Skip to main content

Common Dreams. Journalism funded by people, not corporations.

There has never been—and never will be—an advertisement on our site except for this one: without readers like you supporting our work, we wouldn't exist.

No corporate influence. No pay-wall. Independent news and opinion 365 days a year that is freely available to all and funded by those who support our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good.

Our mission is clear. Our model is simple. If you can, please support our Fall Campaign today.

Support Our Work -- No corporate influence. No pay-wall. Independent news funded by those who support our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. Please support our Fall Campaign today.

Demonstrators in Philadelphia protest “doomsday budget” that would cut funding for assistant principals, guidance counselors, music and athletics programs, May 30, 2013. (Photo: AP / Matt Rourke)

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.

Helen Gym

 by The Nation

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.

"As we prepare to face the DeVos agenda, we will continue to reject narratives of public education rooted in failure and disinvestment, along with the peddling of long-debunked theories about market-driven reform that have been deployed in cities across the country."

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.

Faced with continued austerity, we marched, took over school-board meetings, and lobbied City Council offices. And we started to win more victories: City officials began to acknowledge they could do more and boosted their financial support for the struggling school system. We drew on our networks to find allies in other communities across the state suffering from similar circumstances.

This is the coalition that helped throw out a one-term GOP governor in 2014 and installed Tom Wolf, a governor who centered his campaign on fair and equitable education funding. And this is the coalition that the following year elected Jim Kenney, a pro–public education mayor, and boosted me, a mother of three kids and longtime education activist, into a seat on Philadelphia’s City Council.

We’ve already shifted the narrative in our city away from austerity and back to real investments that restore essential services to our schools. With a more unified political leadership, and with the help of boosts in state and local funding, we’re putting hundreds of nurses and counselors back into school buildings that had been stripped of these vital personnel. We’re also protecting immigrant students, ensuring water access and safety, expanding the teaching force, and re-embracing in-district models of improving schools rather than outsourcing interventions to unreliable education-management organizations.

In 2016, we passed the nation’s first big-city sugary-drink tax on beverage distributors to expand funding for early education. And we have mounted new legal challenges to the profoundly inequitable system for funding public schools in Pennsylvania and won a legislative commitment to base state funding on student need.

As we prepare to face the DeVos agenda, we will continue to reject narratives of public education rooted in failure and disinvestment, along with the peddling of long-debunked theories about market-driven reform that have been deployed in cities across the country. The strength of our resistance is local—and vast. It starts with the millions of us from Pennsylvania to Nebraska to California, and every state in between—who called, faxed, visited, and tweeted at our senators to vote against an astonishingly bad nomination. We rose up in unison to defend this democratic ideal of public education.


If the Philadelphia experience is any measure, this uprising won’t just be limited to our schools. It will form the basis of a movement which will not only withstand an authoritarian federal agenda but will also grow more unified in spite of it.

And while the challenges remain large, we’ve shown that the march of privatization and vouchers is far from inevitable, and that we the people still have the power to imagine and work toward a far better world.

This article was produced in partnership with Local Progress, a network of progressive local elected officials, to highlight some of the bold efforts unfolding in cities across the country.

© 2017 The Nation

Helen Gym

Helen Gym is a Councilmember At Large from Philadelphia and Vice-Chair of Local Progress, a national network of progressive elected officials.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Outrageous and Shameful': Dems May Cut Paid Leave Due to Manchin's Opposition

Decrying the plan, advocacy groups vowed that "the American people are not going to allow that essential human need to be ignored and negotiated away behind closed doors."

Jessica Corbett ·

Open Letter Warns Trump's 'Big Lie' GOP Poses Existential Threat to Democracy

"Now is the time for leaders in all walks of life—for citizens of all political backgrounds and persuasions—to come to the aid of the republic."

Brett Wilkins ·

Ahead of Historic House Hearing, Fresh Big Oil Misinformation Campaign Exposed

"It's always helpful to remember that big fossil fuel companies (besides being overwhelmingly responsible for carbon pollution) are also skeevy disinformation hucksters."

Jessica Corbett ·

'Very Welcome' Progress as Iran Agrees to Restart Talks on Nuclear Deal Sabotaged by Trump

One peace advocate urged all sides to reconvene negotiations "as soon as possible and with renewed urgency" to avert "disastrous" consequences for Iran and the world.

Brett Wilkins ·

House Progressives: 'When We Said These Two Bills Go Together, We Meant It'

"Moving the infrastructure bill forward without the popular Build Back Better Act risks leaving behind working people, families, and our communities."

Andrea Germanos ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo