led by parent activists on the left. Yet it was won by an army of suburban moms and dads who refused to allow to let it to happen.

And that army is overwhelmingly conservative.

You may have read that last line and rolled your eyes at the assertion that everyone in any one location comes from any one political side. The idea that people from the suburbs must be right wingers, or even Republican, simply because they are suspicious of their government is just ridiculous. Under normal circumstances I would say that you are completely correct.  I too hate speaking in such broad strokes. But as it so happens, I grew up in one the very the suburban towns that helped end inBloom here in New York. Specifically, I grew up in the town of Port Jefferson and I'm here to tell you that my hometown is as Republican as Republican gets. This was true in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won an almost unanimous straw vote in my elementary school against Jimmy Carter (literally,  held with milk straws from the cafeteria, where only I and one other in my grade voted for Carter) and it still holds true today.
Long Islanders at a rally against testing last summer

It was also true last year when that community's school district planned a rally against high stakes exams and the Common Core.  I was reminded of this in the days leading up to the rally. As I excitedly tried to explain a friend, still a member of the community, some of the complexities of the education reform movement I was interrupted mid-sentence: "Look" he said, "I just don't want the government in my kids' school.", then asked whether or not I was going.

The next day, 1500 people showed up to protest against high stakes tests (here). In New York City if 200 people show up for one rally it makes the news on some level. On that day 1500 suburbanites (folks who never rally) came out in force. That is something!

From what I understand, that protest was partly a success because, and gave rise to, an absolute star in rank and file union circles named Beth Dimino. She is the president of the small union that represents the teachers of that district (you can see her rip John King apart in a video here). I don't know (nor do I care) whether she's from the political left or the political right. But I do have to assert that at least part of her increased profile is because she was able to help rally a community that is made up of a more than a fair amount of Republican conservatives.

Later in the year when MORE, that wonderful little union caucus that could (and has!) make a difference, engaged with her in an alliance to try to save the state union from being overtaken by our ruling brother and sisters in the Unity Caucus, no one asked about the members of her community. "This is a union sister and a damn good leader" one MOREista quipped to me during a telephone conversation when I raised the issue of right-wingers in the suburbs back in February. "I'm a union man. I don't see what the problem is or even what you're talking about"

That last phrase is union brother language for 'shut the heck up -right now'.  And he was, of course, totally and completely correct. Union rules for discussion are much the same as bar rules for discussion. You try to stay away from talking about anything related to sports, religion or politics. In the context of union brotherhood, it typically isn't anyone's business, nor should it be their concern, to ask about the political affiliation of the person you're rallying alongside.

But it is important to take note that our new reality consists of what moderates would describe as the far left and the far right working together to undo some of the harmful damage that has been done.

State Senator Kenneth LaValle
Just as MOREs alliance with suburban teachers (built on support from suburban parents) outlines the new reality that the left has combined with the right over the issue of education so too does the story of inBloom show how powerful that alliance is once focused on the level of the state legislature. Sure, progressive politicians who serve progressive districts from the city have expressed reservation, even outrage, about these things for years now. But when these same reservations are expressed by right-leaning folks to their elected leaders, believe you me the leaders of the legislature stand up and take notice.

One of those legislators, state Senator Kenneth LaValle, a Republican who represents Port Jefferson and chairs the High Education Committee for the state (and who also hosted the event where Dimino ripped King a new one) took notice -in spades- when he sent these words home to his constituents just days after the Port Jefferson rally:

This past Spring I began hearing from the parents of elementary school students about perceived problems with New York State’s implementation of the new Common Core Curriculum and associated testing.  I met with those parents, listened to their concerns,  and also met with representatives of the State’s Education Department. I agree that the implementation of the Common Core could have been better handled in terms of sequence and we need to make sure that the Board of Regents and State Education Commissioner, going forward, make certain that the curriculum resources are in place.
While the legislature had no role in the adoption of Common Core and the new testing standards, I as your State Senator have introduced legislation to provide oversight and insure that the tests are fair, unbiased, grade level appropriate and administered properly. My  bill requires disclosure of test questions and answers so that parents, teachers and students can have an opportunity to review test questions to better understand and the reason behind a particular class or child's test scores.

The New York State Senate is known for it's partisanship. So to hear this from a Republican Senator (and a professional politician who knows his job and how to keep it) is, while not ground shaking,  certainly noteworthy -and more proof of our new reality.

LaValle's position during the late budget negotiations in New York was much the same. He had this to say to constituents in the middle of the budget process:

Albany, March 11, 2014 - Today, on behalf of the anxious students and frustrated parents and teachers I represent, I will oppose all four of the Regents the Assembly brought before us for a vote.  I cannot and will not accept the status quo from the Board of Regents- the group responsible for the flawed implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards – who seem to have turned a deaf ear on the demand of so many to delay the implementation process.   
And asked the Board of Regents to 'hit the delay button' on the Common Core rollout.

