Whose Schools? Well, apparently not ours.

Sometimes it’s really hard to pick yourself up and dust yourself off.

This post is dedicated to an analysis of just exactly what happened Thursday night, and what it means for the future.  Briefly, before beginning, I will address in future posts some of the pressing questions ahead: the PTU contract, the mystifying cult of Tom Brady, the Broad infestation, and the question of union reform and rank-and-file action.  But for now, let’s focus on the catastrophe that befell us last night, in particular: What the hell happened?  What does it mean for Providence politics?  Should we have taken more radical direct action?  And what comes next?

What the hell happened?

Well, in brief, after two and a half hours of public comment from a packed auditorium, the school board, which had already made up its mind, voted to close ALL the schools on the chopping block.  It should probably have been clear to us from the bored and impassive looks on the faces of the school committee members that things had already been decided.  It became quite clear as soon as Kathy Crain moved to put Bridgham first on the voting list.  And the responses ranged from outrage to anger to tears.  Some said: let’s organize and fight more!  Others said:  what for?  It was hard to go back to school today, and I’m not even in a closed school, and not even a fired Providence teacher.  My heart goes out to those at Bridgham, Flynn, Messer, Windmill, and West Broadway, who have no idea what the future holds.

That said, there were some useful moments in the public comment.  Matt Gabor of WSPEC probably had the best explicit approach: I don’t really have anything more to say to the school board, and my comments are really directed to the audience.  This is how these forums should be treated generally.  So the important thing about the public comment section was: what were the dominant questions and themes raised?  How did people respond?  In my opinion, beyond the consensus around the damage done to students and neighborhoods, the truly interesting things had to do with the broader political and social questions raised by the school closings.  Below are the things that most impressed themselves in my mind; I invite readers to contribute their own personal favorites in the comments section of this post.

The question of linguistic justice was important.  I was quite impressed by the comments of the Rhode Island English Language Learners Coalition—Ferdinand Rodriguez and another woman whose name escapes me.  Brian Lin also addressed the issue quite forcefully—50% of Providence students come from homes where English is not the primary language, and yet the PPSD only release there proposal for the school closures in English, and on a website that may not be accessible to everyone.  I think there’s much more to be explored in this connection.

There was the Flynn teacher who talked about how they found out their school was slated for closure when Channel 12 showed up the day their principal was out, and how the next day there was already an outside organization measuring the windows for new curtains.  And I don’t know exactly how seriously to take the women from the West End who threatened the school committee with a “dog fight” if they voted to close the schools, but she certainly did remind me of this (especially from 0:55 to 0:59):

And then, not to toot my own horn, but it’s an important point: the city’s financial crisis is artificial.  60% of the real estate in Providence is not taxed because it’s owned by “non-profit” organizations like Brown University and LifeSpan (probable new owner of Flynn); if we simply taxed this land like normal real estate, at the rate paid by the Messer parent who works two jobs and 16-hour days to keep his single-family home, how much more money would the city have?  Or, if that doesn’t work, why not simply take part of the wealth of Jonathan Nelson, founder of Providence Equity Partners and one of Rhode Island’s two billionaires?  Mr. Nelson’s wealth increased last year by more than $300 million dollars—more than the city’s deficit for the next two years.  Take that away from him—and he’s still a billionaire!  But so that Mr. Nelson may not suffer the trauma of being separated from his money, thousands of students are being shuffled around and dozens of teachers fired without due process.

It leaves me with the question: so, given the 100% opposition to the plan from the public at all of these meetings…who benefits from these school closings?

What does it mean for Providence politics?

My friend Shaun has a theory that this sort of crushing defeat would not have happened even a year ago, under Cicilline, now universally pilloried for his role in systematically attacking every section of the working class in Providence during his tenure as mayor.  We go from the first gay mayor of Providence to the first Latino mayor, “the Obama of Providence”, and this is the sort of treatment we get: a vicious attack, with little pretense that it’s actually necessary or useful and even less real justification, carried out with ruthless haste.  And this even in the face of solid opposition to the plan from the public, four Providence City Council people in attendance and vocally against the cuts, and bad press coverage to boot.  What gives?

