Monday, June 13, 2011

SRC Testimony -- Asking the hard Questions

This week I was one of the 2300 or so teachers and staff members laid off from the School District of Philadelphia. I’ve taught for 5 years in this district, at Science Leadership Academy and Kensington Urban Education high school. I’ve given countless hours and dollars to do my best to teach hundreds and hundreds of students to be creative and critical thinkers, able to solve the problems of the world they’re inheriting.

But I still got laid off.

Indeed, I am just one casualty in the increased attack on teachers, and the state’s prioritization of prisons and fracking over public education.

2300 staff members gone. That’s hard to wrap your brain around. But let’s just say that each of those 2300 people affected 30 students each. That’s 69,000 students who will be forced to learn in even more over-crowded classes, who will no longer have their favorite teacher, NTA, or counselor. That’s 69,000 families who have lost connection with another adult who played a crucial role in their child’s life. That’s 69,000 future citizens of our city who have just been stripped of a relationship that could have been the difference between graduation and getting pushed out of school.

I know what you’re going to say. “It’s a budget crisis. It’s out of our hands. Don’t blame us. Blame the governor and his State Budget.”

But we do blame you.  

The truth is, this is a time when there are choices to be made and you are making choices. You are making the choice to lay-off teachers, to give over schools to private companies, to create a tiered system of schools in our city, and dismantle instead of fix public education. You are making those choices rather than taking a real and committed stand for the children and families of our city. Rather than listening to the students, parents, and teachers, who have been eager to share another vision for positive school transformation not based in test scores and scripted curriculum, but in real student-centered, engaging and participatory learning. Rather than joining the growing collaboration of community members who are demanding money be put not into prisons and policing, but into our education system. In fact, there are places to get money. And your choices show priorities.

So then, Commissioners and Superintendent Ackerman, if your priority actually is with creating the best possible public education system, I want to ask you directly: what are you willing to do about it?

Indeed, these are people’s very lives we’re talking about. 2300 staff members today. 69,000 students next year. The ripple effect of your decisions will have a massive impact on our city for decades to come.

So, let me ask you all sitting here before me again, with the urgency that this question demands: What are you willing to do about it?

In fact, I want to ask everyone in this room: What are WE willing to do about this? What risks are we willing to take to get our city back on track without selling out our students, teachers, and communities to the highest bidder?

For anyone who still has a job in this District, how are you going to overcome the absolute Culture of Fear that pervades our schools and forces so many of us into silence? How are you going to speak out for what’s right for your students?

For anyone who still is a student in a District school, what are you going to do to organize with your fellow students to change the way the schools are being run to criminalize you and give you a sub-standard education?

For anyone who still has a child in the District, who are you going to pressure so that your child isn’t treated like a prisoner, isn’t stripped of their right to a free, quality public education?

From the middle east to Wisconsin, we’ve seen communities come together to move mountains, change the structure of society, end unfair legislation, and try to deliver justice to their communities. 

We are facing a crisis, Philadelphia, a crisis caused by the priorities which have thus far dominated our way of living, and it is up to all of us, parents, students, teachers and citizens, to work together with a common vision to change our schools so that they serve and prepare all of our young people for their lives today and tomorrow, and prepare them to build a future which prioritizes human dignity over corporate greed. A future where the suggestion of selling out our communities to balance our budget will never again be on the table.

So I ask us all again: what are we going to do?

This piece was written with the help of Dana Barnett and Hanako Franz, TAG members

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