Thursday, September 23, 2010

Corporate-School Reform VS Democracy Is Still the Issue in DC's November Election

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
The mostly black District of Columbia has been run like a plantation, a colony for as long as anybody can recall. Habitual defiance of the democratic will of DC voters and residents is safe for Congress, where DC has neither a vote nor an effective voice. But DC' mayor was booted out after a single term for a series of sins, the biggest of which was his embrace of top-down, undemocratic corporate-style school reform. 

With at least one strong candidate for the District Council in the November 2 general election the DC Statehood Green Party has a shot at winning its first election.
In an unmistakable rejection of corporate and foundation-sponsored school reform, DC voters turned one-term mayor Adrian Fenty out of office September 12.
“It's not the first time we've sent that message,” DC native Marian Douglas-Ungaro told Black Agenda Report. “The last time they let us vote on a voucher plan was back in the eighties. DC voters rejected it by a nine to one margin. We have a real anticolonial mentality here because we've been treated like a colony for so long.”
That's no exaggeration. Deprived of their own tax base, control over local budget or a voice in Congress, DC's schools were among the few institutions where local residents had even theoretical control. In the District, which wasn't allowed to elect its own mayor till the seventies, and where license plates read “Taxation Without Representation,” the anti-democratic prerogatives of colonial masters are keenly felt and deeply resented.
In 2003 a Republican Congress finally forced vouchers on the unwilling parents, teachers and communities of DC. Republicans engineered a meeting in the dead of night to pass the voucher bill by a single vote when the entire Congressional Black Caucus was away at a presidential debate in Baltimore. In the Senate the following week Democratic senators Robert Byrd and Diane Feinstein crossed the aisle to give Republicans the needed majority, though Feinstein continued to oppose vouchers in her home state of California.
For four years, Mayor Fenty's chosen chancellor of DC schools Michelle Rhee added almost daily insult to DC's history of injured democracy. A darling of the right wing and a champion of corporate school reform by any means available, Rhee enthusiastically undermined public education in favor of private and charter schools, and the class of consultants created by No Child Left Behind. Rhee summarily fired hundreds of experienced teachers, most of them black and female, refusing to explain why. She answered criticism of her policies with torrents of abuse. All this made her stunningly popular in boardrooms, in the wealthiest parts of the District, in the Washington Post, CNN and throughout the national media. But she was widely loathed by DC parents, teachers and residents. Rhee campaigned hard for Fenty, and appeared stunned by his loss.
A day after the election at the premiere of a pro-privatization propaganda film, Waiting For Superman, Rhee addressed an elite audience that included Bill Gates, John Legend, more than a dozen members of Congress and scores of the corporate and foundation elite who profit from school privatization. She pronounced the election results “devastating to the schoolchildren” of DC. To a storm of applause Rhee declared this was not the time to yield to the democratic process and the will of DC voters, but time to “lean forward” and be more aggressive and adamant.
It seems that colonial habits die hard. They won't just go away because voters, especially DC voters, reject them. DC's incoming mayor Vincent Gray had the support of teachers unions and many residents who vehementy opposed the Rhee-Fenty agenda of privatizing education. Gray can't afford to openly dismiss and disregard the opponents of privatization. But Fenty's and Rhee's policies are championed by many elected Democrats nowadays, including the Secretary of Education and his boss in the White House. Make no mistake about it, DC schools activist Zein El Amin told Black Agenda Report, the incoming mayor is under immense pressure to continue the same destructive policies as his predecessor. Foundation and corporate sponsors are taking the hard line drawn by Michelle Rhee, and reportedly threatening in private and in public to withdraw their funding from DC schools if the incoming mayor makes more than cosmetic changes.
But with its unique history, DC has a unique political structure, including its 13 member District Council, analogous to a city council. DC's eight wards each elect a council member, and a council president runs district-wide every four years. The other four council members run at large, with two coming from the dominant Democratic party --- DC has been a majority black city for more than a century --- and the other two seats reserved for Republicans or Independents. The DC Statehood-Green (DCSG) party has candidates in several DC wards standing in the November 2, 2010 election, and a strong at-large candidate who polled 19,000 votes in 2008. He's David Schwartzman, an educator who's taught at Howard University more than 40 years.
In the wake of Mayor Fenty's repudiation by DC voters, DC Statehood-Green activists see promise, opportunity, and unfinished business. The unfinished business is to complete the job begun by sweeping out Fenty and his stooge Michelle Rhee. Schwartzman's chief opponent, incumbent David Catania, was a shameless supporter of Fenty and Rhee till only a few weeks before the election, when even he saw the tide turning. A recent former Republican, Catania is flush with contributions from the pharmaceutical and related industries, a likely consequence of his heading up the District Council's health committee. DC of course, has the highest HIV rate in the nation.
The opportunity is real. DC Statehood Greens plan to campaign aggressively over the next few weeks in every one of the District's wards. They say they'll remind DC voters that they're the only party that unfailingly opposed the Fenty-Rhee privatization regime and championed democratic, parent and teacher centered school reform over the corporate model. DCSG is of course the descendant of the old DC Statehood party, which has long advocated full self-determination and statehood-for the District, and an affiliate of the national Green Party.
And the promise is potent. “We're the only party,” David Schwartzman told Black Agenda Report, “that consistently represents the will of DC voters on education, on mass incarceration and on many other issues. Too many of our elected Democrats gave up on trying to make this a fairer and more just society a long time ago. We never have and we never will. We believe that local government, and a political party that represents DC residents has to address poverty, joblessness and want, has to stand up against gentrification and privatization. We're willing to work with elected Democrats who stand with us, with the residents of DC. We're the only party that believes another DC isn't just possible, that it's necessary. That's what this election is about.”
Bruce Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Marietta GA, where he is a member of the Georgia Green Party's state committee. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at) David Schwartzman's web site is

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