Pushing back the charters in Durham

October 23, 2017

Julie Smith reports from North Carolina on a victory against school privatization.

WITH EDUCATION Secretary Betsy DeVos championing "school choice" and vouchers, and local governments paving the way for charter school chains, public schools everywhere are facing the threat of privatization.

Durham, North Carolina, isn't unique in this way. But teachers and parents here are providing important lessons about how to organize against privatization after they prevented two public schools from being taken over this month.

Durham Public Schools (DPS) serves about 34,000 students each day at 54 elementary, middle and high schools, and is currently the third-largest employer in this city. Public schools are an integral part of this community.

In addition to the numerous awards received by various schools in the district for academic and cultural successes, DPS is also celebrating its school board's decision to approve policies against hate speech and a ban on the Confederate flag.

Even more impressive than these victories is the circumstances under which they're being won. Some 64 percent of DPS students receive free or reduced lunch, 7 percentage points greater than the average rate of North Carolina public schools. Some DPS schools have a 99 percent free and reduced lunch rate.

Teachers rally to defend public education in North Carolina
Teachers rally to defend public education in North Carolina (North Carolina Association of Educators | Facebook)

On top of the poverty that causes students to come to school hungry and have less access to helpful academic services, students also face chronically understaffed schools. Budget cuts continue to increase class sizes and shrink the number of classes and teachers at schools. A shortage of substitutes prevents teachers from taking necessary time off.

THESE PROBLEMS faced by staff and students at DPS are amplified by the constant looming threat of "school takeover." Recently, North Carolina officials passed a law that allows for the takeover of "underperforming schools" by the so-called "Innovative School District."

The legislation was backed by wealthy libertarian John Bryan, who has already founded 13 charter schools across the state.

Given that Durham is already home to 15 charter schools, it's no wonder that this district would look attractive to someone like Bryan, who wants to pounce on the business opportunity that this poverty-stricken school district can offer.

In 2011, Bryan wrote in a "founder's letter" for his charter network TeamCFA that his goal was to "inculcate my belief in the libertarian, free market, early American Founder's principles" into both his foundation and the individual schools.

In late September, the Innovative School District selected two Durham elementary schools for charter takeover--without the consent of any staff or families. But Durham Public Schools employees, students and families didn't take this sitting down.

The local affiliate of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the Durham Association of Educators, partnered with parents and staff and directly fought the takeover of Lakewood and Glenn Elementary Schools.

After parents at the elementary schools tried to intervene in the meetings between administration and representatives for the charter school takeover, but were met with locked doors, the community pulled together several meetings bringing out hundreds of DPS staff and families. They organized petitions and calls to let administration know they didn't support the takeover.

Shortly after the meetings organized by teachers and parents, it was announced that the respective schools were taken off of the school takeover list.

In a state where teachers' union members have no bargaining rights, this really speaks to the dedication that the community has to ensuring that this school district continues to work for them, and not for the sake of profit and business.

With its district already teeming with charter schools, this victory proves that school communities really can take their fate into their own hands. We can fight, and we can win.

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