New Logo, Old Principles

Drum roll please … introducing our new logo! Drawn by local artist Danny Devine, the Yinzercation school bus shows people taking action. Are those rally signs we can see peeking out the windows? We are literally on the bus together, ready to save public education as a public good. Movements move, and this bus is going places for education justice. Don’t worry, it will stop for you – and there’s always room for more people.

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While the logo might be new, the principles that unite us are not. We are committed to keeping the focus on students and equity, evidence-based arguments, and saving public education as a public good. Sometimes it gets complicated since we are a movement, not an organization, and we may not all agree on everything, all the time. But as I listen to this growing education justice movement – at rallies, on the streets, at national conferences, in community meetings, on petitions, in social media – these are the core principles I hear:

  • State budgets must provide adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education. Everyone must pay their fair share.
  • Education reform should address long-standing racial and class-based inequities. These include resource distribution, the disproportionate impact of school closures on communities of color, and inequitable disciplinary procedures that feed the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • The public owns public education. We therefore oppose privatization (such as vouchers and tax credit programs), centralization of power, and mass school closures.
  • Education justice depends on civil discourse, public debate, and the intentional inclusion of minority and historically excluded groups in decision making.
  • Public policies must empower authentic parent engagement and protect student confidentiality.
  • We can win when we work together with our grassroots colleagues here, across the state, and around the nation. Collaboration is essential and students are crucial leaders.

What do you think? In preparation for our new logo, I have been re-vamping the Yinzercation website to make it even more of a space for conversation and civil debate as we ask questions and seek answers together. I’ve added new tabs at the top that highlight some of the main issues in the education justice movement today: equity, school funding, corporate-style reform, school closures, and high-stakes testing. If you haven’t been on the site in while, take a look and let us all know what you think by leaving a comment on this piece. Thanks!

Diane Ravitch Launched, Yinzer-Style

On Monday, Yinzers were the first in the country to see Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Released nationally on Tuesday, the book is already #1 in public policy and has moved up to #104 on the Amazon top-sellers list. Pittsburgh helped to launch a crucial conversation – and what a launch!

An audience of nearly 1,000 people packed into Temple Sinai to hear Dr. Ravitch, an education historian, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, and widely acclaimed expert on public schools. The event was part-rally and part-lecture, with stand out performances by the Pittsburgh Obama steel drum band, the Pittsburgh Dilworth drummers, and the Pittsburgh Westinghouse Bulldogs high-stepping marching band. And because we are an education justice movement – and movements must make music together – we stood side by side to sing the anthem We Shall Not Be Moved.

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After a welcome from Rabbi Symons, I offered some framing remarks, putting the fight for public education in local context. I talked about what we are seeing here in Southwest PA and the links between the de-funding of our schools, privatization, school closures, increased class sizes, and high-stakes-testing. In her lecture, Dr. Ravitch explained how and why these things are happening all across the country, promoted by a corporate-style-reform movement. One after the next, she held up the promises of the reformers and pronounced them “hoaxes.”

In her talk, and backed up by pages of data in her book, Dr. Ravitch offered abundant evidence that the reformers’ “solutions” for public schools are actually hurting our children. From cyber charter schools, to parent trigger laws, to vouchers, mass school closures, merit-pay, high-stakes-testing, and mis-used teacher evaluation systems, she demonstrated the perverse consequences of these efforts. Most crucially, she explained why we must pay attention to racial segregation and poverty – and how privatization does nothing to solve the larger issues that are truly affecting our students and schools.

Dr. Ravitch offered no silver bullets. But she did offer plenty of evidence-based solutions. She advocates for pre-natal care for all expectant mothers; universal, quality early childhood education; smaller class sizes; a re-thinking of charter school laws so that public schools and charter schools can truly collaborate; wrap-around services such as healthcare and social services in the schools; tests designed by teachers to measure student learning and the elimination of most high-stakes-testing; efforts to strengthen the teaching profession; and the protection of local, democratic control of public schools.

Sound familiar? This is exactly the vision that our community has put forward this year through dozens of town hall meetings, rallies, neighborhood discussions, conversations with legislators, and grassroots actions for our schools. [“A Vision for Great Public Schools”] Never once have we heard someone say we should focus on getting rid of teachers, closing schools, or slashing budgets. On Monday night, I said, “We’re not interested in talking about how to fire teachers – we want more teachers in classrooms with our kids,” and one-thousand people roared together, “Enough is enough!”

