Education

Pushback Against DeVos: Public Schools Are Our Best Future

Teachers and parents rally to fight Trump privatizers and anti-immigrant agenda.

Photo Credit: Photo by Ismael F. Armendariz Jr.

On a rainy Thursday morning at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, Calif., parents dropping off their kids on the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency were greeted by an unusual sight.

An energized mix of teachers, Glen View neighborhood residents and an Oakland Unified School Board member, Roseann Torres, who co-sponsored a resolution last month making OUSD one of the state’s first “sanctuary” districts, were holding protest signs praising public schools and rejecting Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to deport millions, target Muslim-Americans and strip LGBT and reproductive rights.

“We’re passing out flyers, telling parents we are out here because we believe in public schools,” Ismael F. Armendariz Jr., a special education teacher and “walk-in” protest organizer said. “We believe in fully funding public schools and we also want to remind parents that our school is a safe school for students.”

Despite the wet day, a small crowd grew amid what’s normally a rush to lockers and classrooms. The Oakland protest was among 1,000 actions in 200 cities across the country Thursday led by the 3 million-member National Education Association, with NEA president Lily García showcasing schools in Los Angeles and Las Cruces, New Mexico.

In Oakland, Rich Johnson, 72, stood amid red, white and blue posters from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and NEA saying, “The schools all our children deserve," and a handmade one saying, “Todos Pueden Estudiar Aqui”—all can study here.

“I’m just a neighbor, not a PTA member. I think the schools are important,” he said, saying he was inspired by what he saw—a core group of 100-to-200 parents in an 800-pupil school that actively supported their kids and the neighborhood middle school. He liked their values and what he saw its teachers doing.

“When I saw a leaflet with a walk-in, I said I’m going,” Johnson said, adding he quickly emailed others. “Walk-in day, not walkout day, where you go on strike. This is a very positive response that bunches of kids or their friend might be picked up by ICE [federal immigration police] because their paperwork is not in order. I like the name of that, walk-in… We don’t want ICE picking up parents either.”

The National Walk In marked the start of a new NEA push to engage and stand with communities by showcasing the successes and values of traditional public schools as they have come under escalating attacks. The threats began with ongoing efforts by super-wealthy entrepreneurs to privatize school operations, narrow curriculum to emphasize test preparation and retain teachers based on test scores. That was all before Trump’s attacks on minorities, which could reach into public schools and snare students.

While traditional public school advocates in Washington, D.C., spent this week showing how astoundingly unprepared Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education designate, is for that cabinet post, actions like Edna Brewer’s walk-in were a deliberate counterpoint, said Trish Gorham, Oakland Education Association president.

“In Oakland, our theme is SAFE: public schools are for everyone,” she said. “It is coming off of the sanctuary resolution that certainly is uppermost in our minds, but immigration is not only where our students need to be protected. They need to be protected with immigration status, gender status, religion, ethnicity. All of these are possibly being targeted and that’s where we are going to protect our students in all of those areas.”

Standing with students and their families was the priority on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, Gorham said, not bashing DeVos, a billionaire who never attended public schools or sent her children to any, nor served on a locally elected school board, and whose family foundation has given multi-millions to K-12 privatization entrepreneurs.

“We decided that we would not create this external target, but we would try and strengthen our community," Gorham said. "Because it is in strengthening our community and bringing our community together around our schools that ultimately will save our public school system.”

The strengths of traditional public schools, including how many are deepening ties with other local public agencies to help address health, housing and services that support poor families and their students, is the “untold story” in K-12 education, said NEA president Lily García.

“It’s not uncommon. It’s the untold story,” García said. “Privateers need a narrative that public schools are bad schools and privatized schools are good schools. Research belies that. Some of the best public schools in the world are American public schools. Those are usually the ones that are well resourced and that have programs and staff built to develop the whole student's diversity, talents and interests and needs. Our best public schools should serve as our model of where to go. They're our North Star.”

The 'Anti-Privatized School'

García, who decades ago began her career in eduction as a school lunch lady and then a grade school teacher in Utah, was en route Thursday to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for an afternoon ribbon-cutting ceremony and student-led discussion in a district that the NEA sees as modeling the best of traditional public schools. The district was expanding programs at a “community school” in coordination with local businesses and social agencies, and it has a new superintendent who told teachers to teach kids where they are and stop worrying about test prep and their career prospects based on test scores.

