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Four key areas for public school advocates to work on now!

It is an understatement to say that those who work with public schools are not thrilled with the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Her aversion to public schooling is on display every time she speaks publicly. Since public schools are not getting any help from Washington, it is on all of us to defend public education now.

There are lots of issues in education to take on, and some will dispute me on these, but here are four critical areas of work that I think need to be taken on to help public schools now:

 

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  1. School safety: Support the the right of children to attend schools without worry of gun violence, as well as restorative practices so that schools are actively peaceful places. The drive for these changes come straight from the youth themselves, from the Black Lives Matter campaign and the Parkland students.
  2. Fight for funding and salary increases: There are teachers all over the country that are working very hard for little pay. Each year there are increasing demands on teachers from having the burden of too much testing to cuts in mental health and social supports for students, all while more and more students in poverty show up at schoolhouse doors every day.  The arts and libraries have been cut dramatically from school. The need for funding in public schools is critical, and living wage for teachers is a crucial part of increasing the funding to schools. Many states around the country are involved in battles over school funding. In Maryland, where I live, there are two bills at the state legislature now to increase school funding, but only one HB557 is demanding that school funding be increased immediately. Find your local bill or organization to support in this struggle.
  3. Protecting unions: Teachers are striking around the country. They have had it with state austerity plans that drain their schools and their pensions of funding, while asking teachers to do more with less every day. Teachers buy their own school supplies, take on second jobs, and still find time to coach, run an after school program, or sit on the PTA.  SCOTUS is considering a case now that will make or break unions. Known as the Janus case, the court is deciding whether union membership can be optional essentially. If the court decides that union membership is optional, then we can say goodbye to union protections for teachers and many other workers. This would be destructive to teachers who would suddenly have no job protection, and would discourage future teachers from going into the field.  The final decision should come down in June and will tell us if the unions will continue to strengthen or will this be their last gasp.
  4. Combat privatization: Our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is trying promote privatization throughout the public school system. She just submitted a budget in which pubic school funding would be slashed, cutting after school programs and professional development for teachers while increasing funding for vouchers and other school choice schemes. Call you legislators to tell them to turn down this budget, and to not approve a new one unless it fully supports public schools.

Activism is the vehicle for school change

When I moved to Baltimore, in 2010, the prevailing wisdom was that in order to change the public schools, advocates needed to pursue one main course of action: To get more funds from the state. The schools and the city had been neglected and divested from for so many decades (which was certainly true), that the city was in desperate need of funds. Every spring there was a big push to mobilize parents, students, and teachers to ride to the state capitol and demonstrate for funds, lobby legislators, testify at hearings for  increased funding. Even locally within the city, advocates pushed for public and private partnerships and pressured the city to provide more funds for the schools.

Very few people involved in this advocacy work discussed what these funds would be used for, or publicly imagined what school should look like in the city. Maybe people were so busy describing the deplorable conditions to politicians, philanthropists, and the media, that they did not have much energy to imagining possibilities. But in reality, there was a lack of public imagination beyond some well worn, yet not so successful strategies, like expanding charter schools.

Years later, I can say that the landscape has shifted dramatically. The Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators (BMORE), a small group of teachers who have been dissatisfied with their union and have decided to organize a group of their own. Inspired by CORE in Chicago and the Caucus of Working Educators in Philadelphia, these teachers have both acknowledged that they are union members, but want to differentiate themselves from the traditional union leadership that has fought for bread and butter issues, and have  articulated a serious commitment to racial justice. This is something that we have seen in other teachers’ unions around the country, especially in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles.  It has taken a while to get a foothold in Baltimore. This small group has grown slowly, but really started to hit their stride this year, and now they have taken off.

The recent crisis around the temperature in Baltimore’s schools has changed the context, and people who have been dissatisfied with the school system for many years have Black teacher matterdecided to get involved, attend meetings, go to events and demonstrations. When the schools had to close in January because there was no heat in many of them, and there was fundraising for space heaters and warm coats for students and classrooms people had had enough. BMORE was right there at the January school board meeting and testified about these unacceptable conditions. They are now working on a legislative agenda at the state level as well as ongoing activism within Baltimore’s schools to ensure that there are more teachers of color, more culturally responsive curricula, and more communication and transparency from the school district about decision-making.

This week BMORE is organizing a week of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside similar events nationwide. Next on their agenda will be pushing for legislation to earmark funding that gets generated from a local casino to go to public schools. The momentum is building to ensure that the public commitment to education has some accountability to local teachers and students. By next year, there will be a new union election at the Baltimore Teachers Union, and BMORE plans to run a slate of teachers to challenge the incumbent leaders who have held office for decades. This is an exciting turn of events in which there is a movement to advance a positive and clear agenda for public schools, not one that simply criticizes. BMORE is working in partnership with the youth at the Baltimore Algebra Project, and has the power to grow much more, and more than anything Baltimore has seen in many years has the power to change public schools in the city.

Reflections on race, school reform, and working in urban education

I will have an article coming out this year in the Urban Review that examines the impact of closing schools in Baltimore. School closings disproportionately impact low income Black communities. The piece was not just another research report on the damaging impact that school reform has on communities of color, however. It uses the frameworks of Critical Race Theory and Decolonizing methodologies to think about not only how this policy plays out to reify racism, but it is also a reflection on my own role as a white researcher. I worked with a community organization to do research on school closings, which was a great experience, but still fraught with the problems of race and power inequity. There is no escaping these issues. I continue to reflect, but also acknowledge that there is no end to racism, just continual recognition, reflection, and attempt to shift power from universities and white faculty to Black organizations and communities.