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When Radical Teachers Occupy the Department of Education

Did you happen to catch “Occupy the D.O.E. 2.0” at the Department of Education over the weekend? If you missed it, you’re not alone. It didn’t receive quite the attention some of the other Occupy events have received and it was only an “Occupy” event if by “Occupy” you mean people congregating in soccer-mom chairs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (with an hour break for lunch) and evening entertainment at Busboys & Poets at 5th and K Street. And hotels at night.

The Thursday-Sunday event was sponsored by United Opt Out, a group whose main mission is to convince teachers and families to opt out of high-stakes testing and to “resist all market-based reforms that seek to privatize and destroy public education.” The lineup of speakers included a collection of academic elites, union leaders, community organizers, teachers, and students. They only managed to attract a few dozen activists, which is why you probably didn't see much about it on the news. But it's important to hear what they had to say because these leaders in the education movement will have an important voice in shaping the schools many of our children and grandchildren will attend in the future.

While the speakers who were associated with United Opt Out were on-message, documenting their complaints about standardized testing and the corporate interests pushing the Common Core, other speakers attempted to work this message into their standard stump speeches and this is where it seemed to merge with your typical Occupy rally: There were dozens of different complaints and few (if any) solutions proposed.

As you might expect at a faculty lounge Occupation, there was plenty of radical rhetoric and Utopian vision-casting. (Most of the livestreamed videos are archived here, and you can read the speaker bios here.)

Shaun Johnson is a former public school teacher and online radio show host at the Chalk Face. He thinks teachers are too “meek” and need to get angry:

It’s finally about time that we start getting pissed off and angry...Nothing’s going to change unless people start cracking some skulls. I’m sorry, so, if you don’t get angry and go out there and start speaking out and not be so afraid, then nothing’s going to change. Because there’s a lot of money out there working against us. And we don’t have that kind of money. We don’t have that kind of political power. So we’ve gotta do something. Throw our bodies on the machine. But something’s gotta change. Something’s gotta give. And like I said, we’ve gotta start cracking some skulls.

It might be a good time to point out that they actually do have “that kind of money." The NEA was the top contributor to state and federal races in 2008, with $45 million, more than 90% going to Democrats. And that doesn’t include tens of millions the teachers' unions spend on political activity that is reported to the Department of Labor and doesn’t show up on campaign finance reports.

Johnson also led the crowd in a profanity-laced guessing game about the names of charter schools. He implied that kids using at-home charter schools are spending their days engaged in cybersex. “What are you doing with your hands?”