This story appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
The teachers’ union in Philadelphia lost the legal right to strike when the state took over the city’s public schools more than a decade ago. Then, last October, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission unilaterally voided the teachers’ contracts in the name of budget cuts. The students, in a move that is becoming emblematic of the new wave of organizing spreading across the country, went on strike because the teachers could not. Outside of the High School for Creative and Performing Arts in Philly, around 175 students danced and sang, holding signs that declared that education is a right—and that their teachers deserve health care.
Not too far away, in Newark, New Jersey, this September Newark Student Union activists took two days of action. They held blockades in front of three local high schools in the morning to encourage other students to join them marched to downtown Newark, where the Board of Education is located.
On the first day, they held a “know your rights” training.
On the second day, they shut down a major intersection. For nine hours.
“We’re known for having events for long periods of time,” Tanaisa Brown, secretary of the Newark Student Union, says. “The police think that we’re going to just give up after an hour because kids have to use the bathroom, and they’re not disciplined enough and have to eat eventually. We had all that planned out.”
The Newark Student Union was founded in the spring of 2012 to fight budget cuts. This fall, the students were calling attention to the “One Newark” reform plan, heavy on charter schools and privatization, pushed by school superintendent Cami Anderson. Like the Philadelphia schools, Newark’s schools are controlled by the state, and Anderson was appointed by Republican Governor Chris Christie.
In Colorado, it was a school-board resolution that aimed to change the history curriculum that drove students into the streets. A Jefferson County school board member proposed a resolution that Advanced Placement history should emphasize “patriotism and . . . the benefits of the free enterprise system” and should not “encourage or condone civil disorder.” Apparently, though, the students had already learned about civil disobedience. Following two “sick-outs” by teachers angered by the board’s decision, several of them took to Facebook and proposed a walkout. More than 1,000 students joined the protest.
According to Ashlyn Maher, one of the students who planned the action, students have formed a group called JeffCo Students for Change that is considering pushing to recall the offending board members and challenge standardized testing. “Just because things have settled down over the last few weeks doesn’t mean we’re done,” Maher says.
In Chicago and Portland, too, students have formed unions to challenge budget cuts, teacher layoffs, school closings, and high-stakes testing. They have held walkouts and student strikes, alongside teachers and on their own. After the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012, Israel Muñoz, then a student at Kelly High School on the city’s southwest side, thought, “Where is the student voice in this? Why haven’t we been consulted when it comes to any decisions regarding education?” To him, it only made sense that if the teachers had a union, the students should have one, too.
“In some ways, high school students have been more successful than college students in recent years in finding those pressure points where their refusal to participate can actually harm the interests of their adversaries,” says Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism in the United States.
To Tanaisa Brown, the most important thing that students can do for public schools is to bring their voice to the debate.
“Some of these reformers never really think about how they may affect the students individually,” she says. “They’re just thinking about their personal benefits. I think students stepping up to the plate are showing that they do care about urban education, about their schools and about learning through a school that helps them emotionally as well.”
In Philadelphia, student activist Cy Wolfe echoed her words, refusing to have the students pitted against the teachers. He told reporters that those who bust teachers’ unions claim “we’re doing it for the students. We’re taking the teachers’ money and we’re giving it back to the schools so the students can get books and pencils and paper.” Wolfe doesn’t buy that. “We don’t want those things if we don’t have good teachers,” he says.
Even while they’re standing by their teachers, Muñoz and Ian Jackson of the Portland Student Union both also stressed that it is important for the students to maintain an independent voice. In Portland, they are helping develop new leaders so the structures don’t wither when older students graduate and move on. “The most important thing is to continue to make people in the younger grades feel like they’re needed and wanted, which they are because everyone is essential to the movement,” says Brown, who was involved as a freshman when the Newark Student Union was founded.
Xian Barrett, a Chicago middle school teacher and union member, says it is necessary for educators to model principles of democracy and equity, voice and empowerment, even for students younger than high school age. Schools are, after all, supposed to prepare students to participate in society—exactly what these students are doing.
“Young people are given this notion that if you want to make a change you have to wait until you’re eighteen so you can be an adult and you can vote,” Muñoz says. “But the reality is that someone’s age shouldn’t determine whether or not they can speak out, whether or not they want to make a change, whether or not they want to organize to make that change a reality.”
Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist and co-host of Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahjaffe and find her work at www.adifferentclass.com.
Image credit: Samantha Madera, Al Día News.