Demanding our educational due, resistance starts locally

I am a first-year member of the Plainfield Board of Education explaining my position on an important issue. This in no way reflects the sentiments of the entirety of the Board.

From my first meeting as a member of the Plainfield Board of Education January 2015, I’ve felt the local resistance to testing, most notably from tireless outspoken parent and education advocate Jeanine Branch. Over this past year on the Board, there has been nothing more controversial than the PARCC assessment – yet another state-mandated exam, complete with threats of loss to funding for districts who do not comply.

At our February 3rd work and study meeting, I was caught by surprise: a lot of students statewide refused to take the PARCC test, though the exact figures aren’t totally clear. Despite the outcry, opt out rates in Plainfield stood only in the low to mid single digits. This phenomenon is taking place more often in primarily white districts, though the resistance is becoming more diverse.

If PARCC has been the most controversial item of the past year, charter schools have been the most damaging to the district. The Plainfield Public Schools now make over $16 million in charter school payments, state funding is nearly flat, and a resultant $6.5 million budget shortfall means the Board has tough, impactful decisions to make.

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From the district’s most recent budget presentation. In 2016-17 Plainfield is projected to make over $19 million in charter school payments.

Increased standardized testing alongside privatization is no coincidence. Testing industry lobbyists donate millions to continue to make billions for their empty assessments. These tests make no headway towards the ultimate goal – America’s dismal education ranking amongst industrialized countries, and closing our achievement gap. Instead, they cast a “failing” stigma on disproportionately poorer, more black, and more Latino schools. By these standards Plainfield, like other similar districts, has been failing for over three decades.

This “failing” stigma is used as justification for the state to impose its will on disadvantaged communities nationwide through charter schools and, in New Jersey, state takeovers and state appointed monitors who regularly override local superintendents.

Public educations is being defunded, privatized, and subverted. In New Jersey, Plainfield is one of the most underfunded districts.

Local control of our own education is under the gun as well. Charter schools, after all, don’t have an elected board. Charters are not approved by the voters. They don’t even have to hold public meetings. They are accountable only to the state, and New Jersey has a dismal record in enforcing charter school accountability. I spoke about this in an interview with Black Agenda Radio, not long after writing about Plainfield’s charter school “vulture” Mike Piscal.

Most importantly, teaching as a profession is under fire. The lords of capital fight to de-unionize teachers, believing that educating young minds is a task young twenty-somethings can perform, for meager Teach for America wages, en route to a law career. This is so-called education reform, and the end game is profit – or at least the further marketization of publicly funded education and its large labor force.

This bipartisan corporate venture unites Democrats, Republicans, Trenton, Washington, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, Cory Booker, and Chris Christie alike. Deray McKesson, too.

Opt Out United, Philadelphia 2016

Last weekend, Opt Out United hosted their annual conference in Philadelphia. I was able to take part in day two, which kicked off with an inspiring speech by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges. You can watch below.

Opt Out United is an organization who fights the bipartisan assault on our schools. You can visit their site here. The name reflects the act of civil disobedience any student can make against corporate, neoliberal education reform – refusing to sit for state mandated exams.

Admittedly, this conference was an embarrassment of sorts, for me. In one  small group discussion on resisting charter schools, fellow attendees were pleasantly surprised I was in attendance, being a member of a Board of Education, and a non-educator. In fact, one teacher activist told me her city’s Board of Education vehemently opposed her efforts to encourage students and parents to resist anything.

These attendees, largely educators, were blown away when I said that our city of 50,000 will soon have five charter schools. The rest of the county has none. Plainfield’s 1,214 students in privately run schools means we are 16% charter. In four short years, 2,212 charter students are projected, and that’s from growth alone, without the addition of any new charters.

They asked how my community, as a whole, was fighting against the will of the state. Here’s the embarrassment – I couldn’t give a good answer.

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Philadelphia parents discuss their resistance to the assault on the city’s schools

Others could, like an educator from Brentwood, Long Island, a Suffolk County hamlet who boasts an active anti-corporate education movement. Its most passionate teachers and parents are at the forefront. Having been to Brentwood on many occasions, I can tell you it’s one of the most Plainfield-like places I’ve seen. A relatively isolated, largely Latino and black community of 60,000 people, complete with a train line to New York City.

