by Steven Spires
On Sunday June 16th, six protesters died after conflicts between civilians, members of National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) and police took a violent turn in Oaxaca, Mexico following the arrest of union leaders on charges of corruption by the federal government. Protesters and union members took to the streets throwing molotov cocktails and burning down vehicles in protest of the arrests seen as covers for dismembering labor and the new education reform program being introduced by the government. The reform, turning the focus of national education onto standardized testing, efficiency, and accountability, immediately faced resistance by the teachers, seeing it as working towards the dismembering of unions and teacher’s rights as workers . This clash brings back memories of the 2006 teachers strike in Oaxaca. The 2006 strike, similarly against education reform, prompted the launch of the “Oaxaca Commune”, which ended up mobilizing not only teachers but also large swathes of the working class to take on the education system and open their governor carrying out the will of Mexico’s ruling class. This re-emergence of violent class struggle in the classroom brings up the vital and often underutilized role of teachers in our struggle against capitalism.
Particularly for students, who make up the bulk of the Young Democratic Socialists, the neoliberal attack on public education in the US: the implementation of standardized testing, the transfer of funds to publicly funded charter schools, the pacification and co-option of teachers unions, the “Every Student Succeeds Act”, and the extreme austerity cuts seen across the country provide a unique opportunity to not only work in solidarity with our teachers in resisting neoliberalism, but also use it as a starting point towards building the movement carrying principles of democratic socialism and towards a relationship with our teachers based in the theories of critical pedagogy.
While not as blatant as police oversight of federal testing like we see in Mexico, the US is seeing the deepening of neoliberal reform in education every year, which is starting to increasingly cause unrest. In Chicago, we saw Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Renaissance 2010 project—launching unprecedented school closings and austerity cuts leading to the radicalization of labor and the eventual 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) strike. In Boston just this year, 2,000 students staged a walkout of their classes in protest of proposed cuts to the budget and school closings. As billionaire-backed education reform continues and the push to privatize education becomes increasingly powerful, we will start to see more of these mass rejections of neoliberalism and austerity come in more radical and organized ways.
One of these grassroots campaigns which I as a YDS member have had the opportunity to witness and participate in in is happening in my home state of Massachusetts, where $400 million in public school funds could be siphoned off to charter schools if the cap on their budgets is voted to be removed come this November. Despite an 18 million dollar campaign being put forth by a coalition of businesses to lift the cap, and an endorsement of the campaign by Republican Governor Charlie Baker, Massachusetts labor and community organizations have come together in a strong grassroots opposition of neoliberalism and an attempt to “Save Our Public Schools” and prevent the transfer of public school funds to charters.
These examples of grassroots resistance against neoliberalism that are happening across the nation provide us a strong model to start with. Even so, we must look further and use this opportunity of acting in solidarity with our teachers to begin building the movement which goes even beyond saving public education, and take on neoliberalism and the ruling class as a whole. To do this, we must fundamentally transform the role of the teacher in our struggle, and use our schools as a locus in our way forward. Instead of simply viewing school as an independent and convenient place to do socialist organizing among students, the public school must instead become the nucleus of our organizing as students, and we must expose our teachers to and engage them in the theories of critical pedagogy, and work towards promoting the model of Paulo Freire’s “critical educator”.
Following the models of Freire and others, the teacher, rather than viewing themselves as apolitical while teaching, must instead acquire an awareness or “conscientization” of their position within the current system, acknowledge the forces of neoliberalism which seek to dehumanize them, and engage in the struggle towards taking down the ruling class. Teachers must realize that teaching is an inescapably political process, and without active resistance against ruling class hegemony, the processes that make up their job, curriculum, and actions, all naturally comply to the will of the “dominant” ruling class and capitalist order.
While building mass critical consciousness is a required starting point, our teachers and us must also work to translate our shared awareness and criticism into concrete political and social action. Not only should teachers be working with their students to raise awareness in the classroom by providing a critical and relevant curriculum, they also, crucially, must engage in relevant political action alongside their students. Reclaiming their public schools from privatization efforts, transforming their school community to support their efforts for social justice, making their school community more open and democratic, and ensuring their school remains an open space for dialogue and organizing are just immediate starts. While this can begin efforts in the struggle, and help make them aware of the neoliberal attack on education and labor, the organizing must absolutely extend beyond the immediate school community. Educators and students must unite with labor, anti-racist, community, and parent organizations to continue their fight against neoliberalism and global capitalism together. From here, solidarity can be built, and the movement can fight for gains locally while simultaneously contributing to the national movement for democratic socialism.
While much of this might seem a large feat, a program like Save Our Public Schools already crosses some of the most important boundaries. In the schools, teachers are seen by their students and community as agents of social change rather than dormant and apolitical figures, and students are prompted, as members of the YDS or otherwise, to aid in their struggle to secure their shared interest of local/democratically controlled public schools. In addition, grassroots campaigns like Save Our Public Schools in Massachusetts work in solidarity with labor [AFL-CIO], anti-racist organizations [NAACP], teacher’s unions [AFT], parent organizations [Citizens for Public Schools], and local progressive politicians. From here, solidarity can be built between students, teachers, and other allies, and the real movement for a progressive and socialist society can begin.
Steven Spires is a YDS member and high school student in the Greater Boston area.