Activists at the Occupy the DOE march on Saturday, April 6th protested education reform measures including high-stakes standardized testing, school closures, and defunding. Photo by Dave Madeloni.
Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, blogger and activist Diane Ravitch, educator and writer Deborah Meier, some of the brightest lights in a movement that seeks to shut down a brand of education reform that weakens unions, closes struggling schools, and evaluates teachers based on an endless cycle of student standardized tests, rallied in D.C. last weekend, for the second annual Occupy the Department of Education event April 4 to 7.
The rhetoric was fiery, the crowd was energized, but the square in front of the Education Department was barely half full. At the rally’s height, around 175 protesters marched to the White House.
The growing movement against corporate-style education reform has its work cut out for it. It is, after all, challenging an insidiously well-messaged behemoth funded by billionaires and sanctioned by both major political parties.
There are some signs of a revolution afoot. In January, Seattle teachers at one high school boycotted a district-mandated standardized test. Some ten thousand people rallied in Texas in February for more school funding and fewer exams. Groups from around the U.S. have filed lawsuits calling school closures and turnaround plans civil rights violations. Perhaps most inspiring to those gathered in D.C. last weekend, last September saw the Chicago Teachers Union strike, where 29,000 educators demanded not just better working conditions for teachers but also better learning conditions for students.
The revolution is decentralized, and for national groups like United Opt Out, which called the rally, the challenge of organizing localized pockets of resistance is immense.
Attendees of Occupy the DOE (which has no official affiliation with Occupy Wall Street) say localized actions are increasingly enabling less organized communities to take a stand against policies that have fundamentally altered the way school systems across the country function.
Although politics vary by locality, the project DOE Occupiers call “corporate” reform is one fueled by national organizations such as Students First, ALEC, the Broad Foundation, and, yes, the Department of Education. It’s one that protest organizers say requires a national counter-movement.
In the last several months dozens of schools in cities like New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia have been tagged for closure by the end of the year. Status-quo education reformers frame the closures as an inevitable result of parents wising up and abandoning district schools for charters that better serve their children. That’s the kind of rhetoric Occupiers say they have to counter.