Activists in Philadelphia Have Reclaimed Control of the City’s Schools

Activists in Philadelphia Have Reclaimed Control of the City’s Schools

Activists in Philadelphia Have Reclaimed Control of the City’s Schools

Dispatches from the Urban Resistance, from Philly to Albuquerque and beyond.


Sometimes the constant barrage of bad news is enough to make you want to stay in bed. Forever.

The prospect of a nuclear conflict with North Korea. The very real possibility that the GOP will open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. The truly nightmarish tax-slash bill that will set social-democratic institutions on an accelerated path to decline. The president’s despicable endorsement of Islamophobic propaganda. The likelihood that the alleged pedophile and confirmed bigot Roy Moore may become a US senator. All this, and more, can coalesce into a feeling of despair so consuming that resistance seems futile.

Fortunately, many people have kept on all the same and, thanks to their tireless advocacy and activism, there are signs—recent signs—that a better America may yet emerge out of the crisis. Remember the beginning of November—November 8, to be exact?

That’s when progressives, socialists, and other grassroots forces swept to victory at the ballot box. From New Mexico and New York to Minnesota and Montana, they took seats on school boards, in state legislatures, in city halls, and elsewhere. And they did it by offering concrete solutions to people’s daily problems.

In Virginia, Danica Roem campaigned on a platform to fix her community’s local highway, Route 28. Her relentless focus on practical concerns helped her unseat her socially conservative opponent—a man so far to the right he’s been described as “the culture war’s four-star general”—and become the first openly transgender person in history to take a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. In Somerville, Massachusetts, a slate of socialists and progressives ran local campaigns that homed in on the need for affordable and alternative housing models there. Together, they won seven seats on that city’s Board of Alderman. In Philadelphia, the longtime civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner became the district attorney after running a race that addressed the devastating problem of mass incarceration in that city. He promised to oppose the death penalty, end cash-bail payments and treat addiction as a medical problem rather than a crime, and voters turned out for him in droves.

Collectively, the message of these campaigns and others like them was this: Government, and especially local government, can improve lives; it can constrain the power of the rich and empower working people; it can make the world better and fairer and easier. It can, in short, serve a function completely at odds with the diabolical vision of a cruel and corrupt government advanced by Trump.

The truth of that message is everywhere to be observed. This month alone, progressive leaders and organizers across the country offered some compelling examples. From education policy to police reform to immigrant defense, governments of the small-d democratic persuasion made progress a reality.

Making the School District Democratic Again

After an unflagging campaign by teachers, parents and local organizers in the city, Philadelphia has taken back its school district.

The trouble began in 2001, when then–Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker declared the city’s education system financially distressed and claimed control over it. He took away the local decision-making powers of Philadelphia’s school board and installed a five-person state-backed body, called the School Reform Commission (SRC), to oversee the district. In the years the followed, the SRC flooded the city with charter-school operators, closed dozens of public schools, and repeatedly failed to sign a contract with Philadelphia’s teachers union. Its actions earned the wrath of teachers, unions, and parents alike.

“This commission was put in place to supposedly right some wrongs and bring financial stability back to the school district,” says Antione Little, a labor organizer and a parent of public-school students. “But for the last 15 years that wasn’t the case. What took place instead was a continued downward spiral of the schools here in the city of Philadelphia.” At present, after years of SRC control, the school district is looking at a deficit as high as $905 million by 2022.

Last summer, organizers decided to put an end to the SRC and its experiment in state management. Groups like 215 People’s Alliance and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, as well as a slew of other local unions, came together and formed a coalition called Our City Our Schools. Its goal was simple: to convince Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to disband the SRC and return control over the school district to local voters.

“What we were asking for, what we wanted, was a people’s school board,” says Little, who serves as the chair of Our City Our Schools. “We wanted an elected body, a board elected by local people.”

Our City Our Schools campaigned for roughly a year and a half to build support for their cause. Its members attended countless public events handing out literature and educating their neighbors. They showed up constantly at SRC meetings to offer testimony and disrupt its proceedings. They lobbied the mayor, the city council, and the governor. They held rallies and protests and committed civil disobedience.

“A lot of Philadelphians didn’t even know what the SRC was at first,” says Little. “It was a David and Goliath–like situation.”

Ultimately, the campaigners claimed the day. Both Philadelphia’s mayor and its city council ultimately turned against the SRC, and on November 2, Kenney called for the SRC to disband. Two weeks later, on November 16, the SRC bowed to public pressure and opted to vote itself out of existence. It decided to turn the city’s schools back to local decision makers by the summer of 2018, when the mayo plans to replace it with a nine-person appointed board.

“The takeover was a massive educational experiment on Black and Brown and immigrant children. From reckless charter expansion to mass school closings, these were strategies not backed by any educational research, they didn’t solve the existing and terrible problems within the District, and they hurt far too many children,” said City Councilmember Helen Gym of the victory in a statement. “Today we recognize that we need to chart a new path.”

