Public School Activists Stage Nationwide Rally To Prioritize Education

Jeff Bryant

In an election year calling attention to multiple policy priorities, parents, educators, community organizers and progressive activists are increasingly frustrated that education seems to be a priority that is nowhere near the top, at least in the minds of current government leaders.

That frustration was evident at last week’s massive outpouring at over 2,000 schools in over 200 cities where an estimated 100,000-plus people called for attention to widespread problems in public schools and demanded new policy directions that prioritize quality education.

Although protests that feature students walking out of school often get press attention, last week’s coordinated events called for walking into public schools after staging brief rallies at schools, minutes before they open in the morning.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools – a national alliance of parent, youth and community organizations and labor groups that support public education – organized the nationwide campaign.

The walk-ins, rather than tightly scripted affairs, were mostly an opportunity for citizens to voice their concerns about public education where they live and their support for their local schools and public education in general.

Despite the lack of coordinated messaging, crowds were surprisingly unified in expressing their exasperation with government leaders who continue to shirk their responsibilities to provide children with the opportunity to get a high-quality education.

At events in Shreveport, Louisiana, to Anchorage, Alaska, participants in the rallies called for a national recommitment to “the promise of public education” and “the best possible education we can provide.”

“We’re sick of not being [a] No. 1 [priority],” said Mo Kashmiri, a teachers’ union representative in Fresno, California.

At a walk-in I attended at a middle school near Raleigh, North Carolina, participants complained of an “attack” on public education in their state, where spending per student has fallen 14.5 percent since fiscal year 2008, teacher pay has declined to 41st in the nation, teachers assistants have become mostly a thing of the past, and class sizes are now allowed to grow to higher, unmanageable levels.

National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia, who addressed the crowd, implored attendees to “not apologize for standing up for the needs of our students, our educators, communities, and public schools,” and instead called for widespread resolve among the public and its leaders to be “all in for public education.”

While signs and insignia circulated among the crowd underscored support for the “all in for public education” commitment, it was clear to many in attendance, including Eskelsen Garcia, that too many of our government leaders decidedly aren’t.

In a conversation with me after the event, she explained, “When you come to a school and see how hard the teachers and staff work to address the challenges they face – the increasing class sizes, the students struggling with poverty, the lack of text books and basic supplies – you have to wonder why our political leaders are not working as hard to make sure schools and teachers have what they need.”

Eskelsen Garcia recalled one year in her teaching career, at a Utah elementary school, where her class size suddenly increased to 39 students, many who had special education needs. “I couldn’t throw up my hands and walk away saying, ‘Sorry, this is too difficult.'” Yet that’s exactly what she sees, in effect, current government leaders doing when they dismiss increased funding and support for schools as something that is “politically too difficult.”

“We’re all in it for our children,” she said, making a motion to encompass the whole crowd, “and we need our leaders to be too – and in it for all children, not just a select few.”

The frustration expressed at many of the events at last week’s walk-ins may have an effect on elections in November. Numerous ballot measures will be contested, school board races are plentiful, and education is becoming a heated topic in state governor elections.

At the Fresno event cited above, participants called for the passage of California Proposition 55, which would maintain current funding levels passed in 2012 and paid for, in large part, by a personal tax increase for people who make more than $250,000.

At a walk-in in Minneapolis, my colleague at The Progressive magazine, Sarah Lahm reports that participants gathered at a local high school to support “an existing referendum on the books up for renewal on Election Day. Voters will be asked whether or not they will continue to support putting a portion of their property tax dollars directly into the schools.”

Lahm writes, “The message was one of hope, not desperation.”

At other walk-in rallies, participants also called for less emphasis on standardized testing, more authentic ways of judging school performance, and “an equal opportunity for quality education for all kids, no matter where they live or what their economic status is,” according to a local Michigan news outlet.

In New York, a similar “walking” action called for a school funding increase that was originally mandated by courts but was withheld and then undermined by state lawmakers over the past 10 years.

To call attention to the state government’s actions, the Alliance for Quality Education organized a 10-day, 150-mile hike – an “EdWalk” – from New York City to the state capital in Albany – to demand the $3.9 billion owed to the state’s schools.

In reporting on the AQE action for Moyers and Company, Sarah Jaffee quotes one of the EdWalk participants, special education teacher Mindy Rosier, who says, “We’re walking so we can be heard.”

With the entire New York state legislature being up for election in November, they’d better be listening.

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