“Las Cruces looks more and more like America—suburban with a mix of rural kids bused in, a large immigrant population, income disparity,” García said. “What makes this school unique is that they're not waiting for some politician to give them permission to innovate. They don't want privatized charters. They want to hold these kids in the arms of the whole community.”     

Earlier this week on Tuesday night, the board meeting of Las Cruces Public Schools began in the humdrum way most locally elected school boards do across America, gaveling the meeting to order, amending the agenda and preparing the evening’s business. But then board chairwoman Maria Flores turned the podium over to several members of the audience who privately sponsored and ran an ongoing student essay and poetry contest, who in turn, introduced their latest winners to read what they wrote.

First was Andrew Angel, a Centennial High School junior who said in his essay that his grandparents had been beaten by whites for speaking Spanish when they attended Las Cruces schools, yet his grandmother became the school district’s first Hispanic nurse. He said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in solidarity with Cesar Chavez, inspired a vision of racial justice and nonviolent protest that has helped his family and inspired him.

“We were allowed to come to something from nothing, as equals to any other Americans,” Angel read. “Dr. King helped me not only as a Hispanic but a member of a more tolerant generation, both on acceptance and non-violent expression… I intend to live my life this way and give my country in my thoughts and my actions the only thing that was ever needed: love. Love drives us all toward progress and love is the only truth that transcends race, religion and gender.”

Then came Mireya Sanchez-Maes, a freshman at Mayfield High School. Her essay described what the Mahatma Gandhi quote—“Be the change that you wish to see in the world”—meant to her, which was finding her voice, including challenging “overtesting” and urging more music and technology classes.

“So what’s my voice?” she read. “It is knowledge in the face of ignorance. Light in the face of darkness. My voice is standing up for someone who can’t stand up for themselves… My voice is fighting for what’s right, even when the battle is one fought uphill. Martin Luther King Jr. said our lives begin to end when we become silent about the things that matter. I have never felt more alive.”   

Gregory Ewing, the new superintendent, beamed and responded, echoing what many of the walk-in protesters at Oakland’s Edna Brewer Middle School were telling the students and community—that he would use all of his legal authority to protect students from the worst threats posed by the incoming Trump’ administration.     

“I would just like to say how proud I am to see these students come up and speak,” Ewing said, noting he was a member of ALAS, Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents and MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “As the superintendent, I say to the students in the school system, as long as I am your el hefe, I pledge to you you will always be protected, not only under my leadership but the leadership of my entire team. We are here for you. We believe in you.”

This small but stirring scene wasn’t the only dramatic pronouncement from Ewing on Tuesday. He addressed the concerns of students and teachers that recent state and federal laws are excessively and harmfully focused on standardized tests, to the detriment of helping students more holistically and giving teachers leeway to address individual student difficulties.

“I am in the first 90 days of the look, listen and learn tour. And here’s what I am hearing,” he said. “There’s a lot of anxiety with students about all the testing that’s taking place in schools and in classrooms. There’s also anxiety with teachers. So I would like to say to you as your superintendent, with the powers invested in me by the state, I say to all teachers in the district, you have my permission to take charge of your classrooms… I want you to stop worrying about all these national and standardized tests. I want to say to our teachers and I want to say to our students, return to teaching, return to learning.”

The lines drawn by Ewing and heartily endorsed by his superiors, Las Cruces’ elected school board, are indicative of the fault lines facing traditional public schools across America. The fight against privatization is not new but takes different forms. In Las Cruces, it is seen in testing regimes imposed by appointees of a former Republican governor with deep ties to a nationwide testing regime that was underwritten by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Like many wealthy social entrepreneurs, he wants K-12 schools to be more like metric-driven corporate America. In Oakland, many wealthy entrepreneurs—and not just in tech—have been underwriting charter schools, which has led to multimillions in funds diverted from traditional schools, and to increasingly segregated schools in a proud, mixed-race community.   

