What’s Behind the School Closing Craze
Act Now to Save our Schools
For a Citywide Union-Led Mobilization to Stop School Closings
The NYC Department of Education has gone berserk. Last week the DOE ordered the closing of W.H. Maxwell Career and Technical HS in East New York, as well as three other schools. The next day they announced the closure of four more schools, including Jamaica High, which has one of the most active union chapters in the city. On Monday they put nine more schools on the chopping block, including Beach Channel HS in Queens, Christopher Columbus HS in the Bronx and Norman Thomas HS in Manhattan. And today they added five to their hit list. Twenty-two schools in one week, on top of the 90 they have already closed. It’s a massacre.
This is part of a whole program to privatize public education and destroy teachers unions. The day before Thanksgiving, New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg went to Washington to declare war on the United Federation of Teachers. Barack Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan was sitting there to show his support. They want to shut down schools, open private charter schools, and scapegoat teachers. This is a huge provocation. They are doing it all at once because they figure the UFT doesn't have the guts to respond. We have to prove them wrong. We can't just fight this school-by-school. We need united action, now.
The union cannot walk away from this. UFT leaders may think contract negotiations are going on, but the DOE is creating “facts on the ground.” Students across the city are having their futures ripped up. Parents of African American, Latino and Asian families in particular are seeing their kids sacrificed on the altar of corporate school “reform.” The union bastions of the high school division are the targets, the charters are the spearhead of the attack. Every closed-down school means almost half the staff thrown into the ATR pool. And now the DOE wants to fire them after a year. The future of the union and of public education in New York City is at stake.
We've Got to Play Hardball to Win
The union needs to take the lead and call a citywide mobilization to demand "Stop School Closings Now." Teachers, students, parents and all NYC labor – we have the power. Surround City Hall in protest. Hold lunchtime information meetings of staff and students at the schools. Expose the mayor’s phony “Panel on Education Policy” as a rubber stamp. Let them know: the schools won't function unless we work. Insist on no school closings unless teachers, parents, students and staff approve. And gear up to rip up the Taylor Law that tries to stop our right to strike!
The schools they are closing are not “failing,” it is the DOE that has deliberately failed to fix problems, many of which it has created. Maxwell VHS is a perfect example. One of the leading vocational schools in the city, it has a full academic program, including college prep classes. As a result of closing other schools in the area, 2,000 students have been jammed into a school designed for 900. The number of Special Ed students is 22 percent, double that of other high schools. Yet over the last three years Maxwell’s weighted diploma rate has gone from 45 percent to 72 percent. It’s raw score on the city’s school report cards went from 23 to 43. So why did it get a “D”? Because the bureaucrats at DOE headquarters arbitrarily changed their corrupt scoring system.
When the big high schools are closed, they are replaced by several small schools, each with its own bevy of administrators. Experience has shown that small schools do no better, and often worse on test scores than the comprehensive high schools. Many of the replacement schools are privately run “charter schools,” whose main attraction for the bosses is that they are overwhelmingly non-union. This means that teachers are subject to every whim of the managers, many of whom know little or nothing about education and are out to make a buck. Charters also do no better, and often worse than traditional public schools on tests. But that hasn’t stopped union-busting corporate education “reformers” from pushing them.
In New York City, Bloomberg and Klein treat the schools like prime real estate. They cook up phony statistics to justifying closing down public schools and give the space to charters. Or they push into the public schools, claiming that libraries or computer rooms, for instance, are “underutilized space.” Charters are lavishly funded with state and private money while the regular schools are starved. This has set off bitter protests by teachers, parents and students from Harlem to Brooklyn. In fact, the charters are focused on poor, black and Latino areas, because city authorities are wary of the blowback they would get from white middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods. This is educational colonialism, and it must be stopped.
What’s fueling the charter school invasion is millions of (tax deductible) dollars from billionaire hedge fund managers. The Success Charter Network run by the ambitious yuppie politician Eva Moskowitz, who sparked outrage at P.S. 123 in Harlem, was created by Gotham Capital. PAVE Academy, which tried to push P.S. 15 out of its building in Red Hook, is the creature of hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson. His wife runs the Girls Preparatory Charter that tried a hostile takeover of P.S. 188 on the Lower East Side. A recent exposé also revealed that “non-profit” front groups like “Democrats for Education Reform” are “financed by hedge fund heavies.... the kind of guys who a decade ago would have been spending their time angling to get on the junior board of the Met” (New York Times, 6 December).
Unbridled speculation by these predators was a major factor in the collapse of the world capitalist financial system last year, touching off an economic crisis that has brought untold hardship and devastation to working people. Wall Street banks got trillions in bailout dollars, while NYC schools are forced to lay off school staff and factories like Stella D’oro are shut down. The U.S. government wages imperialist war and colonial occupation, raining death and destruction on the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It backs a dictatorship in Honduras that murders teachers. And now the rulers are out to destroy the public schools.
George W. Bush pushed the standardized high-stakes testing mania with his “No Child Left Behind” act that condemned millions of children to rote learning as educators are forced to “teach to the test.” Now Barack Obama has a “Race to the Top,” using billions in stimulus funds to force states to permit charter schools, eliminate teacher tenure and introduce “merit pay.” Their model is capitalist competition. For the past quarter century there has been a bi-partisan ruling-class consensus to try to milk profits from the public schools. The teachers unions are the biggest obstacle to this.
Bottom line: the people in charge are ideological opponents of public education. Their kids go to elite private schools. As we wrote last spring:
“A class battle is going on over the nation’s schools. Big business has joined forces with both the Democratic and Republican parties in a push for corporate-designed education ‘reform.’ They want to bust teachers unions and impose test-driven rote learning on the public schools, particularly in impoverished inner city ghettos and barrios. Meanwhile, they privatize as much as they can through charter schools, many of them run by education-for-profit private companies. The aim of these phony “reformers” is not to improve education but to cut its cost, while turning the schools into lucrative cash cows for education entrepreneurs and corporate vendors. And they have the wholehearted backing of the Obama administration, which many education unions and teacher activists voted for. But they can be stopped. We can stop them, if we use our power.”
The response of the UFT tops to the latest attacks from City Hall is to ask the membership for more money to fund COPE. To go to Albany and try to influence some Democratic legislators? Forget it. The fact that the unions are chained to the bosses’ parties is one of the biggest roadblocks to effective labor action. Many teacher activists want to build a movement against privatization. But since they don’t challenge the capitalist framework, any gains of such movements can be easily reversed if the balance of power shifts (e.g., with the civil rights movement). We need to oust the pro-capitalist bureaucracy and a build a leadership that is prepared to use the unions’ power to wage class struggle.
Class Struggle Education Workers was formed by activists in two New York education unions, the UFT and Professional Staff Congress representing faculty and staff at the City University of New York. We are for free, quality public education from kindergarten through graduate school; stop education privatization; oppose resegregation of the schools – separate is never equal; no to mayoral control, for teacher-student-parent-worker control of the schools; keep the bosses courts’ out of the unions and fight anti-labor legislation like the no-strike Taylor Law; mobilize the power of labor together with minorities, immigrants and students; and break with the capitalist parties, for a workers party and a workers government. If you want to fight for public education that serves the working people, get in touch with the CSEW.