Below are three different perspectives on this question, for your consideration.
John Fitzgerald writes:
Education and social justice are inextricably linked. Working and oppressed people have always demanded greater access to and more resources for public education. Today, education and social justice are converging profoundly in reaction the corporate attack on public education.
This attack is forcing two very big and important questions to the forefront: Should education be public, free, and equally accessible to all? And Should working people have the right to collectively bargain to defend their interests in the workplace and in society? While many working people would say yes to these questions, the 1% thinks otherwise and has been fighting against public education and unionized workers in a very aggressive way for the last thirty years. There is one major reason the 1% is in this fight: public education is a potentially tremendous source of profit. The US spends about $600 billion annually on education and the 1% wants their share. And they have rightly identified teachers unions as the biggest obstacle to their objective.
Should education be public, free, and equally accessible to all?
While the last several years have yielded some significant victories for corporate education “reformers,” there is another side to this story – the story of resistance by the 99%. At the front and center of this resistance is the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). A reform caucus took over that union’s leadership in 2010 and has successfully transformed it into a fighting social justice union that, as of this writing, has walked out on strike in support of decent working conditions for educators and a decent education for students. This strike could turn out to be the most important labor struggle of the 21st century, and is one that we must all support.
Closer to home, we have seen the emergence of a group of progressive educators called Teacher Activist Group. TAG Boston has organized two very successful social justice education conferences and has been actively fighting against the corporate attack on education. Within the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the larger of the two unions representing teachers in the state, a reform caucus has also formed. Inspired by efforts like those in Chicago, and calling themselves Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), these Massachusetts educators want their union to be the voice of students and working people for a more just society.
This leads us to a third question. Will we live in a society in which we take collective responsibility for each other, or, like the 1%, will we embrace the ethos that says everyone should look out only for themselves? CTU, TAG, and EDU are fighting to defend public education and collective bargaining and they need all the solidarity we can provide, because the answer to this third question will likely be determined by the success or failure of their efforts.
Amanda Achin writes:
Fighting for social justice means fighting for public education.
The attacks on public education have worked to drastically worsen conditions in a number of ways. Over the past 30 years we have seen the effects that neoliberalism has had on public education. Neoliberalism has stratified the education system to meet the needs of the ruling class, so you see poor people being prepared for low-level tech jobs or prison while the rich are prepped to be professionals. Now with the economic crisis, we see public services met with austerity, funding drastically cut and schools closed.
Education has also been used by the ruling class as a means of social control, deliberately depoliticizing people to protect the status quo. Public education continues to face privatization and most services are outsourced to private companies: food services, cleaning services, busing, etc. Also with this privatization process we have seen the destruction of democracy; we see a growing number of administrators who make 6 figures and make all the major decisions, while other big decisions are left to boards of trustees to figure out..
Fighting for social justice means fighting for public education.
We have seen teachers unions under attack, and charter schools continue to be built where most teachers are not unionized. The ruling class continues to make it harder for workers and students to have any say in the changes taking place.
The issues around education are fundamental to the message that groups like the Occupy movement have brought to the world. We cannot solve the issues of education without fighting for a completely different world, so that the 99% that runs society and there is no 1%. While this is no easy task and cannot happen in a year or even ten, it is what we must work towards if we have any hope for a long-term solution.
In the meantime there is a lot to be done that can directly address these issues today. The Chicago Teachers Union is showing us the way right now by organizing with students, parents and the community to use the power of the strike. Students in Quebec have also been leading by example through the strike students have led over the past few months, a response to government-imposed tuition hikes affecting all students in the region. Their relentless organizing and determination has shown us what it really takes to fight for education. A victory for Chicago Teachers Union or for the students in Quebec is a victory for all of us. It will also be important for us to draw lessons from these struggles that we can use for here in Boston, so that we can one day shut down every school in the city until we get what we all deserve: the best education possible for all.
Ian Chinich writes:
The last two years of student struggle in North America have come at an important juncture. On one hand, student debt has surpassed credit card debt at a whopping $1 trillion, yet student power has also risen to exciting new heights. In Puerto Rico student strikes shut down 10 of 11 UPR campuses for almost two months. In Quebec, nearly two hundred thousand students were on strike for a whole semester and many thousands more have continued despite police crack downs.
In the United States, similar organization has been developing at an exciting rate. Over the summer In Columbus Ohio, approximately 400 student activists from campuses across the country met for a week at the first National Student Power Convergence to plot a course forward for the student movement. Rather than planning a one-off protest or day of actions, the discussions were focused on achieving actual power (by creating student unions, escalation strategies, better targeting, and leveraging). Experience from years of antiwar protests and the Occupy movement have proven pretty emphatically the lack of sustainable and powerful organizations for social justice in this country. The ups and downs of student organizing are particularly vulnerable to this trend without the power of strong unions behind them.
Only with student syndicalism can we win ourselves a future.
Lessons from the Quebec student movement have been particularly invaluable. Universities — and particularly research institutions — are necessary for the state and corporate power structure to function. Every day that goes by without military research, vivisection on animals, surveillance, and other corporate-university partnerships can cause cost large quantities of money and reduce the capacity of oppressive organizations. Quebec students have caused further pressure on the state by causing the loss of a whole semester (with all the labor costs necessary to remake it). Such powerful actions forced the fall of the Liberal Party from power and led the Quebec government to ultimately end tuition hikes.
The strike (or threat of one) is one of the most powerful weapons that students have and organizing a broad based student movement through the creation or democratization of existing unions is necessary for its utilization.
There is no chance that the current system of student governments in the United States could bring such a militant and large group of students into the streets. Quebec offered an alternative with horizontal and participatory structures as well as the idea that it is possible to win. As a result, thousands of Quebecois students shut down their campuses for months. Students organized on the department level, leading to increased participation from all facets of the student body. The decision making of these bodies was conducted through general assemblies, while recallable delegates with mandates were sent to the larger Quebec student union meetings. Strikes were put into motion only after a certain amount of students agreed. When the strikes began, students enforced them through hard blockades and disruptions of classes. When this proved insignificant in ending the hikes, a massive campaign of economic disruption began.
In Boston, we need to change our mindset from one day protest actions hoping to inspire the masses or convince policy makers, to organizing students into democratic and militant unions. Only with student syndicalism can we win ourselves a future.