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Occupy Wall Street Spills Into Classrooms

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OCCUPY WALL STREET EDUCATION
Retired school teacher Larry Witlen wears "On Wisconsin" on his shirt as he protests during an Occupy Wall Street gathering across from the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. | AP

NEW YORK -- While on Wall Street many protesters decry economic inequality, and in Washington, D.C. debates continue over federal education policy, teachers across the country are occupying their classrooms.

In the eyes of the president of the second-largest teachers' union, the two issues of inequality and education are closely related. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has been a frequent visitor to New York's OWS protests. The AFT recently revised its "working document" -- a sort of mission statement -- to include language referring to the richest 1 percent.

"We've been thinking about this whole notion of economic inequity and what it means," Weingarten said in an interview. "You see it in terms of teachers all the time because they're talking about their kids, and how they get really angry when someone says it is an excuse to talk about poverty."

Weingarten continued, "Teachers want to make differences in the lives of kids but there's this current generation of reformers from the hedge fund industries who just think we can bark an order at teachers and it shall be done, and the fact is that when it isn't, they blame them quickly."

New York's Occupy Wall Street plans to storm a Tuesday Department of Education-organized meeting with schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

"We're using the decision-making structures of OWS to overpower the voices of the [Public Education] Panel who were not elected and do not represent our voices," said Kelley Wolcott, an OWS organizer and eighth-grade English teacher. She recently helped established OWS's public education committee. A teach-in will occur outside of the event, according to announcements sent out to local education-concerned listserves.

The OWS movement is tapping into a stream of union-backed teacher activism that had its moment in July in the form of a march on D.C. by group known as "Save Our Schools." A small but loud group of teachers gathered on the National Ellipse to protest what they called the corporate-style reforms of education: favoring charter schools, competition, tests and data-driven teacher evaluations. SOSers now find their demands enveloped in and amplified by the tone of OWS.

The group behind the SOS march has posted a "statement of solidarity" with OWS.

"The whole reason that Save Our Schools is in existence is for the same reason of OWS," said Catherine Cox, an Arizona-based SOS organizer. "Congress has simply not listened to us with our concerns about education and school reform."

Diane Ravitch, a New York University education historian and former Education Department official whose anti-reform stances have made her the de-facto face of the SOS movement, sees OWS as the logical continuation of SOS.

"The basic ideas are the same," she said. "Education is being taken over by corporate interests. SOS said: stop privatization, stop corporate takeover of private education."

The difference, though, is that the SOS march was a one-day event whereas OWS, "started small but grew and grew and ... captured the attention of the world," Ravitch said.

She almost spoke at the OWS General Assembly on Thursday evening: An organizer contacted Ravitch to prepare a short speech, but disappeared that night.

"Organization is not the first word that comes to your head when you get to Zucotti Park," she said.

Ravitch said she has heard from teachers from coast to coast who have also participated in OWS activities, which include teach-ins, grade-ins, protests, lessons, Facebook groups, hashtags and a Tumblr.

According to the Boston Globe, about 24 teachers joined OWS on Oct. 17 by staging a "grade-in." Afterwards, according to teacher Garret Virchick, the group chanted, "teachers are the 99 percent" before joining Occupy Boston.

In Milwaukee, the teachers' union joined in on the protests in mid-October. Bob Peterson, Milwaukee Teachers Association president, said in a speech, "We must stop the banks and their cronies like Governor Walker from destroying our nation." Peterson continued, "It's time to build a great movement to get the banks off the backs of the American people."

Peterson recently started a Facebook page called "Teach OWS."

"It's a way for teachers to share ideas, lesson plans, good resources, both digital and print, that they can use in their classrooms to help students explore the many issues that come up about Occupy Wall Street," Peterson told HuffPost.

He said the protests have been particularly prominent in Wisconsin, whose capital became a battleground between conservative cost-cutting and support for labor last year.

"I think what happened in Wisconsin in some ways inspired some of the folks in the Occupy Wall Street movement," Peterson said.

In Los Angeles, the local teachers' union organized "Occupy LAUSD" last week, with the stated goal of "reclaiming" public schools from the "one percent."

Jose Vilson, a New York City teacher who participated in the SOS march this summer, stopped by OWS in early October to watch a Columbus Day-themed teach-in. "I definitely see a tie between corporatist ties and one-percenter views on where our country is headed," Vilson said.

"We want to push the voices of people concerned with education to the front," Wolcott said. "We want a more equitable voice in educational decision-making."

Last Wednesday, these teachers found an unlikely ally in Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a darling of the Tea Party movement. Paul -- a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee charged with reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind -- busted up an NCLB markup with claims that teachers' voices hadn't been heard.

"I would like teachers to propose amendments to my office to fix No Child Left Behind if we're not going to scrap it," Paul said on the Senate floor later that day.

Despite allegations that Paul was simply stalling the bill's reauthorization process, he eventually got his hearing, which is scheduled for Nov. 8.

Paul's arguments seemed to some to be echoing those of the teachers currently out on the streets protesting as part of OWS.

"Some people have teased me about it, saying you and Rand Paul are on the same page," Ravitch said. "That's ok. Teachers are dying to hear someone in Washington say it's a terrible law."

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