As the state and local budget crises continue to hit home harder than ever, a wave of public sector cuts and privatization is sweeping the nation. Public education is being hit hard, with school districts slashing hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs, eliminating programs, cutting hours, enlarging classes and closing schools.
But people are not simply accepting this. Already in many areas, the cuts are becoming intolerable and the communities are fighting back.
Here in Minneapolis, an outraged community has begun to fight back against the closure of North Community High School in the heart of Minneapolis’ largest African-American community. This closure is not coming from out of nowhere. Rather, it is the next blow in a coordinated barrage against public education on the North-side and the result of policies setting North High up to fail.
Minneapolis’s North-side has faced more recent school closures than any other Twin Cities neighborhood – seven in the last five years – joining the ranks of low-income communities of color around the country targeted for sweeping school closures and privatization.
Also in line with national trends, the Minneapolis School District is opening up a privately-managed charter school to replace North High. The new two-campus charter is to be run on the “Noble Street model” used in ten Chicago schools. Their anti-union, school-on-steroids, no-frills education model includes semi-militarized disciplinary procedures alongside “philosophy screenings” and merit pay for teachers to ensure a competitive environment. All this is singularly intended to boost standardized test scores.
Noble’s impressive statistics are heavily aided by their methods of “counseling out” or forcing out the lower-performing kids and dumping them back on the already overburdened public schools.
Privatization has nothing to do with improved performance. In fact, only 17% of charter schools have been shown to do better than their public school counterparts while around double that number have done worse, according to a Stanford study, the most comprehensive to date. Charters have also increased racial segregation, union-busting and the elimination of teaching as a professional career as young uncertified Teach for America alums cycle in and burn out every few years.
Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman, writing against the closure of North, accurately warns against “a Balkanized set of disconnected charter schools where the students are self-selected, the administrations are suspect, performance is subpar and anything goes, while resources decline for a shrinking public-school system struggling with dwindling enrollments and persistent educational gaps,” (10/16/10).
The drive to privatize public services has intensified in the economic crisis. Education, as an $800 billion “industry,” was largely untapped by market forces until recently. It should come as no surprise that the biggest political backers of charter schools are profiteers with strong corporate ties. The Walton family (Wal-Mart), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft), and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (finance and insurance giant SunAmerica) are the top three private funders of charters.
The Community Fights Back
When Superintendent Johnson decided to recommend the closure of North High last month, she probably expected it to go through quietly like the others. Given the ubiquitous nature of the assault on public education over the last several years, she probably thought the North Side would be numb to the pain of one more cut. But she was dead wrong.
With just three days notice, over 200 people showed up to protest at the Board of Education meeting where the recommendation was announced on October 11. In a raucous meeting, dozens of community members spoke passionately for over two hours. Not a single speaker used the public comment period to argue in favor of closing North.
The following Saturday, an emergency meeting drew over 100 activists, students, parents, teachers, alumni and community members. Here it was agreed to demand turning North into a community-run school, where policy and priorities could be set by parents, students, teachers and neighborhood residents instead of by the local political machine. If this could be achieved it would be a beacon to others looking for a way to save their schools from closure.
Public Education Justice Alliance of Minnesota (PEJAM), a new group which Socialist Alternative members helped to launch, has played an important role in developing this struggle and pointing it in the direction of building an ongoing movement. We have pointed to the experience of activists elsewhere, especially Chicago, where teachers, parents, students and the community have successfully prevented a dozen school closures in the past two years using tactics of mass struggle. This shows it is possible to mount a successful fight-back.
As we go to press, the vote to close North High is set for November 9, though the protests have pushed several board members to call for a delay. Already we have begun to impact the debate in this city. Win or lose on November 9, it is clear from the tremendous community response that the potential exists to build a real, sustained movement to defend and transform public education.
Check PEJAM.org for updates.