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Students, Parents and Teachers Nationwide Protest Gutting of Public Education

Members of the Detroit community protest the arrest of young women and teachers who defied authorities over the closing of Catherine Ferguson Academy on Friday, April 15, 2011. (Screengrab: EMEACGreenScreen)

When 18-year-old Tiffini Baldwin decided to take part in a peaceful sit-in to speak out against the possible closure of Catherine Ferguson Academy (CFA), a public school for pregnant girls and teen moms in Detroit, Michigan, she didn't think she'd be arrested.

“What's wrong with standing up for education? When the cops actually showed up, I was afraid. I was more afraid for my three-year-old daughter,” she said. “The cops were trying to intimidate us the entire time, saying they would take our babies away, but I knew that wasn't true because we met with lawyers before the action.”

In an interview with Voice of Detroit, 17-year-old Ashley Matthews said the cop who arrested her slammed her down on her stomach on the floor. “All the girls went berserk, telling him to get off me, but he was just wiping up the floor with me. He pressed his thumbs in my neck, and he tightened the handcuffs so hard that I have bruises there. I cried at first, but then I made myself stop.”

(Watch a video of Detroit police arresting 12 students and their supporters. Donations are needed to pay fines and sustain the movement to save Detroit's public schools.)

For most of the girls, the April 15 sit-in was their first taste of activism. “I've had political discussions every now and then, but this is the first time I've ever stood up for something I believe in,” said Baldwin. “Since the action, I've become a lot more politically active.”

Baldwin graduated from CFA last year and is now a freshman in college studying to be a physical therapist's assistant. She said enrolling in the school is the best decision she's ever made.

“I learned how to interact with my child, how to handle outbursts, how to play with her and what questions to ask her. It would have taken me a lot longer to develop those skills without that education,” she said. “The staff is so comforting and compassionate. They have the students' best interests at heart. I'm so proud I went to that school. It will always have a special place in my heart. It's like a second home to me.”

CFA, which serves a majority black teen population in one of the poorest cities in the country, has received national and international media attention and is the subject of the award-winning documentary “Grown in Detroit.”

“Many of the teens come from underprivileged backgrounds and are faced with daily challenges that infringe upon their educational opportunities,” says to the film's web site. “The Catherine Ferguson Academy strives to provide quality education in order to ensure a bright future for each child. The goal of the principal and teachers at the academy is to prevent the pregnancy cycle from reoccurring in the next generation of infants. Lots used for farming and a barn built by the students lie adjacent to the school. The barn houses a variety of farm animals that the students help care for.”

Nicole Conaway, a CFA science teacher who joined her students at the April 15 action, said that, in addition to receiving national attention, the action is waking young people up. “Students are responding,” she said. “This is a major attack on the right to public education. It's the biggest attack of the century, and we're not going to sit back and let it happen.”

According to Conaway, all of the 65 young women who graduated from CFA last year were accepted in a postsecondary program. No other public school that she knows of in the state can boast such an impressive record.

And yet, pregnancy is the number-one reason girls drop out of school, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Approximately 70 percent of teenage girls who have children leave school.

So, why would a school for pregnant girls and teen moms with a 97 percent average daily attendance rate and a 100 percent college acceptance rate be slated to either close or turn into a privately run, nonunion charter? CFA is just one of more than 50 Detroit Public Schools on Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb's list.

“Robert Bobb's mission is to shut down the school district. He gets paid by various charter interests. It's a terrible situation,” said Elena Herrada, an appointed member of the Detroit Public School Board whose district includes CFA. She attended the April 15 sit-in. “It was so infuriating. The police wouldn't let me in, even though I represent that school in my district!”

When Bobb announced the plan in March, he said it would help cut the district's $327 million deficit. In April, he issued layoff notices to all of the district's 5,466 public school teachers.

Calls to Bobb's office weren't returned. Herrada said she's been waiting to receive answers from her Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for weeks. “They don't have to answer to anyone. All they have to do is deliver money to the state. In this case, they're taking the money that's intended for poor students and concentrating it into the pockets of the few.”

According to Forbes' E.D. Kain, Bobb is a recent graduate of the Broad Foundation's Superintendents Academy:

The Broad Foundation, along with the Kellogg Foundation, pays Bobb $145,000 a year, on top of his $280,000 government salary. For those of you not familiar with Broad, it is one of the leading foundations promoting school choice and privatization across the country. One might almost think that paying a public official hundreds of thousands of dollars a year might amount to nothing short of bribery, especially given the very specific agenda of a foundation like the Broad Foundation.

This is nothing short of a coordinated effort between the billionaire foundations pushing school reform and Tea Party conservatives intent on slashing benefits and ending collective bargaining rights. Public schools are under assault by the forces of privatization, and public school teachers face benefit and salary cuts while the very rich are promised tax cuts. Similar efforts are underway in Florida and Wisconsin.

“Detroit is the epicenter of this struggle, because if it can be done in Detroit, it can be done in every other major city,” said Herrada. “The national media has created a narrative that we can't govern ourselves. We don't deserve to be in charge of our own resources.”

Herrada, who is running for the school board, said government officials might cancel upcoming elections, claiming they're too expensive.

“People are so angry. It's becoming an act of resistance to read. There are eight-mile areas of Detroit without a school. We no longer have the right to education. There is no transportation. It's not safe for kids to walk. I wouldn't let my kids walk to school,” she said. “We have to continue the battle. There are a lot of good people fighting this battle in Detroit. People are on the front lines. They've become really worried about where we're headed.”

Because the situation is so dire in hundreds of school districts across the country, students are standing up, raising their voices, organizing and finding inspiration from each other's actions.

