A version of this article was previously published in the Socialist Worker.
The Boston Public Schools have been under sustained budget cuts for several years. This year students decided they’d had enough. After Mayor Marty Walsh announced a proposed $50 million budget cut to BPS, which would have resulted in the closure of several schools, teacher layoffs, the elimination of extracurricular programs and many AP classes, and a reduction in special education services, students, teachers and parents decided to act.
In January a handful of teachers, parents, and students protested inside of Mayor Walsh’s State of the City address. Over February break, several hundred people protested outside of city hall. Then, in early March a group of BPS students put out a call for a district-wide student walk. To their surprise, and everyone else’s, over 3,500 students walked out of school and flooded Downtown Boston to protest the mayor’s proposed cuts and demand additional funding for public education. Publicly embarrassed and facing tremendous pressure from students, parents, and teachers the mayor backed down—partially.
Several days after the walkout Walsh announced that no cuts would be made to any of the high schools. Instead, funding would be cut back from elementary schools, autism programs, and a proposed pre-K program. Outraged students, parents, and teachers have continued to speak and organize. Below is an interview with two of the student organizers behind the March 7 walkout.
For more information about upcoming actions and the final Committee hearing on March 23, check out Boston Education Justice Alliance
An Interview With Jahi Spaloss and Harry Saunders, student organizers from the #BPS Walk-Out.
Keegan O’Brien: I was expecting a few hundred students to walk out, and over 3,000 showed up! That’s pretty incredible. What did you guys think of the demonstration?
Jahi Spaloss: I think it was a beautiful turnout. It really showed how much integrity our students have and how much they really care about their education. It shows that they will fight back.
Harry Saunders: I’m really, really happy that everybody showed support for us. To be honest, I only expected four or five hundred people, but the whole city came, and that got me fired up. We need to be upset. We need to be irrational. We can’t be disorganized. We have to be united and show solidarity. We have to have equity. We have to show that we need this because it’s our education that’s at stake here and this is really important to us. If these cuts go through it will be so detrimental to our future. I want to reiterate that I really love all the support we saw, it’s pushing everything forward and that’s what we need to do.
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KO: For folks who aren’t aware of what’s going on in Boston right now, could you explain what’s happening to Boston Public Schools and why you guys organized this walk-out?
JS: We organized the walkout purely on the basis that our education was being jeopardized. We felt that we had to collaborate with as many youth as possible and talk about this injustice, and then take action over it. We wanted to show that if the adults in this city aren’t going to stand up for our education, then we will. This is a historic moment and now is the time for us to stand up.
HS: I’m just wondering who the mayor and the school committee think they are to think that they can deprive us of something like this. They say they’re prioritizing our safety by not allowing us to walk out, but they’re not thinking about the yellow school buses that they’re going to cut. The kids are going to be standing on the corner at 5 o’clock in the morning. We know that kids in the MBTA of all ages are getting stabbed and shot up and all kinds of things are happening to them. That’s just one of the things that is already wrong with this whole thing. It’s going to keep going and going and going until this state falls apart and until this country falls apart. We need to revolutionize this.
KO: Could you two talk about how this all came together and what you think the next steps need to be?
JS: Well, the organizing first began with Snowden International, and then they asked for help from the youth-led organization I work with, BYOP. It stands for Boston Area Youth Organizing Project. With our connections, we reached out to many organizations in Boston, and we helped spread the word to students at other schools across the city. And from there, we started organizing the walk-out. This is just the first step of the battle we have ahead of us. Now we plan on encouraging students to continue going to the budget cut hearings, and if Marty Walsh and Charlie Baker continue to ignore what we are saying and the injustice that is going on, we will continue to walk out. And eventually if we continue to walk out, there will be no students. And once there are no students, it becomes a problem for them and they will have to take action, they will have to give us their time.
KO: One of the things that activists have been pointing out is that the city just gave a $180 million tax subsidy to General Electric, which is a $250 billion multinational corporation. Meanwhile, they’re cutting the BPS budget by $50 million. What do you guys think about that and what do you think that tells us about the priorities of this city and the politicians who run it?
JS: Politicians in and around Boston have always been corrupt. Boston has been known to have some of the highest levels of economic inequality in our entire country. And honestly, I believe that there is a lot of adultism when it comes to certain priorities being noticed. Right now Boston’s only focusing on encouraging more tourism. They’re gentrifying this city. But what about us? They cut the budgets from our schools and undermine our own future.
HS: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. Everybody just expects us to sit down and do what we’re told. But what’s dear to us is education because that is what’s drawing us forth, that is what’s gotten us this far in our lives. It’s BPS and public schooling offered to those that never had opportunities. It gives everyone a voice and a chance, it gives everybody a future. So when they start depriving us of that, when they start making these cutbacks, we have nothing left. It’s just not a smart move for us. They know that. They just take and they take, and they don’t have a right. That’s not their money, it belongs to us.
KO: Could you guys talk a little bit about the effect that these cuts are going to have on the school system as a whole, and in particular how this is going to affect some of the most vulnerable students in BPS—low-income students, English-language learners, students with disabilities. Could you guys elaborate on that?
JS: The budget cuts are going to be cut from extracurricular activities; sports teams, clubs, even some classes actually, definitely special needs. It would also cut back on AP classes, which are some of the only opportunities kids have to actually get into college with a little tuition taken care of. At the end of the day, they’re taking away our opportunities, they’re taking away our education, they’re taking away our future, and that’s what’s most important. It affects us on a deeper level too. When they make these cuts they’re showing us that our education, our future, doesn’t mater. It becomes a real disturbance to the community. And then you have to wonder, how much do they really value the next generation?
