The battle for our schools in New York City

February 16, 2012

New York City teachers Peter Lamphere and Alexander Super look at how Occupy the DOE has bolstered the movement to defend public schools.

MORE THAN 2,000 teachers, parents, students and community members faced off against New York Mayor Bloomberg's Panel for Education Policy (PEP) February 9 in a heated protest against Bloomberg's plan to close 33 schools for supposed poor performance.

The protest, held at Brooklyn Technical High School, was led by Occupy the DOE, a coalition of Occupy activists and teachers, parents and students, along with a variety parent and student groups organized by the Coalition of Educational Justice. Under pressure from its membership, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) later joined the protest as well, after union leaders abandoned their plan to hold a separate demonstration nearby.

Activists didn't achieve their goal of holding their own "People's PEP" by using the people's mic. But the militant demonstration that united students, teachers and parents was a major step forward in building a movement to challenge Bloomberg's school closings and his entire policy of corporate education "deform."

Teachers, students and parents crowd into a PEP meeting to protest school closures
Teachers, students and parents crowd into a PEP meeting to protest school closures

As a PEP official read off the list of schools to be closed, teacher activist Brian Jones addressed the protesters on the people's mic: "We are standing up. We are speaking out. Because we don't want a puppet show. We want a real voice. A real vote. We need a people's voice where we decide how to run our schools...This is our meeting. They can't kick us out. We're going stay. We're going to use the people's mic to handle our business."

District 3 Community Education Council member Noah Gotbaum spoke next:

We are parents, we are students, and we are teachers speaking with one voice: enough playing games with our futures. Enough playing games with our hearts. We want real democracy! It starts not with anger, but with a demand for change to end mayoral control. Every school that brought people here tonight will be able to speak. Parents will speak. Students will speak. Teachers will speak. Community members will speak. And elected officials will speak. Democracy means your voice will be heard.


THE PROTESTS on February 9 were led in the main by Occupy the DOE, a coalition of Occupy activists and teachers, parents and students, which formed in October with a call to protest the first PEP meeting of the school year. That demonstration, which successfully drove Walcott from the auditorium, led to plans to attempt to disrupt the school-closing vote in February.

The focus of the latest protest was the announcement by Schools Chancellor Walcott of the full or partial closure of 25 schools--along with an offhand comment by Bloomberg that if he had his druthers, he would fire half the city's teaching force.

Then, after the collapse of negotiations with the UFT over a new evaluations system (with the UFT rightly insisting on impartial review of unfair principals' decisions), the mayor put his threats into action. He unilaterally declared his intention of putting 33 schools into "turnaround" status, making school staff reapply for their jobs, with at least half being forced out into a revolving substitute pool.

Since the PEP is a rubber stamp for Bloomberg, the closures were a foregone conclusion unless activists could mobilize sufficient pressure to stop the PEP.

Protests at previous years' meetings on school closings had been an outpouring of community anger, but had not challenged the vote or attempted to seriously disrupt normal conduct of the meeting. This time, activists planned to hold their own "People's PEP" via the people's microphone during the meeting.

The intent was to discourage people from using the official microphone to testify in order to challenge the school closings vote via an open meetings law violation--the panel is legally required to hear testimony before voting.

Plans for a protest were complicated, however, by the position of the teachers union. While the UFT denounced against the closure plan, the union organized a separate protest, outside the PEP meeting, initially counterposed to the Occupy the DOE action. The union had rented space in a nearby school where the union planned to hold its own, separate "People's PEP."

The UFT leadership wanted to show Bloomberg and Walcott that they had the power to mobilize in order to increase their leverage to negotiate. However, as the union continues to negotiate with the city over an evaluation system and threats to "turn around" schools, it was reluctant to endorse a direct confrontation with the PEP.

Meanwhile, organizations of city students and parents at affected schools and beyond also mobilized for the demonstration. A broad coalition of parent activists, encompassing individuals like District 13 Community Education Council President Khem Irby and Noah Gotbaum, along with organizations like the Coalition for Educational Justice, formed around protesting the PEP vote over school closures.

Student activist leaders at schools targeted for closing, notably at Legacy High School and Samuel Gompers High School, also pressed for more militant tactics.

Outside the meeting, activists argued tactics with UFT officials and led their march inside of the meeting, chanting, "Don't walk away/Occupy and Stay!" A large section of the crowd gathered around the UFT banner took up that chant as well. About an hour later, apparently realizing their tactical blunder, the UFT leadership turned its march around and reinforced the protests inside.

