As this pamphlet goes to print, the ferocious media attack orchestrated by corporate America on teachers and their unions has reached a new peak of hysteria with the opening of the film Waiting for Superman and an unending series of TV specials on the “crisis” in education.
The hysteria reflects the determination of the elite to pursue their agenda of dismantling public education as we know it through to the end. But the hysteria also reflects that there is increasing skepticism among working class and indeed many middle class people about key aspects of the “education reform” agenda. This unease is especially strong in some of the black and Latino communities where school closings and charter school openings are concentrated. Reflecting this discontent, civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Urban League and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, issued a report this past summer which, while cautious in its language, was quite critical of the Obama administration’s education policies.
The recent mayoral election in Washington DC also reflects the shift. The incumbent Adrian Fenty was closely associated with Michelle Rhee, the DC schools chancellor who has made her reputation as the most arrogant, hard-nosed anti-union school boss in the country. Rhee has fired hundreds of teachers for poor “performance”, i.e. their students’ test scores were not high enough. The mayoral election came to be seen partially a referendum on Rhee. Fenty in the end lost to Vincent Gray who was critical of Fenty and Rhee. Gray won over 80 percent of the vote in heavily black wards while Fenty got the bulk of his vote from upper middle class white voters many of whom don’t send their children to public schools.
Furthermore, as we discuss in more detail in this pamphlet, anger at the base of the teacher unions has resulted in a shift in tone from the leadership of the National Education Association. Even more significant was the overwhelming victory of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in the leadership elections of the Chicago Teachers Union in June for a militant, fightback policy and real union democracy. Also in Chicago, Latino parents have staged a weeks long occupation against the demolition of field house linked to the Whittier elementary school in Pilsen which they want to be turned into a library for the community. CORE teachers were front and center supporting this struggle. Alongside the walkout of high school students in New Jersey and the nationally coordinated actions centered on higher education on March 4, these developments not only reflect a shift in working class public opinion but also the potential for a more generalized resistance in the next period.
Socialist Alternative has been involved in a series of fights around k-12 education over the past decade. We initiated and helped build Youth Against War and Racism in several cities in large measure by mobilizing students, teachers and parents against the presence of military recruiters in the high schools. YAWR also organized several walkouts of thousands of students against the war. In Tukwila, Washington in 2007, YAWR and Socialist Alternative helped to defend six teachers who were facing disciplinary action for supporting their students who walked out against the war in Iraq. Also in Washington State, we supported the local teachers union in Kent who waged a successful strike in August 2009 to reduce class size. In New York City, teacher members of our organization have stood on the opposition slate in the United Federation of Teachers in 2007 and 2010 to challenge the sellout policies of the union leadership. In Chicago, we have worked alongside and in support of CORE. We also helped build a number of local protests on March 4 during the National Day of Action to Defend Public Education.
Socialist Alternative has decided to make the fight to defend public education both at the k-12 level and in higher education a priority for our organization. While our resources are very limited, we have already played an important role in the last few months helping to set up grassroots k-12 coalitions in Minneapolis and Boston.
This pamphlet is an attempt to elaborate our analysis which has been developed in various articles in Justice newspaper and on our website SocialistAlternative.org. We hope it will be of use to teachers, parents and students who are looking to understand what’s behind the corporate “education reform” onslaught and are searching for a strategy to fight back. If you agree with what you read here, we hope you will become involved in the struggle to defend public education in your community and join Socialist Alternative.