A Brief History

Prefatory Note: the following was written over the summer and intended as part of a larger document for discussion among CDPE members. That document did not come to fruition, but I felt that it may be of use none the less to publish this part of it. The views contained herein are my own, though developed through contact and common experience with the multitude of participants in CDPE over the past three years. The history may well benefit from more input from a broader range of participants. And most importantly, this document is intended not to dictate a direction for the group, but rather to help enrich the discussion so that a collective sense of direction may be reached on the basis of a deeper discussion of the history and purpose of the group.

The history of the Coalition to Defend Public Education (CDPE) is, in essence, a history of the small explosions of struggle around public education in Rhode Island (though most of those in Providence), punctuated by periods of quiet in which the group fumbled in the dark, looking for a path forward. In summing up the experience of the group, I’m not certain that it makes sense to talk about our particular mistakes, to carry out self-criticism in that way; rather, I think it’s a matter of understanding when our orientation was in sync with the course of the struggle, and when our orientation was misguided or confused. To specify further: while the national context is fundamental—without it, the local explosions would find no oxygen with which to combust—it has really been the local explosions, particularly when a clearly identifiable social group was involved, that have been the motor of CDPE’s activity over three years.

On the national level, the crisis started in the late 1990s when the Clinton administration handed the corporate reform movement some important tools, and they started building charter schools with the intent of undermining public schools. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) represented the articulation of the aspirations of the corporate reform movement, largely unrealized under the Bush presidency. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, a certain Democratic candidate said lovely words condemning NCLB, and a wave of enthusiasm swept America’s teachers up into a false hope. President Obama put a swift end to this with his Race to the Top (RTTT), which essentially put into practice what the Democrats had called for throughout Bush’s tenure: “fully fund NCLB”.

RTTT has done exactly that, and more. Its efficacy was increased exponentially by the concurrence of RTTT with the Great Recession: the bailouts of banks and corporations by governments at all levels led to “sovereign debt crises”, the result of which was a series of savage attacks on funding of public services, including public education. RTTT held out a carrot that looked even more delicious to a starving public school system, but came with strings attached to sticks. The effect has been a massive demoralization of public educators across the board, and the establishment of a series of “new normal” dynamics within public education: teacher evaluation systems, increase of standardized testing, outside consultants, “data” systems, cuts to humanities and arts programs, etc. Locally, all of this is summed up neatly in the tenure of Deb Gist as Rhode Island Commissioner of Education.

While the demoralization has been widespread, resistance on the national scale has been uneven. There have been numerous articulations of discontent, but turning anger into action has proven more difficult. The high point of action was undoubtedly the Chicago Teachers’ Strike of 2012, which provided a model of union mobilization, community solidarity, and democratic participation. However, the union was not prepared for the next step of the attack, in which Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed almost 50 schools in the city, turning many of them over to charter school operators. Furthermore, the strike and solidarity actions were largely confined to Chicago, while the leaders of the national teacher unions voiced friendly support but clearly wanted to protect President Obama during the 2012 campaign. As a result, the impact of the strike was limited, and the outcome has not led to lessons clearly drawn about how to use teacher union power to advance the struggle.

Since 2012, the nationally-recognized resistance has taken on a largely propagandistic form. The MAP test boycott in Seattle, for example, had a fair measure of success within a few of the Seattle schools; moreover, the notion of test boycotts was popular among progressive educators, and opened discussions. It did not, however, lead to a mass wave of test resistance in schools. Similarly, the Badass Teachers’ Association (BATs), a Facebook group founded in 2013, gave expression to the discontent of thousands of teachers, and spawned a myriad of internet-based groups and discussions. The group has often attempted to mobilize teachers for action, though largely that seems to have taken the form of lobbying actions directed at particular politicians. Groups of BATs organized themselves as caucuses at this summer’s conventions of both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); in the NEA, they were successful in getting the union to pass a resolution calling for the ouster of US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. And, the group organized a protest in Washington, DC at the end of July 2014.

There is one last point to make on the national scene, namely: the emergence of teacher-based (and generally left-wing) has been accompanied by the emergence of a right-wing critique of public education “reform”, generally aimed against the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in the context of anti-Obama (and frankly racist) hysteria. This is not to deprecate the work of left-wing critics of CCSS, nor of the real defenders of public education. It is important, however, that in no national forum has this contradiction really been addressed. Instead, much of the left response to the right-wing push has been to attempt to welcome it, and to figure out ways to ally with it. This is the framework in which the BATs have operated, at least on a national scale.