“I began the morning in one of America’s largest public school systems and will end it in a small one,” NEA’s García said Thursday. “It doesn’t matter—urban, suburban or rural. American public schools have the answers. We’re not waiting for permission. We will proceed until apprehended to design the schools our children deserve… We’re creative about pulling communities together to make sure kids have what they need, whether that’s a meal or an Advanced Placement math class.”

Emphasizing those solutions was why García went to Las Cruces and why the NEA organized nationwide walk-in protests at 1,000 schools across the country in 200 cities, she said.

“They are cutting a ribbon at the Lynn Community Middle School [in Las Cruces]. The superintendent is calling for a moratorium on testing! The parents want this and are part of designing this,” she said. “It’s the anti-privatized school. It’s the community standing up and saying our school belongs to all of us and is not a commodity on the market. It’s a public trust—and we’re the public.”     
 
'People Were Crying on November 9'

Meanwhile in Oakland, where dozens of neighbors turned out for the Thursday walk-in, special ed teacher Ismael Armendariz pointed to a school board member, Roseanne Torres, who showed up with a hand-lettered sign, “Todos Pueden Estudiar Aqui”—all can study here.

Torres, a lawyer who works with many Latino families, not only drafted and co-sponsored the sanctuary district resolution passed by the OUSD in December, but won re-election in November despite more than $160,000 in negative ads from some of the nation's richest and best-known pro-charter school advocates. That list includes former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, California's charter trade association and a new group, Go Public Schools, underwritten by the family that once owned Dreyer’s Ice Cream, a local chain that is now a subsidiary of Nestlé.

The fight over preserving, funding and improving Oakland’s traditional K-12 schools was already very heated, Armendariz said, and that was before Trump campaigned on pledges to target undocumented immigrants, which strikes deep fears in this community.

“We’ve done a few walk-ins at our schools and it’s been mostly centered around public school funding and supporting public schools,” he said, recounting the recent activism. “In Oakland this school year, what’s happening is a lot of people are more on edge or more hyper-aware because during the school board elections, late in the election there was a lot of investigation into the funding of our school board candidates… And then Trump got elected, and he ran on the same message that the Go Public Schools people run on, ‘We need options.’ ‘We need school choice.’ That’s where it all ties together.”

“It all translates. People were crying on November 9th,” Torres said, saying she quickly drew on language under review at the Latino School Board Association to create OUSD’s sanctuary district resolution. “By law, our children have every right to be in school. We had to act fast. I know how immigrant communities think. They don’t know the law. They don’t know the language.”

But while Trump’s threats may be a tipping point that will ignite activism and resistance unlike anything seen in America in decades, Torres said there was a wider set of challenges from privatizers that were ongoing and accelerating—especially with the Trump administration’s pro-privatization crusaders.

“That kind of [campaign attack ad] money doesn’t get spent” for no reason, she said. “That is all connected to the Trump-type people. DeVos, Bloomberg, the billionaires… Go [Public Schools] is DeVos and DeVos is Go. For people to think anything else is because they are being misled by their very slick marketing.”

“It’s not that all charters are bad,” Torres continued, “but they disrupt district programs, lead to cuts in music, arts, teacher layoffs, and are especially disruptive with special education. The biggest challenge there is rising costs. You need classes with six-to-one student-teacher ratios, or 12-to-one classes, and nurses. Charters don’t offer support at that level… We need to talk about what is really happening in public education.”

“It is a direct attack on public schools,” said Trish Gorham, Oakland Education Association president. “Some have misaligned or misdirected priorities. Some are purely out for plunder. That’s kind of the problem. There are people calling for school reform out of a deep concern and out of good intentions. But their solutions are wrong. And they’ve been proven to be wrong. And have they been proven to divide our cities and segregate and schools more than in the last 40 years… Creating these unique boutiques does a disservice to what our schools are about, which is the foundation of a democracy.”

And that is the divide the NEA is seeking to underscore at the local and national level, where on their side are local communities, locally elected boards and traditional public schools that embody democratic values and resist commercialization and a broken—and possibly worsening—federal justice system.

“While so much changes... with the change of administration, nothing changes for educators and parents and advocates for public education,” García said. “Our students will need us more than ever before to protect them and fight for them. Today, we put on the battle gear. We will not permit billionaires and profiteers to hurt our students. We will stand in the gap. To hurt them, you'll have to go through us first. And there are millions of us.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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