Photos by Jeff Bryant
With the sound of jet engines booming overhead, a crowd of about 800 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial last week to advocate for “the people’s education.” The People’s March for Public Education and Social Justice took place in the middle of a political “no-fly” zone in Washington, DC. Democrats and Republicans alike have largely avoided the issues raised by the People’s March. But at the grassroots level, the backlash against bipartisan, corporate education reform has grown too big to ignore. High-stakes testing, crackdowns on teachers unions, and the massive growth of privately controlled charter schools that undermine local neighborhood schools—especially in low-income, non-white communities—drove hundreds of activists to come out and protest.
Speakers including education historian Diane Ravitch and best-selling author and education justice advocate Jonathan Kozol denounced the assault on teachers and students taking place in schools, calling out a culture of "test and punish" that strips teachers of their professionalism and robs children of the joys of learning.
North Carolina's Reverend William Barber, of the Moral Monday Movement, and Keron Blair, who directs the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools also spoke, placing the fight to save public schools firmly in the intersection of civil rights and social justice movements represented by Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, and other popular progressive causes.
All agreed that current education policies—often referred to as “reforms”—impose a mandate from policy elites and wealthy foundations that are blind to the impacts of their ideas on school communities, and deaf to the voices of those who oppose them. The group called for equitable funding across all public schools, an end to high-stakes testing, strong local leadership, and support for professional, qualified, and committed teachers.
Since the early days of the Obama administration, the pushback against prevailing education policies coming from the Beltway has been an inconvenient noise in the Democratic Party. Once it became apparent that the Obama Administration would maintain a “Washington consensus” on the education policies it inherited from George W. Bush, opposition forces in the teacher ranks and in the streets of large urban communities grew into a grassroots resistance movement across the country.
The education justice movement has now become a nationwide rebellion. Jesse Hagopian, the Seattle teacher whose successful testing boycott in his school helped spark a national push to opt out of standardized testing, called it an “Education Spring.”
So how’s the rebellion going?
“We are winning,” Ravitch declared in her address to the rally.
Ravitch enumerated prominent failings of education “reform,” including the collapse of efforts to install teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores, the spread of the movement to opt-out of state testing, the failures of state takeovers of public schools, and the false promises of urban school improvement schemes.
But as many in the crowd acknowledged, there is a long way to go.
Many of the organizers of last week’s protest staged a similar protest in 2011 when 5,000 public education activists gathered at the Ellipse in front of the White House. Last week’s event was nowhere near as large as the 2011 event, but was far more representative, racially and ethnically, of the opposition coalition.
One of the organizers of the 2011 event, Anthony Cody, an Oakland, California-based teacher and education consultant, reflected on where the movement has been and where it’s going: “There’s an intense frustration with national politics and with the continued betrayal of Democrats who fail to support teachers and students.”
Too many “progressives,” he said, gesturing with air-quotes, don’t recognize social justice issues in education.
According to Cody, the failure of the Sanders campaign to sufficiently take up education justice at the K-12 level created a vacuum that has left communities high and dry.
Still, “There is more of an awakening to the failure of education reform,” Keron Blair told me—especially to the “failed vision of charter schools.” In particular, Blair sees progress in heightening people’s awareness of the “school to prison pipeline, the racial dynamics of public school closures in low-income communities of color, and the predatory nature of the charter school industry.”
But he acknowledges the need for “a deeper education on what is going on.”
In her talk, Ravitch ticked off a list of education reform “stars” who have left the scene, including former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and failed big city reform leaders such as Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., Joel Klein in New York City, and Cami Anderson in Newark, New Jersey.
“Where are they now?” she asked. “Well, we’re still here,” she gestured to the crowd.
When Reverend Barber took the podium he surrounded himself with children from the crowd. He reflected on the horrendous violence from the preceding days, including the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of police, and the subsequent gunning down of twelve officers in Dallas.
North Carolina's Reverend William Barber of the Moral Monday Movement addresses the crowd with support from the audience.
Barber called for bringing the nation together to oppose violence in all its forms. After reviewing the catalog of violence throughout American history – especially violence directed at African Americans, Hispanics, and members of the LGBT community – Barber added to the list the ravages of poverty and attacks on public education, calling them “violence against children.” He urged the crowd:
“We must stand strong in our time on the side of nonviolence and do what we know we need to do. Stop re-segregation and secure equity of resources … stop attacking teachers … focus on class size … eliminate inequities in suspensions, high school graduations, and achievement outcomes … [and] secure the right to public education.”
Barber questioned the current political dialogue of the left and the right, commenting, “You know there’s something wrong in the nation when our leaders in Washington, D.C. worry more about emails than about education. It’s immoral.”
Adding meaning to Barber’s point, in the final speech of the day a group of parents and community activists from South Side Chicago spoke to the crowd about its fight for the last open-enrollment, public high school in the historically black community of Bronzeville.
One after another, the speakers explained why they went on a prolonged hunger strike to save Dyett High School from being closed. They told why they wanted Dyett converted to a community school that would address the many needs of children who live in the low-income, struggling community surrounding it.
The fact that people who live in marginalized communities in our nation have to starve themselves for 34 days in order to secure for their children the basic right to the education they deserve is testament to how far off-track our education policy debate has gone. It’s proof of the urgent need for the “political revolution” participants in the People’s March called for, to control their own education destinies.
What kind of progressive can’t get behind that?
Jeff Bryant is the Progressive Education Lead Fellow and Southeast Regional Fellow. He is also director of the Education Opportunity Network and associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future. Follow Jeff on Twitter at@jeffbcdm.