Rallying for R.I. schools

June 9, 2011

PROVIDENCE, R.I.--Nearly 100 teachers, parents, students and supporters rallied on the steps of City Hall on June 3 in protest of the recent and escalating assault on public education.

Waving placards reading "Save Our Schools" and "Let Teachers Teach," and joining in chants of "Whose schools? Our schools!" attendees voiced solidarity with teachers and students--and anger at a system more invested in the growth of corporate profits than education.

The rally was organized by the Coalition to Defend Public Education, formed in the wake of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras sending layoff notices to all 1,934 Providence school teachers. The firings came just a year after a similar mass termination in nearby Central Falls, and were shortly followed by Taveras' decision, together with Providence's unelected school board, to close five of the city's public schools, a move that will displace nearly 2,000 students who live in predominantly working-class neighborhoods.

Taveras has blamed the firings and closures on the city's budget crisis, even while continuing to extend tax-exempt status to billion-dollar corporations like Brown University and hospital giant Lifespan.

"The whole reason why this mess is happening is because they 'don't have enough money,'" said Providence student Jonah Jehar. "But they spend billions of dollars every day on war."

Attendees' outrage was especially fierce towards Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's recent push to open five corporate charter schools, to be operated by private corporation Achievement First with public funds. If approved, the so-called mayoral academies would siphon 1,900 students from Cranston and Providence, resulting in the closure of additional public schools.

"The corporations are slowly trying to take over public education, and we can't allow that to happen," said parent advocate Osiris Harrell. "Everybody thinks that charter schools are the new thing. Charter schools are going to be what's going to save us. But charter schools are just a push to privatize education."

As the National Education Association Rhode Island's Pat Crowley said, "They're not talking about education. They're talking about money. It's not Wall Street's schools, it's not the politicians' schools, it's the people's schools. It's the parents' schools. It's the workers' schools. But more importantly, it's the students' schools. And until we figure out that it's the students' schools and take it back for the students, nothing else matters."

Faced with the most vicious attack on public education in living memory, speakers stressed the need for organization, persistence and solidarity. "We have to stand together," said Harrell. "Community people, parents and teachers--we can't be divided any longer."

Said high school teacher Anna Kuperman, "In the 1930s, out of the Depression, that's when the union movement stood up, stepped up and said, 'You beat us, you beat us back--we were tired, but no more.'"

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