As I walked to this session, I made the assumption that these were college students. I have connected with college groups in the past who have become activists for public schools, and since this was a conference filled with well-known heroes of public education, this surely had to be a session with some of those college students. But as the panel began to speak, I became less sure as to who these students were, so I raised my hand and asked, “Are you high school students?”
After this group, students from the Newark Student Union and a student union in Tennessee, affirmed my question, my thoughts raced from feeling proud of these amazing young people to feeling incredulous and angry about what they had to do. These child-activists taught us the difference between a direct action and civil disobedience. They shared the actions they have taken because they want to save their public schools. They spoke from the heart about their sit-ins, walk-outs, and marches all in an effort to receive the education they desire. But what broke my heart was this: Shouldn’t public education be a “given?” Aren’t these children entitled to their right under the New Jersey constitution (“The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.”)? Why should these students have to fight the take over from charter schools, to demand an end to the reign of their corporate-driven appointed superintendent of public instruction, and to sit in the streets, arms locked together, to make a plea that their state return to community schools with wrap-around services for all children? This isn’t their job. This isn’t what they should be doing. This is their right. My heart broke.
While I am proud to be part of a school system that continues to be a pillar in our community and offers wrap-around services including arts, athletics, community outreach, a clothing bank, and partnerships with local businesses and community leaders, I know that the privateers, the corporate reformers, the charter invaders, and profiteers are alive and lurking in our state. Do we, as a community, have what it takes to fight off these groups? Are you willing, as these noble New Jersey students are, to stand together, arm in arm, to protest those who want to destroy our public schools? I hope you are willing. I hope that, together, we can continue to offer to our young people – the future of our community – a free, equitable education - an education where everyone is accepted, an education filled with math, music, physical education, art, libraries, extra-curricular activities, highly-qualified and caring teachers. After all, they are children. They are our future. This shouldn’t be their fight. It is their gift. Let’s fight for them and the gift they well deserve.
If you are familiar with and follow those who fight this good fight, then you may be familiar with some of the attendees. This conference gives opportunity to meet and converse with the “rock stars” of public education – many bloggers and activists so as Diane Ravitch, Peter Greene with Curmudgucation, Jennifer Berkshire with Edushyster, Mercedes Schneider, author of A Chronicle of Echoes, Anthony Cody with Living in Dialogue, Fort Wayne’s own Phyllis Bush with NEIFPE, Chicago Teacher Union’s Karen Lewis, Randi Weingarten with AFT, and Lily Eskelsen García with NEA.