Howard Dean speaks at education reform event

LAKE PLACID – Former presidential candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was a speaker Monday at Camp Philos, a three-day education conference at the Whiteface Lodge.

Dean, also the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, spoke in the afternoon. A bulk of the speaker sessions were held from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m on Monday. The conference is run by Education Reform Now and Democrats for Education Reform, groups that support charter schools and tougher teacher evaluations. The conference was private; reporters and the public were not let in. General admission was $1,000.

Joe Williams, a part-time Saranac Lake resident and executive director of the Education Reform Now policy think tank, is the leader of the conference.

“I think the highlight of the day was Howard Dean speaking,” Williams said in a phone interview.

Part of Dean’s speech was about his son, an inner-city teacher in New Orleans. Dean is “more open” to the idea of charter schools, Williams said.

“Governor Dean talked about the importance of standing firm behind your convictions,” Williams said. “If we are going to change public education, we are going to have to hold firm.”

Williams said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, spoke on Monday and then had to leave for Washington, D.C. Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, was another of the speakers. Nashville, Tennessee’s Mayor Karl Dean was one of the more prominent guests.

“A lot of state-level officials were there,” Williams said.

Around 400 protestors, many of them teachers union members, stood in the rain in front of the Whiteface Lodge on Sunday afternoon to picket the start of the conference.

Many of those protestors believe Williams’ group is trying to persuade Democratic politicians to accept policy that will hurt the public school system by favoring charter schools.

The Enterprise asked Williams about that criticism.

“There is more room in the Democrat Party for multiple ideas,” he replied.

At around 5 p.m. when the Enterprise spoke with Williams, the conference was wrapping up a session in which parents and teachers talked about education reform and school choice.

“They generally were talking about how parents and teachers are left out of the discussion, especially on special education,” Williams said.

Earlier Monday, the conference had multiple concurrent sessions where guests could break out into groups and visit a lecture they found interesting. Williams said some of the sessions were about teacher policies and messaging. Some other sessions listed on the group’s website had names like, “Ensuring all kids have access to a great education,” “Building an effective school reform coalition” and “School finance in the age of austerity.”

Today, after an 8 a.m. breakfast, the guests were to have a closing session with a speaker who would repeat some of the themes of the conference and give guests a take-home message.

Williams said he is interested in doing the conference in Lake Placid again.

“It’s been great,” Williams said. “The weather has been tough. People have been very, very impressed with Lake Placid and the Whiteface Lodge.”