Monday, December 19 was a long day for opponents of a plan to privatize two Austin public schools. It didn’t end well, but it was an inspiring day that saw parents, students, teachers, and Occupy activists work in unison in a last-ditch effort to stop a Chamber of Commerce initiated plan to turn over the operation of Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial to a charter school corporation.
Early Tuesday morning the Austin Independent School District board voted 6 to 3 to approve a contract with IDEA, a corporate charter school operator. IDEA will gradually take over instruction at the two schools beginning next year and by 2017 will be responsible for all grades.
Last week, it looked like the contract was a done deal. But on Monday, December 12, hundreds of parents, students, and teachers who will be affected by the charter takeover rallied outside the school board meeting then went inside to voice their opposition to the deal.
The size and vigor of the protest caused the board to put off a final decision on the contract until the next board meeting on Monday, December 19.
Parents, students and teachers planned to speak out against the IDEA contract at the Monday meeting, but the board limits debate on subjects to 30 speakers and requires speakers to sign up to do so before the board meeting. Sign up begins early in the morning when the school district office opens for business.
To make sure that opponents would get a chance to speak, Occupy Austin members on Sunday evening moved their occupation to the courtyard of the school board building to save a place for those wanting to oppose the privatization proposal.
When Occupy activists arrived to set up their campsite, they were told that they couldn’t camp out at the courtyard. Denied access, they decided to wait all night on the sidewalk outside of the building.
Just before dawn the Occupy activists and some members of Education Austin, the teachers union, moved to the courtyard to stand in line for the sign up. Before the sign up began, a group of people supporting the privatization effort showed up. They rushed the door and tried to push their way to the front of the line.
Occupy activists and teachers locked arms to hold their place in line. They succeeded. Meanwhile a representative of Education Austin met with a school district official, who agreed that those who had been waiting in line the longest would be given the first chance to sign up to speak.
Occupy activists lined up in front of the building holding placards designating the names of the parents, students, and teachers for whom they were holding a place in line. As the designated speakers arrived, Occupy activists relinquished their place.
Later that morning about 100 community opponents of the privatization plan rallied in front of Allan to hear two former school board presidents, Gus Garcia and Carole Strayhorn, denounce the school board for stifling debate on the privatization plan and to voice their own opposition to the plan.
That night more people showed up to demonstrate their opposition to the privatization plan. Outside of the auditorium where the meeting was taking place, opponents marched in a picket line chanting, “Vote No on IDEA.”
Hillary Procknow, a parent of children in the Austin school district told the demonstrators, “Independent data show that charter schools don’t perform any better than public schools.”
Occupy Austin Labor Magnet Snehal Shingavi told the demonstrators, we are here tonight because we want to change the priorities in Austin and the country. For too long, public institutions like school boards pay more attention to the wishes of the rich than they do those of working people. “When the Chamber of Commerce comes to the school board urging them to hire IDEA, they listen,” Shingavi said. “When the community says that they don’t want IDEA, the school board ignores us.”
“Whatever happens tonight, this has been a great day,” said Ken Zarifis, co-president of Education Austin to the demonstrators as the board meeting was about to convene. If we’re ever going to make public education serve the public, it’s going to take this kind of unity that we saw today.