“I hope the girls in Detroit know that what they're doing is making a real difference and giving people agency,” said Elisa Meza, a student at the University of Arizona and youth organizer with United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies (UNIDOS). “These movements are spreading across the country. We're all in this together.”

On April 26, nine members of UNIDOS chained themselves to the Tucson School Board members' seats before a Unified School District meeting was scheduled to begin. The board was expected to introduce a resolution to turn ethnic studies courses into electives. The nonviolent demonstration, which received widespread support from the audience, forced the board to postpone its vote. Because the board ordered Tucson police to remain outside, no arrests were made.

Mayra Feliciano, a 17-year-old Rincon High School senior, took part in the action after receiving no response to letter-writing campaigns and boycotts. “We tried to communicate, but they failed to listen to us,” she said. “They're finally listening.”

Like Baldwin, this was Feliciano's first action.

“I was nervous. My heart was racing. I've never done anything like this before,” she said. “I would see people fighting for what was right on TV. I thought they were brave, and there I was, sitting at home doing nothing. I became more involved and aware after taking an ethnic studies class. Now, I know what it takes to fight and make demands. I've become more organized. I see things differently now.”

Feliciano said UNIDOS won't back down until the resolution is withdrawn. “I'm not going to stop. This is just the beginning for me.”

Here are a number of education actions that have taken place over the past few weeks:

*On Monday, over 1,000 California teachers, students and their supporters kicked off a weeklong “State of Emergency” for public education, with rallies, teach-ins and protests planned across the state.

Over the past three years, education funding in California has lost a whopping $20 billion, forcing school districts to cut back on basic services and lay off more than 40,000 teachers, nurses, counselors and support staff. Some schools no longer have any counselors.

California Watch reports that State Treasurer Bill Lockyer recently suggested that budget cuts might shorten the school year by two months.

Over 65 demonstrators, including several teachers, were arrested for staying inside the California State Capitol in Sacramento after closing time to speak out against massive education cuts.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of teachers converged on the Capitol, chanting, “Tax, tax, tax, the rich; we can solve the deficit.”

About 100 educators gathered at 5:30 AM in San Francisco and marched to the offices of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

“I think it's time to get mad as hell and say, 'Enough.' This is a disgrace, a national disgrace,” said SFUSD Superintendent Carlos Garcia to the early morning crowd.

The district recently passed a resolution to issue layoff notices to more than 300 teachers, administrators, aides and civil service employees.

Also on Monday, hundreds of citizens protested in front of the Washington, DC, American Federation for Children summit, which featured Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee as keynote speakers.'s Alex Pareene described the Federation as a:

right-wing “education reform” organization founded and funded by religious right activist multimillionaire Betsy DeVos (former Republican candidate for governor of Michigan and sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince) and dedicated to electing state legislators who'll fund Christian schools with taxpayer money and crush public employees' unions – is having a party in Washington, D.C., today, and they have invited Republican governors who have been working to fix education forever by firing all the greedy teachers and letting profit-seeking private interests manage the schools more “efficiently.”

*On Tuesday, over 300 Huntington Park High School students walked out of class to protest budget cuts and layoffs proposed by the Los Angeles Unified School District. KTLA reported that the district is considering a plan to require all faculty and staff to re-apply for their jobs.

If California fails to find a source of revenue, 7,000 Los Angeles district employees might lose their jobs.

In Venice, California, about 50 Walgrove Avenue Elementary parents, teachers and students wore red shirts while waving signs that read, “Education Can't Wait,” and “Cuts Hurt Kids.”

“Three of our most dynamic teachers all got pink slips. I'm pissed!” said parent Francine Nellis in an interview with VenicePatch.

California educators held “grade-ins” at malls and farmers' markets across the state to let the public know about all of the extra work they do after the last bell rings.

“This is just for today,” said Dale Murphy, a Reidy Creek Elementary teacher in Escondido, California, in an interview with the North County Times. Murphy brought a two-inch stack of papers to the Westfield North County mall, where she gathered with about 150 fellow teachers. “They stop paying us at 3 o'clock, but I don't leave school until 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock. I go home and feed my family, and then I'm working, grading papers and essays until 10 o'clock every night.”

*On April 30, over 1,000 teachers, education advocates and their supporters rallied outside the University of Michigan's commencement celebration to speak out against Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's proposal to move money from the state's K-12 funds to give businesses $1.8 billion in tax cuts.

“We're here for kids and we're here for our jobs and we're here for the state of Michigan,” said Ann Arbor teacher Judith Dewoskin in an interview with The Huffington Post. “There's a sign here; it's beautiful; it says, 'The Reverse Robin Hood.' He's taking money away from the poor to give to the rich, which is really not a good thing to do in a state that is going down economically.”

In his commencement address, Governor Snyder told graduates that they need, “a mission for the future. My mission is to make the world a better place and say I added value.”

A few dozen students turned their backs on Governor Snyder while he spoke.

*On April 26, 12 UC Berkeley students began a hunger strike to oppose the consolidation of ethnic studies with gender and women's studies and African-American studies, resulting in staff reductions and the demotion of faculty to half-time. University officials say the consolidation would save $500,000 in staff costs.

“Even though you're physically hurting, you need to make sure your spirit is in good shape,” said Zolia Lara-Cea, a third-year ethnic studies student, in an interview with Berkeleyside. “They're [the staff and faculty in the department] part of our family. An assault on them is an assault on our family.”

“We're still here, we're still fighting, and, basically, we're not going anywhere,” said Lara-Cea in an interview with New America Media.

As of Wednesday, seven people were still striking.

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