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Thousands march to protest teacher firings

Published Mar 10, 2011 9:33 PM
WW photo: Bill Bateman

The city of Providence, R.I., sent termination letters Feb. 23 to all of its 1,926 teachers. Newly elected Mayor Angel Taveras claimed he was doing this to guarantee flexibility in addressing the budget deficit. He is also going to close an unspecified number of schools.

On March 2, thousands of teachers, including contingents from other Rhode Island cities, members of other unions, and community and progressive organizations flooded the streets around Providence City Hall to protest Tavares’ attack on the Providence Teachers Union. The protest was part of a nationwide response to attacks on public education.

Teachers and union members pointed out that this was a direct attack on the seniority and collective bargaining rights of the PTU. This attack was done unilaterally by management with no consultation with the union. (Providence Journal, March 3).

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers — the national affiliate of the PTU — said in a Facebook statement that the union and the school board have been cooperating on “improving low-performing schools, developing an innovative hiring process and revamping the teacher evaluation system.” The PTU is the only AFT local to endorse President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top Program, which promotes privatizing education. But this “cooperation” didn’t protect the PTU from a mass firing.

In contrast to what is happening in the Midwest, where Republican governors have targeted public sector unions, Taveras is a Democrat who has decided to use an iron fist to take on other unions beside the PTU. Tavares is also proposing to sell off parts of Providence’s public “crown jewel,” Roger Williams Park.

A giant orange and black banner at the March 2 rally reading “Save our schools, Defend public education!” was held by members of the SOS (Save Our Schools) Coalition. That group just finished a hard-fought community struggle in 2010 against seven school closings attempted by former Mayor David Cicilline and School Superintendent Tom Brady. Together, students, parents and teachers mounted a struggle strong enough to save five of the seven schools.

The SOS Coalition says there is plenty of money for public education, jobs and other human needs if trillions of dollars are no longer poured down the rat-holes of tax-breaks for the rich, bank bailouts, corporate welfare, wars and ever-expanding military budgets.

Weingarten stated at the Providence rally: “Something insane is going on. I thought the only insanity was in Wisconsin.” But it is not really “insanity” for the rich and powerful in this country to attack unions. They are driven to remove restrictions on how public funds for education are spent.

Providence may be the first major system to fire teachers, but much larger school districts in both New York City and Los Angeles are considering such moves.

Bill Bateman, a long-time Providence activist, contributed to this article.