The 5 Biggest Stories from the Fight for the Survival of Public Education


The 2012-2013 school year saw the fight over public education reach a new pitch, ending with mass layoffs in Philadelphia, and other large school districts, and a cadre of parents and workers who began a hunger strike in protest. This final incident marks the end of a 10-month stretch that has seen an increasingly diverse chorus of voices speaking against American education policy’s relentless focus on high-stakes testing, massive expansions of charter schools and mass teacher and staff layoffs. But there have also been some serious advancements in that agenda, especially in large urban districts.

The Philadelphia School District decision to lay off 3,800 teachers and staff (about one-fifth of the workforce), includes 1,202 safety staff among the casualties. Only 12 will remain next school year to watch over the district’s 149,535 students while they are not in class, in the hallways and cafeteria where violence is most likely.

“I just can’t [see] school district of Philadelphia…without student safety staff. It will be a disaster,” says Patricia Norris, a cafeteria worker at Cayuga Elementary in North Philadelphia.

On Monday June 17, Norris, two parents and another school district employee began a hunger strike to protest the layoffs and the general deterioration of public education in Philadelphia. When interviewed that afternoon, she’d been drinking nothing but water all day. She was red-eyed and exhausted, but spoke animatedly from the tent on Broad Street where she was camped outside Corbett’s Philadelphia offices.  “I just want the governor and people in Harrisburg to put their children in our children’s shoes. All I know is I’m fighting. And fasting.” She paused and sunk back in her metal chair. “I just want someone to listen.”  

Similar layoffs are being seen in Chicago, where 50 public schools will be shuttered next year, one of the largest number of closures in America history (Philadelphia will be closing 23 public schools next year). These austerity measures put a grim cap on the 2012-2013 school year.

“The mantra of the Republicans was always choice, competition, testing and accountability, says Diane Ravitch, who served as a Assistant Secretary of Education for the first President George Bush. “Now that’s the mantra of the Democratic Party... All over the country, in most states, there is legislation to roll back any kind of rights for teachers, any tenure, any academic freedom, cut their pensions, cut their benefits, make it easier to fire them. Everywhere there is a fight going on for the survival of public education. The country is filled with ground zeroes.”

Below are five of the last school year's most significant developments in the education wars.

1. Chicago Teachers Strike

The year opened with a bang, as 30,000 teachers and other district staff affiliated with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) took to the streets in protest of Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education agenda. Beginning on September 10 until September 18, when teachers and students returned to classrooms, the strike highlighted the deep divisions between the Democratic Party’s establishment, including President Barack Obama and the key elements of the party’s base in organized labor and working-class communities in the nation’s large, multi-racial cities.

The strike drew the battle lines for the year, along an ideological, not partisan, basis. On the one side Emanuel’s by-the-book formula for education reform: “High-stakes standardized testing, merit pay for teachers, school closures, privatization and union-busting through charter school expansion, blaming teachers,” as Micah Uetricht wrote in Jacobin.  

The CTU not only denounced these austerity measures, but proposed its own solutions in a white paper describing the real reasons for the school district’s plight—systemic underfunding, an unregulated expansion of charter schools at the expense of public schools—and what could be done to raise revenue and create better staffed public schools with stronger curriculum that doesn’t hinge on constantly taking multiple choice tests. (A tactic that would be taken up later in the school year by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, a community-labor alliance combating similar forces.)

The CTU claimed victory in the clash. As In These Times’ David Moberg wrote after the strike’s conclusion, they managed to secure the hiring of 600 music and art teachers, additional counselors, recall of laid-off veteran teachers when positions open again, and new textbooks for students. CTU couldn’t dismantle the requirement that teachers be partially evaluated on student test scores—the Obama’s Department of Education requires such policies if school districts are to receive state aid—but they did force Mayor Emanuel to scale back to the absolute minimum amount that teacher evaluations can be based on the measurement (30 percent of the evaluation).  

“It signified that finally teachers were standing up to this whole corporate agenda, not just in Chicago but nationally,” says Pauline Lipman, professor of eucational policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “The strike was a tremendous victory on that count alone, in that it really changed the education landscape, and coming out of the strike we have a much stronger multi-racial, city-wide alliance of parents and unions against high stakes testing and against budget cuts. That’s something we’ve never really seen before.”

2. Michigan Laws

Everyone knows that Republicans won sweeping victories in the 2010 midterms, conquering state houses across the nation and using their newfound power to pass powerfully anti-union legislation in Midwestern states once considered some of the strongest redoubts of the labor movement. Many of these policy coups took place in the early months after the midterms, but in Michigan two of the harshest laws weren’t passed until the lame duck session after November 2012.

Michigan’s new "right-to-work" law further pushes the much-reviled policy beyond its historical home in the South and (most of) the Western big box states. These laws give workers the option of taking advantage of a union’s protections without having to pay dues, forcing the union to expend time and money bargaining for the entire workforce in a bargaining unit (which they are legally required to do) even if some of the employees aren’t paying for that representation. Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state, and the second to expand beyond the policy’s historical confines, in mid-December. The law affects both private and public sector workers, although several teachers unions quickly signed new (concessionary) contracts before the law took effect in March.   

