Public education advocates need to speak up and share their stories wherever they can – with friends, family, and acquaintances; in public forums and political arenas – and they need to start now, according to business executive Jamie Vollmer, a public schools critic-turned-champion.
The former business executive keynoted an NEA-sponsored “Listening and Engagement Tour” run by the Lansing Schools Education Association with a rendition of his inspiring and hopeful “blueberry story.”
In it Vollmer details how he transformed from a CEO fixated on running schools like businesses into a powerful advocate for public education. He shared ideas for pushing back against the Trump-DeVos privatization agenda by focusing public sentiment against it.
“You have the power to leverage this energy in a conversation that increases understanding and trust, and if you do that – if you stand up now – then this is public education’s most hopeful time,” Vollmer said.
Hundreds of educators, parents, and community leaders from Lansing, Mason, Okemos, and surrounding areas attended the Wednesday night event that also featured a panel discussion of educational leaders, including Lansing School Board President Rachel Lewis, MSU Assistant Professor Dr. Terry Flennaugh, Rep. Andy Schor (D-Lansing), and others.
Moderator Chuck Alberts, a Lansing teacher and president of LSEA, said educators don’t want to be politically active; they want to be left alone to do what’s best for kids. But Flennaugh, who prepares future educators in MSU’s Department of Teacher Education, said teaching is inherently political.
“We need to start getting political, and we need to start making demands of our leaders,” he said.
Ray Telman, executive director of the Middle Cities Education Association, noted several recent studies that concluded Michigan’s school funding is inadequate. Meanwhile, poverty in the state is growing, and state lawmakers want to punish high-needs schools rather than providing resources, he said.
“Poverty matters, not as an excuse but as a guide for when we put our system together,” Telman said.
Standardized tests provide little useful data for helping students, instead serving as tools to label teachers and schools, a purpose they were not designed for and don’t accomplish accurately, said Lansing Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul. Top-down micro-management of curriculum and accountability from the state “is starting to feel like it’s more about deconstruction and deciding who will survive and who won’t,” she said.
Dr. Ruben Martinez, an MSU professor of sociology and nationally known scholar, said dogmatists are using propaganda to destroy public education for profit. He called it “trickle-up economics” designed to redistribute public funds to the wealthy.
Whether attackers of public education use propaganda or simplistic ideas about free markets and capitalism, educators need to fight back, Vollmer told the crowd in his keynote address. That’s what happened to him when he was spouting “free-market bumper-sticker rhetoric,” he said.
A teacher who wasn’t afraid to speak up and challenge his assumptions during a public speaking event triggered the start of his shift in thinking, Vollmer said. She had the advantage of being “armed with the truth.” View a full rendition of the blueberry story here.
Vollmer now calls the idea of running schools like a business “foolish.”
“Do not let some bigshot local business leader, politician, or your idiot brother-in-law back you into a corner and say what a cushy job this is,” Vollmer told the crowd of school employees, parents, and community leaders gathered at Pattengill Middle School on Wednesday night.
He urged attendees to share stories of struggle and accomplishment wherever they can to help the public understand the truth about how schools operate and what they’re up against today.
“I beg of you to begin to think about building a conversation with your family, your friends, your neighbors, your acquaintances,” he said.
Vollmer and the panelists were persuasive, said Christina Powell, a kindergarten teacher at Lansing’s Riddle Elementary School. After years of staying out of political advocacy, Powell is ready to act, she said.
“I feel a lot more empowered to get out there and talk to people and do what we can do to make some changes,” Powell said.