"We want our schools back! We want our schools back!" was one of the chants that rang through the auditorium of International High School in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
On October 30, hundreds of parents, teachers, students and community members bid an angry farewell to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Panel for Education Policy (PEP) at the final meeting of this undemocratic panel under the outgoing Bloomberg administration.
"I guess it's coming to and end for you guys, the pathetic puppets of the PEP," said Norm Scott of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a caucus of the teachers' union, to raucous applause from those filling the auditorium at International High School-Prospect Heights. "You've spent these years leading a path of destruction."
On the docket for the evening were the proposed co-location of 22 schools, 10 of them charter schools, inside existing district schools. As has become tradition at these meetings, despite hours of heartfelt and passionate testimony about the damage the proposed co-locations would cause to already cramped and overcrowded schools and about the ways that supposedly "temporary" charters chew up more space each year, the puppet panel–a majority of whom are appointed by the mayor–voted to approve every single co-location.
As Scott pointed out, if the PEP really believed in educational "choice" for communities–which is the phony rationale used to push the expansion of corporate-backed charter schools–then they would have listened to the parents, students and teachers, who said loud and clear that their "choice" was to stop the co-locations.
Outside the PEP, a coalition of groups–including the MORE caucus of the United Federation of Teachers; Change the Stakes, an opponent of standardized testing; and the Paul Robeson Freedom School–organized a Halloween-themed funeral ceremony for the more than 168 schools closed since Bloomberg took office in 2001. Protesters unfurled a huge black banner reading "Stop Killing Our Schools," and students carried caskets in a funeral march, while the band from PS 72, one of the co-located schools, provided musical accompaniment.
The rally called on the next mayor–which will be Democrat Bill De Blasio–to immediately implement a moratorium on school closures and co-locations, and to reverse the 11th hour co-locations being carried out as a parting shot from the Bloomberg administration. "Just a few days! Just a few days!" was a popular chant, led by the new Public Advocate Letitia James, who won election along with de Blasio on November 5.
De Blasio has raised the hopes of embattled teachers and communities with his promises to halt school closings and co-locations, and a plan to make charters schools usurping space in public school buildings pay rent.
This is a welcome change in rhetoric from the Bloomberg administration, but it is clear that those who stand for real, progressive education reform will have to exert pressure on the mayor to convince him to make good on these promises.
De Blasio is a firm supporter of the mayoral control system for public schools that Bloomberg began, which shifted power away from parents and communities. And recent statements indicate De Blasio may be quite flexible about demanding rent from the charters. As he told WNYC radio, "It would depend on the resources of the school or charter network…My simple point was that programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent."
For its part, the charter school lobby has already come out swinging against de Blasio's statements that he would make the charters pay for their currently free space.
As usual, charter operators are using their parents and students as pawns in the process. On October 8, a number of charter schools closed their doors to stage a forced march of thousands of students, parents and paid organizers across the Brooklyn Bridge. Success Academy Charter Schools head Eva Moscowitz, who rakes in $475,000 a year, made it clear that parents "must" plan to accompany their children on the march, which replaced half the school day, according to the Gotham Schools website. As MORE's Norm Scott pointed out at the PEP meeting, charter parents and children lost their mythical "school choice" that day.
What kind of school can choose to close for the day to attend a political rally? Certainly not any public school in the five boroughs that I'm familiar with. This made it doubly ironic when a paid organizer for Coney Island Prep, a charter school, repeated the line that charters were "public schools"–and furthermore, that they were nonprofits because they "don't make any money."
In fact, the only thing charters seem to be good at is fattening the stock portfolios of their corporate investors–and busting unions. Among the many financial breaks that charters receive from the government is the federal "New Markets Tax Credit," which gives firms that invest in charters in "underserved" areas tax credits of up to 39 percent to offset the costs.
What miracles are charters performing with their massive corporate backing? A 2009 Stanford University study showed that charters nationwide performed no better than public schools, even on their own narrow terms of improving reading and math test scores. This is even more unimpressive given that charters can weed out English Language Learners, children with special needs, and children with behavioral difficulties. In Washington D.C., for example, charters expel students at 28 times the rate of public schools. Real public education stands for educating every child.
If you've participated in the bitter confrontations at PEP meetings between bussed-in charter contingents and supporters of education justice over the last several years–the late October one was no exception–you can't help but get the impression that the Department of Education enjoys seeing us fight each other, rather than uniting against our real enemies at Tweed and beyond.
But solidarity in struggle often works. PS 196 in Brooklyn was taken off the DOE kill list after a massive rally against the proposed closing of it school, which overflowed the school's auditorium a few weeks ago. These small struggles can lay the groundwork to organize larger battles down the road.
There are a lot more of us than there are of them, as evidenced by the massive crowds at PEP meetings over the years who have turned out to plead, protest and attempt to shut down the PEP–far greater numbers than Eva Moscowitz could force across the Bridge.
The corporate education "reformers" have money and bipartisan support on their side, and they use charters as a privatizing wedge, along with a test-and-punish regime to discipline teachers and close schools. Buoyed by No Child Left Behind, as well as Obama's Race to the Top program, they have made great headway in chipping away at public education in New York City.
Bloomberg's long-awaited exit and de Blasio's entrance has created new hope and raised expectations. Now is the time for all those parents, teachers and students who stand for real education reform and the defense of true public education to hold de Blasio's feet to the fire and widen the struggle that will be necessary to turn things around.
First published at SocialistWorker.org.