What School Walk-Ins Teach Us

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What School Walk-Ins Teach Us

A student holds a sign as he joins other students, parents, teachers and others at a rally for education at Burroughs Elementary in Chicago on Feb. 17, 2016.

There’s a dangerous myth being perpetrated that the American public has given up on publican education.

Those making this claim point to the swelling enrollments of charter schools and the spread of school vouchers that allow parents to transfer their children out of the public school system at taxpayer expense. And it’s true, giving parents more opportunities to “vote with their feet” and leave the public education system is chipping away at the population of students enrolled in public education. But does this mean support for public education is declining, and parents are happily transferring out of the system?

This week, thousands of teachers, parents, students, and community supporters of public education demonstrated nothing could be further from the truth in a series of “walk-in” protests in over 30 cities involving 900 schools.

Those big numbers come from the event sponsors themselves, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a national alliance of parent, youth and community organizations and labor groups that support public education. But numerous news stories in local press outlets and a lengthy Twitter stream of eyewitness accounts to the protests seem to prove those claims to be authentic.

It’s hardly surprising these events brought out thousands of strong supporters for public schools. That’s what they were intended to do. What’s important, though, is to hear why the walk-ins are happening and what protestors are saying.

There's something in the air...

What’s A “Walk-In?”

Walking into schools – as opposed to walking out – is a symbolic gesture of support for public education and an opportunity for concerned citizens and the media to see the conditions and challenges these schools face.

The walk-in concept originated in North Carolina and St. Paul, Minnesota, where teachers and students – unable or unwilling to walk out of schools – held walk-ins to voice their concerns, educate their communities, and galvanize support for public schools.

This week’s events come at a time when, “The future of public education in the United States stands at a critical crossroad,” according to a statement from AROS. The statement authors see “a web of billionaire advocates, national foundations, policy institutes, and local and federal decision-makers” working to “dismantle public education and promote a top-down, market-based approach to school reform.”

But what do people on the ground see?

Why People Are Walking In

In Boston, the walk-in took place at City Hall where hundreds gathered outside to protest an estimated $50 million budget shortfall for the city’s schools. “At the proposed level, district schools could lose teachers, after-school programs, and elective classes like languages and arts,” according to a local news account. The crowd presented to the mayor a list of demands and a petition with more than 3,500 signatures, then proceeded to march to the State House to present their demands to the governor too.

As part of the protest, ninth graders at one school, according to the Boston Globe, wrote a letter to the mayor complaining of the budget cuts and “asking that you come to our school and explain to our students why you are letting this happen.”

School budget cuts were a point of contention in Chicago as well, where walk-in protests occurred at hundreds of schools across the city. “We’re united as a community, “Chicago Teachers Union vide president Jesse Sharkey tells a local reporter. “The cuts are unacceptable.”

Parents and students joined the teachers at many of the Chicago events, according to another local reporter, and voiced their disapproval of school budget that have swollen class sizes and eliminated course offerings. “Not every school is able to get what they want for their students,” one teacher explains. “I hope they get exactly what they’re asking for,” a parent chimes in.

At another Chicago rally, teacher Michelle Gunderson tells the reporter, “Schools are under-funded all over out country, especially in large urban districts.”

“We need to create revenue for our neighborhood schools,” a parent at the featured rally adds. “We don’t need more charter schools.”

Charter schools were also a point of protests in Los Angeles, where 20,000 were expected to turn out at events across the city, according to LA School Report. The target of the protestors’ ire is a proposed plan to expand the city’s already considerable supply of charter schools, which siphon money away from public schools.

“It’s a zero-sum game for funding,” another Los Angeles press outlet quotes American Federation President Randi Weingarten saying, “because of the attempts to create more and more and more charters at the expense of fixing local public schools.”

A public school student tells the reporter her school “is something that we need to protect … If we don’t, it’s going to fall into ruin and it’s not going to be the same.”

Signs and posters at one Los Angeles event, according to another local report, “focused on what students loved about their school – the teachers, the music.” Participants in the protest fear these are the things being taken away from them in order to fund more charaters.

Numerous walk-ins across the state of Wisconsin protested funding cuts to schools while more resources are directed to charter schools and voucher programs. In Milwaukee, “Parents, educators and community leaders gathered at nearly 100 of Milwaukee’s public schools,” according to a local account. Protestors there spoke out against alleged “takeovers” of their public schools by charter school organizations and private schools funded by vouchers. In La Crosse, educators complained of the tough choices they have to make while charters and vouchers sap their resources without decreasing the costs of operating local schools. The result is loss of libraries, art and language programs, and support staff for students who need extra help.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, demonstrations in front of over 50 schools focused on funding demands teachers are making in upcoming contract negotiations. At rallies at more than 50 schools in Paterson, New Jersey, teachers, parents, and public officials spoke out against budget shortfalls and “private corporations [that] come in here and open schools that are not public.” In Denver, protestors advocated for “smaller class sizes, deeper community partnerships to provide services for families, and greater accountability for charter schools.” In San Diego, protesters wanted increased support for public schools and called for less emphasis on standardized testing. In Austin, walk-ins at three schools focused on funding for “community schools” that would offer increased health, emotional, and counseling supports for schools.

The common thread throughout these protests is pretty clear: lack of funding and support for public schools while resources are being directed elsewhere.

Who is responsible for that?

Who Has A Choice?

Views can differ on whether there is “a web” of collaborating groups – as AROS contends – directing education policy, and whether or not the intent is to “dismantle” public schools, but it’s very clear the thousands of people involved in this week’s walk-ins feel they have little choice in what’s happening to their schools.

They did not choose to chronically under fund their schools and send public money somewhere else. Someone else chose to do that.

While some parents may find charter schools and vouchers can provide useful workarounds for them, that doesn’t correct the chronic under funding of the entire system and the unwillingness of political leaders to take that problem on. Participants in this week’s walk-ins see the hard, bitter truth of that. Good for them.

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

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