To some extent, much of what’s happening now in politics and has happened since the Obama election is that, as the economic crisis devastates workers and the poor, the rich have been racing to grab whatever loot they can get from the chaos.  The financial crisis of 2008 led to the $14 trillion TARP program, the massive bank bailout with taxpayer dollars that did nothing to ease the credit crunch, but did give banks loads of cash to sit on a speculate with ($4 per gallon gas anyone?).  This in turn led to the sovereign debt crisis, and all of the state and local budget deficits that are now being covered with cuts to education and social services.  The cumulative amount of state budget deficits is equal to 1% of the bank bailout—and yet the federal government refuses to not only to give money to the cash-strapped states, but even to extend time on repayment of their loans to the feds!  This same smash-and-grab operation is no doubt in operation in Rhode Island and in Providence.  Brown has racked up quite a bit of debt on the watch of Ruth Simmons—and the land they’ve acquired through the I-195 relocation project will help cover that debt.  Why mess that up by paying taxes on land that is not being used for any sort of educational purpose whatsoever?  There’s certainly more dirt to dig up here, even after they demolish the last of the old I-195 bridges.

It’s also the case that Taveras’s electoral win was based on a coalition of the Broad St. Latino noblesse de robe and the East Side noblesse d’épée.  Taveras’s real constituency is not the Latino community in Providence, which is certainly being hurt disproportionately by the school closings.  And, sorry to tell you, Mr. Davian Sánchez, but it’s not really Sánchez Meat Market en la calle Broad, neither.  It’s the East Siders, who can shell out a cool million dollars for Sheldon Whitehouse when he stops by for a weekend, but certainly can’t bear the thought of parting with their hard-hoarded money, should it happen to go to benefit poor children on the other side of I-95.  It took far too long and far too many betrayals for people to realize what the deal really was with Cicilline; let’s not waste time waiting for Taveras to be any different than he is right now.

Which leads to the last point to consider for the moment.  Budget-cutting and austerity are a bipartisan program in the United States—so just because Taveras is a Latino Democrat, and not a Scott Walker teabag Republican, we should not be surprised.  They agree on the budget-cutting, union-busting program.  I know that the Latino Teachers’ Coalition worked to elect Taveras, and the sting of betrayal has turned them into an active force against Taveras’s attacks.  But let’s be honest: there are also some who are now vocal in their opposition, verbally radical even, who call for Taveras’s recall—who worked for his election, or at least gave him a left gloss, last fall.  These same folks performed the same service for Cicilline.  It undermines our struggle to line up the votes for the Democrat every time, and then to get upset when that very same Democrat does exactly what those in power do.  Your shouting when they attack you must be that much more amusing to them.

Should we have taken more radical direct action?

This is a big question.  The PTSCC (perhaps we should change name and/or acronym?) is a fledgling group, but with a real promise to unite people across traditional divisions.  However, it’s important for the group to get this question right, especially if we want to organize real people for an actually (and not just verbally) radical struggle in the future.

At the Monday meeting, the PTSCC rally drew about 100 people before the actual meeting, including a good proportion of teachers and parents.  On Thursday, the number was closer to 40 or 50, with many fewer of those participating actually falling into the parent/teacher category.  It was heartening to move into the auditorium, even more packed than it had been on Monday, chanting, “stand up fight back”, and to have the whole audience stand up in imitation of the chant.  But after that, there developed a gulf between those who wanted to make a lot of noise, generally established activists, and the teachers and some parents in the audience, who felt that approach was unproductive.  As the votes were taken, many people tried to shout down the votes—but others shushed the shouters.  One activist I was standing next to expressed frustration at the shushers—they’re closing our schools, so why would you be quiet about that?  While I share her frustration and sentiment, I think it misses a crucial point about mass struggle: the role of self-activity of the oppressed.

