How to Fight Back: Building Alliances of Parents, Teachers and Students

Across the US, public schools are being closed and replaced by privately run charters; benefits that teachers won over decades are being whittled away; and now huge budget cuts are threatening both to slash tens of thousands of teacher jobs and to further damage kids’ education by raising class sizes. Already in 2009, 40,000 teacher jobs were cut across the US. The latest job reports show that, including private schools, another 72,700 education jobs were lost in September 2010.

Recently Congress passed emergency funding for the states. But the $10 billion earmarked for education at most will prevent further layoffs from happening now. It is reported that school districts by and large are not bringing back teachers already laid off no matter how badly they are needed because it is anticipated the money will be necessary to prevent even worse cuts in the months ahead. The budget crisis at state level is set to get even worse if the US economy slips back into recession.

As we have outlined in this pamphlet, the fight to defend public education faces great challenges. It’s bad enough that the political establishment and the corporate media are engaged in all out assault on teachers and their unions. But as we have seen, unfortunately resistance is often hampered by the leadership of those same unions, especially the AFT, for whom making bad compromises is a way of life. As in the wider labor movement and in American society as a whole, it has been so long since there has been real mass social struggle, with the exception of the movement for immigrant rights in 2006, that people have a hard time even imagining what it would look like.

Grassroots campaigns

But despite all the obstacles, the beginnings of a serious fightback to defend public education can be seen in some of the grassroots campaigns that have developed in several cities against high stakes testing, for lower class size and against school closings and policies which discriminate in favor of charter schools. Combined with growing if still muted dissent from the civil rights groups, the high profile defection of Diane Ravitch from the education reform camp and most importantly the victory of CORE in Chicago, the grassroots campaigns show that this fight is still far from over.

We have already mentioned the role of the Grassroots Education Movement in Chicago. In New York City, several groups have vigorously campaigned against the allocation of increasing amounts of public school space to charter schools which frequently squeeze out existing and sometimes very successful public schools. But the biggest mobilizations in the city to date occurred when the local Department of Education announced that it was closing 19 schools in December 2009. Each one of the threatened closures led to local public hearings many of which were packed out with crowds up to 900 attending and were often preceded by mass pickets outside threatened schools. This developing movement from below forced the leadership of the United Federation of Teachers to step up its own involvement.

The campaign culminated in a protest by several thousand very angry parents, teachers and students outside and inside the meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy on January 26 which met to decide the fate of the 19 schools. Predictably the PEP which is a rubber stamp for Mayor Bloomberg voted to close all 19. But in a remarkable twist, two months later to the day, a judge ordered the city to halt the closings because it had not followed the right procedures. Unfortunately the UFT leadership did not follow up this victory with further mobilization of its membership or the communities affected. In the vacuum, Bloomberg and his schools chancellor Joel Klein have moved forward with plans to open new schools in the same buildings as the schools they sought to close. They have also made very clear they will continue their push to close the 19 schools by hook or by crook.

In Los Angeles, the threat by the school board in late 2009 to turn 36 schools over to privately-run organizations including charter operators (a process they called “Public School Choice”) led the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) to put forward its own bids to run the schools. The school board demagogically talked about “letting parents choose” in referendums they clearly expected to win. Furthermore the votes were only consultative with the school board having the final say. The union saw how stacked the process was against them but correctly decided that to abstain would simply mean conceding defeat. Its activists put enormous efforts into drawing up their proposals and then arguing their case in the affected communities. Defying the education deformers, 87 percent of parents voted to support the teacher-developed proposals. In LA, the ability of teachers unions to resist has been significantly increased by the election of a reform slate to lead the union five years ago. In the end the school board agreed that 29 of the 36 schools should be run according to the teacher-developed plans and only four were given over to charters.

In Florida, teachers successfully fought back in April against a bill passed by the state legislature that would have abolished tenure and instituted merit pay. It would have had the effect of putting all teachers on one year contracts renewable if their students’ test scores were satisfactory. The teachers had a great deal of parent and community support. They sent 120,000 messages to Republican Governor Charlie Crist who is facing a strong Tea Party challenge in his US Senate bid. Critically, 25 percent of Miami teachers staged a sick out on Monday, April 12. On Thursday, April 16, Crist vetoed the bill, a huge victory for Florida teachers which shows that the education reform agenda can be pushed back even in the South where unions historically have faced huge challenges.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the potential for a national movement came on March 4 when students and educators around the country came out to defend public education. Most protests were concentrated in higher education but in California where the drive for March 4 began and had the biggest base of support, k-12 teacher unions played a key role and organized large protests in a number of cities. It is also very significant that in some places high school students have organized protests and walkouts to defend their teachers and their schools. The largest of these was the walkout of an estimated 18,000 students across New Jersey in April against budget cuts.

