An open letter to the Philadelphia Public Education Struggle
This is a critical question – not just for the fate of Public Education in Pennsylvania, but also for our ability to defeat Corbett at all. Governor Corbett has record low approval ratings and is considered one of the most vulnerable Governor’s in the whole country. Why? Far and away the main reason he isn’t popular is because he cut $1 billion from the state education budget. It was the latest in a long line of blows to Public Ed and part of a deliberate effort to privatize education. The drastic cuts have devastated schools both in Philadelphia and state wide.
Corbett’s cuts to education have produced a combination of outrage and clarity. In response, a movement to save Public Education has emerged. Long-time activists have been joined by new parents and students activated by the fear of losing their fundamental right to an equitable education. Importantly, this movement has united leaders and organization that sometimes have differences. This unity has produced actions, civil disobedience, hunger fasts, and protests numbering in the tens of thousands.
This is a movement that headed into the Governor’s race will either realize its power and thus define the terms of the Gubernatorial election or will fall into tired patterns of short-term, overly-cautious pragmatic thinking. So what would the Democratic frontrunner Allyson Schwartz do for Public Education? And is her commitment to Public Education so genuine and substantive that she can lead the Public Education Movement’s effort to defeat Governor Corbett?
The neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party and its record
It has been Democrats – not just Republicans who have attacked Public Education. In fact sometimes it has been Democrats who despite support from Labor Unions attacked Public Education, against working-class interests. Democratic D.C Mayor Adrian Fenty is an example. Labor supported him. He in turn appointed Michelle Rhee who has been an outspoken leader of the “Education Reform” movement that represents a lethal threat to Public Education and Labor Unions. We need a Democratic Party that is principled, progressive, champions the interests of the working-class, and fights for high quality Public Education for all. The Corbett Administration and its right-wing governance represent the primary enemy to high quality Public Education. But voting for Democrats doesn’t necessarily constitute a choice to stand for robust Public infrastructure or to defend Public Education.
We can learn a valuable lesson from looking at the experience of Unionists and Progressives in Wisconsin. There, with collective bargaining rights for public workers on the line, they built a multi-racial, cross-sector movement that occupied the State House. Social movement activists, from as far away as Egypt, took notice and sent messages of solidarity.
However, rather than recognizing the incredible energy in the streets and the real potential to substantively shift the balance of power, some Union and Democratic Party leaders funneled the energy narrowly into an electoral effort: the recall election of Scott Walker. If the movement had been supported in growing and escalating on many fronts and the recall had been just one outgrowth of the movement’s energy, it would have resulted in Scott Walker being defeated as one step towards rebuilding a mighty mighty labor movement. Instead the process of turning the movement into a wholly electoral effort involved suppressing the creative energy and militancy of rank and file workers and rank and file Democrats It was disempowering and the top-down shift to a narrow electoral focus dissipated the movement’s energy.
As a result, Tom Barrett was nominated – a conservative and relatively anti-labor Democrat. His nomination meant the movement no longer had the contrast between parties. His nomination undermined the moral clarity and the strategic clarity of purpose. Once, it felt again to the majority of people like politics as usual, they didn’t want to be involved. Union organizers who themselves were frustrated with Barrett’s nomination, tried to knock on doors with discipline. But they often couldn’t convince even pro-union community members to put Barrett signs in their lawn. The movement further deflated, and the subsequent defeat of the recall effort constituted a deathblow to the movement.
Allyson Schwartz, Public Education, & Moral and Strategic Clarity
Right now in Pennsylvania, Public Education is on the line, and we are headed towards the Gubernatorial election. Will we make the mistake our sisters and brothers in Wisconsin did and go “safe” and evaluate “who has the best chance of winning?” as if that question is the same in moments of broad outrage as it is in static times?
Allyson Schwartz’s campaign recently released a statement and plan saying she would champion Public Education. However most notable is what she did not say.
Her silence on Unions. Her silence on Philly regaining local control. Her silence on the Right-Wing’s attempt to privatize education. Her silence on accountability standards for Charters. Is this leadership?
Public Education is in crisis and to lead out of this crisis requires a leader who is willing to take positions of substance – ones that might make enemies. Not a leader who puts out a position that seeks the safety of comfort and convenience even amidst the challenge and controversy faced by students, parents, and teachers.
Further, on funding, she emphasizes, “growing the economy” and “re-prioritizing the existing budget.” By doing so she plays into the myth that the money isn’t there. In fact, the money is there, its being hoarded by the top 1% of income earners; the money that does make it into public coffers is being reinvested in prisons across the state.
Is Allyson Swartz the leader who can galvanize the Public Education struggle in Philadelphia and across the state of Pennsylvania? The severity to the funding cuts has made Public Education a broadly uniting issue – this hasn’t always been the case. Is the Schwartz campaign an opportunity to take advantage of the energy and build on this unity or is a Schwartz nomination politics as usual?
Which way forward?
Amidst this Public Education crisis, Students across the city staged an unprecedented walk-out in the thousands; the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) has coalesced, unifying forces across sectors, and organized civil disobedience and protests of tens of thousands; the School Safety staff, members of UNITE HERE, led a Hunger Fast and successfully beat back layoffs; Parents United has led an effort to document over 700 voices and define as unconstitutional the conditions that the budget cuts of created for Philadelphia school children–and so much more.
This is a movement for Public Education that could determine the terms of this gubernatorial election and then determine the Governor, but we have to recognize our power.
Let’s make this race about Public Education and let’s nominate a candidate whose policies, vision and commitment to Public Education will galvanize and grow our movement – affording us more clarity, more outrage, and ultimately more people to the polls.
Point Breeze Organizing Committee
nancy dung nguyen
Young Women’s Committee – Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW)*
UPenn Student Labor Action Project (SLAP)*
*Organization listed for identification purposes only.