NEW YORK -- It’s civil disobedience, schoolhouse style.
As constrained budgets embroil state houses and city councils, igniting pitched debates about whether and how to lay off teachers and close down schools, the vitriol is bubbling up to America's streets. Angry teachers from New York City to Detroit to California are rallying, sitting in and marching out.
While teacher protests are nothing new, the recent spate of activism seems to be on a larger and louder scale than in previous years. Teachers unions are leading the charge, trying to assert themselves as state houses around the country consider, and sometimes pass, legislation that would upend longstanding tenure and collective bargaining practices.
“We’re seeing a resurgence of teacher activism,” said Charles Russo, Panzer Chair in Education and adjunct professor of law at the University of Dayton. “Teachers want to have more say. They don’t want to be, for lack of a better word, pawns.”
Rhetoric, suggests Matthew Tabor, education analyst and editor of Education Debate at onlineschools.org, has risen to meet the elevated budget cuts. “The cuts are very real this time,” he said. “The rhetoric has been escalated by the unions in proportion to the severity of the costs. With all the layoff notices going out, you can see why they’re so concerned.”
Will these strategies be effective? Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator who now directs Macalaster College’s Center for School Change, is skeptical. “I’ve seen more appreciation on the part of legislatures from teachers who give specific ways for doing teacher evaluations more effectively, rather than walking around the city with signs,” he said.
In New York City, the country’s largest school system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget threatens to ax 4,100 teachers. Because of provisions that require the city to lay teachers off in the reverse order of their seniority -- barring hard-to-staff areas such as special education and English as a Second Language programs -- the newest schools will suffer the worst, with one slated to lose 70 percent of its teachers. The budget, coupled with Bloomberg’s call on the New York State legislature to pass new pension laws, has set teachers off.
Tomorrow, the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers union, plans to rally educators at City Hall and march down Broadway through Wall Street, the workplace of what the UFT calls the only true beneficiaries of Bloomberg’s budget.
As major cuts and layoffs loom In California, angry teachers are holding demonstrations.
The Golden State is awash in what the California Teachers Association calls its State of Emergency Week, a series of events supported by several other groups, including the National Education Association. The protests began on Monday, with teachers gathering in Sacramento to advocate for extending tax increases to prevent major cuts in education funding.
On Monday, law enforcement officials arrested 65 protestors for misdemeanor trespassing after remaining in the capital rotunda past its 6 p.m. closing time. "We're not just here to lobby. We're here to raise some hell," Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association, told theSacramento Bee as the arrests began.
California’s events will culminate on Friday with five regional rallies in San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego. The Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to alter dismissal times on Friday to allow teachers to protest without ditching their classes.
“In that case were the actions effective? Absolutely,” Tabor said. “If you can change a calendar that a school operates on, then you’re doing something.”
Other potential activities to mark California's State of Emergency Week, according to a union document found by Mike Antonucci and posted to the website hotair.com, included traffic blockages, turning earthquake drills into emergency budget cut drills, dying hair red and even union-flavored ice cream.
Even California students took a stand, with 250-300 pupils walking out of Huntington Park High School Tuesday to protest the replacement of half of their teachers. But the L.A. Board of Education voted to move ahead with the plan regardless.
A CTA spokesperson did not return requests for comment before press time.
In Detroit, where a volatile school district owes $48.5 million, angry education stakeholders have been organizing sit-ins since April. On Tuesday, more than 100 advocates, including teachers and students, staged a smaller protest, walking in a nearly four-mile march to protest school closings.
These protests follow more extreme activism in Madison, Wis., which faced legislation that withdrew teachers’ union rights. Forty percent of the city’s teachers called in sick in February. General protests damaged the Capitol building, costing an estimated $350,000 in repairs.
Some experts suggest certain demonstrations may have gone too far. “It seems to me that taking to the streets in violent protests such as they takeover of the State Capitol in Madison is more reminiscent of the mass labor movements of the 1930s,” Russo said. “In some cases, with the recruiting of students to do their bidding, teachers and labor leaders may well have pushed, if not exceeded, the boundaries of acceptable free speech for public employees."
Teacher unrest will converge on the capitol this summer, when a grassroots organization stages what it calls the "SOS Million Teacher March" in Washington, D.C., in July.