The Wednesday evening RIDE hearing on the Achievement First Mayoral Academy application was frankly a bit boring, and really contained no surprises. But it was useful as a means of sizing up the balance of forces in the fight over the charter school. While I’m not ready to predict a definite winner, I do think some reflections on the lessons of the night are in order. Broadly, while I think the defenders of public education still have much to do, there are also some serious reasons for hope.
Two things started the evening off right: first, the mic check from Occupy Providence folks. Brilliant! If anything, I think we missed opportunities for other mic checks to wrap up the AF folks and throw them off their game. But it was a promising sign that the first AF speaker was completely on the defensive, warning their sponsors at RIDE that “they were going to hear a lot of misinformation”. It was clear that the RI-CAN / DFER / RIMA / AF folks (don’t they have enough organizations already?) were freaked by the WE-CAN website. Oh snap! Someone calls their bluff and they lose their sh*t!
Naturally, the AF folks had stacked the first part of the list. So it took a while to get through the same tired routine before the voices of opposition could be heard. The initial ProJo report put the number at 75, but I’d say it was closer to 100 or perhaps more. The room seemed more evenly stacked this time, unlike at the Cranston hearing back in late May where the AF people were vastly outnumbered. By my reckoning, it was a lot of the same people they had back then, with the addition of a few Latinas who made a point of speaking in Spanish without translation. I was quite happy when Ferdinand called them out on this during his comments, much later on. Of course, they have more Providence friends now, such as Susan Lusi and Keith Oliveira, a man who should probably be ashamed of his use of political connections to open doors for charter schools. But on the whole, it looked to me like much the same act.
Two of their speakers of note: first, the ridiculous Cathy Kaiser, chair of the Jamestown School Committee. Her son is the principal of the Achievement First Endeavor Middle School in Brooklyn, the one discussed in the videos posted on the WE-CAN website and first seen by many in Providence via The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. At one point, she shushed the crowd, saying, “the students at Achievement First Schools know how to listen!” Yes, of course—because they’re afraid not to! It was condescending to the point of ridiculous. The other pro-AF speaker of note was the one that most irritated me: Sabina Matos, the one woman on the Providence City Council. I remember when Sabina was wearing a Ché t-shirt back during May Day 2006. Now she’s a shill for the corporate takeover of education. She should be ashamed, and so should everyone who worked for her election.
From our end, it was good to see so many folks who’ve come through the Coalition at different points, coming back around. I think this is the nature of our struggle: during the lean periods, a core of activists holds together a basic network that is ready to go into action when the struggle comes back around. The very existence of that network each time makes the action more effective, and each action expands the network. For now, that is the dynamic, slow though it may be. Also quite interesting to me was the range of people speaking out against Achievement First this time—there were a number of folks from North Providence, all (with one humorous exception discussed below) solidly in the anti-AF camp. The best was the first, Rodrigo deSilva, a resident of NP and a Cranston teacher. He was the first anti-AF speaker, and among other brilliant things he said, he pointed out that “per-pupil expenditure” is a fluid question. NP would certainly have to pay transportation costs for students going to the AF school in Providence—and this extra cost would increase the overall expenditures of the district, and thus also the per-pupil expenditure…leading to even more money going into AF coffers. Quite insightful.
A number of others spoke well. Dan Wall pointed out: if AF wasn’t good for Cranston three months ago, why is it good for Providence now? Jeanne Link talked about how Lima has met AYP for six years—despite the mold and the ceiling leaks, which she had blown-up pictures to document, an important point in the discussion. And Cathy Crain’s comments were actually quite good—a certain disgruntled character actor-turned-teacher noted to me after she spoke, “She annoys me less now,” which is a tremendous statement coming from this person. One thing that emerged through these comments was the difference in taking on AF in Providence versus in Cranston. There, it was the mayor’s insults against the underfunded but good schools that raised the ire of the community and provoked a massive backlash. In Providence, the argument against AF is merged with the demands to put more money into Providence schools, to improve the physical plant of the schools and to reduce class sizes. This will be an important step in advancing the argument in Providence—and in drawing new people into the movement.
Tom Hoffman openly questioned the language in the application, beautifully stumping the AF people, none of whom bothered to respond to his question. The RIDE official refused to answer the simple question: how does the RIDE stipulation that the school accept students equally from each of the communities apply to a proposal that essentially leaves open the possibility that a disproportionate number could come from Providence, or even Providence alone? He drove through the point that the law is essentially being disregarded, or changed by the very people who are supposed to abide by it.
