In Philadelphia, Progressive Education Organizers Fight ‘Disaster Capitalism’

Molly Knefel July 28, 2016

The battle over public education is, in large part, a battle over labor, and there’s no better illustration of that than Philadelphia. (Molly Knefel)

This week, Democ­rats descend­ed upon the city of Philadel­phia, attempt­ing to present them­selves as simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pro­gres­sive enough to be the par­ty of racial, gen­der, and eco­nom­ic jus­tice, but con­ser­v­a­tive enough to be wel­com­ing to Repub­li­cans turned off by Don­ald Trump.

In a suc­cinct illus­tra­tion of some of the con­tra­dic­tions at play dur­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Tim Kaine, the for­mer gov­er­nor of a Right-to-Work state, spoke proud­ly of his dad run­ning a union shop. While K‑12 pub­lic edu­ca­tion hasn’t played a promi­nent role in the prime­time speech­es this week, it’s anoth­er thorny issue for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty strug­gling to appeal to unions while also advanc­ing a neolib­er­al edu­ca­tion reform agenda.

The bat­tle over pub­lic edu­ca­tion is, in large part, a bat­tle over labor, and there’s no bet­ter illus­tra­tion of that than Philadel­phia. In 2013, the city’s School Reform Com­mis­sion (which is appoint­ed, not elect­ed) closed rough­ly 10 per­cent of the city’s schools, laid off almost 4,000 teach­ers and oth­er school staff and, in 2014, ter­mi­nat­ed the teach­ers’ con­tract to save on health insur­ance costs. They remain with­out a con­tract to this day.

The union has been under very sharp assault,” says Ron White­horne, a retired teacher and orga­niz­er with the Philadel­phia Coali­tion Advo­cat­ing for Pub­lic Schools (PCAPS).

In the years since the clo­sures, Philadel­phia teach­ers, par­ents and oth­er pub­lic school advo­cates have been organizing.

Orga­niz­ing will help us pro­vide a counter-nar­ra­tive to shift the par­a­digm in the nation of how peo­ple view pub­lic edu­ca­tion in our dai­ly lives,” says Ismael Jimenez, a his­to­ry teacher and mem­ber of Work­ing Edu­ca­tors, the pro­gres­sive cau­cus with­in the Philadel­phia Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. To him, what’s hap­pen­ing in Philadel­phia is illus­tra­tive of the attacks on edu­ca­tion going on all over the coun­try, includ­ing with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

I believe orga­niz­ing is the only real polit­i­cal tool we have today to com­bat this two-par­ty sys­tem that is behold­en to neolib­er­al inter­ests,” he said.

Jimenez was dis­ap­point­ed that the DNC held up Cory Book­er, an advo­cate of the so-called edu­ca­tion reform move­ment, which pro­motes pub­lic school clo­sures and cheers char­ter schools, which are often non-union.

This is a designed, planned strat­e­gy against labor,” said Antoine Lit­tle Sr., a pub­lic school par­ent and union mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees Local 427. He got involved with edu­ca­tion orga­niz­ing after his neigh­bor­hood pub­lic school, from which he grad­u­at­ed and which his chil­dren attend­ed, was put on a list of schools to be shut down.

This is hap­pen­ing at the same time as they’re attack­ing pub­lic sec­tor unions for their pen­sions. Pub­lic sec­tor unions have been a clas­sic place where black peo­ple can live a work­ing class liv­ing in Amer­i­ca,” he said.

Lit­tle is a mem­ber of the 215 People’s Alliance, a group of par­ents, teach­ers, stu­dents, and union mem­bers. Fel­low alliance mem­ber Todd Wolf­son adds that attacks are an effort to roll back the pub­lic con­tract, the social con­tract, of what we owe our cit­i­zens.” The ulti­mate tar­get, says Wolf­son, is pub­lic edu­ca­tion as a social good. It’s dis­as­ter capitalism.”

Every orga­niz­er I spoke with at the DNC point­ed their crit­i­cisms far beyond Philadel­phia, to the nation­al edu­ca­tion reform move­ment, neolib­er­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism more broadly.

We’re wit­ness­ing the col­lapse of the neolib­er­al vision around pri­va­tiz­ing these pub­lic com­mons,” says Rapheal Ran­dall, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Youth Unit­ed for Change, a youth-cen­tered orga­ni­za­tion that works to devel­op lead­er­ship among black and brown youth in work­ing class com­mu­ni­ties in Philadel­phia. Ran­dall says that the mod­el in Philadel­phia has been to treat schools like busi­ness­es, rather than focus­ing on the needs of the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. That mod­el, he says, has shown itself to be a fail­ure, and peo­ple are more primed than ever to rein­vest in the pub­lic good.

I think we’re at a real­ly good point, with Bernie, see­ing these con­ver­sa­tions about what it means to have young peo­ple ask­ing about what social­ism is,” says Ran­dall. There’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty for us to cap­i­tal­ize on that and reassert the impor­tance of pub­lic goods.”

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is at a crit­i­cal moment for pub­lic edu­ca­tion. Barack Obama’s lega­cy has been one that, large­ly, facil­i­tat­ed the types of reform efforts that dec­i­mat­ed Philadelphia’s pub­lic schools. The lan­guage around K‑12 edu­ca­tion in the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty plat­form is con­sid­er­ably more pro­gres­sive, explic­it­ly con­demn­ing the clo­sure of pub­lic schools based on high-stakes testing.

Hillary Clin­ton is try­ing to walk the line, sup­port­ing char­ters but also stay­ing in the good graces of teach­ers’ unions like the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion. But pub­lic school advo­cates in Philadel­phia are fight­ing for an entire­ly dif­fer­ent world — one where work­ers, fam­i­lies and young peo­ple hold the power.

It’s not enough for some­one else to tell you what’s best for you, but you have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to shape what’s best for you,” says Ran­dall. You can feel it all over the coun­try and real­ly all over the world: peo­ple who are say­ing anoth­er world is possible.”

Mol­ly Kne­fel is a jour­nal­ist, writer, and co-host of Radio Dis­patch, a dai­ly polit­i­cal pod­cast. She writes about social jus­tice, gen­der and youth advo­ca­cy. Her work can be found at TheRa​dioDis​patch​.com and @mollyknefel on Twitter.
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