The Suburban Radical Blues

First of all, a shout out to all who came to yesterday’s excellent rally at City Hall! The Providence Journal covered it decently well, and the senior videographer of American Trotskyism caught it all on tape! My particular recommendation is to forward to 16:30, to catch the rousing speech by the best 8-year-old agitator I’ve heard yet. And I was happy to see a few folks from my own Bristol-Warren local, plus my good friend the Bristol Bullraker. Speaking of which…

Tonight’s post is dedicated to all those teachers and parents who want to fight as passionately and as hard as they can to defend their schools, but find themselves in the unfortunate position of being…in the ‘burbs.

Why, you ask, is this a misfortune? Isn’t life just grand in the 97% white band of municipal areas just beyond the state’s urban core? I mean, your teachers haven’t been fired en masse! Your schools haven’t been closed! You’re not about to have a charter school imposed on you starting next year! What’s the problem?

Of course, the problem is that, while suburban districts in Rhode Island have not been hit hard like Providence and Central Falls, in the final analysis, what happens in the urban core has massive ramifications for the suburbs. Simply because the destruction is not as obvious or as intense, that does not mean that life is grand. And perhaps more importantly, the suburban districts, by dint of their size and lack of centrality, are largely powerless in the face of a crisis that is far larger than any of them have the means to cope with.

Let me start with the funding issue. As I mentioned at the forum in Cranston on the proposed charter school, Gist’s new funding formula is going to seriously devastate my district, among others. In a district with a budget of just over $50 million, the proposed cuts—about $1 million in additional cuts to state funding each year for the next decade—will amount to a cut of $10 million annually, or 20% of our budget as it currently exists, and a cumulative cut of $45 million over the decade. We were told by Gist herself that, essentially, our district had been over-funded since the mid-1990s, and that we should be happy that it was a gradual cut and not an all-at-once cut as proposed by some Providence legislators. There’s some effort by local legislators to get some relief for certain obligated costs, but it amounts to small change, and is likely to be opposed by legislators from districts that benefited from the formula. The formula does not take into account at all the fact that regional districts—all of which are suburban or semi-rural—have to cover certain expenses that the municipalities in non-regional districts pay for directly. The ironies of the formula abound, notably: 1) Central Falls got cut, eventually amounting to $6 million per year, while Barrington got a boost of almost 200% in their state funding; 2) the additional state funds seem to have mattered not to the financial crises affecting the beneficiary districts, including Pawtucket, Providence and Cranston.

This crisis is so big that, just in this first year of state aid reduction, the towns of Bristol and Warren would have had to increase their tax levy by 10%–well over the state-mandated cap for local tax levy increases—to cover the school district’s request for $3 million in additional funds. This $3 million, by the way, would simply have maintained current programs and staffing levels. So as you can see, budget-cutting is the order of the day—and we appear to be powerless to stop it. We’re just too small. And it’s not just confined to the districts that got cut—even Barrington is now going to try to get its teachers to pay for a crisis that doesn’t even exist in their town. Why? Because everyone else is doing it. The unfortunate thing is that it sounds like the Barrington teachers accepted the logic of pay freezes already, when they should have insisted on pay hikes all along. Even if that would mean a growing disparity between the pay of Barrington teachers and that of teachers in other places, at least the rest of us would be able to point out that the ceiling is higher when it came time for negotiations.

Then there’s the union issue. Ah, my local. Don’t get me wrong—my last two local union presidents I consider to have been very good leaders, as much as that was possible within the context of a small suburban local (and both of them, actually, live in Providence). But there’s also a reason that Karl Marx talked about the “idiocy of rural life”. Being in a smaller place—and one that is shockingly provincial in its outlook—the other folks in my local, particularly on the representative council, can be utterly and stupidly oblivious to the outside world, deathly afraid of local opinion, and completely opposed to any action that might make it look like we’re doing anything. Any time I bring something to the council, I feel as though there’s an automatic “ohmigod it’s a communist conspiracy” alarm that goes off in the heads of certain people. When I tried to propose a resolution in support of the Providence teachers after they were fired, “everyone” was in support…but this statement just sounds angry, and we don’t want to sound angry. Oh dear, no. WHY THE FUCK SHOULDN’T WE ANGRY ABOUT TEACHERS GETTING FIRED!? The resolution also called for the city to find other ways of resolving the crisis than firing teachers and closing schools, i.e. taxing the rich. Another colleague objected that “it sounds like we’re proposing solutions”, which we obviously can’t do, dear god no. But again, the idiocy of rural life: if we don’t propose other solutions, than why bother protesting outrages against our colleagues and our profession? I think this teacher was afraid that I might next jump up on a table and call for the town of Bristol to start taxing the fuck out of Roger Williams Univerity. Now, I haven’t done any research on it, but I suppose it’s quite true that our funding issue could be solved if we did tax the Rich White Underachievers. Why not propose it as a solution?

And lastly, the issue of parents. After I came to the conclusion that my local would move only when there were mass movements of teachers (and parents and students) in other places who would set the example, I started working with some other parents locally on the questions surrounding the attack on my local district, the funding issues, and the possibility of the introduction of a mayoral academy (a charter school) locally which would both capitalize on the decimation of the local schools to implant itself, and also propel that process even further forward. I worked with some really great people, but it was very difficult to draw around a larger group of people—and even more difficult to explain to people locally the whole notion of activism. One colleague/fellow parent responded that she was already involved in too many “advocacy groups”. I suppose that’s one way to look at grassroots activism, but I think it misses the boat. An advocacy group largely speaks on someone else’s behalf; an activist group speaks for itself and presses its own demands without pandering to “respectability” and pleasing politicians. There also seems to be some sense of “it can’t happen here”, especially when it came to the charter schools. We’ll see if this continues—rumors are that they high school will be cut down to a six-period day in a few years, so that they can lay off another dozen or mor teachers to cut costs. Let’s see if this goes through, or if we can stop it! At this point, our efforts seem to have stalled—though I think in the future, we may suddenly find ourselves in the midst of yet another crisis, in which calling the crew back together may be useful—and even more so if we find some way to continue operating, even with the lack of active support we’ve encountered.

And so I’d like to end with an appeal to all those scattered radicals in the outlying districts to pay attention to the urban core, and to get involved with the efforts of the Coalition to Defend Public Education. Only by coming to the city can you really connect up with the right group of people, because only the city has the size and the resources to really organize people adequately. The suburban districts are all too small and too peripheral to have an effect on their own. Even Central Falls, for all its notoriety, was too small—and teachers there who tried to keep fighting have largely been isolated and demoralized, with nowhere to turn to except to come around the struggles of the Providence teachers. It’s so striking to me how even the teachers who were still fired after the rescinding of 1400 or so teachers who were not at closed or intervention schools, nonetheless still have their heads in the game. And there are plenty of other teachers in Providence who are not still fired who are totally living to fight another day—or rather, to keep fighting today, tomorrow, the next day, etc. This type of connection and support with people going into struggle is only possible around an urban core district, and it’s only by connecting ourselves with this struggle that those of us left in the ‘burbs will find any hope of improving our lot.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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