“Mic check! MIC CHECK! Let the Puppet show begin! LET THE PUPPET SHOW BEGIN!”
The demonstrators who held the floor at a December 14 meeting at Newtown High School in Corona, Queens, were part of Occupy DOE (Department of Education), a mix of veteran teachers, parents and Occupy Wall Street activists that is bringing the language and tactics of OWS to the grassroots fight against neoliberal education reform.
The demonstrators explained why the Panel on Educational Policy (PEP), which had convened the Queens meeting, is an illegitimate, undemocratic body. New York’s PEP replaced elected school boards when Bloomberg established mayoral control of the school system. It is a parody of a school board: at its meetings, members of the public make impassioned speeches, but nothing they say makes any difference. The majority of the panel’s members are appointed by the mayor, and the PEP has never, in all its existence, rejected any of his proposals.
As the official meeting began, each panelist was introduced. As each mayoral appointee said their name, Occupy DOE yelled, “Puppet!” Throughout the meeting, the protestors waved puppets to dramatize the nature of mayoral control.
The PEP was voting that night on a plan to open two new charter schools in Brooklyn, both with the Success network, run by Eva Moskowitz, a former city councilwoman with close ties to Bloomberg and his administration. Almost everyone on the Success board hails from the hedge fund or private equity industry. The idea that the one percent could open schools in Brooklyn neighborhoods, despite intense opposition from both the public and many of its local elected officials, has provoked fury.
As the depth of Brooklyn’s opposition to the Success schools became clear, the department tried to avoid hearing from opponents or protesters altogether by moving the PEP vote from a central location in Manhattan to faraway Corona, Queens. The DOE initially claimed that this would make it easier for Queens parents to comment on proposals affecting their borough. The funny part was, there were no such proposals on the agenda.
Occupy DOE did shut down the PEP in October, and will surely do so again, though on December 14 the group decided that it would be better to let the meeting go on, since so many people wanted to speak out against the DOE proposals.
During the time allocated for public comments, Leia Petty, a young guidance counselor, asked Chancellor Dennis Walcott some direct questions (including, “Why did you move the meeting to Queens?”) Walcott refused to answer. After Petty exceeded her designated two minutes of speaking time, two white-shirted police officers came over to remove her from the meeting. As the crowd shouted, “Let her stay!” the officers backed away and did just that.
It’s not only in New York City that the Occupy spirit has invigorated education activists. In late November Occupy Rochester, along with parents and other community activists, disruptively mic-checked a school board meeting to protest an undemocratic process for selecting a new school superintendent, a process that involved a corporate search firm. In Chicago, on the same day as the Queens PEP meeting, protesters shut down a school board meeting to protest recent failed reforms. Like New York, Chicago has been shutting down failing schools and replacing them with new ones, often charter schools. As in New York, many of the new schools perform even worse than the old ones. Parents and teachers mic checked the meeting, yelling, “You have failed Chicago’s children…. These are our children, not corporate products!” Two days later, protesters occupied the lobby of New Jersey’s Department of Education, protesting Governor Chris Christie’s efforts to open more charter schools in the state.
Leia Petty, who has been active in OWS but especially in Occupy DOE, said of the education justice movement, “People have been doing this work for years but OWS has opened new possibilities for this work. It’s helped us think bolder. It feels like a whole movement, not just us.”
To be sure, the 99 percent isn’t unanimous in its opposition to the mayor’s reform agenda. At the meeting in Corona, some charter school parents spoke of their satisfaction with their children’s education. But there weren’t many of them, and Gotham Schools has reported that they’d been organized to attend by an Astroturf pro-charter organization called Families for Excellent Schools, headed by Seth Andrews, who runs Democracy Prep, a charter chain.
The Corona meeting did indeed live up to its billing as a puppet show, as the PEP voted to approve all the mayor’s proposals as always.
But this grassroots movement to Occupy Education continues to grow. One teacher who, fearing retaliation from the department, did not want her name printed, addressed the crowd shortly before the protesters walked out of the meeting: “We need to show them what democracy looks like, because,” she pointed at the mayor’s hand-picked panel, “this is not what democracy looks like.”