John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, shares his thoughts about the Network for Public Education Conference in Indianapolis. He begins by trying to wrap his brain around my provocative claim that “We are winning.” After I received his post, I explained to him that everything the Reformers have tried has failed. Every promise they have made has been broken. They have run American education for a decade or a generation, depending on when you start counting, and they have nothing to show for it. I contend there is no “reform movement.” There is instead a significant number of incredibly rich men and women playing with the lives of others. The Billionaire Boys Club, plus Alice Walton, Laurene Powell Jobs, and a few other women. This is no social movement. A genuine movement has grassroots. The Reformers have none; they have only paid staff. If the money dried up, the “reform movement” would disappear. It has no troops. None. Genuine movements are built by dedicated, passionate volunteers. That’s what we have.

Thompson writes:

The Network for Public Education’s fifth annual conference was awesome. It will take me awhile to wrestle with the information about the “David versus Goliath” battle which is leading to the defeat of corporate school reform. But I will start by thinking through the lessons learned from retired PBS education reporter John Merrow and Jim Harvey, who was a senior staff member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education and the principle author of “A Nation at Risk.” Harvey is now executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.

Merrow explained that charters are producing “a scandal a day.” Using the type of turn of a phrase for which he is well known, Merrow said that charters have had “too much attention but not enough scrutiny.” He says that some mom and pop charters are excellent, but online charters should be outlawed. Then he punched holes in the charter-advocates’ claim that rigorous accountability systems could minimize the downsides of charters.

Merrow says that one reason why it isn’t really possible to scrutinize the costs of charters is that there is no longer a real difference between for-profit and nonprofit charters. Choice has created a system of “buyer beware.”

Harvey added that journalists have been accused of cherry-picking charter scandal reports but “there are so many cherries.” Then he recounted inside stories on the writing of the infamous “A Nation at Risk” and how the report was “hijacked,” as he provided insights into how corporate school reform spun out of control.

As Harvey and Merrow discussed, before the report it was difficult to get the press to focus on the classroom. Conflicts over busing to desegregate schools would get the public’s attention, but Harvey didn’t think that “A Nation at Risk” would attract much of an audience. He thought that the key sentence in the opening paragraph hit a balance. The sentence began with the statement that the American people “can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people,” and the paragraph concluded with, “What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments. “

Had it not been for manipulations of the report by those who were driven by a political agenda, the words in the middle could have been read as intended. Harvey wrote, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Harvey didn’t write the extreme statement that followed. In fact, he had edited out the sentence, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Clearly the report became part of an attack on public education. In contrast to the social science which preceded it, and the research that experts like Harvey embraced, the campaign kicked off by “A Nation at Risk” blamed schools, not overall changes in society that resulted in some lowered test scores. NAEP scores were also misrepresented by categories,like “proficiency,” which facilitated falsehoods such as the idea that tests showed that 60 percent of students were below grade level.

President Ronald Reagan announced the report along with the false statement that “A Nation at Risk” included a call for prayer in the schools, school vouchers, and the abolition of the Department of Education. Then, as Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, it was clear that the report was being used demonize not just teachers but government itself.

And that leads to the emergence of venture philanthropy in the 1990s. As Merrow recalled, during and before the 1980s, donors such as Ford and Annenberg foundations tinkered around the edges in seeking answers to complex conundrums. They offered money without micromanaging school improvement. Since then, technocratic school reform was driven, in large part, by the Billionaires Boys’ Club. It “weaponized” testing in an assault on public schools.

Harvey attributed that unfortunate transition, in significant part, to the realization that education is a $750 billion industry with profits to be made. It attracted 25-year-olds who knew nothing about education, and soon they were running policy.

Had corporate reformers taken the time to scrutinize the evidence, they would have had to confront the research which existed before and after “A Nation at Risk,” and that its author respected. As Harvey and David Berliner have written, an evidenced-informed investigation would have considered “the 80 percent of their waking hours that students spend outside the school walls.” Had they looked at evidence, edu-philanthropists should have understood the need to “provide adequate health care for children and a living wage for working parents, along with affordable day-care.”

Whether we are talking about the obsession with test and punish micromanaging or the faith in charters, corporate reformers failed to consider the complexities of the school systems they sought to transform. But, they did their homework in terms of public relations. In addition to demonizing teachers, public schools, and other public sectors, corporate reformers stole the language of dedicated educators and civil rights. They’ve presented their teacher-bashing and privatization campaigns as a “civil rights” movement.

Educators must reclaim our language, and craft messages for a new, constructive, holistic campaign to improve schools. One step toward new conversations requires us to learn from the past. John Merrow and Jim Harvey are remarkable sources of institutional history and the wisdom required for the type of discussions that are necessary.