The most pernicious aspect of this left-wing ambivalence toward the right is the impact it has on the anti-racist component of our organizing. While the right-wing critique with its racist undertones has found national expression and forced the Gates Foundation and others to back off on somewhat on the implementation of CCSS, the struggles to stop school closings (which generally impact students of color disproportionately) have remained localized and isolated. It is striking that both policy makers and critics express a conservative and largely white point of view, even as the racial trajectory of the United States is tending toward a non-white majority.

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The course of the struggle in Rhode Island has been roughly thus:

1. The Carcieri Era: in this period, former Gov. Carcieri attacked public employees’ pensions (the first reforms were in 2005 or 2006), and called for standardized tests to be required for high school graduation. The last teacher strikes/job actions in the state took place in this era (I believe the last one was Tiverton in 2007). Notably, on Carcieri’s watch, and under his cousin’s direct control, the East Providence School Board undertook a massive attack on the East Providence teachers’ union, cutting salaries by 5% and imposing a 20% share of the premium (up from 0%). East Providence teachers did not take job action; instead, they protested at school board meetings, put out a leaflet to the community, and ultimately fought the attack in court (if memory serves, unsuccessfully). Their situation was still pending when the next phase hit.

2. The Gist Era: Cruella took over the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) in 2009, and immediately began her attack on seniority, interpreting the Basic Education Program (BEP) such as to undermine the institution. She quickly moved to secure a School Improvement Grant (SIG) to back up Central Falls Supt. Fran Gallo in her attack on Central Falls High School teachers. The SIG was the precursor to Race to the Top, and the firing of the teachers was clearly and directly an attempt to curry favor for RI’s RTTT grant application. Gist was confronted by a group of angry teachers in May 2010; an attempt to get teachers to “help with the RTTT application” was taken over and the Commissioner forced to hear teachers’ anger. The union leaders’ message was: resolve the situations in Central Falls and East Providence in our favor, and we’ll help. In the event, she pressured Gallo to rehire the Central Falls teachers (under the conditions they had rejected in the first place), but refused to comment on East Providence—and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers (RIFT) left the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI) out to dry.

Two things note in this period: 1) Despite efforts on my part (and that of others) to get some sort of sustained teacher activism going, nothing cohered; perhaps because 2) during this period, the Providence Teachers were completely silent on all the attacks. This was also the period in which Steve Smith unilaterally committed the Providence Teachers’ Union (PTU) to support of RTTT.

3. 2011: This year was really the high point of struggle, internationally. In Rhode Island, it started with Taveras’ firing of all Providence teachers, a move which was quickly reeled back in and focused on teachers in the five schools slated for closure. As part of this attack, Taveras rolled back seniority protections in favor of the “speed-dating” method of hiring teachers from closed schools into still-open schools. This outburst was the context in which CDPE was formed—because it finally had a centralized, material basis for so doing. Later in 2011, CDPE debated a position on the PTU contract—putting out a leaflet questioning the contract and giving sympathy to those who would vote no (though not directly calling for a no vote per se).

Later in the year, Achievement First attempted to get itself into Cranston, but the Cranston people revolted. It was a sign that the suburbs were not going to be receptive to corporate reform. But there were two corollaries to this moment: 1) the Cranston refusal had much in the way of racist and localist overtones; in other words, the basis on which people fought against AF was largely reactionary; 2) the Cranston refusal did not stop AF from relocating to Providence, with the option to enroll students from Cranston anyway. In hindsight, 2011 seems to be the year that the scene opened up, precisely because of the attack on Providence, but it also showed up the limits of the resistance, the fault lines in our side’s ability to resist.

4. In 2012, the big push was around Teachers for a Democratic Union (TDU). CDPE had laid the foundation for a group of Providence teachers to come together to challenge Steve Smith’s bad leadership, and in the event, they got 40% of the vote (with roughly 25% participation in the election). This was a very good start; but it raised the question, immediately, of building a caucus and staying involved in shop-floor struggles on an ongoing basis. This did not happen. Instead, this was the period in which UP and other such schemes came into play in Providence, with private, outside, third-party management companies taking over from both Providence Public Schools and PTU. The results were terrible, and teachers at some schools, notably Gilbert Stuart, attempted to fight back. The fight was limited, however, and the union played a miserable role in the whole debacle. CDPE/TDU, unfortunately, did not have the outlook needed to help support the people involved in this fight.

