A Moment When Grassroots Mobilization for Public Education Is Making a Difference—Part 1

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  In the next few days, I’ll post some reflections on what I heard and learned at this important meeting.

One of the highlights of the Conference were presentations on excellent community organizing that is finally making a difference. Today’s post and tomorrow’s will describe two very different and encouraging initiatives.

What if city parents were supported in ignoring the glitzy brochures, radio ads, and even incentive gifts encouraging them to escape public schools and experiment with charter schools? What if, instead. parents were encouraged and supported to demand public schools designed to meet the needs of their families and children?  I found hope this past weekend in a workshop where the Journey4Justice Alliance (J4J) told the story of mobilizing Black and Brown parents to demand the kind of stable, quality public schools middle class children take for granted: no more experiments with state takeover, privatization, and school closure at the expense of their children. The #WeChoose Campaign is national—connecting and organizing parents across America’s big cities. For years, there has been a sense of confusion and despair as corporate reformers with big money swept in to seize governance and policy in big city school districts. Finally a moment of clarity and empowerment is being created.

At last weekend’s NPE Conference we listened as national organizers from the Journey4Justice Alliance and local leaders of their multi-city partners—Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Organization; New York City’s Alliance for Quality Education and Coalition for Educational Justice; Camden Parents Union and Camden Student Union; Newark’s Parents Unified for Local School Education; Pittsburgh’s Education Rights Network and One Pennsylvania; and the Detroit L.I.F.E. Coalition—explained how their communities are proclaiming #We Choose Public Schools: “We choose educational equity in public schools, not the illusion of school choice.”

The Journey4Justice Alliance (J4J) launched its #WeChoose campaign in February, 2017 with plans in at least 25 cities for press events, policy forums, meetings with elected officials, and direct actions along with a coordinated social media campaign. Jitu Brown, executive director of  J4J describes the campaign’s message which organized parents are proclaiming to policymakers: “There is no such thing as ‘school choice’ in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion. We have an evidence-based solution for America’s struggling, neglected schools.”

At NPE”s Conference, Brown presented a tight, pro-public education #We Choose agenda, developed from the bottom up through a series of over 30  local Town Hall meetings plus two national Town Halls which together reached over 200,000 people in cities across the country:

1.   We choose a moratorium on school privatization. “The evidence is clear and aligns with the lived experience of parents, students, and community residents in America’s cities: school privatization has failed in improving the education outcomes for young people.”

2.   We choose the creation of 10,000 sustainable Community Schools. “Schools that are successful… are grounded in 5 pillars: relevant rigorous and engaging curriculum; supports for quality teaching and not punitive standardized tests; appropriate wrap-around supports for every child; student-centered school climate; and transformative parent and community engagement…. These are the interventions we recommend for struggling, underserved schools….”

3.   We choose the end of zero tolerance discipline policies. “We want an immediate end to zero tolerance policies expressed by out-of-control suspensions and expulsions and the over-policing of our schools.  We want resources dedicated to the expansion of full restorative justice initiatives….”

4.   We choose a national equity assessment to move toward erasing the effects of poverty. “America does everything but equity. Closes schools. Online charter schools. Zero tolerance policies to push out students. Creates a charter industry.  Puts a positive media spin on mediocre corporate education interventions. Anything but equity.  Equitable schools are spaces where inspiration happens.”

5.   We choose to stop the attack on black teachers whose numbers have declined rapidly. “A study in 9 American cities, Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., all noted a decline in the number of black teachers. All of these cities curiously are places where school privatization has taken root.”

6.   We choose to end state takeovers, appointed school boards and mayoral control. “We have a crisis in school governance. The overwhelming majority of state takeovers, mayoral control and appointed school boards exists in cities that serve primarily Black and Brown families… We need the elimination of these oppressive structures that ignore the voices of concerned constituents and grease the rails for politically connected charter and contract school operators.”

7.   We choose to eliminate the over-reliance on standardized tests in public schools. “Multiple studies have confirmed that standardized tests are an excellent indicator of one’s zip code, not their aptitude.”

In addition to the grassroots town halls, J4J has leveraged the #We Choose campaign by collaborating with national partners including the NAACP, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Advancement Project, the Badass Teachers’ Association, the National Education Association, the Institute for Democratic Education in America, the Dignity in Schools Coalition, Moms Rising, Save our Schools, the Network for Public Education, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools.

At last weekend’s NPE Conference it was exciting to listen as organizers from Chicago, Pittsburgh, Camden, Newark, New York City, and Detroit described successful local victories: expanding sustainable Community Schools; stopping the use of zero tolerance policies, including the use of suspension and expulsion of children in Kindergarten through 2nd grade; getting a local school district to adopt a culturally responsive curriculum; and successfully blocking the closure of local public schools.

This is an encouraging moment when strong, well-informed local voices are pushing back effectively against the well-funded, multi-pronged attack on our public schools.