Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a millionaire privatizer, made her name in Michigan with for-profit charter schools and a preference for private Christian schools. Her vision is to gut public education and teacher unions and replace public schools with vouchers. But to be clear, the ground for De Vos’ frontal assault on public education was prepared by the neoliberal policies of previous administrations. Neoliberal restructuring of public education has been a bi-partisan agenda in the U.S., going back to Ronald Reagan, so the challenges we face today are, in some ways, not new.
However, with a cabal of ultra-right white supremacist authoritarians running the country, we face a very real danger of fascism. Trump’s edicts in just the first month in office lean in that direction. What will this mean for resistance and how we need to recalibrate our organizing? What does it mean for educators to be critical teachers in the classroom and activists in the streets when protest may be criminalized and our students—especially immigrant, Arab and Muslim, and Black students—are under attack? What will it mean to defend the gains we have made against testing? And what about the gains in alternatives to school closings when vouchers may sweep past these policies? How do we build an education movement at this moment?
Resistance in Chicago
Chicago has been a focal point of neoliberal education policy and resistance to it. The strength of the education movement in Chicago rests on an alliance of Black and Brown community organizations, parent and student organizations, Teachers for Social Justice, and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). We have been organizing against school closings and privatization since 2004. The rebirth of the CTU as a social movement union with its organizing, research, and uncompromising defense of public education, along with the union’s institutional power and teachers’ strategic location as workers have magnified our power tremendously. At the same time, Black and Latinx parents, students and community organizations – the moral compass and key political leadership of our movement – have been the leading edge of resistance.
We are up against the most powerful political economic forces in Chicago and their racial-neoliberal agenda. In cities across the U.S., education is part of racialized neoliberal restructuring—economically, socially, spatially, and politically. As scholar-activist Robin Kelley has noted, “the toxic mix of privatization, free market ideology, and a ‘punitive state’ come together in our schools. Those who survive the school of ‘discipline and punish’ and high stakes testing are faced with increasingly narrow opportunities for higher learning and social advancement.” School closings underpin gentrification and displacement of low-income working class people of color and destabilize and disenfranchise Black communities in particular. In Chicago, 87% of the students affected by school closings have been African American. School closings are legitimated by racialized discourses of pathology and lubricated by histories of public and private disinvestment, racial segregation, and racial inequality. Schools are also key sites of anti-Black state violence and racialized policing through zero tolerance policies and criminalization of youth. Black and Brown students are the designated consumers of charter schools which are concentrated in African American and Latinx communities. To the charter school industry they are a lucrative new investment opportunity. This commodification of the education of low-income working class students of color is likely to accelerate under DeVos/Trump who propose to make vouchers for private schools a centerpiece of their education agenda.
— NewsOne (@newsone) October 11, 2016
The stakes are high. In Chicago, we had a victorious strike in 2012 by a revitalized teachers union, followed by the closing of 50 schools in 2013 and on-going charter school expansion and budget cuts, despite progressive revenue solutions advanced by Chicago’s education movement. We’ve saved a few schools, but CPS has closed 157 since 2001 and expanded roughly as many charter schools. Latinx and especially African American communities have borne the brunt of these policies. Children, families, communities, and teachers have suffered losses that cannot be calculated. Thousands of children have been uprooted, school-family relations have been broken, and some Black communities are “public school deserts.” Twenty-five percent of schools with majority Black students and teachers were closed in 2013. Many were anchors in communities that have faced decades of public and private disinvestment, further destabilizing those communities. The loss of Black teachers has been devastating—a decline from 40 percent of the teaching force in 2000 to 23 percent in 2014. Yet, education organizing has played a key role in challenging racialized neoliberal urban policies. We have drawn the connection between school closings and gentrification, debunked the privatization of public goods, and shined a light on the profound racial inequities in city policies. Persistent resistance to school closings and expansion of charter schools and grassroots organizing for an elected representative school board have created a crisis of legitimacy for Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The unpopularity of his education policies was an important factor in his near-loss in the 2015 mayoral election. In a February 2016 Chicago Tribune poll, three times more Chicagoans said they trusted teachers and the CTU to improve education more than Rahm Emanuel. With all our struggles and set-backs, we are not starting from scratch. This is a protracted battle for the city itself, and we can’t measure our strength by a scorecard of wins and losses.
Preparing to be ungovernable
So how do we recalibrate our work in the present context? I want to draw on a recent interview with Kali Akuno of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Akuno argues that “we need to prepare to be ungovernable.” We cannot legitimate this proto-fascist administration and its laws. We have to refuse to comply. In the interview, he emphasizes that resistance by civil servants is particularly important. They can play a critical role in jamming up the works of government. This has already begun with the climate scientists who held a Guerilla Archiving event in Canada to preserve public climate data ahead of Trump’s inauguration and with Department of Energy staff who refused to turn over names of people working on climate change.
Teachers are civil servants. How can teachers collectively prepare not to comply, to resist the state’s attempts to go after Muslim, Arab and immigrant students and families? What does it really take for schools to be sanctuaries for Muslim and immigrant students and how do we extend sanctuary to Black and LGBTQ students, and to women and girls? What kinds of collaborations do we need to build between teachers and families and school communities for schools to be sanctuaries from state and vigilante violence and everyday racist and misogynist assaults? How do we defend teachers who refuse to obey unjust laws, and how do we defend each other? These are the questions we have to solve together in the coming weeks and months.
— Montserrat Garibay (@MontserratVPEDA) January 19, 2017
Akuno also argues that we need to build alternatives for survival and to prefigure the kind of society we want. We need to build bottom-up, cooperative solutions in an anti-capitalist direction. For example, in Chicago, we have the possibility to create Sustainable Community Schools as alternatives that prefigure the kind of education, and society, we want. The CTU’s 2016 contract won a commitment from CPS to fund the transformation of twenty to fifty-five schools into Sustainable Community Schools—a demand that emerged from Chicago’s education movement. These are neighborhood schools in low-income Black and Brown communities where parents, teachers and students working collectively could begin to create community-driven public schools that address basic social needs and demonstrate the possibility of a rich, culturally relevant, just, humanizing education.
To be sure, the attacks yet to come will be broad and we need to keep building on the work we have been doing. We need an intersectional movement and a movement of intersecting issues. We need to connect education to living wages, housing, health care, resistance to racist and anti-immigrant state violence and more. We need to target not just Trump but the system of racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy that isn’t working for most people and never has. In this watershed moment, our challenge—and opportunity—is to build a movement of resistance and for the world we want.
Pauline Lipman is a professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of Teachers for Social Justice which is part of the education justice movement in Chicago.