HS: They’re not prioritizing correctly. The politicians just want to benefit themselves and the rich. They want to start off slowly, and then when the people get comfortable with it and everybody’s okay and nodding their head and agreeing, they want to keep going deeper and deeper, which will just make it worse. But we’re not going to do that, the people are starting to notice. And by doing what we did today we can make them—the politicians—open their eyes. How can you ignore 2,000 people?
KO: Do you expect the school committee and the mayor to listen to you?
HS: Yes, we do. That’s their job.
JS: In reality, right now they’re not taking us seriously because they think we’re just a bunch of kids. But, like I said, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Because if they refuse to listen to us, we will force them to listen by any means necessary. I don’t care if I have to unify every student, every adult, every teacher, every administrator in Boston just to get my voice heard. Because this is one of the major issues happening right now in Boston and the last thing we need is educational injustice. We’re one of the richest countries in the world. Not only that, but Massachusetts is also known to have the best education system. We have some of the greatest colleges in the world, but really, if you want to look at the numbers, not many of us from Boston even go there. So really, where’s the equality when they’re cutting off our opportunities? They’re just making our chances of going anywhere slimmer and slimmer. Now we have to work three times as hard just to get ahead. All so that the city can continue building new buildings, making more condos, and gentrifying everything. But then they forget about the people who live here. They forget about us.
KO: A lot of people are pointing out how these budget cuts are going to disproportionately affect black and Latino students. Do you think this is a form of institutionalized racism and if so, can you explain that?
JS: Yes, it is absolutely a form of institutionalized racism. If we can really go into statistics, 80 percent of [the students in] Boston Public Schools are black and Latino children. Not only that, but most of these children come from low-income neighborhoods or low-income families, as well. Some of them don’t even have a roof over their heads, they’re actually homeless. They literally live in the shelter. I know a lot of kids that actually lived through this shit. Half the time, they only get their food through BPS, but now with the budget cuts, I don’t even know if we can get fed for free anymore. We’re probably going to have to pay out of our pockets. We’re supposed to be making a safe haven, we’re supposed to be making a land of opportunity in these schools. Another thing that really adds onto this is the school-to-prison pipeline. They’re literally just guiding us into being incarcerated faster than ever, because when you cut back a student’s education they suddenly don’t care a whole lot about school anymore. Then they seek out something more valuable to learn, they find better influences out in the streets. Next thing you know, they’re selling drugs, they’re doing illegal activity, they’re in gang affiliations, and next thing you know, an innocent black or Latino boy is behind bars because the education system failed him.
KO: What do you think it’s going to take to stop these budget cuts? What role, if any, do you think solidarity between teachers and students and parents and community members play in this struggle?
HS: It will definitely take collective action. BPS plays a major role in Boston. Without BPS, we’re pretty much lifeless. That’s where everybody gets their education. The majority of poor people and people of color cannot afford private schools, so they go to BPS. If we all take action at once, if we show solidarity, they’re going to have to listen. At that point, it’s their obligation to us. We are BPS. Without us, you are nothing, your system is nothing. You cannot function without us. We play a part, it can’t just be one side that takes control of everything. That’s what we’re here for.
JS: Right now, more than anything, we need more collective unity, even if people don’t realize that. For the seniors that think this movement is irrelevant to them because they’re graduating next year, that can also cut back on your graduation, you can find a lot of things going wrong there too. Harry might not even go to graduation. He goes to Snowden International. They already have many budget problems, as it is, why do they need even more? We also need teachers to be courageous against the scare tactics, because we have administrators who have been ordered by the city to control the students. They’re trying to get in contact with our parents to force us to stay in schools, instead of fighting out here for the budget. We need to unify each other because, right now, our biggest enemy is those politicians up there in City Hall and in the statehouse who are ruining our school. They’re the ones that are playing the ballgame right now, and they’re the ones that are really controlling our system. But like we said, we’re BPS. If there is no longer any students then our school system cannot function. If the school system cannot function, then neither can the government. If they really want to cut the budget on our education, then we’re going to cut the budget on how much the city can exploit us.
KO: If you were in charge of the schools, what would public education look like? What kind of schools do you think teachers and students and parents and the community deserve?
JS: Well, first, you have to look back at who has the least bit of advantage in terms of education, so you have to look at the low-income communities. What we’re going to do, what the city hasn’t done for us in a while, when a school has less resources, when they’re in a low-income community, we have to support those communities 150 percent. That’s the first thing we have to do. Second of all, we need to improve the curriculum, we need to boost up the education in schools, we need to bring down the drop-out rates, we need to encourage even more kids to go to college. Every child should have the opportunity to learn what they want and be encouraged to follow their dreams. And to do all that we need more funding, we can’t be cutting it, our schools are already poor. One more thing, schools need to have a much closer relationship with our students. We need to encourage our faculty to believe that every student can make it, because throughout my years in public education, I’ve met some shitty teachers. Some of them just talk down to students as if they’re nothing. That needs to change. Every child is important and we need to hear from the students. We need to hear their voice, because they’re the ones that know what they really want in their education.
KO: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. BPS students have shown this city how to fight back against austerity. Before we end, do either of you have any last words you’d like to share about what people can do right now to help your struggle?
JS: The best we can do at the moment is continuing to go to these budget-committee hearings and make our voices heard. We’ve gotta keep getting out into the streets and protesting, because right now there is a war. Some might think I’m being over-dramatic, but there is a war going on right now between the students and the government—they’re trying to destroy our education and our future. This is a fight for our education, this is a fight for our brothers and sisters, this is a fight for the younger generation, this is a fight for everyone. It keeps on going and going. It’s a cycle, and if we stop now, then who’s going to battle for us? We’ve got to fight for out selves, no one else is going to do it for us.