These developments point to the need to combine the grassroots campaigns of teachers, parents and students against the various attacks on public education to the development of effective oppositions and alternative leaderships in the local and national teachers unions. Because if the struggle to defend public education is to have any chance of success it requires a serious and sustained mobilization of the union membership working in alliance with the wider working class communities. To do this means building or rebuilding the union’s strength at the level of individual schools. It means teachers building effective links with their local community without waiting for the say so of the union leadership. It means protests outside local schools building up to citywide protests and national protests

Ultimately, without the collective strength of the teachers unions the struggle against education cannot succeed. Likewise the unions can’t win if parents, students and the wider working class are against them or indifferent.

But for the movement to be effective it is also necessary to rediscover the methods of struggle from the past. We need mass protests, for example, but what is the point if these are simply exercises in blowing off steam that barely get covered in the media? There needs to be a deeper level of mobilization beginning in local working class communities and a preparation to escalate protests if demands are ignored. This is by no means to suggest reckless tactics but rather to rediscover the methods of disciplined civil disobedience. As Jonathan Kozol whose work has done so much to expose the real inequities in education, said several years ago “You can’t change anything in the United States without disruptive nonviolent protest, and I’m very convinced that it’s going to take another round of that to win this battle.”

And teachers need to be prepared to go out on strike when the alternative is to accept never ending retreat. One of the obstacles is that teacher strikes are illegal in most states and that in some, New York for example, there are onerous legal penalties for public sector workers who withdraw their labor. On top of that there is the general fear of workers in this country at the moment that they could be replaced in an instant. It is no accident that strikes are at an historically low level. In the past teachers thought they were “recession proof” but no longer. Nonetheless in recent years, teachers have heroically gone on strike in Gary, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; Kent, Washington and even this year there were one day strikes or partial strikes in Oakland, California and Miami, Florida.

The role of the teacher unions

The victory of CORE in the Chicago Teachers Union as we have said shows that there is hope for developing the type of broader fightback that is desperately necessary. CORE precisely cut its teeth in grassroots organizing alongside teachers and parents to stop school closures. But in victory, CORE has immediately faced extremely serious challenges. The Chicago Public Schools authorities have demanded that either the union agree to reopen its contract and suspend salary increases or face 2,700 layoffs and massive increases in class size. The incoming CTU leadership including Karen Lewis, the new president, has correctly refused to reopen the contract. A recent CORE leaflet states “The budget crisis is due to regressive ‘flat tax’ and federal cuts because of the enormous bailout of ‘too big to fail’ banks. When will education and other public services be ‘too big to fail’?”

Teacher unions must of course defend their members’ pay, conditions and benefits and do so without apology. But they must also go beyond this to advocate for a different vision of education with a more wholistic method of assessment than high stakes testing and the conscious fostering of critical thinking and wider cultural development which are being squeezed out by the current model. They need to fight for real democratic control of schools by the teachers and working class communities they serve. This means opposing the top down, corporate “mayoral control” model which has done so much damage in many cities. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin activists recently succeeded in building public opposition and defeating a proposal for mayoral control of the city’s schools.

The teacher unions must also mobilize alongside other public sector unions against the manifold attacks on pay, pensions and services. Despite the attempts of the corporate media to pit working class people against each other by saying, for example, that workers’ pensions are the reason for higher transit fares or cuts in service we must lay the blame for the crisis squarely where it belongs: on Wall Street and corporate America. We must take inspiration from the unions in Oregon which successfully campaigned against fierce corporate opposition to pass modest taxes increases on the wealthy in a special election in January 2010.

Breaking with the Democrats

Perhaps most importantly we desperately need the unions to break their ties of dependency to the Democrats and corporate politicians generally. When challenged earlier this year about the accumulating evidence of how the Democrats being in power in Washington has been bad for teachers and bad for workers, United Federation of Teachers officials in New York responded that the Democrats indeed needed to be “punished” and that the union should seriously consider endorsing some…Republicans!

This is a sick joke. It is the failure of the Democrats in office to take serious measures to reduce unemployment and stop foreclosures while giving massive bailouts to the banks which has opened the door to the far right Tea Party to present itself as the voice of disaffected Americans. The Democrats’ signature legislation on health care was really a bonanza for the insurance companies. They have not even tried to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama has drawn down the US presence in Iraq to 50,000 troops, but has escalated the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan. On every issue, including education, the Democrats in power have acted in the interests of Wall Street and the corporate ruling class.

Working people need their own political party. Clearly there is not yet widespread support for this step yet. However, if the unions, including the teachers unions, were to run independent candidates at state level against the most virulent Democrats and Republicans on a no layoffs, no budget cuts, tax the rich platform it would be very popular with working class people.

The struggle to defend public education has many dimensions but there is no time to lose in galvanizing all points of resistance into an effective fightback. All working class people must see that they have a stake in this fight.