Some 250 parents, teachers and community members gathered at a school in Queens December 14 to protest the Department of Education's plans to expand charter school space in Manhattan and co-locate four new charter schools in Brooklyn's School District 15.
Before the meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy–a body mostly hand-picked by New York City's billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg–officially began, Occupy the Department of Education (DOE) led a "mic check" of the crowd:
Welcome to the Panel for Educational Puppets. Before the meeting starts, we would like to thank the panel for providing us with the opportunity to see Queens, as most of us are parents, teachers and students of Brooklyn, and we don't get the chance to come out here much…
Before you speak we would like to tell you why we are here. We are Occupy the DOE. This panel is not a democratic panel. Parents, students and educators have no voice on this panel. This panel is not here to consider what you have to say. It is here to rubber-stamp the decisions made by Bloomberg.
This panel is here to make money off our children. This panel does not work in our children's interest, but in the interest of the 1 percent. We do not recognize the legitimacy of this panel. We demand that "public" be placed back in "public education." We demand democracy in our schools…
Before the puppet show begins, we would like to know where you stand. We would like to take a vote of no confidence. Please raise your hand if you do not believe that this body should be empowered to make these decisions tonight.
The assembled crowd voted approximately 90 percent in favor of a no-confidence vote in the panel, then launched into chants of "We are the 99 percent" while audience members waved homemade sock puppets. Despite the vote of no confidence, the panel convened. As roll was taken, the protestors shouted "puppet" as they waved their puppets in the air. Kelley Wolcott, a Brooklyn public school teacher and Occupy the DOE member, explained:
I'm here to expose the panel of education policy for the undemocratic farce that it is. I would like to see a democratically elected decision-making body that represents the stakeholders in education–parents, students and teachers–that is accountable for the decisions it makes and the consequences thereof.
Occupy the DOE is an autonomous working group associated with Occupy Wall St that is committed to democratizing decision making in schools and school governments on every level, horizontally and vertically.
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), under pressure from grassroots activists, provided a free bus to take protesters to the panel's meeting–since a letter from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz wasn't enough to move the meeting location closer to the neighborhoods affected by the vote (No Queens-related decisions were on the panel's agenda).
UFT Brooklyn Borough representative Howie Shore said:
I'm here to watch the process even though I know it's a rigged process. What I'd like to see is not going to happen. I'd like to see them vote down the co-locations and the decisions that they already seem to have made. It will take years to undo the damage they've done.
The UFT represents 13 charter schools, so we're not against charters. We are for fairness, we don't think the charter schools should have better supplies, better facilities than the regular schools, given more attention, and we don't think they should be co-located with schools where they take resources from public school students.
Often, the meeting was stopped by chants of "puppets" or "shame." Parents derided the Panel for Educational Policy as disconnected and ultimately unaccountable to the communities that their decisions impact most. Public school parents complained that their school was already so crowded that the kindergarteners ate lunch at 10 a.m. in order to accommodate every grade.
Parents, teachers and activists also addressed the concerns of charter school supporters in attendance at the meeting, arguing that they wanted great schools and multiple opportunities for students, too, but that a great education should be a right, not a lottery.
Speakers also protested the heavy-handed police presence at the public hearing. There were uniformed NYPD and NYPD School Safety officers gathered at the front of the school. There were NYPD community affairs officers and regular NYPD officers posted around the entire auditorium.
Also in attendance were at least seven "white shirts" (supervisors of the NYPD) and the Department of Education's own suited security goons, two of whom observed the entire meeting from the balcony of the auditorium, and the rest of whom walked around constantly ushering people (even journalists) out of the aisles.
Brian Jones, a public school teacher and member of the Grassroots Education Movement, explained in his public comments that they "need this many cops here because what you're doing is so unpopular."
For most protesters, the evening ended shortly after Leia Petty, a public schools guidance counselor and member of Occupy the DOE, began asking schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott direct questions. She asked the chancellor why the meeting had been moved to Queens, and if he could recall the last time the panel voted against Bloomberg's wishes.
After an awkward pause, she asked, "Are you going to answer any of my questions?" When the chair answered, "No," she asked, "Why not?" but received no answer.
When her time ran out, she used a "mic check" to say, "Life is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for the 1 percent, and we'll be back in January, in February, with Occupy the DOE!" When she was finished speaking, the crowd began a chorus of "Whose schools? Our schools!"
After Petty had taken her seat and the next speaker was about to start, three DOE security officers approached her and ordered her to leave. When she asked why she was being asked to leave, they told her they would tell her outside. The room, taking notice, began to chant, "Let her stay!" The news cameras came on, and after conferring with each other, the officers decided to let her stay–but the three security guards remained next to her.
Kevin Prosen, public school teacher and Occupy the DOE member, used his speaking time to urge the crowd to turn their backs on the undemocratic panel and walk out together. At that moment, 50 members of the audience (around three-quarters of the remaining attendance) walked out together.
Outside, they held a General Assembly in which next steps were announced. Occupy the DOE plans to continue their protests at the next Panel for Education Policy in February, when the panel is set to vote on the closing of 19 schools.