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Are Street Protests Next in the Fight Over Education Reform?

Showdowns in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and beyond have turned out parents and teachers in droves—and revealed how out of touch education reformers really are.

“As it stands now, if nothing changes, the schools are going to have to open without any adults in the large spaces where kids gather,” predicted Philadelphia public schools parent Michael Mullins in late June. Mullins has two kids in the public schools and is secretary-treasurer of the city’s hotel and stadium workers union, UNITE/HERE. In late May, the Philadelphia School District approved a “doomsday budget” cutting almost $300 million from the schools and resulting in the layoffs of 3,783 people–19 percent of the school system’s workforce. The budget also threatened to get rid of arts, music and athletic programs, as well as librarians, secretaries, counselors and playground aides, unless the state or city council could come up with emergency funding.

In response, Mullins joined a group of parents and laid-off school workers in a fast starting June 17 in front of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s Philadelphia office. “We wanted to represent the sense of crisis we feel inside and make it public,” said Mullins. “I think there is a hunger for more direct action,” he added, in order for “the seriousness of this as we live it to reach the decision-makers.”

More people stepped forward during the fifteen-day fast to reinforce this conviction: Philly’s Fast for Safe Schools featured a rotating cast of twelve parent activists and school employees who fasted from three to eight days each. The activists chose to end the fast on July 1, after securing a partial win: Corbett put forward a new funding package that added $140 million back to the school district. The package combines loans with state and city funds, which the activists say could stave off many of the layoffs for now. But Corbett’s package still doesn’t cover the $180 million the district had requested to keep all the needed jobs filled.

As the showdown in Philadelphia indicates, the ongoing battle over education “reform” and school funding–topics often discussed in think tanks, political campaigns or Waiting for “Superman”-style media productions–is moving into the streets. Chicago and Seattle, too, have seen vigorous protests against austerity, privatization, high-stakes testing and union-busting. Such demonstrations together represent a forceful challenge to the corporate-financed push for “education reform” undertaken by the likes of Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor of Washington, DC. But these movements are more than mere isolated acts of resistance; in their demands, the outlines of a coherent policy agenda can be discerned–one that looks honestly at what it will take to bring quality education to America’s least privileged communities.

One thing this movement has already accomplished is exposing how the education “reform” movement provides cover to Republicans and neoliberal Democrats who are starving the public school system. In championing privately run charter schools, the (self-described) reformers paint traditional schools as failures that should be defunded–even if those traditional schools outperform charters. By bashing teachers unions, figures like Rhee have helped politicians scapegoat the unions for fiscal woes, even as many of those lawmakers advocate cutting taxes. And by claiming that those who cite poverty’s impact on student achievement are merely making excuses for sub-par teaching, the “reform” camp has played down the devastating effects of ruthless budget cutting.

On the same day Philly’s doomsday budget was approved, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp tweeted, “I can’t get over the progress in this city’s schools in the last decade!” Although she later tried to cover for the gaffe, it illustrated how out of touch “reformers” are regarding the challenges facing public schools. The incident also suggests that adequate funding should be a basic demand of the movement for quality public education.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has made this demand a central part of its platform, which emphasizes combating inequality in the public school system. In a 2012 report titled “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” the union proposed a statewide solution to the city schools’ funding troubles, arguing that wealthier suburban tax bases across Illinois should be tapped to fund Chicago’s ailing public schools: “The most disadvantaged communities in Chicago and Illinois ought to receive as much educational funding as the wealthiest; any less should be unconstitutional.” This focus has allowed the union to draw a stark contrast between its policies and those of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his schools CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is overseeing the closing of fifty schools to help bridge a budget gap of $1 billion. Meanwhile, the CTU points out, Emanuel is paying $55 million out of city coffers to build a new basketball arena and hotel at DePaul University.

The protests against these skewed priorities went beyond the teachers union, making a viral video star of 9-year-old activist Asean Johnson, who charged, “This is racism right here.” Parents of kids at schools set to close have brought a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming that the closings violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Illinois Civil Rights Act. They argue that displacing kids (special needs kids in particular) from their neighborhood schools will place them at even greater risk.

New organizing among students, parents and educators fed up with endless “teaching to the test” is another area of promise. In Seattle this past January, teachers at Garfield High School engaged the city school district in a fight over high-stakes standardized testing, refusing to administer the state’s Measures of Academic Progress test. They charged that the test wasted class time, produced “meaningless results” and was used improperly in teacher evaluations. Many agreed. Despite threats of unpaid suspensions and other disciplinary measures, teachers at several area schools joined the boycott.

High-stakes testing is a foundation of the education “reform” movement, but cheating scandals in at least a dozen districts have put a spotlight on the corrosive effects of test mania. Parents and students now have the opportunity to demand a rich curriculum in public schools–something that the American Federation of Teachers advocated in its 2012 proposal titled “Quality Education Agenda.” Moreover, teachers unions are asserting their right to establish high standards for their own profession by proposing better ways to evaluate and support teachers– including enhanced mentoring, peer review and professional development. Models for peer review have already been developed and tested by the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and the New York State Union of Teachers, among others. Rejecting the notion that we can fire–or scapegoat–our way to good teaching, advocates for quality public schools should insist that accountability be demanded of actors throughout the educational system, including administrators and politicians.

The new wave of street protests demonstrates a type of community-labor alliance that ideally would become less an emergency response than an ingrained habit. Rather than mobilizing only at flash-point moments like a school closing or a contract negotiation, everyone with a stake in public education must be ready to mobilize on an ongoing basis, to strengthen their alliances with one another and have the conversations that will create a proactive agenda for the schools. That way, when politicians and school district officials come to slash school budgets–as we can, unfortunately, expect in cities around the country–they will be met by an organized opposition ready not only to shield students from those cuts, but to present a workable plan to keep public education alive and healthy.

Amy B. Dean is co-author of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.

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