This isn't a left-leaning activist like the mayor of New York. In fact, he isn't even left-leaning. But his constituents were angry and as an elected official, it was his duty to fall in line with the anger expressed by his constituents.

That, as a professional politician who knows his district,  he wholeheartedly opposes college classes for inmates, many of whom suffer from what we on the left identify as the school-to-prison-pipeline, ruffles, for today at least, no one's feathers at all (unless you make then think about it)

And, for the time being at least, the brave warriors who are fighting to save public education aren't thinking at all about it! Well, maybe they shouldn't. Getting the New York State Senate to undo something like student data collection is nothing short of a political miracle. Miracles aren't possible without a broad coalition of voters.

But our new reality -that a combination of the two fringes of the political spectrum is underway-should not be ignored either.


  1. The terms left, right and moderate are mental constructs.In the current fluid political situation we are in, it will be very hard to follow what is going on if you are dependent on this construct. It all comes down to what kind of society we want to live in and how we accomplish that politically.

    1. I so very much agree! But then there's the reality that I would like to live in a society that greatly invests in public education and commits itself to ending (as a for instance) the school-to-prison pipeline. That's something that folks on the right tend not to agree with (I mentioned the opposition the public investment of allowing inmates to earn college credit as an example). There are differences. Real-world genuine differences. Thus, the construct.
      Thanks so much for the comment!

  2. Very good post with lots of angles to play. A point on the alliance between Beth's Port Jefferson Station union (according to her a very different economic situation from Port Jefferson) and MORE. Both of our groups seem to be in alignment on almost every issue - most of them progressive. Look at their web site and see how MORE and PJSTA are just about sister orgs. We all bonded during the NYSUT battle. Thanks to Beth and Mike Schirtzer, the only stated registered Republican I know of in MORE, for leading the battle. The rest of the MORE NYSUT crew - Lauren Cohen, Julie Cavanagh, James Eterno, Francesco Portelos, Jia Lee - impressed the delegates outside NYC (only Unity Caucus - 800 of them) with their thoughtfulness and intelligence and commitment. In terms of the opt-out movement, another MORE sister org - Change the Stakes - parent led and organized -- helped lead the movement in the city - and is having a rally at Tweed this Thursday at 4PM - let's get more opt-outers for the math test coming up.

    1. Of course, you're absolutely correct. PJS, where she teaches and where I grew up, is different from PJ. Apologies. I didn't think I had to explain those differences to a NY audience, but clearly I should have I(although PJS still is a solidly middle class community).

      In terms of any brother or sisters; political affiliation, I don't think it really matters at all. There is one district out here that is comprised with ultra, super right leaning libertarians (from what I understand). But they are also a very strong chapter that gets the district and community to accept large raises every year on May 15. World philosophy is often put aside for the benefit of workplace practice (Mike Schirtzer being a wonderful example of that). To that end, I could care less if Dimino is from the right, left center or somewhere else. Reading (or hearing) about the lady has made me jump out of my seat and scream "yes!" on more than one occasion and now folks know the kind of teachers I had growing up in Comsewogue (which -literally- translates to "the place where different paths come together" -so go figure!)

  3. To be clear, I was willing to work with a Tea Party legislator in Washington State for two reasons.

    One, I made sure that her desire for work for a student data privacy bill was NOT based on hatred of the federal government but to protect students and their data. That was her stated position.

    Two, I was going to work with her on a single issue, not multiple ones. That our views might not have overlapped on ever issue, even in public education, did not bother me because I believed that the student data privacy issue is larger than just public education.

    Congress is constricted and broken-down now precisely because each side believes the other is the enemy. Many good people have left Congress because there is little bipartisanship left. No one can possibly agree with another person, no less a person from a different political party, on every issue.

    But finding common ground lessens the demonization and that perception of "those people" (on both sides). Finding enough people will to stand up and be counted (and, as Urban Ed says, not always easy to find) is the first step to getting real change.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I had hoped I showed those sentiments accurately and regret that I didn't. But I do clearly recall from the email thread that those were the sentiments you articulated.

      In terms of finding common ground, I think I'm going to remain, for the time being, neutral on that one. I offended a fair amount of parents from the suburbs with this post (folks who aren't politically affiliated at all, but who were brave enough to stand up after being urged by the circumstance) felt a bit pigeon-holed after reading this (as though they were being placed in the category of right wing)) so I don't think this would be a good time to call out any differences that may exist. Having said that, I'm faced with teaching WONDEFUL students in an extremely segregated district (NYC) and nothing but massive public investment on my state level is going to even come close to ameliorate that (and that is, of course, just one issue). I hope there is still room for common ground when the topic changes to that, so until then, I'll try my best to simply keep my mouth shut.

    2. Discretion can sometimes be the better part of valor.

  4. This post got me to thinking about the right wing and the charter school movement which removes local control of their schools too. I would jump at the chance to build an alliance on that issue before charter eat the entire public school system.