What do I mean by this?  In order for a struggle to actually be radical, it has to be those at the center of the attack who decide to take a course of radical action for themselves.  A struggle is doomed to failure if the people at the heart of it are not those at the center of the attack—which is not to say that outside activists have no role.  It is rather to say that those activists must be mindful of the real work of politically and ideologically organizing new people, teachers and parents, in a way that brings those people along with us, that values their opinions and ideas genuinely even if we disagree, that helps to teach people through concrete lessons and not through haranguing or “propaganda of the deed”.

Someone posted a video on the Facebook event page of students in Tuscon taking over a school board meeting to prevent the destruction of their Mexican-American Studies program.  Nice example—but note that it’s the students themselves taking the action.  Are we there yet with Providence parents and teachers?  In a few cases, yes; but in most cases, not at all.  And there were many more teachers and parents who should have been there, but who will not be convinced to come out if what we first ask of them is to take action far more radical than what they consider necessary or even desirable.  It’s keen attention to the consciousness and will to struggle of the teachers and parents that will allow us to judge the appropriateness of radical tactics in the future.

What next?

Most immediately: PTSCC meeting, Wednesday, May 4, 6pm at the Providence Teachers Union Office, 99 Corliss St., Providence.

I expect the struggle now to shift back to the teachers.  The questions on the table are rescinding the firings, defending teachers in the intervention schools, and crucially, the contract.  We formed PTSCC after the firings and as the school closings were announced, and so our initial work was building community and teacher support for the schools.  I hope that, going forward, we can keep PTSCC together as a group, now to build parent support for the teachers.

A few people have suggested to me that we take the struggle to the politicians, picketing Taveras’s events in one case, picketing the houses of the school committee members in another.  I’d invite those people who’ve made those suggestions to expand on them in the comments.

I think we need to start building a network of rank-and-file teachers, with representation from every school in the district, who can organize people in their buildings to come out to protests, town-hall-type meetings, etc.  I’ll write more about this soon.

The key is: let’s get the general sense of everyone’s reactions before we advance.  I’ve made some analysis and suggestions, but only a democratic discussion summing up the results thus far and setting out the tasks at hand, can really be the basis for figuring out what’s next.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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8 Responses to Whose Schools? Well, apparently not ours.

  1. Chris Pariseau says:

    First of all, Brian, I want to thank you for your work thus far, and your point on Thursday about collecting property taxes from Brown and Lifespan. I think the logic of that is so simple and yet would go so far to start to fix the “structural inequalities” that one gentleman addressed between the rich and the poor in Providence. That is, of course, if those taxes, once collected, will be spent in the right places…

    I am one of the teachers at the center that you spoke about above; tentative to friend your Facebook site at first, walking away from the view of cameras when I go to rallies, playing into the fear that the firing notice on my bedroom dresser creates for me everyday. Even on Monday night, when I arrived late and had to walk in with the group that had assembled outside, I was reluctant to shout “our schools,” and I lamented later at home to my wife and to some colleagues that the general public might see a loud, tatooed bullhorn bearer in a t-shirt and jeans on the news and think “Is this a teacher in Providence?”

    But on Thursday, my view changed. As I started to realize, as many of us did, that the Board had already made up it’s mind (despite the posturing of reviewing Mr. Jones newly presented data- for all of one minute?! WTF?!), I started to get angry and stand up and yell. But I also realized that maybe it took these other activists–young people whose jobs weren’t directly on the line– defending teacher/student/citizens rights, no matter what they were wearing, to give me the courage to be able to “stand up and fight back.” And in that moment I wished I hadn’t hesitated to do so for so long.

    So again, a big thank you to you and Anna for your efforts and teaching those of us who are new to political action such as this. I will make every effort to come Wednesday to talk more with you about how we can stay organized and affect real change for the students, communities, and schools that need it most in Providence.

  2. Shaun Joseph says:

    Quick note on the stat about tax-exempt property in Providence: some of that land is state property and public institutions (I mean really public, not “private with a public purpose” or whatever Brown says it is) that are properly tax-exempt. But of course your general point is right.