As the PEP meeting droned on, Occupiers, led by student activists from the closing schools, attempted to take over the meeting, using the people's mic, often breaking into chants of "Shame!" and "We are taking over!" and "Use the people's mic!"

Even UFT President Michael Mulgrew addressed the crowd through the people's mic, despite the fact that just hours earlier, the UFT was actively trying to dissuade people from joining the protest inside the meeting. Notably, some elected officials forsook the official microphone in favor of the people's mic.

Some of the most inspiring moments of the night came when Occupy the DOE protesters asked the audience to take a vote of no-confidence in PEP with green index cards that activists had handed out to everyone. More than 1,000 people began waving their cards in the air and chanting "No confidence!"

The PEP, however, continued its business of closing schools. Protesters, led by students, also sang "This Little School of Mine," to the tune of "This Little Light of Mine," while the PEP attempted to conduct business as usual.

Manhattan Theater Lab High School freshman Bianca Bennet, whose school is slated for phase-out, was at the protest. "I'd rather the DOE came to our school and had an intervention with us, rather than closing the school and getting rid of a problem, because our school is not a problem," she said. "Low funding, and that's really it, low funding. We don't get books the way we need it, but then again, LaGuardia [a magnet performing arts school] across the street gets everything they want, but we can't."

Protesters were not just from closing schools, however. Many came to protest the failed education policies of "Mayor 13 percent," referring to the percentage of minority students deemed "college ready" since Bloomberg took direct control of the city schools


AS THE meeting continued, Occupy activists valiantly attempted to chant down speakers and start a people's mic, but in the end, the official sound system won out.

Activists retreated to the lobby to hold an assembly to decide next steps. For a moment, the police prevented the crowd from re-entering the meeting, but as the chants grew, they relented, and activists were let back in. By this time, the crowd had thinned to about a fifth of its initial size.

Some 150 NYPD, school safety, community affairs and Department of Education security officers were on hand for this peaceful protest of students, parents and teachers. Throughout the meeting, a human wall of police officers stood nearly shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the stage where the panel sits, protecting them from the people they are supposed to represent.

The most important victory of the evening was that Occupy DOE and allied parent and student forces succeeded in winning over the UFT into joining the protest.

This was partly the result of a concerted campaign in the days before the protest, as well as Occupy DOE's impressive alliance with parent organizations that usually follow the UFT's political lead. Also decisive was the large section of rank-and-file UFT members who voted with their feet to join the protest inside the auditorium.

However, despite the welcome show of unity from the teachers' union, the protest was not successful in achieving its goal of stopping the vote. It was simply impossible to drown out the DOE speakers with our collective voice. There are some tactical lessons to be drawn, and activists will clearly have to rethink their approach.

The movement cannot, of course, limit its targets to the PEP alone. The struggle will no doubt spread to individual schools, especially those facing turnaround and closure. Students at Grady Technical High School in Brooklyn recently walked out to protest the turnaround plan there. Activists may be able to occupy a closed school to attempt to reopen it as a community-controlled space, or occupy schools threatened with closure or turnaround.

The success of the movement does not depend merely on tactical victories, however. Strategically, Occupy DOE has scored a major success by constructing an alliance between rank-and-file educators, parent groups and militant students. The ability of this alliance to hold together and challenge mayoral control through a series of escalating actions remains to be seen. Major battles around the mayor's turnaround proposal loom, with ongoing union negotiations, the threat of an imposed settlement of the issue from the governor's office, and a PEP vote in April.

The growth of a rank-and-file movement within the UFT will also play a role in this dynamic. Recently, some 200 teacher union activists gathered for a "State of the Union" conference, which critically examined UFT history and politics, and looked to possibilities for organizing for a more democratic and active union.

Further, Occupy DOE and the student activists who played a key role at the February 9 protests will be looking for new organizing opportunities. The level of coalition-building that made the February 9 protest possible was impressive, but we will need alliances that are deeper and longer-lasting--the kind of links that are forged in common struggle that has been taking shape over the last decade.


THE FEBRUARY 9 protest was only the latest show of resistance to a 10-year-old corporate agenda to privatize large parts of the education sector.

The institution of mayoral control in 2002 gave Bloomberg an untrammeled hand in running the school system. This decade-long rule, embodied by the chancellorship of publishing executive and lawyer Joel Klein, has led to the closure of over 100 schools, the explosion of charter schools across the city, and an almost religious zeal in using standardized testing to evaluate students, teachers and schools. Test data is now used to determine everything from whether a student can enter fourth grade, whether a teacher receives tenure and whether a school remains open.

