Public education has been under a sustained attack during my entire 15 year career as a teacher.
Like wave after wave of ice zombies in Game of Thrones, failed “school reform” ideas keep on coming, reinvented and re-funded, no matter how many times we beat them back.
Fifteen years ago, when I began teaching math in the Bronx, I worked at Taft High School as the DOE began to shut it down – part of a the first wave of a long string of school closures that helped to shutter almost every large high school in the Bronx and Manhattan, and many more across the five boroughs. Along the way, strong UFT chapters were demolished and strong public schools were replaced with small schools (some of which were high quality, others not), and charters.
This was simply the first wave of so-called school reform, backed by the Gates foundation (who later admitted they had no idea if their “reforms” were successful) and led by mayor Michael Bloomberg and his school chancellor Joel Klein. And, of course our union leadership under Randi Weingarten cooperated with them virtually every step of the way.
Today, we are facing the potential of a new wave of assaults. Despite having fended off many school closings, discredited charters in the public discourse, and managed to set back standardized testing through a wave of opt-outs, we now face Betsy Devos and a concerted effort to bring back vouchers and defund public schools, combined with the frontal assault on the public sector union movement represented by the Janus case, likely to be upheld by the Gorsuch supreme court (while our union leadership, now under Mulgrew, seems to wait with folded arms).
There are tremendous educational problems to solve. New York remains one of the most segregated school systems in the county, with a school admissions process byzantine and frustrating enough to drive even parents with a Ph. D. to tears. By the end of this school year, union dues are likely to be voluntary, requiring in-school union leaders to spend precious time collecting money from members alienated for years from their union. Curriculum and pedagogy are daily shaped by a common core testing regime that is has little relevant to offer our students.
However, despite the political climate, I am more optimistic about the future of education now than I have been ever before. The only way that these attacks are going to be beaten back, in the long run, is by the coalescence of a current of organizers and radicals who can lead the creation of an alternative agenda, and help forge and lead a mass movement to make that agenda a reality. I believe that this current of organizers is strong and growing, and that gives me hope.
Teachers nationally have a tremendous uphill battle to fight – not only do we need to confront the right wing in all its variations, we have deal with the passivity imposed by our own union leaders, and put together networks of teachers, parents and community members who can pose a fighting alternative. I think there are signs that there is a growing and vital section, especially of younger teachers who are ready to take on that struggle. The tremendous support for Bernie Sanders in last year’s election, the rapid growth of Democratic Socialists for America, the tremendous surges of protest in response to Trump’s election and his coded endorsements of fascists, all point to a rising tide on the right (or rather left) side of the polarization of the country.
The point of this blog is to provide a space for debate and ideas within the left of the educational justice movement, particularly in New York City, to help cohere and strength this rising current amongst teachers.
The goal is also to provide voice for struggle on the school level. Any effort to build solidarity with our coworkers – whether it is to get more paper for the copying machine, defeat a harassing administrator, or protect a single family from the newly unleashed forces of immigration control – is worth reporting on, learning from and spreading the lessons of. I hope to open these pages to guest bloggers from around NYC to share their experiences in their own schools and their perspectives on organizing.
Recently, I’ve participated in a small study group on the history of the CIO during the great leap forward of the industrial union movement in this country. I’ve learned a tremendous amount, including how radicals in the auto plants helped to produce shop-floor newsletters in the 1920s that helped lay the groundwork for the networks that would fight the battles in the decade to come. New York teachers are a long ways distant from the greasy tool-and-die shops of 1920s Detroit. And yet, in some ways they are located in a key space in today’s politics – at the intersection of public policy and workplace battles – one of the few sectors of the labor movement (along with the airline and health care workers) that cannot be shipped overseas or to non-union South.
Teachers, because they have a natural alliance with their students and the communities they work in, are uniquely placed to fight a wide variety of assaults from the system, whether support staff taking on the school-to-prison pipeline that shuffles kids from suspension centers to juvenile detention, or science teachers rejecting the climate denial of the Scott Pruitt EPA.
Just as Communist party and other radicals helped to gain an audience and build a base by organizing their coworkers around a wide array of grievances, large and small. These networks, as they grew in the changed situation of the 1930’s, helped to turn around the labor movement from defeat to upsurge. I believe that today a socialist analysis of education and capitalism has something unique to offer rank and file teachers – going beyond simply a critique of Trumpian excesses to understanding how the system supported by both political parties has led us to the current crisis, and how grassroots, radical organizing is the only way to get to an exit.
Much of this grassroots organizing is already taking place inside the Movement of Rank and File Educators, the social justice caucus of the UFT. But much is happening outside the orbit of that group. This blog will be an unapologetic supporter of all that organizing, whether it comes from inside or outside the sphere of the UFT, the pages of Socialist Worker or the other myriad education blogs around the city, the circles of Teachers Unite or the organizing spaces of NYCORE. I have tremendous respect for the work of bloggers, particularly EducationNotes, Chaz, JD2718, RagingHorse, and NYCEducator, which this upstart publication cannot hope to replicate in terms of breadth of content or frequency of posting. I do not want to engage internal debates or inside baseball on the blogosphere but make this a space for reflective contributions on strategy, stories of local resistance and school site struggles, and perspectives for radicals who want to turn our upside-down education and political system right-side up.