Linking arms to protect New York schools

March 19, 2015

Leia Petty reports on an impressive day of action at hundreds of New York City schools against Gov. Andrew Cuomo's destructive proposals for public education.

MORE THAN 300 schools in New York City heeded the call by Protect Our Schools, a parent-led education justice coalition, for a day of action on March 12 to stand up to the latest round of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's attacks on public education.

Starting in the early morning, before the school bells rang, thousands of parents, teachers and students began to make their voices heard. Different schools took up the call for a day of action in different ways, from school staff wearing black in protest, to handing out leaflets after school to raise awareness, to rallying in front of school buildings. Impressively, some school mobilizations were followed by community marches and linking up with other schools in their district.

At most schools, parents, teachers and students gathered and held hands around the perimeter of their schools, a simple and beautiful demonstration of unity and ownership.

THE "PROTECT Our Schools" action is the most expansive school organizing effort in recent memory in New York, and demonstrated the widespread anger at Cuomo's endless efforts to weaken public schools.

Teachers at PS 219 in Brooklyn send a message to Andrew Cuomo
Teachers at PS 219 in Brooklyn send a message to Andrew Cuomo (United Federation of Teachers)

This time around, as part of an April 1 budget deal, Cuomo is tying major policy changes to state funding. The extortion is this: Accept Cuomo's proposals or we won't get the money. And what Cuomo wants includes lifting the state cap on charter school expansion, increasing the number of years for teachers to obtain tenure (from three to five) and an overhaul of the teacher evaluation system, which would increase state standardized testing from 20 percent to 50 percent of a teacher's yearly evaluation.

All of this is part of Cuomo's stated attempt to "break the monopoly" of public education and further scapegoat teachers for the state of schools today.

Do you think poor funding, segregated schools, impoverished neighborhoods and large class sizes are major factors contributing to educational outcomes of public school students? The governor disagrees. "Everyone will tell you, nationwide, the key to education reform is a teacher evaluation system," Cuomo said in his State of the State address.

Noting that most teachers are rated "effective," even though less than half of the state's high school students are labeled "college ready" by their test scores, Cuomo asked, "How can that be? Who are we kidding, my friends? The problem is clear, and the solution is clear. We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations."

But teachers, students and parents aren't buying it. In increasingly larger numbers, the three largest stakeholders in education are coming together.

The call for a day of action was eventually endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which previously had been primarily focused on a social media campaign to expose Cuomo's proposals. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio and School Chancellor Carmen Farina sided with the UFT against Cuomo, telling Albany lawmakers that the plan was "not a good idea," which surely gave increased confidence to organizing efforts locally.

But de Blasio and Farina have been complicit in supporting school policies that helped lay the groundwork for these proposed changes. Most notably, they supported Advance, the most recent teacher evaluation overhaul, which directly linked standardized testing to teacher evaluations for the first time.

ON THE day before the "Protect Our Schools" day of action, District 15 Chapter Leaders (school based shop stewards) from the UFT mobilized over 100 parents, students and teachers to picket outside Cuomo's Manhattan office. "I'm out here supporting teachers because they support our kids," said one parent. "They know my child better than Cuomo does."

The protest received lots of support from passing motorists, especially city and state workers on the job. Delivery bike workers gave the thumbs-up, and pedestrians took leaflets and stopped to hear about the struggle to preserve public education.

At one of the rallies the next day at PS 2 in Chinatown, over 200 parents, students and teachers gathered before school started and formed a giant ring around the school. One parent told a reporter from Chalkbeat that she was there to push Cuomo for more school funding, but also to show her fourth-grade daughter that there is "politics in the day to day," and the importance of getting involved.

One of the main sentiments expressed on March 12 was against the increased role of high-stakes testing. Jordon, a middle school teacher from District 15 in Brooklyn, said that "teachers are tired of being over-tested and not able to teach. We have students calling out sick so they can study more for these high stakes tests."

Members of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), the opposition caucus in the UFT, organized dozens of actions at their schools, including some of the city's largest and most militant.

At PS 58 in Brooklyn, there was a community march with another elementary school. As Chapter Leader Dan Lupkin wrote afterward:

These acts of resistance have been just the beginning; the PS 58 community is fully awake and mobilized. The end of this week does not mark the end of our resistance--Governor Cuomo has opened a Pandora's Box with his misguided proposals, and he will find that once roused, the school communities of PS 58, of District 15, of New York City and the State at large will not be easily stuffed back into that box.

John Antush, a teacher at City-As-School, helped organize a 100-person-strong march in lower Manhattan. It began as a press conference in front of the school building, which led into a spirited march to Washington Square Park, with chants that included, "The problem is poverty, not teacher quality!" and "The stakes are high, Test scores lie!"

Protesters stayed for an hour listening to speeches done open-mic style, including a high school student's rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'."

About 200 students and educators from the James Monroe Annex building in the South Bronx came out after school to protest Cuomo's attack on public education. Middle and high school students and educators joined in from Mott Hall V and The Cinema School.

A ring was formed around the building, stretching around the block. Students led chants of "No Mo' Cuomo," "Save Our Schools" and "We Are More than Test Scores." One rally participant, teacher and UFT Delegate Stephen Swieciki, explained why he felt the actions were important:

I think Thursday's rallies across the city spoke volumes. Children don't need more tests that take up more and more of the school year. They need smaller, better-funded classrooms. They don't need charters cherry picking data, they need schools that will support the neediest and most challenging among them. I hope these rallies are the first of many.

MOST OF the thousands of people who participated in last week's actions are aware that one day of action will not be enough. In case that wasn't already clear, Cuomo's spokeswoman Dani Lever responded to the protests with a sneer: "Frankly, the louder special interests scream--and today they were screaming at the top of their lungs--the more we know we're right."

Such statements are an insult to those who have the largest stake in public schools: those who teach, those who learn and those who send their kids. The arrogance of politicians who make decisions about public schools, having rarely set foot in one, is only fueling the movement against them.

The school-based organizing and coalition building that took place over the past few weeks, and for some over the past few years, are the essential building blocks to amassing the kind of social power that will be needed to confront the wealthy interests who fund and benefit from the increase in high stakes testing.

This particular day of action was significant, not just for its size. It forced the city, even if for just a day, to listen to the voices of those who are left out of the conversation. It also forced our union to help mobilize its members, instead of its default strategy of closed-door lobbying and social media campaigns.

The willingness of the UFT to endorse this call and help organize local actions is an example of what's possible when they are pushed to fight. Their primary strategy remains lobbying the Democratic Party, a strategy that is falling short in the face of bipartisan support for privatization of schools and undermining union rights for teachers.

Teachers have an opportunity in this moment to push the UFT out of its zone, utilize our union's immense resources to address our anger, meet the needs of its members and demonstrate what kind of local resistance is possible.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that the protests are having an impact. Some 65 percent of voters said that teacher tenure shouldn't be tied to test scores, and 55 percent said they trusted teachers' unions to improve education, compared to 28 percent who trust Cuomo. Overall, the pollsters report that the attack on public schools "is taking its toll on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who begins his second term with his lowest job approval rating ever" at 50 percent.

It should be noted that 50 percent of voters also support increasing the numbers of charter schools in the state, which shows that there is still a lot of work to be done to educate the public about how charters fit into Cuomo's anti-school agenda.

The March 12 protests were a great beginning, giving teachers, parents and students an opportunity to stand side by side. And the fight is far from over. The next step is a citywide rally called by the UFT for March 28, just days before the budget deal will be finalized. And if the budget is passed, stay tuned for the largest opt-out spring in New York City history.

Bill Linville, Will Russell, Marissa Torres and Erik Wallenberg contributed to this article.

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