Students walk out in Philly

May 23, 2013

James Sacco reports on a dramatic protest against school closures in Philadelphia.

SOME 2,000 public school students in Philadelphia walked out of class on May 17 and marched on the headquarters of the Philadelphia School District on North Broad Street. Assembling in front of Building 440, they bellowed chants about the importance of public education, the voice of students and the injustice of austerity.

The school closures disproportionately target Black communities in a city where more than half of public school students are African American. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

In six of the eight schools that either closed or began the closing process in June, at least 13 percent more African American students are enrolled than the district average, [according to community organizing group Action United]...At Harrison Elementary in North Philadelphia, closed in June, for instance, African Americans were 94 percent of the population. At Drew Elementary in West Philadelphia, also closed in June, 79 percent of the students were African American.

The vast majority of students who participated in the walkout were youth of color who will be most affected by the closures. The district plans to close as many as 64 more schools in the next five years--maybe more.

Philadelphia students march to defend their schools
Philadelphia students march to defend their schools

School officials were going to close 37 by the end of 2013, but the number has dropped to 23. The city's plan also calls for 40 percent of the remaining classroom space to go to charter schools, forcing thousands of students to travel farther to school. Many teachers, maybe thousands, will suffer the same fate.

Meanwhile, the near-insolvent district will provide the infrastructure for privatized education, which only the privileged will be able to afford. One of the most basic needs of human life will be converted into a luxury for thousands of people, who are supposed to carry humanity forward into the next generations.

Austerity measures require the poor to pay for the crises and destruction the rich leave in their wake. These cuts to Philadelphia's public schools are just one aspect of "balancing the budget" in the wake of the massive financial bailout since the 2008 recession--a bailout aimed at restoring profitability in the casinos of speculative capital markets.

However, there is another way. If there is money ($400 million) for two prisons outside of Philadelphia, there are means for people to democratize their communities. It's a matter not of scarcity, but of distribution of resources. That distribution will not change significantly without sustained, massive and informed intervention.

The students who walked out, along with their allies, can be a part of a wider struggle. As movements against the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration and immigrant criminalization link up and join others, a vast popular initiative can challenge the status quo.

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