  3. David Haller says:

    Thanks Brian for your comments. I agree that the focus now should be on the teachers and the process (lack of process) for rehiring. How do we quickly and effectively inform parents and public about the long term negative effects of a litigious, confrontational process. Other than parents, teachers are our children’s only ally; but it is obvious that Sam Zurier and his east side cronies are at war with the teachers. Can we pressure the school board to honor the teacher contract, which at the very least gives us an opportunity to expose their true agenda (union busting) to a wider audience. Fill future school board meetings with public comment demanding fair, just and equitable treatment of our teachers.

  4. Ferdinand Rodriguez says:

    Brian, I agree: the people at the center of the struggle, the ones most highly impacted, have to be the ones to embrace radical actions. Storming the stage to stop the vote, would not have been effective because of lack of parent-teacher support. These two constituents of the stakeholders body politics, have refused engagement. Each one for different reasons, I dare guess. On the teacher side, we have the non-minority teachers, 88% of the staff in Providence Public Schools, and the minority side, 12%, about 8-9% being Hispanics. Most non-minority teachers just want a job. They are not very interested in education reform as it relates to urban education. They have a job in an urban district because that’s where they found one. This is not to say that there are not commited non-minority teachers to urban education – there are, but those are in the minority. Most non-minority teachers teaching in Providence are totally removed from the problems of the Providence community they work in. Most of these colleagues live outside Providence in segregated white communities; many send their own children to private schools. That teacher behavior, totally dis-aligned from the reality of urban children, does not escape many parents. Why should parents step forward to save teacher jobs when they know that many of these teachers could care less about whether or not Providence children have equal access to education? On the minority teacher side, there are cultural as well as self-serving reasons here. all minority teachers here are doing better off economically than if they were in their respective countries. In their own analysis, it is better to have a job than not one at all. They believe that if they become associated with any of the coalitions fighting against the assault on public educations, that the possibility of employment, come September, would be worst than it is now. Wrong and selfish as that personal interpretation may be it is , I believe, part of the rationale for not participating.

    On the parent side, the possible explanations for their apparent “apathy” is much more complex. One is economic. Parents are working two or three jobs, full-time, part-time or any combination thereof. many, just do not have the time to congregate. many do not understand the English language, and they feel unease being in meetings dominated by English speakers. Add to that what has been teacher interactional culture with parents. Teachers mainly call parents to school to complain about children behavior. Parents are not being invited to co-participate in plans to enhance student learning, nor to celebrate student achievement. The few teachers who do the latter, get plenty of parent participation, which tells you how interested parents are about their children’s education. Add to this teacher-parent culture, the school-wide culture- teacher isolation in classrooms, no collegial culture, very little commitment to focus on student learning, no commitment to involving parents in student learning, lack of leadership from most school principals-, etc.- and you start to get a picture as to why parents could care less about teacher’s jobs.

    Now, we need to overcome non-minority teacher lack of self-reflection and commitment to true education reform, minority teacher’s lack of participation based on fear and self-interest, parental mistrust of teachers and the school system, if we are to forge a true parent/teacher/student coalition. That’s the challenge! Count me in the conversation.

    Ferdinand Rodriguez

  5. Paul Hubbard says:

    “Someone posted a video on the Facebook event page of students in Tuscon taking over a school board meeting to prevent the destruction of their Mexican-American Studies program. Nice example—but note that it’s the students themselves taking the action. Are we there yet with Providence parents and teachers?”
    Guilty of the video post, but your take was precisely my point. The action in Tucson was organized and carried it out by the students themselves, with amazing organization and discipline to boot. In my opinion, it was a good example of legitimate ‘direct action’. Note also that the students had a very large group from the community in the room, presumably other students, parents and teachers, supporting their action. Their protest did not seem isolated from broader forces that they’re aligned with against the changes to the Latino History program. The Wisconsin occupation of the state capitol was another good example of legitimate ‘direct action’ . It involved union activists most affected by Walker’s law and further had the support and sympathy from the much broader mass population of Madison. The world also witnessed a similar phenomena at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt a few weeks earlier.
    I thought the public comments were by in large, excellent. People approached the school closings from unique, thoughtful, and diverse positions. Anyone listening, which clearly the SB was not, would’ve realized how wrong, on so many levels closing these schools are. One question that wasn’t raised is one of the larger issues, like wealth disparity and the unfair tax structure, which should be part of the discussion and that is getting an elected SB, instead of the patently undemocratic appointed one Providence has been suffering with for years.

