This is an open letter to the students of University Heights High School who are threatened with being thrown off the Bronx Community College campus; the students of Beach Channel, Christopher Columbus, Paul Robeson, Alfred E. Smith, and William Maxwell High Schools who face having their schools closed; and all the students who are fighting back against the unjust and ill-conceived policies of the Bloomberg/Klein machine that controls and misgoverns New York City schools.
I am writing this letter because my friend Pablo Muriel, a teacher at University Heights High School, asked me what he can say to students who have been working responsibly to influence public policy but who find their reasoned and evidence-based arguments ignored by government officials, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who make arbitrary and arrogant judgments, and the hatchet men, like Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and political toadies, like the members of the Panel for Educational Policy, that they appoint to carry out their decisions. Pablo, and the teachers in the other schools, these are my thoughts and I hope you share them with your students.
1. Yogi Berra summed it up very nicely during the 1973 National League pennant race when he told reporters, "It ain't over til it's over." Students, parents, and teachers have lost a few rounds, but the struggle to save your schools is not over yet. It is just moving to a new level. The teachers' union is threatening a lawsuit to block the closings. But even more promising are the contacts you made with other elected officials. The New York State Legislature gave Mayor Bloomberg control over the New York City schools because he promised to listen to the input of the public including parents, students, and teachers, and it can take it away. By ignoring what students, parents, and teachers have to say, he violated the agreement that led to the passage of the law. The campaign to save our schools needs to demand that mayoral control over the public schools be rescinded.
2. Freedom struggles take a long time. Social change is not for the faint of heart or shortsighted. In 1776 the Declaration of Independence declared that all men are created equal, but there was slavery in the United States and it did not end until 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Even with the end of slavery, African Americans had to struggle for another one hundred years to win equality before the law and the right to vote in many states. In 1848 women issued the Seneca Falls Manifesto demanding rights promised in the Declaration of Independence, but Susan B. Anthony was arrested for trying to vote in 1872, women's suffrage did not become the law until 1920, and this country still does not an equal rights amendment. These struggles took decades, but people did not give up, and they created a more just society.
3. Social struggle is not just about winning. It is also about preparing yourselves for the next struggle. Students have learned to organize their peers, to marshal evidence, to present ideas clearly orally and in writing, to influence the public, to attract media attention, and to present themselves in responsible and mature ways. Students may not succeed in keeping their schools open, but nobody can take away from them what they learned. These students will be a force to reckon with in the future.
4. This struggle by students puts them within the same tradition as other young people who organized to change the world. A student strike in Soweto in South Africa in 1976 helped to bring down apartheid. In this country, student protesters played a major role in the African American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Students have learned that young people can be activists and the power and exhilaration of group solidarity.
5. Bloomberg/Klein will not listen, but they will not be in office forever. Eventually they will be consigned to the dustbin of history while you will continue to shape public policy for decades.
6. The struggle for schools that are really better and meet the needs of students is just beginning. In order to qualify for federal funds, New York State has placed 57 schools, 34 in New York City, on a list of low achieving schools that should be improved, reorganized, or closed. Students need to become part of the discussion about the future of these schools. Based on what has happened in New York City so far, state officials, unless pressured by the public, will likely reshuffle the deck without significantly improving anything. President Obama recently announced plans to rewrite the much criticized "No Child Left Behind" law. The campaign for real school reform must expand to the national level as well.
In 1915, just before he died, a labor union organizer named Joe Hill declared: "Don't mourn for me, organize!" In the spirit of Joe Hill, don't mourn for your schools, but continue to organize for justice.