A few days later, Michigan Republicans pulled another lame duck coup, this one even more audacious (if less well known outside the state). When Gov. Rick Snyder and the Tea Party wave rolled into office in 2011 they passed Public Act 4, bulking up Michigan’s emergency manager (EM) laws which allow the state to take over fiscally stressed municipalities and school districts from their democratically appointed leaders. As Ned Resnikoff details on, the cuts unilaterally imposed by these appointees have been devastating. In the Muskegon Heights school system, 158 teachers were sacked, before the EM gave control of the district to Mosaica Education, a private company. Resnikoff writes:

Roy Roberts, the Snyder-appointed EM for Detroit’s public school system, imposed a new contract on the Detroit Federation of Teachers in July 2012. Under his predecessor, the teachers had agreed to significant concessions in a contract that was estimated to save the school system $100 million.

Keith Johnson, president of the teacher federation, described the new contract as an “edict,” not a collective bargaining agreement, and accused Roberts of creating a “culture of fear.”

The law proved so unpopular that opponents, led by organized labor, rounded up the signatures necessary up for a vote in November, where it was decisively repealed. So Lansing Republicans passed Public Act 36, essentially a new version of the same law, and today five cities (soon to be six) and three school districts are under emergency full managerial control, including both Detroit and its school system. When Roberts announced his retirement, after closing dozens of schools, he told union leaders that his original instructions upon being appointed to take over the school district of Detroit had been to "blow up the district and dismantle it." (He has since claimed that his statement was misunderstood.)

There is evidence that such laws could spread, especially to other states where capital flight, discriminatory public policy, and declining state aid to cities have left municipalities and their school districts systemically underfunded. In 2012, Indiana’s then-governor Mitch Daniels (R) signed an emergency manager bill.

3. Seattle Testing Revolt

In early January, all the teachers and much of the administration at Garfield High School in Seattle boycotted their school district’s standardized test, Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), because they claimed it detracted from the students’ learning experience.

Teachers cannot know the contents of the test, which is not matched to school curriculum, although the results were used to evaluate teacher performance. In an op-ed in the Seattle Times, a Garfield teacher explained: “Seattle’s ninth- and 10th-grade students already take five state-required standardized tests, with 11th- and 12th-graders taking three....Our computer labs are commandeered for weeks when the MAP is on, so students working on research projects can’t get near them. The students without home computers are hurt the most.”

More schools soon joined the protests.

The Garfield teachers expressed a widespread sentiment about the overreliance on standardized testing, garnering a public letter of support signed by more than 250 education experts (including Diane Ravitch). The Garfield boycott grew to be a potent symbol of a national disenchantment with high-stakes testing, which was demonstrated that same month in Texas where the Republican-dominated State House of Representatives eliminated all funding for standardized testing from the 2014-2015 budget. While this was largely a symbolic gesture, as federal law requires some standardized testing, earlier this month Governor Rick Perry cut the number of required exams at the end of a high school course from 15 to five and also eliminated other testing requirements.     

As of May, the Seattle School District has discontinued mandatory MAP tests for high schools, although other district schools must continue to give the test twice a year.

4. Charter School Union Organizing

The relentless expansion of the charter school movement, especially in urban school districts, has resulted in waves of school closings across the country. Public schools in these areas are often unionized; not just teachers, but janitors, cafeteria workers, and other district employees. Charter schools are rarely unionized, and when they are, it’s usually because states like Maryland, and a handful of others, have laws requiring charter employees to be included under the same collective bargaining agreements as district employees.

This year the American Federation of Teachers stepped up its efforts to unionize charter school teachers and other staff. According to AFT president Randi Weingarten, the union organized 22 schools so far in 2013, nine in 2012, 11 in 2011, 14 in 2010, and eight in 2009. (The union started actively organizing charters in 2007.) That brings the total membership up to 8,000 charter school employees organized at 204 schools (AFT’s total membership is 1.5 million in 6,500 schools). According to a Labor Notes article from April 2012, the National Education Association claims there are 625 unionized charter schools in America.

In May, 87 percent of teachers in Chicago’s Uno network, one of the city’s biggest, voted to unionize. Uno quickly recognized the union. But it’s unclear if this is a trend-setting development. There are other charter school networks that have accepted unionization, such as the California-based Green Dot (although their contracts, in some cases, offer less overall job security). But most networks prove less amenable, so their component schools must be tackled piecemeal. The majority of charter schools are run individually, not by networks, so organizing must proceed school-by-school, a potentially grueling process. But this year’s wins show that it can be done.  

5. School Closings

And there is every indication that it will need to be. Despite the CTU strike that opened the year, Chicago is still planning on implementing another round of budget cuts and school closings. (It may be worth noting that in Chicago the number of closures will be higher but the number of layoff significantly less than, say, Philadelphia—where the resistance movement has not galvanized as much support or attention.) According to In These Times’ Matthew Blake, CTU is planning on orchestrating a voter registration drive to support Democrats who back a more progressive education policy.   

Such actions, along with the growing pushback against high-stakes standardized testing, are the first rumblings of what John Tierney (no one’s idea of a radical) calls “The Coming Revolution in Public Education.” The CTU strike and the MAP boycott have both tried to tie teacher and student interests together, in the face of a mainstream reform ideology that often tries to set them against each other. But so far the Obama administration shows no signs of altering its education policy, while copycat laws could bring emergency managers to low-income cities across the country, imposing education reform and other policies with even less democratic accountability.  

Increasingly, it seems, Americans are listening to voices like Patricia Norris and her comrades in Philadelphia, most of whom ended their hunger strike on June 25 (a new group will take up the tactics, and one of the original four will continue fasting). It’s just not clear that those in power are paying attention yet.

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