Welcome to the Fight-Back!
As students return to school, Secretaries of Education typically embark on a “back-to-school” tour to promote public education and encourage students to embrace learning. In contrast, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos left Washington this week for what she’s calling a “Rethink School” tour. Announced only minutes before her departure, DeVos is visiting public, private and charter schools, along with home-schooling families, mostly in the Midwest. At one of her first stops, instead of touting the strengths of public schools, DeVos seems to have imagined a bleak return to the classroom: "Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. ... They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell." She went on to call public school a mundane malaise. Just what students and teachers want to hear in September.
But, undaunted, it appears that even though there’s been little advance notice around the Secretary’s tour, protest seems to be nipping at her heels. At her first stop in (apparently grizzly-infested) Wyoming, protesters carried teddy bears outside the school she was visiting. In Nebraska, students showed up in “Make America Gay Again” and “I [heart] my public school” t-shirts.
Betsy DeVos has offered no policy agenda to support and invest in public schools. She only speaks “choice,” – a code word for privatization, separation and segregation. As we fight-back against ongoing Congressional consideration of the Trump Administration’s budget and tax proposals (which DeVos has promoted), it is fair to ask members of Congress “which side are you on? Are they with Betsy DeVos and her budget-slashing-voucher-creating agenda? Or are they with the 47 million students that attend, and desperately need investment in their public schools?” AROS will be asking just that question next week, with planned events in 20 cities across the country.
MORE2, NAACP, #WeChoose Turn Out in Kansas City
Today, over 130 folks from MORE2, the local NAACP, the #WeChoose campaign and other groups protested, and handed out flyers with contact information for their member of Congress, outside the private school that DeVos was visiting in Kansas City, MO. The event, which took place at 7:30 am as DeVos paid her “Rethink School” visit to Kansas City Academy, included over a dozen survivors of rape, who specifically chastised DeVos for her recent policy statements on campus sexual assault. Inside the school, which enrolls a number of LGBT students, young people were preparing to deliver their own their messages about “rethinking” equality and rights for transgender students. The action outside was put together by MORE2 and its partners, who were originally planning coordinated actions with other AROS groups on September 20th, but quickly adjusted their plans when they heard that DeVos would be speaking right across the street from a strong MORE2 congregation.
Next week, students at Michigan State University and others are planning to protest DeVos at a ribbon-cutting in Grand Rapids. The protest is being organized by students from both MSU and other universities in and around the state.
University of Baltimore Students Asking President to Uninvite Betsy DeVos
A couple weeks ago, the president of the University of Baltimore announced that he had issued, and Betsy DeVos had accepted, an invitation to speak at the university’s December graduation ceremony. Less than a week later, over 3,000 students and supporters had signed a petition asking that the invitation be rescinded. Here’s a Washington Post story about the student’s action. And here’s a link to the petition. Add your voice.
Newark Regains Control of Public Schools
After twenty years of top-down control by the State of New Jersey, the Newark Public Schools are being returned to local control.
Organizing groups, including PULSE, the NAACP, New Jersey Communities United and the Parent Organizing Project held a victory rally outside the offices of the State Board of Education while the Board voted to approve the transition. For the past decade, these groups have led the fight demanding an end to corporate education reform and a return to local control. Their complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights led to an investigation of systemic discrimination in the district, and was resolved with a negotiated agreement with the district.
The New York Times, in an in-depth look at what happened in Newark, conceded, “The decision to give authority back to the local city is, in many ways a recognition that state control is an idea whose time has passed.” Indeed, across the country, state takeovers have targeted Black and Brown communities and disenfranchised tens of thousands of community members without demonstrating any significant advance in student outcomes.
“Today is a historic day,” said PULSE leader Johnnie Lattner at the rally: “While the Mayor and national leaders will congratulate the executive branch, we know that the people who won this victory were the people on the ground: YOU!” Lattner went on to remind the crowd that their fight isn’t over. The groups are demanding a role in the transition and a say in the selection of a new Superintendent. They are also calling for a moratorium on new charter schools.
Charter Industry Political Campaigns Do a Swan Dive in to Hot Water
Two stories this week caught our attention in the category of “we’ll do anything to win.”
First, the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance announced a settlement with Families for Excellent Schools – Advocacy (FESA) a New York-based organization that promotes charter schools. FESA was the primary source of funding behind the 2016 “Question 2” ballot initiative in Massachusetts, which would have lifted the state cap on charter schools. The pro-2 campaign was officially run by the Great Schools Massachusetts Ballot Question Committee—an entity licensed by the State and obligated to report the source of their funds. But FESA raised millions in individual gifts, and then passed those contributions on to the official committee, thus shielding wealthy and prominent donors (including the chairman of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) from being identified. The Office of Campaign and Political Finance settlement with FESA required FESA to forfeit over $425,000 – the largest civil forfeiture in the agency’s history, and prohibits them from fundraising, soliciting donations, or engaging in any election-related activity in Massachusetts for four years. Despite all those shenanigans, Question 2, as you’ll recall, was overwhelmingly defeated last fall. Money can’t buy you votes, apparently. Check out a short video about the incident here.
On the heels of that story, we then learned that the new president of the Los Angeles School Board is now facing felony charges including conspiracy, perjury and falsification of documents. The misdeeds? Ref Rodriguez allegedly threw over $24,000 of his own money into his campaign by reimbursing more than two dozen donors.
Remember, this year’s Los Angeles School Board race was the most expensive school board election in U.S. history, as the powerful charter lobby ran candidates in an ultimately successful effort to gain a pro-charter majority on the board in this city that is desperately fighting against charter expansion and the subsequent financial strangling of Los Angeles Unified School District. Once the majority on the 7-member board was secured, Rodriguez was elevated to the board presidency. Rodriquez is a co-founder of the PUC charter management organization in Los Angeles. It is unclear whether he will step down from the Board as a result of the charges. Read more here.
Little Rock School Closures
Three years ago, after electing the city’s first majority-Black school board, residents of Little Rock, Arkansas woke to learn that the State was planning to take over the district. Despite a fierce fight, and the defeat of a further legislative effort to allow seized schools to be immediately converted to charters, the State did indeed gain control of the city’s schools, and now the district is facing the imminent closure of four schools. All of those, of course, are in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
The fight-back continues. Next weekend will mark the 60th Anniversary of the integration of Central High School by the brave students who became known as the “Little Rock Nine.” Commemorations are planned, both by the City (how far we’ve come) and by a local coalition of civil rights and education organizations (how much farther we need to go). Activist and university professor Anika Whitfield penned a powerful commentary for HuffPost. Read it here.
Backpack Full of Cash Showing in Boston Draws nearly 700 to Hear Matt Damon
Nearly 700 people showed up for a Boston showing of Backpack Full of Cash – the new documentary about the growth and impact of charter schools. The event featured Cambridge native Matt Damon, who narrates the film, and who participated in a panel discussion with his teacher-mother, the filmmaker and producer. The event was sponsored by the Schott Foundation, Citizens for Public Schools and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Education. Students from Youth on Board and the Boston Student Advisory Committee were in represented in full force. The event was covered by NBC-Boston. If you’re interested in hosting a showing of Backpack Full of Cash, check out the film’s website here.
On Wednesday, September 20th as AROS and other organizations in 20 cities are taking action to tell Congress to take a stand against the Trump/DeVos agenda. For more information, or to find out if an event is planned in your city, contact Ldingerson@gmail.com.
There will be a showing of Backpack Full of Cash on September 23rd in Milwaukee, sponsored by Schools and Communities United. For details about the free public event, contact Ldingerson@gmail.com