Hillary's Thesis, Rules For Radicals, And Today's Fight For Public Schools

"The complicated overlapping layers," wrote Hillary Clinton in 1969, "make it difficult to single out an 'enemy.'"

This is from her undergraduate senior thesis on Saul Alinsky. She's discussing how activists can find it difficult to identify the enemy in a society shaped by increasingly complex and interlinked institutions.

Clinton's thesis and Alinsky's 1971 Rules for Radicals remind me of the challenges that public school defenders face in today's fight against privatization -- a (now global) fight that we will need to continue with vigor no matter who is elected president in November.

Privatization extremists are "difficult to single out" because they're skilled at making the money trail dark and power dynamics obscure. As Marion Brady wrote in a recent piece about the tactics and weapons of the privatizers, they're good at playing on our fears, smart about keeping quiet when they need to, and skilled at influencing state legislators behind the scenes.

For more on the privatizers' dealings with your legislators, check out this report on ALEC, a group that the Trump ticket brags about supporting "before it was cool."

These machinations of privatization, however, are decidedly not cool; they are devastating, and -- as Hillary and Alinsky noted -- complicated and overlapping.

But whether you see your foe as a coalition like ALEC, or a democratic mayor, a republican governor, a major foundation, a hedge fund, or public apathy and disengagement, it's safe to say that public school defenders need an all-of-the-above approach.

The fight must include direct action and confrontation, as well as what Alinsky might call "proxy" tactics for use when "the usual strategy of demonstrations and confrontations would be unavailing." In the "Public School Counterinsurgency Field Manual," I put it this way:

A public school defender's tactics should certainly include conventional weapons, such as union organizing, protests, civil disobedience, legislative, electoral and judicial processes. But conventional weaponry alone cannot beat back an insurgency. School-based educators especially must focus on non-combative, ally-building approaches: tactics that foster personal connections between the local populous and their public schools.

Relationships are key. One of the best things the school privatizers have going for them is the inherent distance that comes between a citizenry and its schools as our population ages. I call this the public school ownership gap. Most American households don't include school-going children, and most folks without kids in schools don't have any meaningful contact with schools. This is a structural weakness, an open wound that privatizers can easily infect. Therefore:

Our tactics for defeating the privatization extremists must include the mass mobilization of students and teachers toward the mass engagement of our citizenry in the lives of students and schools.

"The separation of the people from the routine daily functions of citizenship is heartbreak in a democracy," wrote Alinsky. Connections to public schools can help the citizen-heart beat stronger. The universal "human cry," as Alinsky also wrote, is for "meaning, a purpose in life." And schools have this working in our favor. Public schools -- the childcare commons of every community -- are a fountain of meaning and purpose.

But here's the thing -- it's not only about the citizenry seeing value in our schools. It's about schools seeing value in the citizenry. If educators can strategically engage the people of our towns in the instructional life of our schools, those people will see new purpose in public education, because public education sees new purpose in them. Alinsky would remind us, activists must exploit self-interest.

Rural teachers, imagine the cantankerous libertarian who resents every penny of every tax dollar taken from his wallet by the government. Get that man in the school, or get the kids to visit him. He has some expertise and experience from which we can learn. He has a story to tell. Publish this story, told in the words of children; give it polish and give him a copy. He'll think twice next year before voting down the school budget. This is not a trick; it's a relationship.

Urban educators, think of the guy who daily takes the train to a high-finance high-rise. His only concern with the kids you teach is how to avoid their boisterous company on his commute. He doesn't have children of his own yet, but his VPs do, and they all send them to private schools. One day he hopes to do the same. He may care little about public education -- and your public school probably cares little about him. Change this. What of his life experience and professional skills might you be able to value? Maybe he's good at math and could be part of assessing math projects. The bank that owns his firm has a corporate social responsibility office. Call and tell them you're not interested in donations of old furniture, pencils or used computers. Ask for donations of time, a few hours each semester when employees might get trained and then sit on panels to help teachers evaluate student work.

This is all about pedagogy and assessment. Teachers and principals, the power is in your hands. Check out the Public School Counterinsurgency Field Manual for details on tactics like these. Use them in the coming school year. You will turn skeptics into believers.

The public school is our nation's most holy secular site. We must connect more people to this church. It's where the United States can best live the commandments of our democracy -- that constellation of practice and principle that young Hillary called the "most radical of political faiths." Amen.