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Teachers Prepare For March On DC, Hoping For A Lasting Movement

Sos March

First Posted: 07/13/11 08:37 PM ET Updated: 09/12/11 06:12 AM ET

NEW YORK -- After months of planning the "Save Our Schools March And National Call to Action," educators will take to the streets in Washington D.C. in two weeks to protest what they call the generally misguided direction of education policy.

The campaign has a broad social media presence and is easily identifiable by its logo: a yellow school crossing sign emblazoned with its call of alarm, "SOS."

"We're trying to alert people to a danger," said organizer and former Oakland educator Anthony Cody. "The end goal is to resurrect the ideal of a democratic public school system."

From July 28 to 31, when teachers and activists descend on Washington, Cody and his fellow organizers will find out just how successful they've been at attracting attention.

"If we were a well-funded, orchestrated campaign with buses lined up, I'd be able to tell you how many teachers were coming," Cody said. "I do know that there are at least 15 different buses coming."

Teacher activism is nothing new, but this year has been particularly heated as several states passed laws that radically changed the gateways of the teaching profession, altering the way in which teachers are hired, fired and ranked. Education funding has been slashed and budgets have been tightened, compounding the issues the laws have created and sparking a spate of teacher protests.

"What's new [about the march] is that this isn't around a specific decision in a specific area. They're protesting the education reform milieu," said Richard Lee Colvin, executive director of "Education Sector. "They're trying to say we're heading in the wrong direction across this whole agenda."

Organizers say their gripes lie more with the overarching process for running education than with specific policies themselves.

"We're protesting the thrust of any kind of policymaking that is top down and punitive in nature," said Sabrina Stevens Shupe, a former Denver teacher and march organizer. "There are elements of this in Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, but mostly we're fighting for fair funding of schools, for curricular development, things that support students."

"Policymakers should listen to the people who are in the classroom: Teachers and parents who understand education, what students need in order to be successful," she added.

The organizers are hoping the march will spark enough momentum to sustain an ongoing campaign.

"This is the beginning of a long-term movement to reclaim control of our schools," Stevens Shupe said.

The discontent stems from the continuation of education policies organizers say are passed down from on high, with little regard for their impact in the classroom. "We all assumed that things would change between Bush and Obama," Stevens Shupe said. "Instead, we saw the Obama administration double down on the policies of the Bush administration. That was when it became clear: We can't wait for the top to change their minds. We can complain all we want, but nothing will change until we do something."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who created many of the policies Stevens Shupe described, says he encourages the debate.

"We all want to strengthen education in this country and we're all united in that goal," Duncan told The Huffington Post. "We have to take education to a different level. I think we all have a sense of urgency. I look forward to doing everything to see America again lead the world in college graduates."

Planning for the march began after a similar protest, called the SOS Million Teachers March, didn't materialize last summer.

"There are always people who are willing to complain," said Stevens Shupe. "We're saying it's not enough to just talk to your friends in the teachers' lounge. Enough talking about what you don't like. Reclaim the responsibility to make sure that our schools work for every single child every single day."

Cody had organized a group that wrote letters to Obama about education. "We decided it was time to raise the bar, to move beyond writing letters and move our bodies to DC in protest," he said.

Since then, the march has garnered a slew of endorsers, from celebrities to public officials. Yet the event has attracted criticism from some who believe the march is primarily being funded by unions.

"People say the unions are behind this. The unions didn't come to our aid financially until we were well into this," said Rita Solnet, a Florida businesswoman and co-founder of the group Parents Across America who is helping to organize the march. "The lion's share of the money is individual $20 and $50 donations from people across the country."

"We're not some slick marketing effort," she added. "We're having people make their own signs."

According to Cody, less than half of the funding for the event comes from unions. A spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers declined to specify the extent of the AFT's financial support.

The march will follow a conference at American University, which will feature a speech by Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. assistant education secretary who has become the de facto spokesperson for frustrated teachers. A teacher-created film that rebuts the tenets of the documentary Waiting for Superman will also be shown.

Leaders have also announced that the actor Matt Damon will take a red-eye flight from a film set in Vancouver in order to attend the march, before heading back west the same day.

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