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De-corporatizing education

A new organization hopes to give a voice to the community
Teacher-turned-activist Sabrina Stevens is executive director of Integrity In Education.
Teacher-turned-activist Sabrina Stevens is executive director of Integrity In Education.

In mid-January a new organization called Integrity In Education was launched with the goal of “exposing the corporate and profit-motivated influences working to control public education across the country.”

Funded initally by donations from a diverse group of wealthy individuals (including philanthropist Deborah Sagner) and grassroots supporters, the group has filed Freedom of Information Act requests, calling on the Department of Education to disclose “all associations with profit-driven corporations, who have worked to exclude everyday Americans from important decisions about our children, our schools, and our future while raising public fears of a corporate takeover of public education.”

Teacher-turned-activist Sabrina Stevens is the organization’s executive director. She spoke with DA about what Integrity In Education hopes to achieve.

What drove you to become part of this organization?

I was a teacher. I’ve wanted to teach for my whole career. I did summer programs and after-school programs with kids in Chester, Pa. It’s a low income struggling district that, a couple of years ago, went bankrupt, and teachers had to volunteer to work for free to keep the schools open.

That’s where I got my start. We did some pretty cool things to get kids to learn. You have to be good at hiding the academic part of what you are doing to get kids to actually volunteer to come after school and during their summer break in order to learn something. And that’s what I thought I got hired to do when I later became a classroom teacher in Denver.

But what I found in Denver was that being in a school designated as failing under No Child Left Behind is a really intense experience.

In what way?

I had the same bias a lot of people do going in. I thought, “This is a struggling school. It must be hard to get good teachers. I’ll be part of the solution. I’ll go and be one of those good teachers in the bad school that needs it.”

But when I got there I realized it wasn’t a bad school. There are no bad teachers here. These are great, committed people who are in a really bad situation. The culture was all about test scores, everything was about numbers, even when those numbers didn’t actually mean anything to our students or about our students.

I would be the one to ask questions: “Why are we doing this? Why would we spend time on this instead of that?” I’m not the sort of person to complain about things in the teachers’ lounge. If something is worth complaining about it’s something worth fixing, so let’s fix it.”

And that got you in trouble?

I had no idea that there was so much politics going into this. It was another whole education finding that out. After a couple of years of this I decided to leave. I didn’t like what was happening to my practice. I didn’t like what was happening to my health. I needed to take a year off and get myself back together.

But in the course of making this decision, we still had evaluations. I had never had a bad evaluation. And yet, when I got this evaluation back, there were a lot of high scores as before, but there were also comments about me having trouble with authority and so on. They decided to reject my resignation and non-renew my contract “for cause,” which meant that I’d be ineligible to work anywhere else in the district. I’d be banned.

I decided to try to fight it at the school board level and when I got there I found there were literally hundreds of other teachers in the exact same position. I thought I had been alone, but it turned out to be a districtwide problem.

How did you become the face of Integrity In Education?

I had been talking to other teachers about their experiences, and writing about my own experiences. I was networking and organizing with parents who were trying to stop school closures. I’ve been in the classroom. I’ve worked with grassroots organizations. I’ve worked with unions.

I’ve had a lot of experience working in pretty much every type of organization that works on “our side,” if you will. They chose me because I can bridge a number of the different parts of a movement to be really nimble and effective.

It must feel like David going up against Goliath.

Oh, absolutely. We’re taking on people who had professional media trainers, and bookers and PR professionals, and all these other people at their disposal. We don’t have that. We just have our wit and our belief that we have to do this.

When all is said and done, I feel I have no other choice. The thing I loved most—being in the classroom—was ruined for me. And it’s being ruined for so many people, especially for those of us who still believe in teaching as a lifelong profession and not a pit stop on the way to better things.

What does it mean for future generations of students if they are never taught by people who understand how people learn, who have a passion for creating the kinds of learning experiences that really awaken students’ creativity and curiosity and all these things that we know they’re going to need as they progress through their future? That’s a scary thing.

There’s a saying that teaching is a profession that makes all other professions possible. What happens when teaching is not a profession? Whatever scary things that could happen can’t compare to the scary thing that will happen if we don’t stand up.

You’ve filed FOIA requests with the Department of Education. What do you hope to learn?

The goal is to give people information they can use to be informed advocates. There’s a lot of confusion over who is funding what. Why are we getting these kinds of education policies? Why do we see these profit-driven things happening—the over-testing, the scripted curriculum, and so on?

You can speculate about deals made over a friendly dinner, but we don’t really know for sure what’s going on until we actually look at whatever evidence we can get hold of. That’s an example of what Integrity In Education will do. I think truth is a really powerful tool.

But it’s of no use to anyone if we can’t get as many people as possible talking to their neighbors, blogging and writing and speaking—talking about what it really means to have school choice. We want to take on some of the disinformation that’s out there and then arm people with real information so they can make informed decisions.

You mention school choice. But that’s the same phrase the other side uses. They want to give parents a choice of where to send their kids. How do you differentiate the meanings?

What we’re talking about is giving the community a voice. This whole “choice” conversation happens against the backdrop of people fighting for decades to have schools adequately funded, to have a culturally responsive and full curriculum. People have been asking for that for a long time, yet their requests go unheeded.

Suddenly there’s a crisis in the schools, and the solution is to let everybody choose what they want?

But in many communities “choice” isn’t really a choice. You have a school that’s being forcibly shut down and given away to someone else. It doesn’t serve the kids who were originally there. We want to be able to expose that sort of thing. We want to have an honest conversation about what school choice means.

School isn’t shopping. It makes me cringe when I hear people like Jeb Bush say, “You can go to the market and get milk in any flavor you want. You can get milk without lactose and you can get chocolate milk and all these other things. Why shouldn’t going to school be like that?”

Because education isn’t milk. In order to really learn, you have to develop relationships with people.

What we should be talking about is making sure the community is heard and respected when they say, “We don’t have enough books in this school,” or “the building is crumbling over here. We need you to do something about that.” The district can’t just pivot and dodge it by saying, “Well you can choose to go to another school.” That’s not okay, because eventually there are no more places to run.

Let me play devil’s advocate here. School funding is getting cut by states everywhere. But people like Bill Gates come along and say, “I’m providing money to fill in for what’s missing.” What’s wrong with that?

The idea that we’re cutting funds to schools and then giving tax breaks to giant corporations is, to me, inappropriate.

School money isn’t disappearing. It’s not like there was a rain cloud that all of a sudden took away the school budget. No. Somebody made a decision that they need to unmake so we can do right by our kids.

Private philanthropy supplanting public investment is dangerous, because we can’t let fundamental services like the education of children be left to the whims of a wealthy fundraiser.

Tim Goral is senior editor.