Strikes in Chicago and Seattle are just the latest protests against lack of funds and overtesting. Can this growing grassroots movement change the public school system?
The last few years have seen the growth of a vibrant movement around public education, led by students, parents, and educators frustrated with what’s passed for reform in the schools. While “education reform” remains code for school closures, the opening of private charters, and an ever-increasing reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to judge student progress and rate teachers, the grassroots movement is demanding quality public schools that are equitably funded, where teachers get to teach rather than test and where parents can play a role in their students’ education.
In Chicago, a group of parents and activists are on the 29th day of a hunger strike, demanding that a shuttered school in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood be reopened as an open-enrollment neighborhood high school focusing on green technology, partnering with the Chicago Botanical Garden and the Chicago Teachers Union. That union famously went on strike in 2012, drawing national attention as they challenged an austerity budget that continued to underfund their schools and won support from the majority of the city residents. In other cities, like Newark, New Jersey, students have organized strikes and walkouts against high-stakes testing, cuts, and school closures.
Now, Seattle’s 5,000 union teachers are on the picket lines for their first strike in 30 years, against the backdrop of battles in Washington state over education funding. In August, after years of back and forth, the state Supreme Court fined the state $100,000 a day until it created a plan to fix the gap in spending between public schools in rich neighborhoods and poor ones. Another ruling found that privately run, publicly funded charter schools were unconstitutional (the state only began to allow charters in 2012), that because they are not publicly accountable, they are not public schools. The Seattle Education Association (SEA) teachers themselves have not gotten a cost-of-living raise in six years, at the same time as the cost of living in their city has skyrocketed, fueled by a tech boom led by some of the same big names that pop up over and over again as funders for “ed reform”—Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, whose companies, Microsoft and Amazon, are both headquartered in Washington.
While it’s understandable that the teachers would find pay a sticking point, especially as the district wants to expand the school day, meaning more work for teachers, the union has made its collective bargaining process a site for a broad debate about the conditions in Seattle public schools. Jonathan Knapp, president of the SEA, explained that the union was very conscious, going into contract negotiations, about wanting to use bargaining as a platform for issues that resonated with the community at large. As the union began to do more organizing work in the community, it found that parents were concerned about recess for elementary school students, about over-reliance on standardized testing at the expense of teaching, and about racial equity in the schools.
“Our membership has realized, as many education associations across the country have realized, that nobody else is going to ride to our rescue on this stuff, that it’s up to us to be the advocates for the institution,” Knapp said. “Public education is a crucial institution in American democratic society. I think in the past we’ve taken it a little bit for granted that everyone agreed with that, that we didn’t have to be the advocates for our own institution but it turns out it’s become very contested terrain. That realization has galvanized our membership in the last couple of years. The point now for us is we’re going to be taking the lead on education issues.”
Teachers at Seattle’s Garfield high school had already taken the lead on the issue of standardized testing back in 2013, when they refused to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to ninth-grade students. At the time, education experts lauded their action as groundbreaking, and they ultimately won their fight, with the district deciding to make the test optional. The MAP test boycott played a role in invigorating the SEA, as did a conscious internal organizing campaign to engage members and build power. Alongside a growing movement of parents opting their children out of the tests, teachers’ new willingness to challenge the tests has built bonds around the country.
Testing is now an expected part of contract negotiations for teachers, but the Seattle teachers aren’t stopping there. With the recent focus, thanks to the movement for Black lives, on racial justice and particularly on policing and mass incarceration, it was a natural step for the SEA to include racial equity in its bargaining process. In 2013, the federal Department of Education began an investigation into Seattle schools for disproportionate discipline, particularly against African-American students, who were suspended or expelled at rates more than three times as high as other children, and face criminal penalties more often. This “school-to-prison pipeline” for Black youth is the other side of the coin of unequal funding; both serve to ensure that poor students, many of them of color, have a harder time getting a quality public education.
Some members of the SEA have been involved in movement for Black lives organizing in Seattle, Knapp said, and all of them wanted to play a larger role in discussions about student discipline. They have been able to make common cause with parents and community activists around this issue and are using the added leverage of their strike to bring home its importance.
Often, when teachers go on strike, the overheated rhetoric will begin to fly, accusing teachers of being “selfish” and insufficiently caring about their students’ well-being. K-12 teachers are majority women, and the idea that teachers ought to work for love rather than wages has a long history in this country, dating back to the early days of public education, when the education reformers of the day touted women’s supposedly-inherent caring skills as well as their lack of a need for a family-sustaining wage. When teachers dare to strike—to refuse to work—the challenges thrown at them carry an extra weight because most of them do go into the field because they care, knowing that the classroom is not going to make them rich.
But in recent years, starting in Chicago, teachers’ unions have increasingly done a good job of throwing that rhetoric back in the reformers’ faces. Chicago’s teachers were legally prevented from striking over anything but wages and benefits, but their organizing, their speeches, their actions highlighted everything from the lack of air-conditioning in the schools to the forcing of students to cross gang lines when their neighborhood school was shut down. Their working conditions, they noted, were their students’ learning conditions. In Seattle, the teachers have been able to explicitly make issues like recess or racist suspension policies part of the bargaining process, and, Knapp said, they have been rewarded with support from the community.
Parents have felt rebuffed by the school district when they attempted to make their concerns about the schools known, and see the teachers’ union as more willing to take up their concerns. A group of parents wrote in to the Stranger, the influential alt-weekly newspaper, expressing their support for the strike even though it would inconvenience them: “If the district forces teachers to strike, we will stand in support of the teachers and members of SEA as they fight for a better education for our children.”
Seattle’s socialist City Council member, Kshama Sawant (also a member of the American Federation of Teachers), held a meeting at City Hall alongside the Coalition for the Schools Seattle Deserves, and councilmembers Nick Licata and John Okamoto joined her in sending a letter to the school board supporting the teachers’ right to strike.
The strike continues, as do negotiations, as does organizing around the country to create equitably funded, accessible, quality public schools that don’t exist just to line billionaires’ pockets with public dollars. The vast majority of Seattle’s teachers, Knapp said, have been on the picket lines and taken part in community service projects, and he expected that would continue. “Members are united and resolved about what we need to get in this contract so we can be successful with kids.”
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