An aggressive privatization push has been an integral part of these reforms, embodied by the mayor's insistence at co-locating charter schools, like those from Harlem Success Academy, run by the fanatically anti-union Eva Moskowitz, in DOE public schools. Charters, in addition to paying executives like Moskowitz salaries in excess of $300,000, provide cushy deals to for-profit management firms and have made money by using tax credits for real-estate deals.

A space crunch and declining public school enrollment in heavily affected districts has been the result, despite the cheerleading in the media that glossed over these problems, led by Davis Guggenheim's puff documentary Waiting for "Superman".

Private consultants and data analysis firms, like News Corporation's Wireless Generation subsidiary, have been the beneficiaries of massive DOE largesse, while local school budgets are cut. Multibillion dollar testing and textbook companies, like Pearson, have made millions in state contracts to develop new tests, and provide the textbooks and curriculum to prepare students for those tests, while sending lawmakers on paid junkets around the world.

Central to Bloomberg's success in implementing mayoral control has been the passive cooperation of the UFT, the union representing about 100,0000 teachers, counselors, secretaries and DOE workers. A series of contracts in 2002 and 2005 exchanged longer workdays and work-rule givebacks for higher salaries that the mayor was happy to grant during the economic boom.

Among the UFT concessions was a seniority transfer provision, which made it easier for city to close schools and create a reserve pool of more senior and more expensive teachers who could not find jobs. The union also supported mayoral control in 2002 and its renewal (with small modifications) in 2009.

As the mayor's antiunion agenda became more vociferous (and the economic crisis made new contracts harder to negotiate), the union and Bloomberg have been more squarely at odds. However, the UFT leadership's commitment to previous concessions left the union with a demoralized and disorganized base that was ill prepared to fight.


BLOOMBERG'S ONSLAUGHT has not gone unopposed, however. A grassroots insurgency around the co-location and school closings issues has grown in the past two years. Major demonstrations accompanied the attempt mayor's first wave of mass school closings in 2009, and led to an initially successful lawsuit by the UFT. The mayor did not give up, however, and a second wave of closings the following year was more successful.

A number of new teachers' organizations sprung up out of these struggles, including the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) and Teachers Unite (TU). GEM put together a movie rebuttal to the Guggenheim movie called The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and helped initiate, along with other groups, regular "Fight Back Friday" events at local schools that help organize against budget cuts, high stakes testing and layoffs.

The 2009-10 school year led to the beginnings of the crumbling of the Bloomberg school reform edifice. In August, the state Education Department revealed that the increasing test scores of elementary school students, trumpeted by Bloomberg and Klein as proof of their success, had largely been based on simple grade inflation. NYC pass rates plummeted as the state readjusted the scores needed for students to be considered proficient.

Then, Bloomberg picked magazine publishing magnate Cathy Black to succeed Joel Klein (who had been offered a soft landing spot by Rupert Murdoch to head up none other than Wireless Generation).

Black, who had seen the inside of a public school only once as "Principal for a Day," quickly enraged public school parents and teachers with jokes about the need for birth control to reduce overcrowding and a hardened unwillingness to work with education unions. She rapidly proved that her qualifications as a cocktail party buddy of the mayor's were insufficient to run an organization with hundreds of thousands of employees and over a million students, and was canned because of declining poll numbers inside of 100 days.

Meanwhile, the mayor was consumed with an effort to lay off thousands of city teachers and an ultimately failed crusade to modify state law to give school principals control of those who they lay off.

The downfall of Black and the emergence of Occupy has given new momentum to the fight to defend public education in New York. While Bloomberg, Walcott and the PEP continue to push their agenda, protesters are digging in for the long haul.

At the February 9 PEP meeting, after three hours of raucous protest, the last of the Occupy the DOE activists marched out together. In what has become a tradition at these protests, around 50 activists held a smaller assembly outside to announce next steps and further meetings. There, Lucy Herschel, addressed the crowd through the people's mic:

I am a NYC public school parent. My daughter is in first grade. I got a lot of fight left in me. We have a long way to go, but we are beginning to etch away at the edifice! We are beginning to take control. This does not happen overnight, but it will happen.

And everyone in this room tonight learned a lot of lessons. Those high school students learned a lot of lessons. The teachers learned a lot of lessons. The UFT learned a lot of lessons. And Mayor Bloomberg is going to learn his lesson!

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives