Students in the streets against cuts in Boston

March 17, 2016

Lauren Nickell and Keegan O’Brien report on a major walkout of Boston high school students against the racist and unjust nature of proposed cuts to the education budget.

"THEY SAY cut backs, we say fight back!" roared a crowd of more than 3,500 Boston Public Schools (BPS) students who marched out of their classrooms and took to the streets on the morning of March 7.

Emboldened by campus protests against racism around the country, a group of youth activists led a district-wide walkout to protest a proposed $50 million cut to the city's education budget announced earlier that year.

The slashed budget would result in cuts to Advanced Placement (AP) classes, libraries, early childhood education programs, extracurricular activities, disability services, access to transportation and beloved teachers--an immense loss of educational resources to poor and working-class Black and Latino students who make up over 75 percent of the district.

Students were well aware of how the cuts would exacerbate racial and economic inequality. Protesters carried signs reading "Black Students Matter" and "Cranes in the Sky: Cuts in Our Schools."

After the walkout, students testified at the hearing before the BPS School Committee, a body of seven members—which isn’t elected by the public, but appointed by the mayor—responsible for voting on the district­-wide budget.

Boston high school students participate in a mass walkout against cuts
Boston high school students participate in a mass walkout against cuts (Keegan O’Brien)

During the hearing, students from Boston Latin Academy talked at length about the vital role of their school's Arabic program--which is slated to be fully eliminated under the proposed 2017 fiscal plan—plays in promoting a culture of inclusion at their school at a moment when Islamophobic violence runs rampant in our country.

A seventh-grade student from O'Bryant School of Math & Science bravely explained that she would be particularly affected by the cuts because, as an undocumented immigrant who is ineligible for federal financial aid for college, she relies on AP classes and extracurricular activities to obtain scholarships. The crowd roared with supportive applause as she pleaded to the School Committee, "Don't let them take away my chance to go to college!"

"How is it that in the most prosperous country," one young activist asked, "we can afford to fund a military that has the resources to police the world, but we can't afford to educate children?" Another student pointed out the city's culpability in the racism and class inequity that characterizes Boston, pronouncing that the budgets cuts are "a clear example of institutional racism."

DID MAYOR Marty Walsh think the people of Boston would passively accept his dubious claim that the city cannot afford to invest in public schooling for Black and brown communities, even after he provided almost $150 million in subsidies to General Electric to lure the company into re-locating their world headquarters to the city?

Walsh's expectation that he could easily trample over BPS students reveals the arrogance and racist assumptions held by the administration toward the city's low-income Black and Latino youth. Walsh may have hoped that Bostonians would acquiesce to the proposed cuts, but instead, they began fighting back and beginning to ask why the school system's budget deficit exists in the first place.

Public schools in Massachusetts are largely subsidized through two sources. The first is an unjust and regressive tax system. Not only is Massachusetts one of only seven states in the country that doesn't have a higher income tax rate for the wealthy, it also has a particularly inequitable local property tax system.

Statutory exemptions in Massachusetts tax law currently allow a staggering $13 billion worth of property owned by private institutions to remain tax-exempt and unaccountable to the people of the city.

These loopholes were created in 1830 with the original intent to bring health and education services to city, but they have historically been used to allow private businesses to thrive while institutions that serve working-class people--like the school system and public transit--fall into deficit, all under the guise that the reign of the free market will promote "innovation" as a remedy to the social ills of the city.

As a result, elite multibillion-dollar institutions like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are able to thrive while low-income Black and Brown youth have their futures crushed. The deprivation of public funds for public education is taking place in a city that is already racked by a rapid growth in racial and economic inequality.

A recent study from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, itself a primary engine of gentrification in the city, revealed that nearly half of Boston residents earn less than $35,000 a year—and when adjusted for inflation, incomes for such workers have not increased in three decades.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution found Boston to have the highest rate of economic disparity among the country's 100 largest cities, with the top 5 percent earning 18 times as much as households in the bottom 20 percent.

THE OTHER major source of funding for public education in Massachusetts is state aid. In recent years, public schools in Massachusetts have suffered financial losses after Gov. Deval Patrick passed the Education Reform Act in order to qualify for grants from Obama's Race to the Top education initiative.

Race to the Top is a quintessential neoliberal maneuver to privatize education, deceptively branded as a remedy to the "achievement gap." In reality, its goal was the nationwide adoption of common standards and assessments, accompanied by the creation of a grand­-scale data warehouse by which school quality and teacher performance could be evaluated in accordance with a comprehensive set of test score averages.

Patrick's Education Reform Act, in accordance with the mandates of Race to the Top, doubled the number of privately run charter schools in Massachusetts school districts that performed below average on standardized testing.

It also granted unprecedented authority to superintendents to overhaul their schools deemed "substandard" due to test scores. These "overhauls" have largely come in the form of making for-­profit "education management" vendors permanent fixtures in public education while community and teacher control of schools increasingly diminishes.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff for Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, clearly stated this goal in a Harvard Business Review article headlined ”The Innovation Mismatch: ‘Smart Capital’ and Education Innovation”:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state­-by­-state basis, and often on a district-­by-­district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

Education management entrepreneurs, thanks to Race to the Top, have a national marketplace for their products, but at the direct expense of communities who have lost democratic control of their schools to the reign of the market. During the day of the Boston budget cut rallies, resentment over the dominance of "strategic management vendors" in the school system boiled among some city residents.

One Boston community member at a budget cut hearing exclaimed, "We have the talent in our schools, why isn't the district writing them grants rather than the vendors? Before BPS lets even one teacher or paraprofessional in direct service to children go, those vendors have to go!"

Far from closing the achievement gap, corporate school reform measures like Race to the Top and the Education Reform Act have exacerbated racial and economic inequality in education. Considering the neoliberal aims of the corporate school reform movement, this isn't surprising.

The U.S. capitalist class wants to radically refashion public education, with two major goals. The first is to create a two-tiered education system in urban districts, with a top tier for high preforming students who can be channeled into managerial and professional occupations and a lower tier for the city's working-class and poor students who are funneled into un-skilled low-wage labor.

The second is to dismantle teacher unions, one of the last remaining strongholds of organized labor in the country--one in every three union members in the U.S. is a teacher--so that American capitalism can maintain it's competitive edge over other rising low-wage economic competitors like China.

A FEW days after the walkout and budget hearing, Mayor Walsh announced that funding for high school students would remain intact. Instead, funds would be cut from elementary schools, special education and autism and pre-K programs.

Far from quelling the anger from students, parents and teachers Walsh's decision only enflamed it. Organizers of the student walkout made clear that their fight continued and community members immediately began organizing to turn out in force at the next public hearing.

In the days before the walkout, BPS officials sent out a district-wide letter arguing that a walkout was disruptive and posed a danger to students' safety and well-being. But it's clearly Mayor Walsh and the School Committee who are endangering students by cutting funding and resources for some of the district's most vulnerable children.

It's the city's political elites and their appointed bureaucrats who are disrupting the lives of Boston's low-income Black and Latino youth by closing their schools and undermining public education so that private corporations can thrive.

By walking out last week, BPS students are showing the rest of the city how to fight back. Students demonstrated their own power and the potential pressure that organized collective action and mass protest can have in forcing politicians to retreat.

It will only be through building off the solidarity and mass mobilization on display last week that students, teachers and parents can push back against the racist agenda of the city's 1 Percent of school privatization and austerity and have a chance at saving public education and winning the quality, equitable schools Boston's students deserve.

Khury Petersen-Smith contributed to this article.

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