Why Teachers Must Become Community Organizers and Justice Fighters





11-14-11

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, "White Boy: A Memoir," was published in the spring of 2002.

There is a long history of teacher activism in the United States.  In New York City, the tradition goes back to the late 1930s when teachers associated with the Communist Party and the New York City teachers' union fought to have Negro History Month honored in the New York public schools, to force the replacement or reassignment of racist teachers, and to challenge the placement of black students in the lowest tracks and most decayed schools in a highly tracked school system.  This legacy of anti-racist activism, always done in collaboration with civil rights organizations and community groups, lasted into the late '50s, when many of the most effective teacher activists were pushed out of the New York school system during the Cold War.  This forgotten tradition is described in depth in Clarence Taylor’s new book Reds and the Black Board: Communism, Civil Rights and the New York City Teachers Union.

After the old teachers union faded from the scene, another group of teacher-activists, drawing upon a broad coalition of liberals, socialists, and moderate trade unionists, won recognition for the United Federation of Teachers as official bargaining agent for New York City schoolteachers, winning them decent salaries, job security, and some level of freedom of expression inside and outside their schools.   The UFT from its outset worked to improve conditions in schools for all students and supported the non-violent civil rights struggle in the South and the North.  Unfortunately, in 1968, the UFT found itself engaged in a conflict with some community leaders in Harlem and Ocean Hill Brownsville during a series of brutal strikes challenging community control of school policies in those neighborhoods.  These strikes not only created a fissure between theUFT and civil rights organizations, it created fissures within the UFT between supporters and opponents of the strike.  It left a legacy of bitterness that lasted for years to come. 

In the wake of that strike the UFT proved powerless to resist a devastating attack on the New York City public schools, orchestrated by bankers who dominated the Emergency Financial Board that took the city into financial receivership following the fiscal crisis of 1975.  The Board of Education was forced by this unelected body to make budget cuts that closed down the world-class music programs in the city’s junior high schools (most junior high schools had upwards of 200 musical instruments which were lent out free of charge to anyone who had made their bands or orchestras) and ended the after-school programs and night centers which were a fixture of every public school in the city in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.  These programs were never fully replaced, leaving children in the city’s schools, from the late 1970s on, with far less in the way of arts and sports and after school mentoring than their parents generation had enjoyed in those very same schools.

Nearly forty years have passed since the fiscal crisis budget cuts and our public schools now face a challenge more insidious and perhaps, more formidable.  All across the nation, a poisonous coalition of multi billionaire business leaders, test and technology companies, charitable foundations and elected officials are pushing a nationwide education agenda that involves the introduction of high-stakes testing at all grade levels, evaluation of teachers and schools based on student test scores, and the introduction of “competition” into public education by the creation of independently managed charter schools given special advantages in funding and recruitment.

This education reform agenda, embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations and embodied in "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top," represents a formidable assault on teachers' hard-won collective bargaining rights as well as their classroom autonomy and freedom of expression, but it also represents a devastating attack on children in America’s working-class and poor communities at a time when our nation is experiencing a redistribution of wealth upwards and a sharp increase in poverty levels.  Not only does corporate education reform reduce schooling in the nation’s poor communities to test prep and obedience training, squeezing out critical thinking and the arts, it divides those communities against themselves by transforming charter schools into privileged enclaves which promise passage out of the neighborhood to a few lucky children and view the remaining public schools, and their students, with aversion and contempt.

Given the complex challenge corporate education reform poses, today’s teacher-activists cannot just have a strategy which is solely school- or teacher-centered.  They must become community organizers who fight school closings, the proliferation of tests, and the weakening of teachers' bargaining rights as attacks on the ability of working-class people and people of color to fight for better opportunities for themselves and their children.  In this setting, teacher-activists must put forth a vision of radical democracy which envisions an education which empowers students as critical thinkers and agents of historical change, not just as obedient test takers.  A vision which envisions schools playing a central role in neighborhoods united and mobilized to get a fair share of the nation’s resources.  Occupy Wall Street has provided a language and an example to put that model of radical democracy into practice.  But it cannot work unless teachers link their own fate to that of the students they work with and the people in the communities where their schools are located.  Unless teacher-activists become community organizers and justice fighters in the broadest sense, they will lose the battle to defend their classrooms from the incursions of corporate interests.


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