“We have to fight for our children’s education.”
Those words, from Philadelphia parent Kia Hinton, crystalized a national sentiment expressed during a Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education held on December 9 in over 100 sites across the country.
The multiple events – held from Maine to San Francisco, New Orleans to Minneapolis/St. Paul – constituted “the largest coordinated action to reclaim the promise of public education in recent memory,” according to a statement from the American Federation of Teachers, a lead organizer and sponsor of the various actions.
The events took on many forms – from street protests and rallies to town halls and news conferences – but there were common grievances overlapping the events.
Over and over, voices at these events complained of lack of resources for their schools and inequality of how resources are spread.
Whether they were teachers calling out unfair evaluations, parents decrying of high-stakes testing, or students criticizing unfair discipline policies, they all expressed feelings of being no longer in control of their education destinies.
And numerous voices in the audiences of these events pointed to governing policies that increasingly are perceived as being driven by corruption and profit-making rather than the best interest of students.
Voices From The Streets
At a protest rally in Pittsburgh, a local organizer complained, “Our kids have lost kindergarten, music [and] art … We want smaller class sizes…we want our librarians back.”
At a protest in Syracuse, a representative from a parent group stated, “Not every child gets the same kind of education in New York state … It depends on who you’re born to and where they live, what kind of opportunities are available to you, and that’s not just right … It’s not fair and it doesn’t serve our society.”
A parent speaking at the event in Newark, New Jersey, urged the audience to take back the control of local schools that are now governed by an unelected board. “We need to get back our local control,” she said. “No one’s held accountable. They get to do everything they want.”
Protestors in New Orleans staged their event in front of a school scheduled for closure, which will force parents into the district’s complicated and unfair “choice” system that sends many NOLA students to distant campuses in other parts of town.
“Why do I have to look elsewhere if I shop here, if I pay taxes here, if I live here?” one of the organizers said. “It’s not a failing school. It’s a failing system that set up this school.”
In Columbus, Ohio, reporters described an audience of “educators, parents, labor, and faith leaders” who protested Governor John Kasich’s record of cutting school spending, “while giving money to failing, for-profit charter schools.”
In Chicago, a protest organizer, Jonathan Stith of the Alliance for Educational Justice, complained of “current school reform efforts by corporate education profiteers” that have “bankrupted public education.”
Just How Big
The wide range of locations for Monday’s events, and the numbers of participants, are testament to the breadth and depth of complaints about current education policies.
In New York state, events were held in Nyack, Albany, Binghamton, Rochester, Syracuse, New York City, Yonkers, and the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca.
In Washington D.C., “close to 600 people” endured inclement weather and “packed a high school auditorium … to ask questions of the leading mayoral candidates and serve notice that the community is united behind ‘putting the public back in public education.’”
In Philadelphia, according to the local news report that quoted Hinton, crowds of parents, students, and advocates rallied outside the regional office of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, calling for increased funding for that could help with the city’s endless budget crisis.
“The turnout so big, they took over South Broad Street and forced the street to shut down,” the reporter said.
Cross state, in Pittsburgh, local press reported, “more than 100″ people gathered outside the governor’s local office to listen to speakers, chant slogans, and wave signs that read, “Education Not for Sale” and “Support Funding for Public Education.”
According to a local news report from Chicago, “A couple hundred parents, students, and teachers braved the frigid night air on Monday to deliver their holiday wish list to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn: Stop school closings, end the privatization of neighborhood public schools, and eliminate mayoral control of the school board.”
At the event in Newark, “some 200 advocates marched to the Newark Public Schools offices and to City Hall.”
“More than 300 supporters gathered,” in Austin, Texas, “to hear speakers address the most pressing issues in Texas schools, including education equity and comprehensive immigration reform.”
In San Francisco, “Over 200 people came out to take a stand” for public education and local schools.
A Mandate From The Progressive Movement
What’s also clear about Monday’s events is that there is widespread evidence that public education has become a rallying point for a huge cross-section of the progressive community, including labor leaders, educators, clergy, members of immigrant communities, civil rights activists, representatives from grassroots student and parent groups, and community organizers fighting for fair housing, economic fairness, and other causes.
Many of the participants in Monday’s Day of Action may not have been aware that the impetus for their event began in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles in October – a mere two months prior to this national outpouring.
At that meeting – billed as a combined “organizing summit” and a “conference on civil, human, and women’s rights” – hundreds of activists and organizers gathered to voice a common commitment to public education and to plan specific courses of action to disrupt what most in the audience described as a “corporate model of school reform.”
Those 500 or so attendees provided the catalyst for Monday’s events and unified them under a document proclaiming “The Principles That Unite Us”.
No one at any of these events spoke about quick wins or easy success.
One of the organizers of the Chicago event, Jitu Brown from the city’s South Side, said, “It’s not about doing action and then by magic conditions change … We’re setting the tone change by having parents, teachers, and communities come together around a common set of principles. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Indeed, given Monday’s massive showing, the movement to change directions in education policies appears to only be getting started.