Public schools – an engine for the greater spread of lifelong learning throughout an ever inclusive American society, a lab for democratic action in practice through school governance, and the best investment in the future the present generation can make…or, an institution that consolidates power and privilege among those who already have it and sorts “winners” from “losers”?
Back in October of 2013, activists and community organizations dedicated to realizing the promise of public education in its most far-reaching and equitable forms gathered in Los Angeles to network and dig deep into the examples of successful and authentic community-based reforms. The National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the AFT and NEA, and Communities for Public Education Reform co-sponsored the Human, Civil, and Women’s Rights Conference in Los Angeles.
I was lucky to attend and be inspired by the myriad examples of real grassroots activists – teachers, parents, community members – coming together to create a better vision for public education than the one we see reflected in the media or that well-funded philanthropists railroad into policy by virtue of their donations to non-profits, lawmakers, and service organizations.
In Philadelphia, where brutal state cuts to education funding left city schools humiliatingly begging for money to simply open in September, activists will be demanding a rollback of austerity-minded approaches to public education and insisting that profitable charter school “magic bullets” be set aside and existing neighborhood schools supported first.
In Detroit, activists will be demanding an end to the hollowing-out of the public sector that also undermines public schools. With identification of Detroit Public Schools as “high risk” by the federal Department of Education and the top-down imposition of an Emergency Manager to take over the day-to-day operations of Detroit Public Schools, locally-elected school boards lost the power to make education policy for the city’s schools in a way reminiscent of how Bridgeport Public Schools in Connecticut simply had their publicly-elected school board declared null. The Emergency Manager for Detroit Public Schools has since been declared unconstitutional, but the power to make education policy and the means to support Detroit Public Schools has yet to be restored. In Bridgeport, the story had a much happier outcome as community groups pressured for the restoration of the publicly-elected school board and even ran a slate of winning candidates.
In rural areas like McDowell, West Virginia, and small towns and suburbs across the country, public school communities seeking to bring together local resources and match them to school needs will be rallying and urging that business leaders and lawmakers re-focus on delivering the strongest possible foundation to every school child to achieve their dreams. In McDowell, the twin problems of high dropout rates and high unemployment will only be solved when a robust economy enables families to have the means to provide basic sustenance to their children, who will in turn be able to invent, make, and fabricate new ways to revitalize their communities with the up-to-date skills they’ll learn. Suburban schools will bring together city parks and recreation after school programs, community groups, and other civic organizations acting to help at-risk kids to align offerings to children both on school campuses and off.
Others will be taking the fight against austerity to state legislatures. During the Human, Civil, and Women’s Rights Conference, I attended a breakout session where we heard about successful tactics to fight back against overt and underhanded attempts to de-fund education. A sample:
1) Build long-term capacity to overturn Proposition 13 in California, for example, by educating and registering new voters from underserved groups
2) Go after corporations – when they merge, are they re-assessed on commercial property tax or still hiding behind the skirts of “little old ladies” struggling with rising home values that Prop 13 was supposed to protect?
3) Pass ordinances to tax banks for neglecting houses they now have on the books instead of letting home values decline in a neighborhood and further depress real property tax (which defunds schools)
4) Re-assess predatory bond terms and loans to school districts, such as this one in a San Diego suburb
5) Close the corporate “change of ownership” loophole so that corporations cannot benefit from outdated and overly low tax rates while individuals/families take disproportionate responsibility
6) Eliminate TIFs — Tax Increment Financing, a popular tool used in Chicago, for example, by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in which he uses as a personal slush fund money exceeding a cap on funds intended for community development in blighted communities and sends the excess instead to enrich already affluent parts of Chicago.
7) End the practice of interest-rate swaps, where the Chicago Board of Education has flipped district loans at a variable rate into a higher fixed rate, causing school districts to pay more in interest than they should (see also Philadelphia)
8) Focus on getting the money that exists into the right places: aim for passage of graduated (“millionaire”) income taxes, and a financial transaction tax for high-frequency traders
Equitable public school finance is hard to rally around; the nitty-gritty details of school bonds or revenue plans don’t make for catchy signs or colorful six o’clock news events, even though fully-funded and equitably-funded schools would have the small class sizes, the arts/music/dance/theatre, foreign languages, and other things most parents yearn for. But explaining the details and then organizing to achieve economic justice and fair funding for schools is foundational.
No matter the form of activism on behalf of public schools or the goals of public school advocates, it’s clear that we are at a crisis point — and on December 9, 2013, we’ll speak with one voice to realize the promise of public schools. Add your voice.