Antione Little says his organization too is celebrating the victory, but there is still more work to do. Our City Our Schools it would prefer a school board elected directly by voters, rather than one appointed by the mayor. That fight, though, is for a later day.

Demilitarizing the Seattle Police

The federal Department of Defense’s 1033 program gives free military-grade gear to police departments, large and small, all across the country. The program gained notoriety during both the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the standoff at Standing Rock, where police officers dressed like paramilitary storm troopers cracked down on peaceful protests night after night using high-tech weaponry suited for war zones.

President Trump, needless to say, loves the program. In August, during an appearance at a Fraternal Order of Police convention in Nashville, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration would fully restore and support the 1033 program after President Obama restricted it during his tenure.

“We have your back,” Sessions told his audience, “and you have our thanks.”

The city of Seattle, though, has no use for Trump’s backing or for Session’s gratitude. On November 22, the City Council there passed an ordinance that bars its police department from participating in the 1033 program or any other “federal program that transfers excess military equipment to civilian law-enforcement agencies at reduced or no cost.”

City Council member Lisa Herbold, a key backer of the new ordinance along with Councilmember Lorena González, says that Seattle’s police department closed out its account with the 1033 program beginning in 2015. There weren’t any laws on the books, however, that specifically forbid local police from participating in the program in the future. Given the Trump administration’s enthusiasm for the militarization of local law enforcement, she wanted that to change.

“Considering the disastrous Sessions’ rollback of limits on this program, a change in current practice would not be good for Seattle, where we are working hard to restore trust with out communities in the face of a DOJ consent decree for police practices,” she says.

Herbold, a member of the progressive political network Local Progress, hopes that Seattle’s ordinance will be a model for other communities that are grappling with the free battlefield weaponry that has turned some police departments into a menacing and militarized presence.

SAFE Cities First

The fight to defend undocumented immigrants from the Trump administration made welcome progress this month.

On November 9, 11 communities around the country launched an initiative called the SAFE Cities Network to use both public and private funds to provide representation to undocumented immigrants who face deportation. With backing from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit based in New York, cities like Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, San Antonio, Columbus, Chicago, and Oakland signed on as founding members of the network. Their decision to do so comes as federal authorities continue to round up undocumented immigrants in huge numbers. Between January and April of this year, for instance, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it had arrested 41,000 people around the country, an increase of 37.6 percent from the year before.

Some places, like Atlanta, have been particularly hard-hit. According to a November 25 report in The New York Times, the regional ICE office in that city “made nearly 80 percent more arrests in the first half of this year than it did in the same period last year, the largest increase of any field office in the country.”

This spike in arrests has made the need for defensive action all the more acute in Atlanta. “Time and time again, Atlantans have rallied in support of our immigrant and foreign-born communities. This support is needed now more than ever,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in a statement announcing his city’s decision to join the network. “Atlanta is proud to be a welcoming city that stands up for the civil and human rights of every person.”

Providing legal representation to people caught in the immigration court system is critically important. According to a recent Vera Institute report, roughly 48 percent of undocumented immigrants in NYC who have obtained lawyers through the city’s recently established public immigrant- defense program have succeeded in court in recent years. Those without a lawyer have historically had only a 4 percent success rate. As a result of access to counsel, hundreds of people have been spared deportation there.

Members of the SAFE Cities Network, meanwhile, received further encouragement for their efforts on November 20, when a federal court in California permanently blocked an executive order signed by Donald Trump that sought to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities across the country. In his decision, the presiding judge, William Orrick, called that order “unconstitutionally broad” and “unduly coercive.”

Victory, in NOLA and Albuquerque

November 8 ushered in crucial electoral gains for the left, but the victories didn’t stop then.

During a run-off election on November 14, voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, selected Democrat Tim Keller to be their next mayor. Backed by Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution and using public funds to fuel his campaign, Keller ran on a vociferously pro-immigrant and pro–clean energy platform. He turned out a huge number of volunteers to carry him across the finish line.

“We were outspent in the first round like six to one, but we really believed in the power of an old-fashioned ground game with phone calls and door knocking,” says Keller, who defeated Republican Dan Lewis. “We had thousands of people help us, which is very rare. It was incredible.” Keller ultimately won with 62 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, on November 18 in New Orleans, the people chose City Council member and long-time community activist LaToya Cantrell as the city’s first female mayor. Cantrell gained renown as a bold organizer who helped defend and revitalize her neighborhood, Broadmoor, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged it. As a city councillor, she was best known for championing legislation that banned smoking in bars and other public venues in the city. And now she will be mayor, after a campaign in which she ran on a $15 minimum wage, an increase in funding for the public defenders office, strong support for LGBTQ rights, and a pledge to fight for the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion in the state. She was backed by Our Revolution NOLA, and the Working Families Party, among many others.

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