"Public education is under attack," comes the warning from Philadelphia in a riveting new video from community and youth organizers in that city.
Their accusations are that education policies are "an attack on poor children" … policy makers "don't care about the students" … public education "is being defunded" … and "it's not something specific to Philadelphia."
Indeed, Philadelphia "is an early warning sign for America," a former science teacher wrote recently at the progressive news site PolicyMic. Chronically low per-pupil spending – "behind suburban districts" – combined with a "powerful charter school movement" intent on privatizing schools, have eroded Philly schools to the state where basic supplies like paper, pencils, and books seem like luxuries.
It's a story that mirrors what's happening across the country.
In New York state, the plot is the same even though the characters have changed. Lawmakers also cut funds for schools while imposing new reform mandates such as new standards and tests that too many schools are not able or funded to undertake.
Now thousands of parents and teachers, from the lower Hudson Valley all the way upstate to Buffalo, are packing school auditoriums and demanding changes to these policies. At a recent town hall meeting in Long Island, a classroom teacher charged state officials with "child abuse" and was roundly cheered by an audience of hundreds of disgruntled parents and educators. And citizen petitions are calling for the ouster of the state's education chief.
In states across the country, parents and government officials from both parties are calling for pauses or outright repeals of new mandates related to standards known as the Common Core. Louisiana blogger Mercedes Schneider recently tallied up new actions in 17 states, from reddest of red states Alabama to true blue ones like Massachusetts.
All this unrest prompted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to lash out at critics of his agenda by saying they inhabit "an alternative universe" and by demeaning them as "white suburban moms" who are upset at anything that might reveal "their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were."
Although, Duncan eventually apologized for his remarks, it will do little to quell the anger.
The forces coalescing to combat the agenda of austerity and top-down reform are a whole lot larger and more diverse than white suburban moms. And they are about to make their voices heard nation wide.
Our Schools, Our Solutions
At its own website, the Opportunity to Learn campaign announced a December 9th National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education. [disclosure: OTL is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network and the Campaign for America's Future]
According to a "backgrounder" OTL pointed to, the purpose of the Day of Action is to signal the emergence of a national movement and its "collective vision," to begin to create "a national echo chamber" for a new narrative about public schools, and to support local work and connect it to the national movement.
The Day of Action is an outcome from a meeting earlier this year in which "over 500 parents, students, teachers and community members came together in Los Angeles and committed to working together to build a national community-labor movement for educational justice."
Central to that meeting was a document proclaiming “The Principles That Unite Us”, which according to a press release from the American Federation of Teachers (a co-convener of the meeting along with OTL), was “developed from ideas and proposals for strengthening public schools that were generated at town hall meetings held in several communities nationwide. More than 100 partners from parent, union, and community groups are signatories to the principles.”
Declaring, “access to good public schools is a critical civil and human right,” the document calls for “public schools that serve all children” and describes an attempt by “corporate interests” to “dismantle public education.”
Events Already Planned To Roll Out
In its announcement, OTL pointed to a list of actions already being planned for Dec. 9. Events already in motion range from town halls and press conferences, to marches and rallies, to food and clothing drives.
In Chicago and Kansas City, protestors are planning to sing "modified" Christmas carols targeting grievances over school funding inequity and racial discrimination. Attendees of the rally will create "Christmas cards urging folks to contact the state board of education and demand an end to the corporate take over of public schools."
In New Mexico, a bus tour will travel the state gather petition signatures to take to the state legislature. In St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota, high school students will conduct the petition drives.
In San Francisco, community and union activists will hold a candle light march and rally down Market Street to shine a light on tax giveaways that starve the public school system.
Participants in these events will address an extensive and diverse list of grievances, including lack of universal full-day pre-kindergarten, inequitable and inadequate school funding, over-reliance on tests and high stakes consequences in schools, inattention to poverty and community conditions, unfair discipline and enrollment policies that exclude students, and opaque evaluation and rating systems that fire teachers and close down neighborhood schools.
Forces Driving The Day Of Action
The grievances driving the Dec. 9 Day of Action reveal an emerging grassroots “common core,” if you will, that is shaping the rapidly evolving education debate.
Behind nearly every complaint to the education status quo are common grievances about resource deprivation, inequity, public disempowerment, and the widespread perception that governing policies are driven by corruption.
Activists who will be engaging on Dec. 9 realize that top-down school reforms began with targeting urban African American and immigrant communities with ever-harsher mandates and funding inadequacies, and that these policies are now rolling out to rural and suburban school districts.
The resistance movement is driven not only by the realization that there is a nationwide effort to disinvest from public schools, but also by the fact that there is a systemic policy to ensure schools that need funding the most are targeted for deeper cuts or lower funding
There is now widespread common understanding that top-down reforms are products of a market-based philosophy – emphasizing competition rather then collaboration, and winners and losers – in which those who are most vulnerable will become collateral damage.
And the prevailing narrative is that Americans of all persuasions increasingly have diminishing control over their education destinies.
Policy decisions affecting education are increasingly promulgated from governing bodies that are not elected and serve at the whim of powerful mayors and governors who take power away from locally-elected bodies and hand it over to hand-picked “managers” and committees filled with their close associates and campaign funders.
Education policies are increasingly the product of D.C.-based technocrats who have little or no contact with the schools and communities whose schools are being affected by their plans.
Even charter schools – often promoted as a authentic “choice” for parents who want to escape “government monopoly schools” – are increasingly operated by distant executives and appointed boards with little accountability to local constituents.
Additionally, prominent news stories about charter school profiteering and the heavy involvement of Wall Street investment firms and the publishing industry behind the reforms are creating widespread perceptions that education policy is driven by corruption.
People to the right of the political spectrum accuse efforts to align all state curricula to Common Core standards of being driven by a federal government intent on spreading “over-reach” and invading our privacy.
Those who tend to lean left see corporations as the primary benefactors of education policies like the Common Core and charter school proliferation.
Either way, Americans increasingly believe that education policies are being sold to the people with very deceptive language and with ulterior motives.
Propelled by these four common forces, a rebellion – an Education Spring – against top-down education mandates is sweeping the nation. The spontaneous rebellions that erupted earlier this year have generated a powerful new coalition calling for change.
The Day of Action planned for Dec. 9 is no doubt only the beginning of other, even more powerful groundswells that will happen in the new year ahead.