In Brentwood, it’s not just educators and community members involved in the resistance. Homegrown Assemblyman Phil Ramos joins with with activists and takes the fight directly to corporate warrior, Governor Andrew Cuomo.

 

It must be said – families who use charter schools are not the enemy, not anymore than families of students who sit for standardized tests. Parents do what they feel is best for their individual children.

Our enemies would rather we all fight. The goal of the corporate movement is to jam a wedge in our communities, and to pry black and brown parents from their historic support of teachers unions and traditional public education – all while defunding and deregulating the whole system. Meanwhile, they leave the victims – parents, teachers unions, Boards of Education, and charter schools – to battle for the crumbs on the deck of a sinking ship.

Nonetheless, a few politicians aboard our vessel wouldn’t hurt. Unfortunately, our leaders have been silent.

We have an Assemblyman Pro-Temp, Jerry Green, who brags about his power and who claims to favor public education. Meanwhile, his hometown is being swallowed up by charters. We’ve heard hardly a peep from the Assemblyman during the assault.

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State aid to Plainfield has been relatively flat for years – the actual 2016 budget eventually contained only a 1.7% increase.

We also have a Mayor and local Democratic Chairman in Plainfield, Adrian Mapp, whose influence is growing considerably, but whose only vague statement regarding corporate school reform seems to be his plethora of photo-ops in area charter schools.

We don’t have a Phil Ramos here. We don’t have a Ras Baraka.

But if you rely on resistance from leadership in either of these political parties, good luck. The people must make these demands of their leaders. As a community, we have not.

In terms of opting out, it’s been white districts that have taken the lead – white families that are less threatened by corporate education reform. Families who aren’t faced with an eventual prospect of shuttering their community schools. They’ve taken the lead on calling the government’s bluff. It worked, no funding was pulled for districts with less than 90% compliance. The movement is only growing more diverse.

The state and federal government do hold a lot of power regarding testing and privatization, but this should never deter a good movement.

A demand to end the excessive testing, to fully fund our district, and to return control to a locally elected Board of Education should involve all stakeholders who care about our young people.

To have a shot against this unprecedented assault, there will have to be local resistance in hundreds of Plainfields, Brentwoods, Irvingtons, Perth Amboys. History says teachers unions, parents, students, and Boards of Education will be at the forefront.

The prognosis suggests that waiting is not an option.

3 thoughts on “Demanding our educational due, resistance starts locally

  1. The answer may be that you have to look inward. What is it about the Plainfield School District that leaves a vacuum that is being filled by charter schools?

  2. As a mother of 8 who has used home schooling, private school, Charter School and Public School there has been one thing that has motivated me and that is finding a school that meets the education and development needs of my children.

    Education is a commodity and most parents want to secure the best education for their children. The appeal of Charter Schools to me was an additional educational option when I felt my children’s needs were not met as I desired. If school districts are meeting the needs of the children Charter Schools would not have the appeal to parents that they have.

    Many parents I know see Charter Schools as a way of escape from violence and a move toward a better education. They are not fenced in to accepting any old thing because they live in a less advantageous part of town.

    I personally don’t see Charter Schools as the enemy which is what I feel your article implies. I see them as fulfilling a need and as a result they become a mechanism to force school districts to find solutions to keep children in the school system by delivering an educational experience those parents and children want.

    I am sure both Public School & Public Charter School experience major challenges, however if the spirit of collaboration could be embraced by both I think on many levels the children and the community would benefit. Collaboration needs to be the model going forward to eliminate the divisiveness that hinders our community and quite frankly accomplishes little.

  3. Plainfield isn’t among the most underaided districts in NJ.

    Plainfield has a $3000 per student aid deficit. There are about 80 districts that are more underaided than that.

    http://bit.ly/1UCWnOm

    The most underaided high-FRL non-Abbotts like Bound Brook, Manchester Regional, Fairview, East Newark, and Freehold Boro.

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