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

Hunger strikers and supporters march down Broad Street in Philadelphia
Photo Credit: Roy Samaan

June 27, 2013

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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.)

Republished with permission from:: AlterNet