Photo by Comrade Foot.
All over the United States, it’s a tumultuous back-to-school season.
In Seattle, 5,000 teachers in Washington State’s largest school district began the year by going out on strike. At issue are not just pay and working conditions, but core values including “more recess, less testing, and race and equity committees in every school,” says Jesse Hagopian, the teacher, author and civil rights leader. Hagopian led a successful boycott of the major standardized test—the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test—at Seattle's Garfield High School, leading to the cancellation of that test for the whole district, and bringing together the movement to opt out of standardized tests with Black Lives Matter.
(Read our full profile of Hagopian appearing soon in the October issue of The Progressive.)
The Seattle teachers’ union has adopted the platform of the “social equity educators”—the coalition Hagopian and his colleagues formed through the test boycott.
“This is the culmination of a lot of our work,” Hagopian told me on the phone Wednesday morning on his way to join the picket line.
From Washington, DC, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia announced that she is “proud that Seattle educators are standing up for the schools students deserve. Unfortunately, the School Board has failed to address issues raised by educators, such as ensuring opportunity for every student, regardless of zip code; providing the one-on-one attention that students need; and creating more time for students to learn with less focus on harmful standardized tests.”
This year marks an important turning point as more and more people put together the struggle for educational equity, resistance to overtesting, and an unfair system that is siphoning public money into private schools in the name of “reform.” The struggle for justice in American education achieved a landmark legal victory last week when the Washington state supreme court ruled that public funding for charter schools is unconstitutional.The basis of the decision was simple: the state constitution in Washington (as in other states) establishes a legal responsibility to use public funds to finance public schools. Siphoning money into private charters, which are not governed by elected school boards and not accountable to the public, violates that public trust. This is a critical point that applies across the country, as a combination of budget cuts and privatization schemes siphon public funds into private charters and threaten the bedrock democratic commitment to public educational.
In another revolt against growing educational inequity, teachers in the Chester Upland school district in Pennsylvania voted unanimously to return to work without pay, so that their cash-strapped schools could open the doors to students in September. A combination of unequal funding for poor districts, brutal state budget cuts, and a new law that siphons public-school funds to Pennsylvania charter operators pushed the district to the brink of financial ruin.The scenes of celebration, with grateful parents cheering the teachers who went back to work with no pay, hit you in the gut when you consider how unnecessary it is to starve public education in the most affluent nation on Earth.
From the coast to coast, communities are rebelling against this injustice.
The most dramatic rebellion is unfolding in Chicago, where eleven parents and a clergyman are staging a life-threatening hunger strike to oppose the closing of Walter Dyett High School which serves mostly African American students on the city’s South Side. A recent proposal to reopen Dyett as an arts school did not appease the protesters. “There was no negotiation,” South Side organizer Jitu Brown told reporters. Brown dismissed the city’s decision, reached without consulting with the community, as a publicity stunt. The Dyett hunger strike is unfolding against a backdrop of massive community resistance to the Mayor Emaneul’s closure of 50 Chicago public schools, in largely black areas. Progressive contributor Jennifer Berkshire reports on the school closures in Chicago as a form of “urban renewal with bulldozers.”
“The city is squeezing us out,” Jitu Brown told Berkshire. “And like so many activists I spoke to, Brown views the closure of schools as an effort to replace Chicago’s poor, minority residents with wealthier inhabitants,” Berkshire writes. “’When you shut down a neighborhood school, you send a powerful signal to the people who’ve been living there,’” Brown told her: “’This neighborhood isn’t for you.’”
The same can be said for public education generally, as test-and-punish policies, budget cuts, and a new tier of funding for charters is locks in educational “haves” and “have nots. This year, in communities like Chester Upland and Chicago’s South Side, in Seattle, and in the opt-out movement that is picking up steam across the country, parents, students, teachers and community members are making common cause to beat back the corporate education reformers who use standardized tests to label schools and teachers as “failing,” hand over public schools to private operators, and cut funds for poor kids.
As Jitu Brown puts it: “Why can’t we have public schools? Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors?” Brown, Jesse Hagopian, and their fellow activists all over the country are intent on realizing the promise of public education as a ladder of opportunity for all American kids.
That’s a good sign for democracy.