Defending NYC public schools

April 2, 2009

NEW YORK--A determined group of 80 teachers, students and parents from the city met at a "Conference to Defend Public Education" March 28. Sponsored by the Independent Community of Educators (ICE) and New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE), the conference was called to strategize for citywide actions to defend public education from corporate attacks and privatization.

The opening panel highlighted the fact that New York City has become the "poster child for corporate-style education reform," and that this attack is part of a global attack on teachers unions and public institutions in general.

Michael Fiorillo, a high school teacher, parent and chapter leader, affirmed, "This fight is not just about the future of our students, but about the future of the society we are going to live in. Will it be a society with democracy of public government, or a society of privatization--private roads, private schools and private armies?"

In subsequent discussion sessions, newer teachers as well as more experienced educators addressed an array of fronts in the battle for public education. These included halting predatory school closings and the spread of charter schools, fighting the abuse of ATRs (teachers without permanent positions whose schools often have been closed), and confronting high-stakes testing and merit pay.

Student activists shared their negative experiences with school closings, which target the most vulnerable working-class communities and communities of color. "My school is being phased out," said a student from South Shore High School in Brooklyn. "Some of my favorite teachers are gone." A young woman from Wingate High School added, "They made the wrong choice. When schools shut down, other schools become overcrowded. Let's fix those schools instead."

Teachers expressed outrage at the "test and punish" straitjacket that has been imposed upon them. "One of the major parts of my job is teaching third-grade students how to bubble scantron forms," said Sam Coleman, a teacher in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Coleman talked about the cultural bias of high-stakes tests, their lack of relevance to curriculum, and the way that test data is used to blame teachers and weaken their unions. "We need to hold the politicians accountable," he said to resounding applause.

A Bronx elementary school teacher emphasized the separate and unequal nature of the charter school in his building: "The charters are very selective in who they take. When kids don't perform well or have behavioral difficulties, they send these 'undesirable' students to us."

Ironically, civil rights rhetoric is used in the slick PR campaigns for charter schools (e.g., "Parent Choice=Parent Power"), appealing to many parents who are justifiably frustrated with budget cuts and inadequate public school resources.

Several speakers argued persuasively that our movement must speak with the same anger and passion that parents feel about the inequities in education.

As an elementary school teacher in Harlem put it, "The resources, the art and the music programs that Barack Obama's children have in their school, we should demand for every child in every school." A Brooklyn high school teacher added, "They talk about the 'achievement gap' between black and white students, but they never talk about the funding gap that exists between these students."

In the past three months, people around New York City have protested the announced phasing out of their schools, demonstrated to defend ATR rights and fought against high-stakes testing. Teachers have organized local meetings with parents and school staff, who are looking for ways to fight school closings.

Many teachers have taken inspiration from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in Chicago, which--in conjunction with union and community activists--recently succeeded in stopping six public schools from being shut down by the Chicago Board of Education.

This conference was an important step toward connecting these grassroots fightbacks, both inside and outside the teachers' union. We need to continue to bring in new people and build solidarity with parents and community members.

A citywide march to project and link these struggles together was proposed for mid-May, as well as an upcoming forum on fighting charter schools on April 27.

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