In Minneapolis, on October 6, the school day started early at the city’s Roosevelt High School. The air was chilly and sharp under an early morning sky painted in silver, gold and blue streaks, but the school’s garden beds—laden with kale and squash among the withering herbs—still looked lush and ready for kitchen use. One garden, planted in a wooden canoe, had fallen sideways, spilling earth and plants almost onto the sidewalk in front of the school.
Just a short distance away, a small band of teachers, students, union activists and community supporters stood circled around the school’s front doors, juggling coffee cups and pro-public-school signs in their hands. They were there, in the near dawn, to join a nationwide day of walk-ins, organized by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools campaign. The alliance, according to its website, is a coalition for educational justice and equity, comprised of “parent, youth and community organizations” as well as “labor groups.”
For several years, the alliance has been organizing school walk-ins. Parents and other supporters walk into schools together, instead of watching teachers and students walk out in protest. This year, close to 1,000 schools signed on to rally in solidarity with the alliance’s overall message that teachers, parents, and students can, and will, fight together for the “Schools All Children Deserve.” Using this unifying mantra as a framework, local communities were encouraged to highlight the critical issues they face in pursuit of what the alliance says is a “broad vision of American public education that prioritizes racial justice, equity and well-resourced, world-class public community schools.”
This vision flies in the face of the decades-long standards and accountability movement—often referred to as education reform, and often bankrolled by billionaires—that has seized (and punished, many would say) school districts across the country. In Minneapolis, as in many large districts, schools have been increasingly pressed to show more results, such as higher test scores, higher graduation rates, more college prep classes, while serving a complex mix of kids, often without adequate, sustained public funding.
For nearly twenty years, funding for public education has been dropping in Minnesota, leaving districts to rely more and more on local tax levies—not for extras, like smaller class sizes or new technology—but for basic operating costs. In Minneapolis, there is an existing referendum on the books up for renewal on Election Day. Voters will be asked whether or not they will continue to support putting a portion of their property tax dollars directly into the schools. The outcome of the Minneapolis referendum will determine the fate of thirteen percent of the school district’s operating budget.
If the referendum does not pass the district will find itself in truly dire straits.
But at the October 6 walk-in outside of Roosevelt High School, the message was one of hope, not desperation. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers new president, Michelle Weise, spoke of Roosevelt as “more than a building.” Instead, it “feeds dreams,” she declared, by offering “many pathways to the future” for its 900 students, 72 percent of whom live in poverty, according to federal standards. Those pathways include a heritage language program for native Spanish speakers and in-school training for careers in the automotive or health care industry, accompanied by challenging academic coursework.
Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor, Democrat Tina Smith, also attended the Roosevelt rally. In a break from the standard reform-based rhetoric many prominent Democrats have adhered to for years, Smith called public education a “basic birthright,” and a “building block for opportunity,” where teachers should be not only respected, but “treated and compensated like professionals.” Smith also poked holes in this country’s runaway dependence on standardized testing, saying students should be thought of as more than “testing machines.”
“Funding is essential,” Smith insisted, if we are to “show solidarity and support for our public schools.” The referendum must be renewed if Minneapolis is to provide what the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools describes as the “schools all children deserve.”
As the rally ended, students from a rainbow of backgrounds streamed off a city bus on their way to school. They walked past signs for a teen parenting program, upcoming sports events and the school’s tiny greenhouse. Their sleepy-eyed yet jocular shuffle through Roosevelt’s doors gave meaning to the rally, and the message that public schools are a public good worth rallying for.