Those of us who were there will remember it as a glorious moment. Here was the New York City public, in all of its magnificent diversity, representing every race, ethnicity and faith community, from every corner of the five boroughs all demanding in a single powerful voice to be heard. Close to a thousand parents, teachers and students were crowded into the main meeting hall, filling the aisles, waving placards and banners, chanting slogans and cheering speakers. Across the stage was a banner with the slogan of the meeting: Put The Public Back Into Public Education. Another boisterous 150 were in the two overflow meeting rooms, into which sound and video were piped, and hundreds more were outside in the courtyard of St. Vartans Cathedral, where they conducted their own impromptu rally, listening to speakers who came up from the main hall, one by one. It was the chorus of the people in Walt Whitmans I Hear America Singing and Langston Hughes I, Too, Sing America, brought to life.
Five years of the imperial and imperious reign of Chancellor Joel Klein, in which structual reorganization after reorganization has been launched without even the pretense of meaningful consultation, five years of the disavowal of the public at every turn, has united New York Citys parents, teachers, students and community groups in a way that has not been seen for well over a generation. Just consider the rainbow of sponsoring groups: the Working Families Party, the Chancellors own Parents Advisory Council [representing Parents Associations from schools across the city], the NYC Coalition for Education Justice [bringing together community groups from around the city], the NYC chapter of ACORN, the NY Immigration Coalition [bringing together immigrant and immigrant advocacy groups], the Coalition of District 75 Parents, New Yorkers for Smaller Class Size, Time Out from Testing, the Urban Youth Collaborative [bringing together student groups from around the city] (Make the Road by Walking is a founding member of these coalitions) and the UFT. Or consider the elected officials present on stage to show their support: Comptroller Bill Thompson, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, NYC Council Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson and nearly a score of Jacksons Council colleagues.
What united us was not simply our common demand for voice and participation in important educational decisions, but also our conviction that Tweeds structural reforms have come at the expense of a badly needed focus on instruction and on teaching and learning; that our schools need real equity and fairness; and that the responsibility of the Department of Education was to support our schools in their work, not to put up a for sale sign, outsourcing its work and its responsibilities to private entities. If we can teach a 6-year-old to stop, look and listen, UFT President Randi Weingarten told the crowd, we need to teach the folks at Tweed to stop, look and listen. This was the message of the meeting to the Department of Education and City Hall: Stop the reorganization, Look at what you are doing, and Listen to the public.
At Bridging Differences, Diane Ravitch writes a highly informative account of her participation in the meeting, debunking Tweeds fabricated claims of academic success. She notes that attending a protest was a departure for her one of many indications that Kleins rule by edict has given birth to an unprecedented opposition movement determined to restore the democratic voice and participation of the public. New Yorkers have had their fill of a Chancellor who begins paragraph after paragraph of his major policy speech announcing the latest reorganization with the pronoun I, as if he were constitutionally incapable of uttering the word we in a discussion of educational policy. We are, as the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was fond of saying, sick and tired of being sick and tired.
A word must be said about the failed attempts to sabotage this meeting and divide and conquer this new coalition. The morning of the rally, the New York Post editorial board, ever willing to do Kleins bidding on a moments notice, editorialized against what it called Randis Rent-A-Rally. In the Posts transparent attempt to suppress turnout, everyone organizing the meeting was a false reformer in the pay of the UFT. Over at the blog of the New York Charter School Association,
Joel Kleins Talking Points Chalkboard, Joe Williams first attacked the Working Families Party for taking the lead in organizing the coalition, suggesting it was acting as a front for the UFT, and then joined the Post editorial in an attempt to discourage participation in the meeting.
The usual attacks of the Post and the Chalkboard were all the more remarkable in this instance, given the massive campaign of Tweed and City Hall these last five years to buy off critics [$] sometimes successfully, sometimes not. In his incisive commentary on the growing rebellion against Tweed and Klein, the unbought conservative and New York Sun columnist Andy Wolf provides some of the details of this patronage in the field of education. It would seem that Klein and his minions imagine that the UFT could only relate to parents and community groups in the ways they have chosen.
Yet only someone completely ignorant of the history and the work of the organizations that make up the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, to cite just one among many examples, could suggest that they were the pawns of anyone. There is an integrity to the mission of the groups in this coalition that the power brokers in Tweed, completely disconnected from real schools and real communities, can not even begin to understand.
The UFT has a common cause with such community and parent organizations not simply because of our mutual opposition to Kleins I am the decider stance, but because we share with them a fundamental organizational commitment to civic activism and collective empowerment. We all believe in democratic voice, in our civic right and our civic duty to make our part of the world a better place, both for ourselves and for others. It is this commitment to the power of democratic citizenship that distinguishes our coalition not only from Klein and Tweed, but also from his willing allies at the Post and the Chalkboard.
Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in this belated attempt by the Chalkboards Williams to rescue his carefully burnished image as an advocate of parental empowerment, having just trashed to no effect the New York City parent groups when have stood up against the powers that be. Williams writes:
Mayor Bloomberg has long been accused of running his schools like a business. I always thought that charge was completely off-base, since successful businesses tend to understand that they have customers. Perhaps the way to save both the school system and mayoral control right now would be to run the schools MORE like a business, where customers actually matter. Im not talking about appeasing parent-leader types, but parents themselves.
This is the laissez-faire market vision of life, in which the public square is reduced to a marketplace and the public in democratic government, the demos who rules is dissolved into a shapeless and powerless mass of consumers. It would transform the Department of Education into a Wal-Mart, and then tell us that as isolated individuals we are sovereign consumers because parents can choose whether their children receive the tutoring services from a subsidiary of Edison and a company headed up by a former Edison honcho, and because school principals can choose whether their partner will be Edison or the neo-conservative Center for Educational Innovation, a one-time affiliate of the Manhattan Institute. In truth, it is a vision of popular disenfranchisement and disempowerment, looking toward a future of atomized individuals who are impotent before great concentrations of private, unaccountable power and wealth.
The slogan put the public back into public education is the bearer of a different vision, one of the collective empowerment and enfranchisement that is at the heart of democratic citizenship. This vision has inspired the great movements for social justice in American history from abolitionism to the civil rights movement, from womens suffrage to feminism, from organizations of mechanics and artisans to the organized labor movement. Tweed can attempt to expropriate the language of those movements, but rhetorical sleights of hand can not hide the fact that Kleins rule has been the antithesis of the democratic values that were their essence of these movements. Education of, by and for the public has always been a central demand of American democratic movements for social justice, and it remains our goal today.