Over the past years, we have seen an all-out assault on the public education system with the systematic de-funding of public schools, with non-union charter schools that don’t have to meet the same standards in teacher education drawing the best students out of the public schools, leaving the drained schools to fail, followed by the closing of gutted schools — especially in poorer neighborhoods.
We have seen a growing focus on high-stakes test scores including basing teachers pay and even their jobs on results. These tests narrow the focus onto math and English to the detriment of other subjects. And as the teachers unions are some of the biggest opponents of these attacks, attacks on teachers unions fill the pages of local and national newspapers, weekly magazines and films.
The cost of a higher education keeps rising, pricing many working-class people out of a college education and therefore out of a better-paying job. At the same time, budget cuts are negatively affecting the quality of the college degree and decreasing face time with faculty as more and more college classes become “online only.”
A growing movement is being built in many cities to fight school closures and budget cuts and defend public education. Inside this movement a debate is taking place about the best way to successfully defend public education: Can we count on our friends, local Democratic politicians, to do the right thing and save our schools — maybe with a little pressure from the community — or must we build a fighting movement that does not rely on politicians?
Since the 1990s public schools and public services in general have been under constant attack. And the recent economic crisis has provided a spur to the already ongoing attacks on public education and other public services.
… but How?
The mass media — from local newspapers to NBC to Fox News, along with both Republicans and Democrats — frame the debate about education reform so that an increase in standardized testing, a growth of charter schools and attacks on teachers’ living standards are a must: that will have to happen sooner rather than later — it’s only the teachers unions that are standing in the way. With President Obama pushing for all these changes — and supporting the closing of and of a so-called “underperforming” Rhode Island school and the firing of all its teachers — the Democrats can’t be looked to for help.
For a local politician to stand up against this would mean standing up against the party line and all of the mainstream media outlets — practical career suicide. With few real left challengers to pick up votes lost by supporting this kind of attack, local Democratic politicians will continue to carry them out – even while uttering nice words about supporting community schools and strong public education.
In this climate, simply asking the politicians for help — even putting “friendly pressure” on them in the form of a small protest — won’t be enough to move them to stop school closures and fight for real funding for public education in any meaningful, concrete way.
Organize a Broad Campaign of Resistance
The most effective way to fight back is to get organized. A movement that brings together students, parents, teachers and the broader community to demand no closures and to provide the necessary funds for a quality public education — paid for by big business and the rich — can force politicians to retreat.
Movements that have successfully fought attacks on public education show the way forward. For example, in Los Angeles teachers and community members got together to fight to keep their schools from becoming charter schools. When the city sought proposals for how to run a number of schools that were up for becoming charter schools, the teachers and community members submitted their own proposal for running the school themselves. In many cases, their proposals were selected.
In Puerto Rico last spring university students, along with faculty, shut down the public universities across the island, demanding an end to the attacks on public education and winning some of their demands. This movement worked together with the broader movement of public sector workers against layoffs and cuts.
A movement across California involving both K-12 and university students has grown over the past years to defend against tuition hikes and budget cuts. They have held numerous protests: A month of action to defend public schools is planned for March 2011.
In Chicago, students, parents and teachers united to build a coalition that was able to successfully stop some school closings. Out of this struggle a more fighting leadership, CORE, was elected to head up the Chicago Teachers Union. This new leadership plans to carry on the struggle against school closings and other attacks on education.
Even after a victory, the bosses will come back with future attacks: that’s the logic of the system. In order to defend against them we need to build a sustained movement of community members, parents, teachers, unions and other public sector workers to defend public education and all public services.