The Right-Wing Assault on Public Education is Creating a New Generation of Activists

I can tell you exactly when I became an activist for public education. I was a junior attending high school in Kansas when the state Senate passed a bill that would allow teachers to be prosecuted for material considered harmful or offensive to students. Teachers found in violation of the law could be fined or jailed for up to six months. If a parent lodged a complaint, my teachers could land in prison for teaching classics like Huck Finn or Beloved.

SB56 quickly became the talk of my school. When I asked on Twitter if other students might be interested in making phone calls to voice our opposition to the bill, now headed over to the House, I got a strong response. Even students who typically stayed away from politics were interested. They were just as angry as I was about the bill and what it could potentially do to our teachers.

Within a few days, we had a phonebank set up at school. I’d been scouring the Internet in search of home and cell phone numbers for Kansas legislators so that students could reach them on a day that the House was out of session. Nearly 100 students at my school gave up their lunch hour to make calls for the cause; the issue had hit a collective nerve. Forty students at other schools across the city also joined in. In the three rooms where students were dialing away, explaining to anyone they could reach why the bill was so bad, I spotted students of all political persuasions—liberals, conservatives and libertarians—united to stand up for public education. The most touching moment was when I noticed a handful of teachers and administrators observing us through the open doors, beaming with obvious pride. Students not yet old enough to cast a ballot were making their voices heard, loud and clear.

Some legislators came out against the bill over the phone. Pro-censorship legislators or those who said they were undecided heard from students again and again. Over the coming days, the impact we made became clear. As news stories broke about our efforts and more generally about SB56, opposition to the bill grew. Eventually, SB56 was assigned to a House Committee where it languished, ultimately dying an unceremonious death.

This victory meant more to me than anything I had done before in politics. I’d inherited a deep passion for public education but this was the first time I’d translated it into action. I grew up the son of two Portuguese immigrants, both products of public schools in Canada. My parents instilled in my sister and I a love of learning. They spent Friday nights with us in bookstores reading, took us to museums, and gave us every opportunity to expand our horizons. My mom was a public school teacher in Canada and now works as a para-educator in the public elementary school I attended as a child.  I have always admired her passion for education, and growing up, I came to see educators not just as teachers, but as family friends, community members, and role models. I heard repeatedly about the sacrifices teachers made-paying for supplies out of their pocket, working weekends off the clock, adjusting to ever increasing demands to honor their commitment to schoolchildren. Even as a child, I knew that public education was a linchpin of our society.

By the time I was entering my early teens, education was under siege in Kansas, thanks to Governor Sam Brownback and his right-wing allies in the Kansas Legislature. These extremists passed the single largest cut to schools in Kansas history, and when constitutionally forced to increase funding for schools in early 2014, responded by stripping due process rights from teachers.

While a lifetime of passion for education led up to the phonebank that tanked SB56, the organizing experience lit a fire in me. Not long after the event, Representative Dan Hawkins, a right wing Republican who supported SB56, along with a Wichita Public Schools lobbyist, asked students to meet with them about what they called “proper advocacy.” Clearly peeved, Representative Hawkins stressed that blasting legislators with phone calls was not the best way to be active, obvious evidence to the contrary.

During spring break that same year, I worked with leaders of the Kansas National Education Association and the Kansas Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers to organize a lobby day in the state capitol about education issues. Thirty students, parents, and teachers and spent a day talking to our legislators, an event that once again brought people from all backgrounds and political perspectives together to stand up for public education. While the lobby day may not have changed many minds in Topeka, it inspired me to continue my activism.  

While we’d succeeded in killing the censorship bill, the conservative onslaught against the schools just kept coming. Just a month after the phonebank, another $51 million was cut from schools. That year, summer break came early to schools across the state because they couldn’t afford to stay open. My senior year of high school, yet another horrendous bill was introduced that would force Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs to be rewritten in order to fulfill Kansas standards. The likelihood that these programs would be redone just for Kansas was low, meaning that HB 2292 was going to kill AP and IB in Kansas. As an IB student, I sprung into action, working with program alumni to kick off a campaign to call attention to the bill. The fact that the this bill also died confirmed anew to me the importance of continuing to fight.

Since then, the situation has improved in my home state. A bipartisan measure to boost school funding by $293 million over two years is a step forward, although this amount is far from enough. Another bipartisan bill finally ended the radical tax cutting experiment by Governor Sam Brownback that bled the state’s coffers dry. Things are far from perfect, and my fellow Kansas education activists must keep pushing for more.  

When I joined with students, parents and teachers this summer, braving the sweltering heat to be part of the March for Public Education, I already knew the importance of making my voice heard. But with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the Department of Education and public schools across the country at risk, student activism is more essential than ever. Students are often taken for granted, but when we stand up, when we push back against those who want to gut public education, we can make a positive difference. Public education is the backbone of American society, and protecting it from privatization and other attacks will require all hands on deck.


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