What It Takes to Unite Teachers Unions and Communities of Color: Overcoming years of tensions and divisions, parents and teachers are linking arms to save public schools

/ 13 October 2014 / Shawna
Michelle Fine and Michael Fabricant, The Nation, October 13, 2014

fine_fabricant_the Nation

In the spring of 2013, a number of national organizations with historic commitments to public education turned their attention to coordinating and scaling up these emergent, scattered movements through the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. The unions were there at the table with community groups—the AFT, the NEA and the SEIU, along with the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Gamaliel Network, Journey for Justice, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. The AFT’s Randi Weingarten explains, “We now understand that our future as a union is linked with communities trying to build a quality education. This has to be the core work of the union. So we are directing AFT organizing and other resources to these campaigns, because we see it as our most important but difficult work.”

The elements of a platform were sketched in town-hall meetings in a dozen cities and then refined at an October 2013 conference in Los Angeles, co-sponsored by the AFT, the NEA, the Schott Foundation for Public Education and Communities for Public Education Reform. The alliance committed itself to a set of goals emanating from communities: full funding and support for neighborhood-based schools; quality affordable K–16 education (including for undocumented students); reduction in testing; an end to zero-tolerance policies; and a living wage that lifts people out of poverty. The platform was endorsed by over 150 organizations.

Last winter, a December 9 Day of Action organized rallies in more than 100 communities to reclaim public education as the gateway to racial and economic justice. On May 17, the alliance celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to rally support for “the schools our children deserve.”

While the mainstream media have focused primarily on the union funding and leadership for these rallies, the alliance represents deep, deliberate, energizing and often difficult coalition work within and across communities. Secky Fascione, director of organizing at the NEA, explains: “The coalitions have gone to scale. AFT, NEA, Schott, Journey for Justice and youth-organizing groups are represented and have generated a platform and campaign for educational justice that emerges from communities with shared commitments.”

The challenges in sustaining this coalition are daunting. Most obviously, corporate reformers enjoy deep pockets and remarkably cooperative media and political allies, who are eager to help them foment schisms between parents, teachers and unions. While attacking bad teachers and public schools as singularly responsible for low student test scores, they downplay the impact of inequality, poverty, racism and a lack of resources on academic outcomes. President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and many Democrats have played a disturbing role by favoring an initially Republican—but now bipartisan—policy agenda to bring free-market principles to public education. Most recently, Obama administration officials, including Duncan, expressed support for the Vergara court decision, which concluded that teacher tenure violates the rights of low-income children.

In contrast to the corporate wealth and political capital that scaffolds the neoliberal reform movement, philanthropic support for community organizing has been declining. Cassie Schwerner of the Schott Foundation describes this as a serious challenge. “Within the coalition, the unions have most of the money. They have been very generous, but community groups need support—they need staff, infrastructure and resources.” For example, Communities for Public Education Reform, a national donor collaborative dedicated to educational-justice organizing, has funneled more than $34 million into the field over eight years—supporting 140 grassroots groups—by partnering with seventy-six donors. Housed at Public Interest Projects, CPER will soon be closing its doors due to a lack of resources.

Despite the enormous imbalance in financial resources, the desire for community-controlled public education seems to be winning hearts, minds and elections, as the recent mayoral victories of Bill de Blasio in New York and Ras Baraka in Newark attest. Karen Lewis has just filed papers in a first step to challenge Rahm Emanuel, a proponent and chief architect of corporate education reform, in the Chicago mayor’s race. And there are promising signs of new progressive voices emerging within the national Democratic Party. Donna Brazile, a former campaign manager for Bill Clinton, recently announced the formation of Democrats for Public Education, which will challenge the neoliberal Democrats for Education Reform and contest the claims of the neoliberal reformers.

Though the coalitions between parents and teachers have been crucial to this progress, questions remain. Ansari voices a suspicion that lingers in communities of color: “We are challenged by the sustainability of this work. How long will labor support us? Will they move to more comfortable places and withdraw if the crisis fades even a bit? Is labor in this for the long haul? Time will tell.” Ultimately, however, as Karen Lewis notes, such labor-community coalitions must grow if they are to prevail in the broader fight: “It is the only way we can even begin to think about facing down and beating the enemy that would take everything from us.”