2012 was also notable for the Chicago Teachers’ Strike, which gained support in Providence among people who were already education activists, but which did not lead to a major rise in teacher union consciousness, nor in struggle in Rhode Island. Meanwhile, many CDPE activists were pulled into election year activity, and the group itself suffered a bit of a crisis.

5. That crisis was dealt with, in part, by CDPE’s successful organization of a public forum in April 2013. That forum brought CDPE into contact with a number of important education activists, and helped give the group some momentum. A few new members joined the group, giving it important new energy. The forum itself brought out around 50 people, with an attempt at follow-up—though the follow-up did not lead much of anywhere. Shortly after the forum, NEARI started to mobilize, in concert with a less confident RIFT (but not PTU) against the renewal of Deb Gist’s contract. CDPE mobilized for the first round of hearings at URI, and we dominated the comment section. The second round saw teachers mobilize in larger numbers against the contract, with the result that Gist was granted a shorter contract than requested, but she remained. It was a moment in which one could see the potential, but also the limitation of the union leadership: teachers mobilized and expressed their anger, but the Commissioner and her evaluation system stayed.

6. The one other major moment of education struggle in Rhode Island is, of course, the struggle against high-stakes testing led by the Providence Students Union (PSU). The PSU successfully organized a layer of high school students and carried out some excellent propaganda actions against the use of the NECAP as a graduation requirement. This movement was perhaps the most successful of any of the past decade in actually effecting positive change: this past spring, the General Assembly passed legislation pushing back the date of a test requirement for graduation to 2017, and the discourse around the tests has been radically altered. Gist, who could have dumped the test requirement when Chafee was elected, chose instead to maintain her support for it, but now finds herself isolated and swimming against the current.

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What can we conclude from this brief history? I believe that the main lessons are: 1) CDPE has a basis for activity and expansion only in so far as the masses (by which I mean: an organic group of teachers, students, parents within a sector of the public education system) are themselves engaging in a struggle for their own interests—and in so far as we connect with that group; 2) Analysis of particular corporate reforms is important, but even more important is an assessment of the lay of the land and preparation to connect with particular groups as they move into struggle; we cannot will that struggle into existence, but should prepare for it; 3) It matters what union leaders do, particularly when they lead teachers into struggle (and also out of it just as quickly); it is important for us to follow this and work with them when they’re headed in the right direction; it’s just as important for us to know when they’re going to pull things back, and start to figure out how we can build on the waves of struggle to develop and alternative to their leadership, which will be a long-term project.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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2 Responses to A Brief History

  1. elliew123 says:

    It is very good Brian, but just one thing I think that point 3 is a little vague for some who were not paying attention (lots of people). Also when the firings occurred there was the call to go back to work and be “professional” rather than a call to some kind of action which I think you might mention, so it was more than a focus on teachers in closed schools it was a deliberate attempt to suppress any kind of action on the part of the teachers at a time when they had every right to demand they be treated like every other union in the city. It also was a deliberate threat to strike fear for their jobs in teachers so they behaved like scared rabbits due to advice from their union.

  2. ralfforchewn says:

    I’m glad to see this brief history–it’s a good reminder that we need to look back once in a while. And this is a pretty accurate brief history. At some point, using this brief history as a guide, I do think that it’s important to have a detailed look at what we (CDPE) did right and what we did wrong, in terms of our analysis and our subsequent organizing methods and tactics. What have we learned, how are we doing things differently and why?
    Also, what can we learn from the successful organizing of others? How has our strategy changed with the changing conditions?
    A major thing, in my opinion, is understanding just what CDPE is–who makes it up, how diverse is it politically and demographically, and how has it changed? There are probably many other considerations beyond what I offer.
    So, again, let me say I’m glad to see this brief history. Not only is it well done, but it reminds us of the need to regularly sum-up our work, learn the lessons, and adapt our strategy and tactics to changing conditions.

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