  6. Mayra Paulino says:

    Hello Folks,
    I am one of the ones who thinks we should take a more radical approach. Going into the meeting on Thursday, I was really on the fence about how things would go….I really feel duped, I actually felt like with such lack of information, sooo many inconsistencies and the horribly incompetent presentation from Carlton Jones, there was no way a decent person with common sense would vote to close schools never mind all that were on the chopping block. As a parent of a Lima Elementary student- 1 of the schools which will be going through a ridiculous restructuring process- YET NO ONE MENTIONED (which judging from the president of the board’s face, the safety of little one’s wasn’t even taken into consideration not to mention the millions of dollars which will be spent to retrofit everything) I am frantically looking for an alternative. I am sick of my son coming home complaining that there is absolute chaos & commotion in his classroom and I know it’s because his teacher doesn’t know what the future holds because that wasn’t the case before the firings- he would bring homework everyday now it’s sporadic, while other teachers are blaming the students because they are losing their jobs. I say we fight, fight till we can’t fight anymore. I can’t afford to get myself arrested because of my young son but hell let’s disrupt every single event Taveras holds…let’s explain what is really going on to the parents and encourage them to bring their children ALL CHILDREN (the way I see it, it’s a way of teaching my child how to stand up for himself) but more specifically the children from the schools that are closing/being restructured, let them speak their minds. I know people have crazy work schedules but I am sure there are others who just aren’t informed and others still that may feel like they can’t change things or that there just isn’t enough support around to win this battle. Let’s pass by Taveras’ house in an inconsistent manner early in the morning (preferably on a Sunday or several Sundays) banging pots & pans & see how his neighbors feel about that, while we are at it might as well pass by Matt Jerkz (as I call him), & the school board’s homes- even though I do feel Taveras pressured the school board to do this…That evening when I realized that all those so called “hearings” were just dog & pony shows, I felt guilty for not taking a stronger stance, we really did out number them, we could have stopped the voting, shut the meeting down & I felt like I should have known better than to even think they were listening to the people. I love the Tucson video, we could have over powered the board- by that I mean gotten on the stage & showed them and others WE ARE MANY (no reference to one of the military slogans). I also loved & cracked up when Narducci said he would introduce a resolution to recall or fire the school board & a cop quickly took the mic away from him and yelled something to the effect of inciting a riot LOL….I think we should go door-to-door asking people to sign petitions to elect school board members & to recall the mayor- we can do it- there is so much anger & frustration over what he has done & who knows what other disasters are coming down the pike. Some may say I am taking it too far or what ever but you know I just can’t take this sitting down. Something inside me just won’t let me take this sitting down, we have to do something, show them that we are unified and we won’t be taking this lightly- these are our children’s lives they are messing with- the future. A quality education is the way out of poverty, we can not allow a bunch of fat cat union busters to do this to our families. STAND UP FIGHT BACK!!!!!!!!!!LET’S STAND UP FIGHT BACK!!!!!!!!!!

