Thousands walk out in Philadelphia: ’Save our schools!’

WW photo: Joseph Piette

WW photo: Joseph Piette

Philadelphia — For the third time in ten days, students walked out of classrooms here on May 17 to protest the proposed elimination of all extracurricular programs in the city’s public schools. Thousands of students from 27 high schools and middle schools took to the streets, chanting, “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts” and “No education, no life.”

Imperialist globalization and rapid technological development have made it less important for U.S. capitalists to provide education to the working class at home than it was in the 20th century. That in turn has led to severe cutbacks and privatization of the public school system. This is an attack on the entire working class that has its strongest impact on the oppressed communities in the inner cities.

The Chicago Teachers Union and the NAACP in North Carolina, among many others, have mobilized to resist this attack. A united struggle of the entire working class is needed for this resistance to succeed (see related article on North Carolina).

In Philadelphia, more students tried to join in, but officials from at least one school — West Philadelphia High School — locked school doors to keep students inside.

The proposed cuts would mean the elimination of art, music, gym, foreign language, libraries, school support staff, sports, guidance counselors, classroom aides and even books. This comes on top of the city’s School Reform Commission (SRC) voting to close 23 schools in September 2013.

The walkout was organized primarily through Facebook and Twitter at #walkout215. A number of community groups, including Youth United for Change, Teacher Action Group, Action United, Media Mobilizing Project, Philadelphia Coalition Advocating Public Schools, Building Peoples Power, Fight for Philly and Occupy Philadelphia, which have been active in challenging the cuts in education, turned out to support the students. Strong community support for the students was evident all along the march route.

Close corporate tax breaks, fund public schools

The students converged on the School Board office on North Broad Street for a march to Center City, where they surrounded City Hall and took over its central courtyard. Inside, a City Council Finance Committee hearing was underway on whether to raise an additional $30 million for the schools through an increase in the business use and occupancy tax. Student chants could be heard inside the hearing. The committee voted 5-to-1 to move the measure for a full council vote.

Despite closing 31 schools in over 18 months and forcing school support workers to accept major contract concessions, the School District still claims $304 million is needed to fill a budget gap for 2013-14. The district is seeking $120 million from the state and $60 million from the city. Philadelphia was one of the districts hardest hit when billions of dollars were cut from state funding for education in the last two years.

Ironically the city’s portion of this “shortfall” could easily be offset by eliminating tax breaks proposed for major commercial and industrial property owners. They are slated to get back a collective $80 million if the city’s new property tax assessment program is approved.

This program, called the Actual Value Initiative, also serves to increase the potential for greater gentrification. In many communities, residential property taxes that are expected to double or triple will drive out seniors and poor and working-class families unable to pay them.

‘Shortfall’: excuse to attack teachers’ seniority

School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. wants to make up the $120 million of the claimed budget “shortfall” by forcing school teachers to make major contract concessions. Immediately after voting to close schools in March 2013, the SRC called for a draconian giveback contract from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers designed to push wages and benefits back to 1965 levels.

On May 16, Hite announced he would seek state support for his proposal to eliminate teacher seniority –- in effect negating decades of union negotiations. If approved, this attack on unionized workers would drive down wages of all teachers. Hite claims this action is necessary to get additional state funding.

Hite claims that teacher retention due to seniority has a negative impact on student performance and stands as a roadblock to improving schools. PFT President Jerry Jordan immediately challenged Hite. Jordan pointed out that states with no teacher seniority, including many in the South, have poorer student performance than states with strong unions. (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 17)

Students complain that school curriculum is aimed at improving results on standard tests. Many expressed concern that the programs now on the chopping board are the very ones that engage their interest enough for them to stay in school.

Research on Pennsylvania’s schools shows that 60 percent of a student’s day is in some way devoted to test preparation, assessment or review for tests. In the week leading up to the walkout, students at some high schools only had to attend half days unless they were being tested for the state’s Keystone exams.

Student concerns over the potential devastating impact of these program cuts offered a disturbing view that schools are becoming virtual prisons without bars. Youth will be offered little alternative to the endless drudgery of test taking that has become 21th century capitalist ­“education” for the working class and ­oppressed.

Many U.S. schools already fuel a tracking system that pushes young adults from underfunded schools into overfunded prisons: the school-to-prison pipeline.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education against segregation in education when it overturned the racist policy of “separate but equal” education. Nearly 65 years later schools are more racially segregated than ever. At the same time the drive to privatize public schools threatens to set back gains in education by over a century.