This is a war for our education

April 12, 2016

Thousands of Boston Public School (BPS) students walked out of class on March 7 to protest a proposal to cut $50 million from the city's education budget. After students protested the cuts and testified at a hearing of the BPS School Committee, officials announced that they had restored funding for high schools, but passed a budget that made cuts in pre-school and special education. Despite this setback, though, the March 7 walkout was an important protest that has the potential to lay the basis for future struggles to educational justice.

Later at night after the walkout last month, two of the student organizers, Jahi Spaloss of Boston Green Academy and Harry Saunders of Snowden International, talked to Keegan O’Brien about how the protest was built.

I WAS expecting a few hundred students to walk out, and over 3,000 showed up to the demonstration in downtown Boston. That's pretty incredible. What did you think of the protest?

Jahi: I think it was a beautiful turnout. It really showed how much integrity our students have and how much they really care about their education. It shows that they will fight back.

Harry: I'm really happy that everybody showed support for us. To be honest, I only really expected 400 or 500 people, but the whole city came, and that got me fired up.

We need to be upset. We need to be irrational. We can't be disorganized. We have to be united and show solidarity. We have to have equity. We have to show that we need this, because it's our education that's at stake here, and this is really important to us. If these cuts go through, it will be so detrimental to our future. I want to reiterate that I really love all the support we saw. It's pushing everything forward, and that's what we need to do.

COULD YOU explain what's happening to Boston Public Schools and why you guys organized this walkout?

Several thousand students participated in the walkout from Boston Public Schools
Several thousand students participated in the walkout from Boston Public Schools (Herculano Fecteau)

Jahi: We organized the walkout purely on the basis that our education was being jeopardized. We felt that we had to collaborate with as many youth as possible and talk about this injustice, and then take action over it. We wanted to show that if the adults in this city aren't going to stand up for our education, then we will. This is a historic moment, and now is the time for us to stand up.

Harry: I'm just wondering who the mayor and the School Committee think they are to think that they can deprive us of something like this. They say they're prioritizing our safety by not allowing us to walk out, but they're not thinking about the yellow school buses that they're going to cut. The kids are going to be standing on the corner at 5 a.m. We know that kids of all ages are getting stabbed and shot up in the MBTA--all kinds of things are happening to them.

That's just one of the things that is already wrong with this whole thing. But we know this really needs to happen because if we get comfortable with them making rash decisions like this, this is going to happen for our children and their children. It's going to keep going and going and going, until this state falls apart and until this country falls apart. We need to revolutionize this.

COULD YOU two talk about how this all came together, and what you think the next steps needs to be?

Jahi: The organizing began with Snowden International, and then the students there asked for help from the youth-led organization I work with, BYOP, which stands for Boston-area Youth Organizing Project. With our connections, we reached out to many organizations in Boston, and we helped spread the word to students at other schools across the city. And from there, we started organizing the walkout.

This is just the first step of the battle we have ahead of us. Now we plan on encouraging students to continue going to the budget cut hearings, and if [Mayor] Marty Walsh and [Governor] Charlie Baker continue to ignore what we are saying and the injustice that is going on, we will continue to walk out.

THE CITY just gave a $180 million tax subsidy to General Electric, a $250 billion multinational corporation. Meanwhile, they're cutting the BPS budget by $50 million. What do you think tells us about the priorities of this city?

Jahi: Boston has been known to have some of the highest levels of economic inequality in the entire country. And honestly, I believe that there's a lot of adultism when it comes to certain priorities being noticed. Right now, Boston is only focusing on inviting more tourists. They're gentrifying this city, but what about us?

They cut the budgets from out schools and undermine our own future, even though Marty Walsh literally said that BPS will never be cut back. Look what's happening now! So if we can't trust him with this, how can we trust him to continue running this city?

Harry: It's coming close to a tyranny, and nobody's saying anything. Everybody just expects us to sit down and do what we're told. But what's dear to us is education because that's what has gotten us this far in our lives. It's BPS and public schooling offered to those who never had opportunities.

It gives everyone a voice and a chance. It gives everybody a future. So when they start depriving us of that, when they start making these cutbacks, we have nothing left. They just take and they take, and they don't have a right. It's not their money. It belongs to us.

WHAT KIND of effect are the cuts going to have on the school system as a whole? In particular, how is this going to affect some of the most vulnerable students in BPS: low-income students, English Language Learners and students with disabilities?

Jahi: The budget cuts are going to cut from extracurricular activities like sports teams and clubs, even some classes actually and definitely special needs. It would also cut back on AP classes, which are some of the only opportunities kids have to have a lower budget when they go into college.

We're affected on a deeper level, too. When they make these cuts they're showing us that our education, our future, doesn't matter. And then you have to wonder, how much do they really value the next generation?

Harry: They're not prioritizing correctly. The politicians just want to benefit themselves and the rich. You can't get any more capitalistic than that. They want to start off slowly, and then when the people get comfortable with it and everybody's okay and nodding their head and agreeing, they want to keep going deeper and deeper which will just make it worse.

But we're not going to do that, the people are starting to notice. And by doing what we did today we can make them--the politicians--open their eyes. How can you ignore 2,000 people?

DO YOU expect the school committee and the mayor to listen to you?

