Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
Here we are almost 6 months on from the Lakeview Sit-In. The school has now been turned into offices and at least one-fifth of the former students of the 5 closed elementary schools have left the district. Many of the ones that have stayed are now being taught in portables. Clearly we did not achieve our major goals, even though now the Administration will think twice about closing more schools. This article tries to capture some of the positives and negatives of the school closure struggle in order to glean lessons for us today and going forward. They are just the reflections of one person. So please contribute your thoughts too. It is imperative that we all collectively reflect, struggle, and keep our schools open for students.
Editor’s Note: This was written by a member of the Education Committee of Occupy Oakland which co-organized the Sit-In with parents and teachers of the 5 schools.
We sat-in at Lakeview Elementary June 15th but the seeds for our People’s School had been planted much earlier. Beginning in September, 2011, parents, teachers, and students from the 5 schools slated for closure fought to keep their schools open. Clearly the main surge of struggle was leading up to the October 26th vote, but beyond then parents and teachers continued organizing—refusing to accept the destruction of neighborhood schools as somehow advancing the vision of “Community Schools, Thriving Students.” They attempted all the official ways of lodging complaints: attending meeting after meeting at the Board, holding press conferences and rallies. As the District continued stonewalling them, they moved steadily more confrontational, refusing to accept the Administration’s flawed logic. They sued OUSD and even tried recalling the Board members who voted to close the schools. All of these outlets are intended to persuade the Administration to change course when their policies are proven wrong (See Reply to OUSD by Jack Gerson, in this newsletter). But in this case, we were faced with an intransigent Administration fully committed to privatizing our public schools and a yes-men Board. It was in this context, with all other avenues exhausted, that we walked into Lakeview June 15th to keep our 5 schools open.
We achieved many things with our sit-in. Many teachers, parents, and community folks from across the Bay rallied around us and we marched, 400 strong, through downtown to Lakeview. We ran a hugely successful People’s School with much help from generous and committed volunteers. Monday through Friday, dozens of kids attended, learning everything from gardening to social justice. And we got the attention of the Board members and Administration. A few Board members came by to talk about how to switch enough votes to reverse the decision. As far as we know no member had previously opened discussions on this.
Yet, still, we did not win our demands. Now the basketball hoops have been torn up for parking and the classes are filled with offices. How come, after all this, we couldn’t repel the destruction of our neighborhood schools? In this privatizing world, there will certainly be more budget cuts, more school closures, and more charter schools instead of public schools. So, what do we need to do next time?
The answer is complicated but one major part of the answer is that we need to organize ourselves to be more powerful. Clearly we did have a lot of success and did show real power as we noted above. But in the end we still were not powerful enough. Right now the corporations are slashing our budgets, leading to school closures, and engineering a huge propaganda campaign claiming there is too much governmental regulation and teachers are overpaid and out of control. They say we need less public oversight in our schools—except, somehow, when it comes to teachers who need to be evaluated all the time.
How have these privatizers been able to create their own top-down movement? Power. They have unimaginable wealth which they use to buy off politicians and fund think tanks and studies that turn their corporate ideologies into pseudo-science. Then they blast this propaganda everywhere through their corporate media connections. In the face of this we, too, need to organize ourselves to build our own power. But, by nature of our place in society, our power will be different. It won’t be funded by corporate bank rolls and expressed through politicians and mass media corporate media campaigns. It won’t be top-down. It won’t thrive on ignorance.
So what will our Teacher-School Worker-Parent-Student power look like? By engaging with past and current struggles around education—Oaxaca, Quebec, Michoacan (see Resistance to Education Attacks in Mexico by Ale Greta, in this newsletter), Chicago, even Lakeview—we have concrete examples of what this “power” looks like. From these we can learn what has and hasn’t worked and use the best parts.
Here are some lessons we have taken from these struggles:
1. We need working-class wide committees in our schools city-wide (and wider eventually), that includes parents, teachers, students, and working-class community members. This means no administrators or business groups. Both these groups are too tied to the system and its privatization agenda to consistently fight for our needs. If we need any evidence that administrators can’t be trusted, look at the past decade. All of the state trustees—and now Tony Smith—have sacrificed our needs for some vision of a better future that never arrives. They come in for a few years with the next big thing and then leave just as quickly when it proves it was as helium-filled as the last big thing. We can’t expect change to come from the top-down, we need to organize it from the bottom-up.
2. We should start acting militantly. We need to stop asking and start demanding. The Chicago teachers’ strike echoed throughout the country. Similarly, Special Education folks stopped a portion of their budget cuts. But, we could ask, how did SPED get the Board to find $1.75 million, when, just a half-year before, the parents and teachers from the 5 schools couldn’t get them to find $2 million? Clearly, this is more evidence that we should trust “we have no other choice” budget claims from this administration as much as corporate balance sheets. But, more importantly, it was our political power that turned the ship around. SPED had stormed the School Board meeting over the summer with dozens of folks and with petitions showing they had hundreds of more supporters. Moreover, they had organized many parents and teachers in a committee kind of similar to the one I proposed above and so had real staying power. At the same time the Lakeview Sit-In was putting huge pressure and undesired attention on the Board in an election year. In this context, against Tony Smith’s recommendation, the Board reversed the cuts halfway. We should take the lessons of this partial victory and advance them further. We should be organizing ourselves starting now and be ready to sit-in at meetings and schools, boycott schools, and go on strike. We should remember that it will take more than public comments to turn around this Administration and School Board. Power concedes nothing without a struggle.
3. As much as we organize against the privatizers, we should also act out our vision for meaningful education. One of the most powerful parts of the Lakeview Sit-In was the People’s School. We educated dozens of children in a truly collaborative way. Volunteer teachers worked in teams developing their own curriculum from the bottom up. They practiced hands-on learning. Parents would come and stay, helping teach—even learning something themselves. The People’s School grew and grew because, as person after person testified, it was a totally different experience from most detached and alienated schools. People came and people stayed. And, in fact, this popularity was one of the most powerful things that kept us in Lakeview for 18 days—and also led them to kick us out. We had turned a building that was to become offices back into a school. While we’ll never be able to really transform our schools without the resources that have systematically been held back from our schools, we can start building transformative models now, while making sure they stay connected with our larger struggle.
These are some of our suggestions for first steps. These don’t make a lock-shut strategy for victory. This is as much a conversation-starter as anything since we’re sure you have more ideas than we could ever come up with. So, please, check out our blog. Comment, question, change. It’s time we take education into our own hands—literally.
N. Finch was an Oakland educator laid-off due to budget cuts.