Eighteen-year-old Tre Murphy, a native of Baltimore, has been active in social justice concerns since the age of 12, he says. But on Monday, his activism will take an urgent and personal turn when he plans to participate in the National Day of Action for education.
He is among thousands of young people from more than 60 cities slated to participate in the day of protest, which is being hailed as the largest unified opposition to educational reforms that organizers say have devastated families and communities.
From Baltimore to Philadelphia to New Orleans to Chicago, parents, students and teachers will protest against mass school closings, the growing practice of turning over management of public schools to private companies and other measures that disproportionately hurt low-income students of color, organizers say. The day, which will feature dozens of coordinated events, is being organized by a coalition of labor, civic and civil rights organizations.
“The Day of Action is important because young people are under attack when it comes to public education,” Murphy, a high school senior who hopes to attend Howard University or Bowie State University next year, told The Root. “We have found that the educational decision-makers do not value the thoughts and opinions of young people. That creates a critical gap when it comes to making decisions about our future.”
Jonathan Stith, national coordinator for the Alliance for Educational Justice, a burgeoning coalition of 1,000 minority youths who are fighting the reforms in their communities, agrees. The alliance helped organize the day, along with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. The complaint about schools that are privately managed and charter schools is that they are not neighborhood schools that can be attended by students in community, who are usually minorities and poor, he says.
“The protests represent a coming-together of communities to really change the face of public education and to transform public education in a real way. It’s about reclaiming the promise of the American educational system and really what folk have fought for 50 years after the historic March on Washington. Education was a key issue.”
He said it’s important to send a message to elected officials that every young person deserves a school. He offered these unadulterated facts: An estimated 80 percent of black youth in Chicago and Philadelphia were affected by recent school closings. Further, displaced students were sent away from their neighborhoods and required to travel through unfamiliar territory to schools that often perform worse academically than the schools they came from, he argues. Many advocates say this practice violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits race-based discrimination in federally funded programs.
In Baltimore, school officials called for the closure of seven struggling schools in June. Murphy said his brother, who was forced to relocate after his school closed, was attacked because he was an unknown face in a new neighborhood.
“My brother was physically assaulted because he had to set foot into another community,” Murphy said. “He was forced to cross into dangerous territory.”
Crime was also a central issue in school closings in Chicago, so much so that officials this year created "Safe Passages," a program to help students navigate gang-infested territories as they travel farther to new schools. Last year, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close about 50 elementary schools and programs, a move that Mayor Rahm Emanuel said would improve student performance and help lower a $1 billion budget deficit. The move was accompanied by an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union to extend the school day—which Emanuel said was among the nation's shortest—and a full day of kindergarten.
But now it’s the city’s turn to give back, Norine Gutekanst, a staff member of the Chicago Teachers Union, told The Root. A union leader for three years, she worked in the system for 26 years as a primary-grade-level bilingual teacher. She said the CTU is expecting hundreds of members to join them on Monday when they plan to present their holiday wish lists to Mayor Emanuel and Gov. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
“The list will request fully funded schools and supported families. We are also asking for fair taxes and minimum wage salaries for the families of our students,” she said. “We also want a moratorium on school closings and charter school expansion,” among other things.
Jihad Seifullah, a coordinator with the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, echoes Gutekanst’s sentiments. More than 20 schools closed in the city last year, he said.
“We were told that the schools needed to be closed in order to save money,” he said, “but they still started the school year out with a lack of resources, lack of teachers and support staff. Some schools don’t have nurses on certain days and libraries are shuttered. The Day of Action in Philadelphia and the state Pennsylvania is designed to reclaim the promise of public education. We’re demanding a fair funding formula from the state.”
The American Federation of Teachers this week launched a radio, online and print campaign in media markets across the country highlighting the day.
"Those closest to the classroom—teachers, parents and students—know that austerity, test-fixation and privatization aren't working for our children or our schools,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a news release. “That's why on Dec. 9 we are banding together to chart a new course for public education. We are calling out what doesn't work, and we are fighting for solutions that do work: early childhood education, project-based learning, wraparound services, teacher autonomy and professional development, parent voice, fair funding formulas and more."
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.