The "Political Revolution" Needs to Include K-12 Education

 Bernie Sanders addresses rally in Philadelphia

By Seth Kulick 

What are some lessons to be learned from the Bernie Sanders campaign so far and whatever organizational structure follows after the campaign? The experience of the Sanders campaign in Philadelphia suggests that the issue of K-12 education needs to have a more central role, with the Sanders campaign learning from and listening to the local activist groups working on this issue.

On April 6, Sanders spoke at Temple University in Philadelphia. Earlier that day, journalist Daniel Denvir, a close follower of the corporate education reform movement in Philadelphia, wrote that “Before taking the stage and delivering his stump speech, he should know that there is no more salient social justice issue in this city than public education”, and that “Sanders would do well to make note of that in Philly”.

Philadelphia has been one of the cities subjected to neoliberal “education reform”. We have an an unelected school board, the School Reform Commission (SRC), with a superintendent from the Broad Academy (mega-billionaire Eli Broad’s training center), carrying out the usual agenda of turnover and churn, privatization, and attacks on the teachers’ union.  The financial situation is dismal, with cuts in state funding and a Republican state legislature hostile to Philadelphia.  This has caused the city to need to contribute more for school funding, although still an insufficient amount.  The SRC calls for “shared sacrifice”, which means cuts in compensation, and jobs, for teachers, principals, and the district employees in SEIU 32BJ. 

Organizations such as the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) and Jobs with Justice have put forward proposals over the last few years for alternative sources of funding in the city, such as modifying the tax abatement policy, pushing for Payments in Lieu of Taxes from mega nonprofits like the universities, and going after the interest rate swap deals that have Philadelphia, like other cities, to pay hundreds of millions to banks after the financial collapse. The SRC has ignored all such proposals, not even mentioning them to dismiss them, and in contrast supported a regressive cigarette tax. So in addition to their other disruptive activities, the SRC acts as the local “cops on the beat”, enforcing the austerity agenda for the local 1%.

Recently, fightback against this agenda has had some electoral success, with overwhelming support for a nonbinding resolution to eliminate the SRC, the election of a more progressive mayor and a significant defeat for the hated former Republican governor. The state legislature remains hostile, however, and the funding situation is still dire. Polling during the mayoral election indicated that education is the most important issue for voters.

This is some of the background that caused Denvir to write that Sanders needed to talk about public education in Philadelphia. It is not surprising that on the day of Sanders’ talk, both the Caucus of Working Educators, a “social justice unionism”  caucus within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), and the Teacher Action Group, consisting of activist teachers and allies, both tweeted Denvir’s statement that “If Sanders wants Philly to join his revolution he has to speak up on the economic & racial injustice that is #phled”

Unfortunately, they were disappointed in this respect, as was I, sitting in the audience. Bernie’s speech was fine, but it was basically the same stump speech he gives everywhere.  While Sanders has made some vague references to the importance of education funding, and those interested in this issue can tease out basically decent positions from scattered comments, he has overall been absent on this issue. His official website, incredibly enough, does not even have a mention of K-12 education among his issues, that I could find.

Sanders seems unable, or unwilling, to connect the power of Wall Street and the 1% to the assault on public K-12 education, the way he is able to do with health care and other issues.  This is frustrating, since it is easy to imagine a headline such as this from 2013 – “Wall Street likes Philly public-school closings” – fitting into Bernie’s overall theme. The article goes to state “Setting aside the effect of the closures on children and their education, the closures are positive from a credit perspective because they indicate that the district and the SRC are intent on reducing expenditures.” 

A few weeks later, Sanders finally weighed in on issues around education in Philly, by taking a position on a proposed soda tax to raise money for pre-K education, community schools, and parks.  After Clinton came out in support of the tax, Bernie came out against it, saying that it is regressive.  Bernie’s instincts were fine, but he ignored the local context of the proposal, and he (or his staff) did not do sufficient work to understand why some supporters of his campaign might be supporting the tax, even if reluctantly in some cases.  For example, he made no reference to the community schools, and the possibility that they might be outside the control of the SRC, which would be a positive development.  His proposal for more progressive taxation did not even mention the uniformity clause of the state constitution.   

The problem is not so much that Sanders’ lack of reference to the education situation in Philadelphia cost him votes.  It may have, but given other factors in play in Philadelphia it was not likely the decisive factor in the vote.

The more serious problem is that making these connections between the power of the 1% and the effect on K-12 education is an important component of building the kind of “political revolution” he is talking about, and he is missing opportunities to bring together constituencies under the general framework of inequality in the country.  And when he talks about fighting against institutional racism, how can he leave out K-12 education, which has a very heavy racial justice aspect?   

With some more input from organizations working on K-12 education, Bernie, or whatever organizations follow from the campaign,  could clearly be making these connections.  The Sanders campaign in Chicago showed this, where he spoke out clearly and strongly about some of these issues – slamming Rahm Emmanuel and, regarding the debt swap payments, saying that “The city of Chicago should sue these banks for fraud and put public pressure on these wealthy bankers to protect Chicago’s most precious asset – its children”.  Drew Heiserman of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) was quoted as saying that Sanders “grabbed ahold of the way [teachers] in Chicago are feeling about the way our city is being run.”

There are many more opportunities.  For example, Saqib Bhatti of the Roosevelt Institute has proposed “collective bargaining with Wall Street” by different cities and states, in response to such deals as the debt swap agreements, arguing that “Public officials from different cities and states could likewise win lower fees from Wall Street if they banded together and collectively bargained for lower fees and fairer fee structures.”  There is little chance that Hillary Clinton would ever speak out for such a proposal, but the Sanders campaign, or whatever structures follow from it, could serve a valuable role by bringing together and organizing such efforts.

 By avoiding K-12 education, Bernie has missed a chance to hammer home his point about Clinton’s big-money donors.   The Clintons, including Hillary, have long-standing ties with Eli Broad, but when Clinton made some negative comments about charter schools, Eli Broad refused requests for contributions, according to the Wall Street Journal, “saying he needed reassurances about her views on education”, and “only changed his mind after personal reassurances from former President Bill Clinton and campaign chairman John Podesta that Mrs. Clinton will support charter schools.” and further said that “I think when push gets to shove, she’ll be more like Bill Clinton and perhaps [Obama Education Secretary] Arne Duncan than we think right now”.  It would be interesting to know whether Randi Weingarten and the AFT ever, at the least, pressed Clinton on the Broad connection  before endorsing her. The same question applies to the local boosters in the education field of the Hillary campaign in Philadelphia, and elsewhere. On the other hand, if the opponent calling for a revolution doesn’t even talk about K-12 education, it makes the question lose some force.  

Going forward,  whatever organizational structure follows from the Sanders campaign needs to incorporate K-12 education into the variety of causes.  The separate struggles across the country over K-12 differ in details, but the impact of austerity budgets and the role of ed reform big money is all too common.   The growing network of “social justice unionism” teacher unions is an inspiring developments of recent years, and any umbrella progressive or socialist organization should be supporting such groups in a spirit of solidarity, and hopefully strengthening them by emphasizing how the attack on K-12 education is an important aspect of the issues that the Sanders campaign otherwise did so well at bringing attention to.  Further, developing a broad education initiative that ties together precarious adjunct university labor, anger and frustration of highly indebted university students, and the economic and racial inequality on the K-12 level could become a powerful education based force to combat neoliberalism on a national scale.

Seth Kulick is a member of Philly DSA and the parent of a 9th grader in the Philadelphia public school system

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