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People’s Power needed to save our schools

Published Mar 7, 2012 9:53 PM

The struggle over public education in New York City reflects everything going on in today’s high-tech, low-wage, capitalist system. The bankers’ class, desperate for new markets, covets the over-a-billion-dollar school budget. As with other public services, the trend is to outsource, mechanize and privatize while attempting to weaken unions.

Outside PEP hearing.
Photo: gothamschools.org

Billionaire NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg maneuvered to assume mayoral control of the Department of Education in 2002, and has been handing contracts and positions to his cronies ever since. Charter schools backed by private equity and hedge funds have taken over some of the best facilities inside public school buildings, rent free. For-profit chains such as “Success Academy” cynically capitalize on the frustration many families have with inadequate learning conditions created in public schools by decades of top-down racist neglect.

The Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn [Los Sures], is one community that is looking within for solutions. They are demanding self-determination about what school programs their children need. A longstanding working-class, Latino/a community — with elected officials who reflect the population and award-winning educators — the Southside was not consulted when the DOE decided to ‘consider’ placing a SA elementary school inside MS 50, a public middle school, despite the existence of four under-enrolled elementary schools nearby.

Critics charge that the corporate schools exclude students for whom extra resources are needed to address language or learning differences. At existing SA sites, only two percent to five percent of students are English Language Learners; District 14, where MS 50 resides, has 30 percent ELL students. Similar discrepancies exist for special needs students who win the lottery for SA. Parents have testified that either upon mentioning their child’s mandated services, or shortly after they start school, they are counseled to go elsewhere. This means back to the public schools, which average at least 16 percent students with disabilities.

Williamsburg’s PS 84 has a Dual Language immersion program, proven to help students of either English or Spanish become truly bilingual. Advocates insist that the district needs more Dual Language programs, not an English-only charter that will siphon off space and resources from public schools.

Schools, churches, politicians and housing groups in the area have formed Southside Community Schools Coalition to resist the attack on local schools, which they frame as part of the real estate developers’ plan to “phase out our community.” (scscbrooklyn.wordpress.com)

In a telling move, SA used $1.6 million — of the profits accrued from its other 11 schools! — for an advertising campaign directed at the Northside, where the rents are already higher. This backfired when a group of mostly white parents, offended by the overkill recruitment tactics, formed Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents for Our Public Schools and joined SCSC at rallies and hearings.

The schools issue has been incorporated into cultural celebrations on Three Kings’ Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day and into discussions by teens in after-school programs run by the progressive El Puente center. It was the focus of a Feb. 7 town hall meeting in between the DOE-sponsored hearings.

Aside from mobilizing hundreds of residents for hearings at MS 50 on Jan. 17 and Feb. 16 and for the citywide Feb. 9 Panel for Educational Policy meeting, the groups have held marches and press conferences. They forced a meeting with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and started a lawsuit against the imposition of SA where it is not desired. Concluding that the PEP is undemocratic by design and constantly approves the mayor’s wishes, El Puente youth led a creative protest-boycott outside the March 1 PEP meeting. However, PEP’s vote was in favor of SA, with more abstentions than usual.

Clearly, there is a need for people’s power to improve education. In many circles, discussions are occurring about how to eliminate mayoral control and create accountable, representative bodies to run the schools. Forces within the United Federation of Teachers are working to push the union toward a more confrontational stance and to encourage the rank and file to do more than what the leaders recommend. The fight for public schools must continue in the courts and legislatures but also in the streets and especially, in the schools themselves.

See a video on the SA battle at http://tinyurl.com/7uytxt2.