Sarah Jaffee attended the October 11 meeting of Public Education Nation in Brooklyn, convened by the Network for Public Education, and she saw the emergence of a new and vital spirit of resistance and dedication to public education.
She noted the well-known bloggers and advocates on the stage and in the crowd, but the show-stopper, she said, was a student activist from Newark named Tanaisa Brown.
Tanaisa Brown of the Newark Student Union perhaps best set the tone for the day when she told the crowd that the movement needs to have a central message, a central idea. “Remember that there’s other people fighting for the same causes that you are,” she said. While each location has its own specific fights – in Newark, she noted, they’re fighting against the “One Newark” plan being imposed by Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson – the movement, she suggested, needs a positive vision to anchor it.
“We want community schools,” she said. “Not a community school that is now a charter school, but a school that is embedded in the community and helps out the parents, the teachers, and anyone else who lives there that can benefit from wraparound services at those schools.”
This idea came up again and again throughout the day. It is no longer enough to simply say no to the top-down reforms, high-stakes tests, charter schools and school closings. It is no longer even enough to strike, to hold dramatic actions, to speak out. The movement, the day seemed to suggest, needs to take the next step and figure out what it is for.
Tanaisa is an articulate representative of students. And she is right. Saying no is not enough. But she also knows that you can’t begin to build positive change until the negative forces now crushing students, teachers, administrators, and public schools are stopped. Cami’s “One Newark” must be stopped, and students are trying their best to stop it. It is hard to climb when someone keeps cutting out the rungs on the ladder beneath you. It is hard to make progress when someone keeps beating you with a whip and threatening your job, your income, your pension, your reputation.
Perhaps Jitu Brown said it simplest when he said that we can’t work an inside-outside strategy. We must directly confront and block the damaging movement that calls itself “reform.” Closing schools is not reform, it destroys families and communities. Jitu Brown and his group Journey for Justice are bringing civil rights complaints against the school-closing, privatization “reforms” in New Orleans, Newark, and Chicago.
When Tanaisa Brown was asked for her own vision, she said she would like to go to a school that had the arts, that had dance and music. She would like to go to a school that had foreign languages and a library. She would like a school that offered the liberal arts.
That doesn’t sound radical or crazy or far out. Why is that so far out of reach for students in cities like Newark and Detroit and Philadelphia? Why?
We must continue to stop what is wrong and we must continue to fight for what is right.