Hope to the City’s Public Schools
Professor Mark Naison
A tragic series of events is unfolding in working class New York. The lingering effects of the Recession, irresponsible private investments, and federal and state budget cuts, coupled with a failure to raise taxes on the wealthy, have created a toxic brew which is eroding the already fragile living standards of the city’s poor and bringing with it higher levels of homelessness, hunger and violence.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the housing market where a combination of foreclosures on private homes, failed investments by private equity companies, the phasing out of federal rent subsidies, the proposed end of Work Advantage Program in New York State, and rising rents in public housing have taken thousands of units of affordable housing out of commission and forced tens of thousands of people to “double” and “triple up” with friends and relatives or move into shelters.
The effects of this are visible throughout the city’s public schools where more and more children are arriving at school stressed, hungry, and frightened as their families are displaced and their ability to assure their children of adequate sleep, food and study space is undermined.Once, such wounded children could find safe, protected space in libraries and after school programs, but with upcoming budget cuts to libraries (which will cut public library hours from 40 to 28 a week) and to after school and recreational programs, these youngsters will be increasingly on their own, forced to spend time in public places-streets, subways and shelters-where danger lurks for young people without adult supervision and protection.
In the face of this unfolding tragedy, what are teachers, principals, and school guidance counselors to do?
The official policy of the NYC Department of Education is to pretend this isn’t happening. Their response is more assessments, more tests, more ratings, more pressure on students and everyone who is working with them.
And the result is predictable. The misery of the students is spreading to the teachers whose spirit is being broken, not only by the violent incidents occurring in schools with increasing frequency, but by the evident pain their students are in, visible not only in their inability to concentrate in class, but their harrowing stories of hunger and homelessness and family catastrophe, All of this is taking place, I must add, amidst fierce pressure from the DOE to raise test scores and graduation rates, with the fear of school closings and loss of employment as potential penalties.
It’s time to flip the script. Schools must become places, not only where students in trouble are protected and nurtured, but where the adults working there fight for them as if they were their own children.
Every New York City public school should become a center of resistance to budget cuts, not only in schools, but in libraries, after school centers, and programs that provide or protect affordable housing. The culture of compliance and obedience, which has left teachers and students alike demoralized and terrorized, must be replaced by a culture of resistance. The school must become a place where political education and political organizing takes place uniting teachers, parents and students in strategies which will put pressure on elected officials that haven’t been seen since the 60’s. Pressure to restore housing subsidies, expand funding for after school programs, restore library budgets to their 2008 levels, bring more arts and sports programs into the public schools, create more school health centers, end all teacher layoffs and and tax the wealthy to pay for these reforms.
Not only will such actions restore a sense of agency to teachers, who are regularly vilified in the press and by public officials, as the cause of their students “failures,” it will give hope and inspiration to tens of thousands of young people, and members of their families, who are losing hope that their lives will involve anything other than hardship and pain.
It’s time to transform New York City public schools from centers of fear and intimidation to “liberated zones” where teachers, students and parents can talk freely how to make their schools and neighborhoods places where people who are not wealthy can lead decent lives and provide hope and opportunity to their children. And if that leads them directly to the steps of City Hall, the State Legislature, and the US Congress, or to the headquarters of Wall Street banks so be it.
On a small scale, this is starting to happen. A group of insurgent teachers and parents have started a program called “Fight Back Fridays” with actions taking place at public schools around the city on May 20.
But this should only be the beginning of a mighty wave of protest that will transform the New York City public schools from centers of obedience into center of resistance to the budget cuts and to government by the rich, for the rich, which seems to be the trend, not only in New York, but around the country.
The Sleeping Giant is starting to awake. Student, teachers and parents, joined together, can be a mighty force for Justice and Democracy
May 10, 2011.