  7. A few things: first, my experience at public hearings–from the ’70’s in the halls of Congress to ’08/’09 hearings on changing the Special Education mandates in Providence–my experience is that ALL public hearings are merely stages where the powers that be play ‘democracy’ in an attempt to make us believe we’ve participated, and that our participation matters!! If we keep going to public hearings thinking ‘they’ have any interest in what we have to say, we are going to be disappointed. Our expectations of these public hearings must change.
    Secondly, the issue of East Side vs. West End, etc., is a dangerous position to put forward. The most obvious problem with this is it has us fighting against each other instead of the real enemy. Such divisions allow the status quo to languish. Also, as a model for how to wage battles uniting all who can be united, allowing neighborhoods to be pitted against each other is not much different than how the kids already deal (in gangs or not) with their street issues. The issue isn’t the East Siders, but rather individuals living on the East Side that are rich, or reactionary, or both. The East Side is made up of diverse sections–not all East Siders live on Freeman Parkway. In fact most East Siders (Mt. Hope, Lippitt Hill, Hope St. down to North Main St., Oolney St., etc.) are working class people. It’s important not to make this thing a territorial squabble. Yes, The rich East Siders get favors the rest don’t. Most of those people don’t send their kids to public schools, and they don’t support public schools. The East Side is not the enemy–the capitalist system is.
    On taxes: the tax structure is always unequal and geared to favor the rich. We must be very careful when considering taxing institutions of higher learning and non-profits. Again, this can lead to dividing the people instead of uniting them. And, in a way, directs the blame of the crisis of capitalism on the people instead of on the system itself. It is not our job to solve their problems. Looking for ways to take $$$ via taxes from one sector of society (those that do some basic good, ie, education) to solve an economic crisis based on war mongering and plunderous mismanagement, is once again diverting our attention. We must fight for what is right–it’s up to the capitalists to fix their problems. We as a people are quite capable of solving all of these crises of capitalism, but it cannot happen under capitalism. We have to fight for every thing we have (or, had), while at the same time building a movement toward ridding ourselves of the war mongoring parasites who live off of our blood and sweat.
    One more point: as a retired Providence teacher and former union activist, I think it’s necessary to be keenly aware of how we got to this place. The AFT (and many unions in the past 10-15 yrs) has taken a position of cooperation and collaboration with the school boards. We’ve seen the results–weakened contracts, loss of seniority, diminished/expensive health insurance, loss of job security, reduced retirement benefits, etc. The list goes on. The attitude that we can no longer fight back, but must be at the table (and there is a time and place for this) if we want to gat any dinner, has led to us being dinner! The national and local union leadership has systemmatically sold us down the river!! For these reasons, (while I truly believe that the union should have a role in this coalition), we must be careful not to allow the PTU to co-opt this movement. The PTU has executive board members and other operatives at every meeting and event. The PTU should be held to task to do what it should have been doing all along–motivate and activate the membership. Also, for the said reasons, I think a better venue for meetings should be sought out. Having meetings at the union offices gives the appearance of control to the PTU and in some psychological ways, gives Steve Smith more credibility than he has earned.

  8. A couple of further points. On the ‘cult of Brady’: I began teaching in Providence in 1972, so I’ve seen alot of ‘supers’ come and go. I also was a student in Providence from the 5th grade through 12th. During my student years, I can’t remember the superintendency being a turnstyle. In fact, principals were not here today, gone tomorrow. And, I and most people I know, got a good education. As a teacher, I’ve seen more than a few administrative changes. The real beginning of the downward spiral began when the city started doing ‘nation-wide’ searches for principals and superintendents. The CEO mentality prevailed, 2-3 years was the life of a ‘super’ in Prov. None of them came here to better education–they came here to enhance their resumes and move on to greener fields! And Brady is no exception!! He may be a ‘nice guy’, but he was brought here for a reason–bust the union! He’s not leaving because he was working closely with the PTU and was trying to make things better, and now he is offended that the mayor fired the teachers. He’s leaving because he didn’t do the job he was brought in to do–so the mayor stepped in and went over his head, pre-emting Brady’s goal. Brady wasn’t moving fast enough. He was incompetent (of course he was, he’s not an educator–he’s a union buster!). Speaking of Unions and union busting—I commented in an earlier reply about the PTU’s role in this coalition. I mentioned that the PTU’s role should be limited to activating/amassing the membership for actions (after all, the PTU up to now has been complicit with the school dept/board/DOE as far as going along with the attacks on teachers). Well, last Wednesday, the union did it’s job in bringing out the masses of teachers to the State House. Of course, it put the union leadership in the limelight for the day, but that’s okay. The main thing is the teachers came out to fight back. It can’t stop there. The union leadership must play its role and get the teachers out to every action called for. I congratulate the PTU leadership for activating its membership, and for speaking strongly to the issues. If the PTU wants to ever be a cutting edge, leading union again (as it was once), it will have to earn that position by showing it deserves it and is capable of leading.

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