After years of being backed into a corner, on Monday public-school teachers stood up in defiance against what they see as their chief bully — budget-slashing school reforms that have made school more stressful and less fulfilling for both them and their students.
Under the banner of a National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education, educators, students and community groups coordinated demonstrations, rallies and other public gatherings in dozens of cities. In the long run, the day of action kicked off a broader campaign by a coalition of unions and community groups to chart an alternative path to education reform.
According to a policy statement by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the leading union behind the campaign, and its partner groups, the goal is to foster “a community-union movement for educational equity and excellence.” While that agenda may sound neutral to the uninitiated, it speaks to growing resentment toward the prevailing reform rhetoric pushed by the White House and many politicians: corporate-oriented “standards” and “management,” leading to a test-heavy curriculum focused on math and reading at the expense of all else. First imposed under the No Child Left Behind law of the Bush administration, this hardline approach rests on the belief that a lack of academic rigor and “ineffective” educators are impeding U.S. students’ performance. The prescription has been an avalanche of high-stakes testing, public-school funding cuts and free-market privatization measures such as charter schools, often funded by corporate-oriented philanthropists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
Broadly, the coalition wants a shift to more autonomy for teachers and more funding for schools, along with less testing and a less top-down, corporate management style. AFT plans to invest more than $1 million to promote the campaign. It has partnered with the country’s other major education union, National Education Association, as well as the Service Employees International Union and grassroots civic advocacy groups like the Chicago-based Journey for Justice Alliance.
The union-led coalition hopes to school the pro-privatization crowd by refocusing the conversation on the root causes of low achievement, like underfunded schools, dull lessons and overcrowded classrooms. The coalition’s statement targets what teachers see as an unfair distribution of funding to schools, one that echoes rampant inequality in the United States:
We are not satisfied with an institution that finds the resources to provide some students with the most experienced and well-trained teachers, advanced technologies, expansive course options and state-of-the-art facilities, while other students languish in substandard buildings and are taught in overcrowded classrooms by teachers lacking the basic supports they need to do their jobs.
Instead of the traditional formula of local property taxes, which tends to favor wealthier districts, the coalition calls for more equitable funding structures. To give community and labor a voice in making in these decisions, the coalition also wants a more democratic system of school governance that integrates students, teachers and families, rather than the private-sector-inspired corporate hierarchies that “entrepreneurial” reformers promote.
The coalition also opposes the trends of shuttering “underperforming” schools, opening charters and drastically restructuring school systems through federal takeovers. Teachers have widely complained that such restructuring, as the coalition statement puts it, “encourages competition — as opposed to collaboration — between schools and teachers.” The “competition” ethos plays out in well-moneyed charters rivaling traditional public schools for scarce funds, and rigid, empirically dubious “performance rankings” that measure struggling teachers against each other. Restructuring poor, underresourced schools also disproportionately affects the disadvantaged groups they tend to serve, such as communities of color, special-needs students and immigrant English language-learners.
Furthermore, in place of the policies that tend to make the job more stressful, economically burdensome, and prone to burn out and high turnover, the coalition wants to produce a more stable, well-qualified workforce through structural changes in the training of educators. Professional teacher education, the coalition says, should involve “significant student-teaching time in the classroom” and the supervision of “an experienced educator” — a contrast to controversial alternative certification systems such as the media-genic program Teach for America, which has been criticized as a political ploy to undermine the unionized teaching workforce.
Many local battles are being fought as well, sometimes by grassroots labor activists taking the more radical tone set by the Chicago teachers, who went on strike last year. In Philadelphia, teachers and students rallied on Monday against systematic budget cuts that have precipitated deep fiscal crisis in schools. In Newark, teachers, students and union activists mobilized together against Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s heavy-handed reform agenda, demanding more local control over school policy and curbs on the expansion of charter schools.
With contract talks pending, New York City teachers demonstrated in hopes of overturning the education legacy left behind by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a national figurehead for corporate reform who battled with teachers throughout his three terms. Billy Easton, head of the progressive New York-based coalition Alliance for Quality Education says the Bloomberg agenda was “all about running schools more like you run businesses, and focusing on the bottom line, which in this case is test scores, and private market strategies to change who runs schools and who works in school.”
New York Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio has promised, at least as an ideal, to push for universal pre-Kindergarten and a move away from test-driven standards and harsh disciplinary policies. This potential overhaul, Easton says, “creates an opportunity for organized parents, communities and teachers to push a progressive education agenda that’s focusing on teaching and learning and focused on the actual needs of students — like keeping students in school instead of suspending them.”
National Education Association Political Director Karen White tells Working In These Times via email that the diversity of actions this week show that the push for change is fueled by rising grassroots political momentum among parents and students, as well as teachers, and “confirms that this is not a ‘one day’ event but the beginning of an ongoing movement.”
A mainstream education-reform establishment built on corporate philanthropists and neoliberal ideology poses a major test for teachers, but thankfully they’re now getting extra help outside the classroom.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.