Betsy DeVos’s Education Agenda Can Be Overturned. This City Shows How.
What Philadelphia’s fight against market-driven school“reform” can teach us about resisting attacks on public education.
Last month, with the help of a tie-breaker vote, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos squeaked through one of the most humiliating confirmations ever for a cabinet official. In the weeks leading up to the vote, millions of Americans deluged congressional phone lines with calls and faxes urging their elected representatives not to confirm DeVos. GOP leaders may have pushed through this disgraceful nomination, but they unleashed a tsunami of citizen activism that won’t let up when it comes to the fight for our public schools.
In Philadelphia, we have learned a thing or two about beating back a top-down, anti-public school agenda. From our experiences, we’ve learned how to build a movement that will not only hold accountable people like Betsy DeVos but will also lift up a vision of vibrant public schools and restore them to the center of our civic life.
In 2002, the state of Pennsylvania took over Philadelphia’s public schools, stripping away local control, massively expanding charters, and starving existing public schools of funding and resources. Then, in 2013, thanks to a GOP-led state austerity budget that cut almost a billion dollars from public education, Philadelphia’s state-controlled school system closed down 24 public schools and lost thousands of school staff in the name of cost savings, then expanded thousands of new charter spots at nearly the same cost.
In response, Philadelphians took to the streets and organized. Parents, educators, students, and community members built coalitions among labor, clergy, business, and civic organizations. We fought against an agenda of disinvestment, consolidation, and neglect, and instead pressed forward with a commitment to establishing a baseline level of staffing and resources for every school.
Parents forged a legal strategy for ensuring adequate programs and a quality curriculum. After the massive budget cuts hit, parents filed more than 800 complaints with the state’s Department of Education about overcrowding and curriculum deficiencies and then won a court order, effectively forcing the state to investigate the problems and fix any violations of state code.
Meanwhile, years of organizing efforts by high-school students made strides towards ending zero-tolerance policies and improving school climate. A long-sought change in the student code of conduct in 2012 limited the use of suspensions and was accompanied by new, district-wide efforts to implement restorative practices. More recently, new district policies further restricted the use of suspensions with young children in response to dress-code violations.