Occupy The Department of Education
A four day occupation warns of the privatization of schools turning education into a privilege instead of a right
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: “Rest in peace imagination.” “Here lies art, PE, and music.” That’s what’s written on the makeshift memorials outside of the U.S. Department of Education, a message that Detroit native Tawanna Simpson says she knows all too well as a school board member. She was one of the protestors, a part of the Occupy the Department of Education action. The group gathered from April 4 to April 7 to protest what they say is the destructive influences of corporate and for-profit education reforms, particularly when it comes to the teachers that are in the classrooms.
TAWANNA SIMPSON, OCCUPY THE DOE PROTESTOR: In a lot of your charter schools, as well as some of your public schools, but not as many, because of unions, they have Teach for America teachers. And those teachers come in without union contracts. They’re straight out of college. And they’re there to do some community service to forgive student loans. So, therefore, when—and the requirements is that they come into urban areas, and then their loans are forgiven. So, therefore, charter schools tend to hire Teach for America students, where communities that can finance professional teachers have professional teachers. So that’s why I believe that it’s a separate and unequal way that we’re going into in education here in terms of our teachers.
DESVARIEUX: Tawanna brought her nine-year-old neice Ijazz along to be a part of the event. Ijazz currently attends a charter school that’s outside of their neighborhood. And Tawanna says the push to close public schools nationwide threatens to break down the community ties in neighborhoods that are already seen as vulnerable.
SIMPSON: Closing schools as well as charter schools break down a sense of community, because charter schools do not foster community. They cherrypick students. They only allow students who don’t have issues to attend. But when you close public schools and communities, or any school in any community, you break down the sense of community.
DESVARIEUX: The closing of public schools have made headline in recent months with major shutdowns in cities like Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. Elementary school teacher Brian Jones says in order for public schools to succeed, the model of competition does more harm than good, since the quality of all schools needs to be raised.
BRIAN JONES, N.Y.C. PUBLIC ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHER: —setting up competition between the schools that in no way sets us up to that. Let me just give you a for-instance. I used to teach in East Harlem, and my public school became invaded by a corporate chain of charter schools that was trying to spread and occupy more and more spaces in public school buildings, where they could get space for free. And so one of the things they did was they started advertising. They literally paid more than $1 million to a Madison Avenue advertising firm to create billboards, bus stop ads. Parents came to me having received ten or 12 glossy, high-color, foldable brochures in the mail.
And so what’s my public school to do? This is competition. Should we create a glossy brochure? Should we spend $1 million to retain a firm? In other words, should we spend more and more of the public school dollar on the competition between the providers?
And so, you know, in that advertising process, in the process of competition, inevitably there’s overheated claims. And then the public has to try to discern the—you know, well, what’s the truth here and which is more—. I mean, it becomes a ridiculous thing.
And so they’re trying to really do to education what has already been accomplished in health care, where we already have an overwhelmingly privatized system and more and more of each health-care dollar goes to the bureaucracy of paying the bills, goes to the profiteering, goes to the CEO salaries. And we’ve seen now the same thing in education. You have people who operate a chain of charter schools pay themselves north of half a million dollars for just, you know, serving a few hundred children, whereas the chancellor of a million children, the chancellor of New York City, does not make that much money.
DESVARIEUX: However, there is still a large number of parents dissatisfied with the results of the public education system, a point Jones says he can understand. But, he argues, instead of abandoning public schools and creating this model of competition, the state should adopt effective practices of charter schools, like smaller classroom sizes, into public education systems.
JONES: What could we do to improve the pubic schools? Just to start, let’s start with what are people who are in charge of education doing for their own children. What are people like Mayor Bloomberg in New York City or Rahm Emanuel in Chicago or Obama or Arne Duncan, where are these people sending their children? And overwhelmingly we see them sending them to private institutions which have a few features that are very interesting. They have small class sizes, they have incredibly rich resources, and they have experienced teachers.
They do not grind through—the Sidwell Friends academy does not grind through Teach for America kids who just showed up out of Denver and just have a lot of energy. No. They have teachers who are experienced, who have degrees, who’ve studied childhood development and have experience as educators. And they give those people professional autonomy and resources so that they can grow and be the best that they can be. They set them up to succeed. So that’s the model that they choose for their children.
I say let’s take those elements—experienced teachers, small class sizes, rich resources and curriculum—let’s take that model and put that in the public schools, and I think we’ll have much better success. We’ll have much better equity. We’ll have much better racial justice. And I think parents will be thrilled to send their kids to public schools that look like that.
Organizers of the Occupy the Department of Education like Peggy Robertson say parents, educators, and students need to get informed and demand their government stand up for equality in education.
PEGGY ROBERTSON, ORGANIZER OF OCCUPY DOE: There’s a way to take our schools back, and not only take them back, to improve them. And to improve them, we need the autonomy, a teacher such as myself, to really get our voices heard so that we can share ways to improve schools. But the way to do that is we can begin to refuse the high-stakes test. We need to refuse that, we need to refuse the common course standards, and recognize that these are tools of the corporations to privatize our public education using our public tax dollars and, quite honestly, using our children.
DESVARIEUX: Organizers of Occupy the Department of Education say they are beyond trying to get a seat at the table of the Department of Education. Instead, they are creating their own table, and they will be holding grassroots events like this one in the near future.
For the Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.
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