Harry: Yes, we do. That's their job.

Jahi: Right now, they're not taking us seriously because they think we're just a bunch of kids.

But like I said, this is only the tip of the iceberg. We're one of the richest countries in the world. Not only that, but Massachusetts is also known to have the best education. We have some of the greatest colleges in the world, but if you look at the numbers, not many of us from Boston even go there.

So where's the equality when they're cutting off our opportunities? They're just making our chances of going anywhere slimmer and slimmer. Now we have to work three times as hard just to get ahead. All so that the city can continue building new buildings, making more condos and gentrifying everything. But then they forget about the people who live here.

A LOT of people are pointing out how these budget cuts are going to disproportionately affect Black and Latino students. Do you guys think this is a form of institutionalized racism?

Jahi: Yes, it is absolutely a form of institutionalized racism. 80 percent of Boston Public Schools are filled with Black and Latino children. Not only that, but most of these children come from low-income neighborhoods or low-income families. Some of them don't even have a roof over their heads--they're actually homeless.

I know a lot of kids that have lived through this shit. Half the time, they only get their food through BPS, but now with the budget cuts, I don't even know if we can get fed for free anymore. We're probably going to have to pay out of our pockets. We're supposed to be making a safe haven. We're supposed to be making a land of opportunity in these schools.

Another thing that really adds onto this is the school-to-prison pipeline. They're guiding us into being incarcerated faster than ever, because when you cut back a student's education, they suddenly don't care a whole lot about school anymore.

Then they seek out something more valuable to learn--they find better influences out in the streets. Suddenly they're selling drugs, they're doing illegal activity, they're in gang affiliations, and next thing you know, an innocent Black or Latino youth is behind bars because the education system failed them.

DO YOU see this fight as part of the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for racial justice?

Harry: How many Black and Latino students do you see in private schools or suburban schools? Not many, but that's what's being prioritized. That's where all the money is, but it's not being circulated back to us. It's just mindboggling.

Jahi: Of course it's about Black Lives Matter. And let me reiterate for all the "All Lives Matter" folks: Yes, all lives do matter. But black lives are the ones that are affected the most, and this is a prime example of how we are affected, as a majority of us actually go to these schools, a majority of us actually make up the city's population and a majority of us are effected by inequality.

HAVE EITHER of you been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement at all or any other political activism?

Jahi: I've been actually a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last year, I was a part of organizing and leading the student walkouts against police killings. Over the summer, I traveled down to the South to be a part of the fight, too. And I plan to continue being a part of this fight because we're fighting a losing battle against apartheid, and it's time for all of us to step up and get involved.

WHAT DO you think it's going to take to stop these budget cuts from happening? What role, if any, do you think solidarity between teachers and students and parents and community members play in this struggle?

Harry: It will definitely take collective action. BPS plays a major role in Boston. The majority of poor people and people of color cannot afford private schools, so they go to BPS. If we all take action at once, if we show solidarity, they're going to have to listen.

Jahi: Right now, more than anything, we need more collective unity, even if people don't realize that. For the seniors who think this movement is irrelevant to them because they're graduating next year, this can also affect your graduation.

We also need teachers to be courageous against the scare tactics, because we have administrators who have been ordered by the city to control the students. They're trying to get in contact with our parents to force us to stay in schools, instead of fighting out here for the budget.

We need to unify each other, because right now, our biggest enemy is the politicians up in City Hall and in the statehouse who are ruining our school. They're the ones that are playing the ballgame right now, and they're the ones that are really controlling our system.

But like we said, we're BPS. If there are no longer any students, then our school system cannot function. If the school system cannot function, then neither can the government. If they really want to cut the budget on our education, then we're going to cut the budget on how much the city can exploit us.

IF YOU were in charge of the schools, what would public education look like? What kind of schools do you think teachers and students and parents and the community deserve?

Jahi: First, you have to look back at who has the least advantage in terms of education, so you have to look at the low-income communities. We have to support those communities 150 percent. That's the first thing we have to do.

Second of all, we need to improve the curriculum, we need to boost education in schools, we need to bring down the dropout rates, and we need to encourage even more kids to go to college. Every child should have the opportunity to learn what they want and be encouraged to follow their dreams--and to do all that, we need more funding. We can't be cutting it--our schools are already poor.

One more thing: Schools need to have a much closer relationship with our students. We need to encourage our faculty to believe that every student can make it, because throughout my years in public education, I've met some shitty teachers who just talk down to students as if they're nothing. That needs to change.

Every child is important, and we need to hear from the students. We need to hear their voice, because they're the ones that know what they really want in their education.

Jahi: The best we can do at the moment is continue to go to these budget committee hearings and make our voices heard. We've got to keep getting out into the streets and protesting, because right now there is a war.

Some might think I'm being overdramatic or I'm just speaking in hyperbole, but there is a war going on right now between the students and the government--they're trying to destroy our education and our future.

This is a fight for our education, this is a fight for our brothers and sisters, this is a fight for the younger generation--this is a fight for everyone. It's a cycle, and if we stop now, then who's going to battle for us? We've got to fight for ourselves--no one else is going to do it for us.

Alex Bauer helped transcribe this interview.

Further Reading

From the archives