Cookies and curriculum

House parties invite grass-roots discussions on national education policy.

In MaryBeth Ingberg and Dennis Vail's living room, the conversation is getting heated. It's not so much that 25 people gathered here disagree, but that they all care passionately about the topic at hand: education.

"The schools here are deteriorating - they're underfunded, overcrowded," laments Jerri Chavis, a teacher at Langston Hughes Elementary.

"And college is increasingly out of reach for parents," adds Suzanne Engle, whose fifth-grade daughter is in the Chicago system.

"Even my sixth-grader can understand No Child Left Behind is impacting them," says Ms. Ingberg, touching on a common topic. "This year, field trips are cut back, because they have to spend more time teaching to the test."

In many ways, the scene is striking - a collection of teachers, parents, and community members that spans age and race lines, all taking several hours on a weekday night to brainstorm what they view as the problems and solutions for America's public schools.

The meeting at the Ingberg-Vail home was just one of some 3,800 "house parties" that took place in homes, schools, and community centers last Wednesday, all designed to raise the profile of education as an issue and start a national dialogue on education policy.

It's the latest incarnation of a popular new political tool - a melding of modern technology with old-fashioned organizing, kaffeeklatches coordinated using the Internet - and perhaps the first time such house parties have been used for a specific issue, rather than a candidate or political party.

Though the parties were billed as nonpartisan, issue-oriented events, the fact that they were sponsored primarily by the National Education Association and MoveOn.org, ACORN, and the NAACP National Voter Fund - all organizations viewed as left of center - led many to conclude that they had a clear anti-Bush, anti-No Child Left Behind agenda. Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio issued a statement calling the parties "an anti-NCLB smear campaign."

That may be an extreme assessment, but the partisan connections highlight the difficulty of creating genuine dialogue, even on an issue like education, which a few years ago seemed to have such potential for creating consensus.

"A national focus on education is an overwhelmingly positive thing, but it very much depends on what you talk to people about," says Ross Wiener, policy director at the Education Trust, a group supportive of No Child Left Behind. "In part, some of the organizations that were cohosting the house parties are hoping to make it a more partisan issue than it is."

That's a claim the organizers take issue with. The materials provided to hosts of the parties - a short video to kick things off, a list of talking points, a petition asking Congress and the president to increase education funding - were careful not to endorse a candidate or to bash No Child Left Behind beyond demanding that the initiative be fully funded. They call attention to issues such as overcrowded classrooms, soaring college tuitions, dated textbooks, and teacher shortages, and mostly suggest a need for more spending.

To call them partisan events is to miss the point, says Daniel Kaufman, an NEA spokesman. "I think it was a really reenergizing experience for our members. It's not the first time the house party idea has been used, but it's the first time it's been done on such a massive scale around the issue of education."

While some parties may have been mostly like-minded people coming together and reaffirming one another's opinions, others offered real opportunity for debate, he says. Some hosts were pro-Bush, and others made a conscious effort to invite No Child Left Behind supporters or fans of vouchers.

The NEA's request was for attendees to do three things: sign the petition on funding, participate in a national call-in day to Congress this week, and register themselves and five friends to vote. But Mr. Kaufman says he's also eager to see what unexpected suggestions the parties generate. At the one he attended, someone suggested creating a video to communicate to the public just what teachers' roles are.

At the Ingberg-Vail house party on the far South Side of Chicago, a few suggestions come out: more opportunities for professional development, creating a coalition with other education organizations outside the public schools.

As much as brainstorming solutions, though, the meeting is about validating one another's frustrations. Many of the guests were teachers, co-workers of Mr. Vail at Langston Hughes, or friends from nearby schools - people on the front lines of the battle for better urban education.

Among both Republicans and Democrats, "I haven't met one teacher who likes No Child Left Behind," says Vail, a gregarious man who's the technology coordinator at his school, standing by a table loaded with chips, salsa, cheese, and fruit. "We have a positive image in the community, but [Langston Hughes] is still labeled a failing school. It's not a level playing field, and there's nothing in No Child Left Behind that's going to level it."

Coming together to hear similar viewpoints and express political sympathy has become a common pastime in the past year, on both ends of the political spectrum. Most often, it's just friends or relatives rattling off long lists of the other side's offenses, but the more organized, simultaneous house parties - started by former Democratic candidate Howard Dean and the popularity of Meetup.com - have also become a popular political tool.

In April, Republicans held house parties to rally support for Mr. Bush and listen to a conference call from Dick Cheney. In August, Democrats partied to John Kerry's convention speech. Parties have been held to discuss "Fahrenheit 9/11" - complete with a call from Michael Moore - and "Outfoxed," a video criticizing Fox News's conservative bent. Some parties help raise funds, but their primary goal is to rally enthusiasm and create networks.

"It's like a back-to-the-future kind of thing - it uses the cutting-edge technology of the Internet, but the real power is to allow people to engage in this traditional, lost form of political organizing," says Philip Klinkner, a government professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

Such parties understandably tend to attract people who are already politically active, he says, as well as people who think alike. Indeed, one of their purposes may well be a form of therapy.

"It's a lot of telling personal stories," he says. "It remains to be seen to what extent [the parties] just amount to telling stories, and to what extent they motivate people to act."

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