And to be frank… I love insulting corporate hacks to their faces. It’s one of the most thrilling things I get to do these days. The one “North Providence” person who supported AF was none other than Anna Cano Morales, RI-CAN staffer and a member of the Central Falls School Board who voted to fire the teachers in 2010. Apparently she can be on the school board in CF but live in NP! It was a joy and a pleasure to call out this opportunist, who simply introduced herself as “a homeowner and parent” in North Providence. These people have no shame until we throw it at them.
There are some significant issues with this whole charade. As Regent Betsy Shimberg (an ardent AF supporter, but who was very friendly to me last night) explained, these are RIDE hearings, held by the office of Transformation, and RIDE reports their findings to the BoR. The reports RIDE hands to the BoR can contain all sorts of information—and from the last time around, there’s an indication that the RIDE report contained mischaracterizations of the comments and included unannounced information about the speakers. RIDE is NOT a disinterested party in this process. Furthermore, the locations of the hearings are close to NP and Cranston, respectively, but not in those communities (let alone Warwick). Why? Could it be that the opposition in those communities would be crushing? There’s plenty that is disingenuous and plenty that is flat-out nefarious in all of this process. No one should have illusions in the “democratic” nature of these hearings.
There are, of course, some issues for our side. It is true that, unlike the last time around in Cranston, we do not have a mass movement to rely on. There was quite an array of people there, but to call that crowd a “movement” would be quite a stretch. My concern is that without that mass movement, we are in a weaker position overall, even if our opponents are standing on shaky ground. That said, I think we should also be wary of short cuts and quick fixes. I think the We-Can website is an excellent site, and a very good resource. But I would caution against those who might be tempted to use that site, or more, to use a list of organizations that sign on, as evidence of a mass movement. Only the physical people that make up the mass movement can be the mass movement, and it’s our job as activists to attempt to organize what we can, to prepare for the emergence of that movement at various points. Good media and connections to other organizations and such are all good things, but they cannot substitute for actual organizing of people, a thing which is easier at certain points and harder at others. We’re in a period of ebb at this point; but as the budget crunch happens again in the spring, as it does every spring, there will likely be new openings for the network of activists to ride the wave of the mass movement, to organize new people in the struggle, to educate new people on the stakes not just of the budget cuts, but of the struggle against the entire corporate reform agenda. Patience is never an easy thing, but usually necessary.
So what next? I think there are a few steps we should start on immediately:
1. The connections and histories of the individuals in the various organizations—RIMA, RI-CAN, AF, and Democrats for Education Reform—need to be examined and publicized. By this, I mean both their internal, Rhode Island connections, and also their connections to the national corporate reform machine (Broad, Gates, Walton Family, etc.) Mme Defarge, there’s knitting to be done.
2. Much as I hate the term, we need to work on “outreach” to particular communities, including:
- the Latino community in Providence, by means of a community forum in Spanish, organized in conjunction with key immigrant rights leaders. While the main audience for this is the mass of Latino parents, the forum should be well-attended by white Anglo teachers and activists as a genuine gesture of solidarity. There is much that people outside the immigrant community do not understand about the dynamics that are impacting immigrants, and it pains me everytime I hear people ask “where are the Latino parents?”, whatever tone the question is posed with.
- Providence teachers. This requires the framing of the argument along the lines discussed above: we reject Achievement First and demand these improvements to our schools.
- The communities of Warwick, Cranston, and North Providence. There is significant opposition from school boards, city councils, and superintendants in all three districts; we should link up with the officials, but more importantly, with the parents and teachers in these communities. Bringing them into the Coalition to Defend Public Education, even if they may not stick around after this battle, would be a very significant step in organizing state-wide resistance to the corporate reform movement.
3. We need to organize a big rally. The Cranston rally in late August was crucial to the defeat of AF in round one; we need to mobilize along those lines for round two. It appears that the next official steps will be a hearing on the AF application at the BoR meeting on January 5, and then a possible vote by the BoR on January 19. I would suggest that we start building for a mass rally at the State House, targeting Governor Chafee, perhaps for MLK Day or that weekend. While we should mobilize for the hearings, etc., I think it would be best to build our own rally to target the application, just as they Cranston folks did in their community—only this time, let’s mobilize EVERYONE from all the affected communities and beyond. Let’s have speakers from each community lend their voice to the struggle. Every crisis is an opportunity, so let’s seize this one.
(Thanks to Alex Lucini for the title of this piece.)