mic check

Students prepping for protests get activism lesson from OWS

Occupy Wall Street activists Justin Wedes (right), and filmmaker Kevin Breslin (center) speak to a small group of students and staff at Paul Robeson High School, including English teacher Stefanie Siegel (left).

This week, the subject of Justin Wedes’s regular after school meeting with Paul Robeson High School seniors was part lesson on activism and social media, and part strategy session.

Meeting in the East Brooklyn school’s first-floor student lounge, which in the past year has served both as a place to unwind at the end of a long school day and a place to strategize ways to challenge the city’s school closure policy, Wedes detailed the plans to protest at the meeting where city officials will vote on which schools to close.

Wedes, who is a former city teacher, vocal opponent of school closures, and high-profile Occupy Wall Street organizer, is marshaling activists from within schools to join the Occupy movement in commandeering the evening PEP meeting, effectively prohibiting the agenda proceedings.

Wedes said he has spoken with students and teachers at a handful of city schools this winter in preparation for the event, including Herbert H. Lehman High School and Legacy High School for Integrated Studies.

On Thursday, the city’s Panel for Education Policy is scheduled to vote on half of this year’s controversial slate of school closures. In past years, protesters have delayed the evening vote until the early hours of the following morning. Wedes said the goal is to prohibit the vote from happening at all.

“We’re going to occupy it. We’re going to shut it down,” he said to the gathering of a half-dozen students and staff from Robeson. The PEP “won’t be able to vote.”

Under the banner of “Occupy the Department of Education,” an Occupy Wall Street spin-off, scores of educators, students and people unaffiliated with the public education system have used civil disobedience to derail or shut-down a number of public meetings where the chancellor and other education officials have appeared this school year. One meeting hosted under the auspices of the PEP, was cut short after droves of chanting protesters used the “people’s mic” to take over and staged a walk-out; but unlike tonight’s meeting, it was a special meeting on the Common Core standards with no formal agenda or voting period.

As a city teacher, Wedes made it his goal to inform students about political issues, and he became a leader in protests against school closures and chemicals in schools. But since resigning from teaching in 2010, he has devoted virtually all of his energy to activism, emerging as a spokesperson in the Occupy movement. Through it all, he has been meeting with students — most often at Robeson, but also at Lehman High School in the Bronx and elsewhere — to galvanize them to act against policies they feel marginalize them.

Wedes said the routine of past PEP meetings‘—where PEP members have never voted against an agenda item—demonstrates the need for a drastic change.

“We’ve been through this for years and years,” he said. “You can have hours of public comment, and every single parent and teacher and principal, every student and soon-to-be student who’s not even old enough to be in school can make the most heartfelt plea to these schools to keep their school open, and then at four in the morning, after 7 hours of public comment, motion to vote and then in 30 seconds all those schools are shuttered.”

Several Robeson students said they planned to attend tonight’s meeting to tell DOE officials about the detriments of rising class sizes, and how the phase-out policy has impacted their high school careers.

“I just hope that this whole thing stops, and it ends sooner rather than later,” said Ana Leguillou, a senior who has been active in past protests. “Everything fails, but you have to keep trying and trying in order to succeed. It may be too late for us but that doesn’t mean we should just stop altogether. If we can prevent other schools from meeting the same fate that we are going through…that’s what drives us to keep fighting against it.”

Wedes said the protesters will use a popular call-and-repeat speaking tactic, called a “mic check,” or a “people’s mic,” to drown out the Department of Education’s official microphone.

“Everybody will have a chance to speak, on the People’s mic—On our mic, not on theirs,” he said. “Even schools that aren’t slated for closure should come out ,and will come out.”

The thrum of OWS and the movement’s signature tactics have inflected many school protests this year. Last week, students at Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School shouted “mic check!” several times before speaking at the school’s closure hearing. And several OWS activists taught students from Legacy High School for Integrated Studies, Lehman High School, and others how to use the “people’s mic” during a protest at Union Square.

Wedes has been meeting with Robeson students on an almost weekly-basis since 2010 he said, to talk about activism and plan student efforts to protest DOE measures, such as the decision to phase-out Robeson due to poor performance. Most recently, Wedes invited the filmmaker Kevin Breslin to campus, where they screened a documentary about OWS on a computer in the student lounge after school. Following the viewing, the group discussed issues of racism, class, police power, social media and nonviolence around OWS and other movements.


after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.