In her Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch promotes the kind of school day and rich education that we have in mind for all kids:

If we mean to lift the quality of education, we should insist that all children have a full curriculum, including history, civics, literature, foreign languages, physical education, mathematics, and science. We should make sure that every child has the chance to sing, dance, write, act, play instruments, sculpt, design, and build. Students need a reason to come to school, not as a duty, but for the joy that comes from performance and imagination. [p. 325]

Several student leaders from the Westinghouse Bulldogs high-stepping marching band joined Dr. Ravitch on stage to explain what has happened to arts education, music, and band at their high school. Despite the proud Westinghouse legacy that includes many of this country’s jazz greats (think Billy Strayhorn, Al Aaron, Mary Lou Williams and a host of others), the ragtag band has almost no instruments, hasn’t had new uniforms in more than a dozen years, and can’t even afford to buy drumsticks. Yet the students are passionate about holding their band together. In response to their statement, the Rev. David Thornton issued a full-throttle call-to-action to the audience and our collection raised over $1,600 to support the Bulldogs.

But a collection is not enough. The fact that we shouldn’t have to do this at all, is precisely Diane Ravitch’s point. Our public schools are public goods, and we must treat them that way – not as businesses making widgets. Public education is a community responsibility, but the driving ideals of privatization – competition, choice, measurement, rank sorting, punishment, efficiencies – undermine that shared obligation. Dr. Ravitch explains,

The more that policy makers promote choice – charters and vouchers – the more they sell the public on the idea that their choice of a school is a decision they make as individual consumers, not as citizens. As a citizen, you become invested in the local public school; you support it and take pride in its accomplishments. You see it as a community institution worthy of your support, even if you don’t have children in the school. … You think of public education as an institution that educations citizens, future voters, members of your community. But as school choice becomes the basis for public policy, the school becomes not a community institution but an institution that meets the needs of its customers. [p. 311]

That is why it’s so important that our community is standing up together now for public schools. On Monday, Dr. Ravitch said she believes “the tide is turning” against corporate-style reforms and that parents, in particular, are the “sleeping giant” that will be key to change. Here in Yinzer Nation, that giant is waking up and joining forces with students, teachers, and other community members. Witness the new coalition of community organizations, faith-based groups, and labor that hosted the event. Called Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, it consists of: Action United, One Pittsburgh, PA Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, SEIU, and Yinzercation.

In addition to these groups, we had so many generous co-sponsors – including an impressive collaboration of seven of our region’s colleges and universities – that we were able to keep the evening completely free and open to the public. The co-sponsors were: Carlow University School of Education, Chatham University Department of Education, Duquesne University School of Education, First Unitarian Church Social Justice Endowment, PA State Education Association, Robert Morris University School of Education & Social Sciences, Slippery Rock University College of Education, Temple Sinai, University of Pittsburgh School of Education, and Westminster College Education Department.

Children participated in activities provided by volunteers from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University’s HearMe project. Mystery Lovers Bookshop was on hand with special permission from the publisher to sell early copies of the new book. They sold out in a matter of minutes and audience members waited patiently in a long line at the end of the evening to meet Dr. Ravitch and get their books signed.

The crowd of 1,000 included many elected officials and policy makers who will help to shape the future of our schools. They included the Democratic nominee for Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, current and incoming members of Pittsburgh City Council and the school board, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools Dr. Linda Lane, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate John Hanger, and school board members and superintendents from school districts as far flung as Franklin Regional, Wilmington Area, South Butler County, Carlynton, and Chartiers Valley.

We earned a lot of media attention, too, with stories on KDKA and WESA (the local NPR affiliate). The Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh City Paper both ran feature articles with photographs. [Post-Gazette, 9-17-13; Pittsburgh City Paper, 9-18-13]

In short, this was a fantastic Yinzer-style launch to Diane Ravitch’s national book tour. And she has left Yinzer Nation with all the evidence we need to combat the de-funding and privatization of our schools.

Help us keep this grassroots, education justice movement growing in Southwest PA: please be sure to subscribe to this blog, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter so we can stay connected!

It was a Moving Day

This is a guest blog by Kathy Newman, who helped lead the Yinzercation charge to Harrisburg on Tuesday.

What do you do when you realize that thousands of teachers and staffers in the City of Brotherly Love are going to lose their jobs, and that come this fall Philadelphia school children won’t have administrative assistants, music, art, sports, library and basic supplies? What do you do to support the people who are now on their eleventh day of a hunger strike to protest this calamity? What do you do when you are MOVED to act?

You get on the bus to join the Philadelphia activists for a massive rally in Harrisburg! Our day started out with the unfurling of the new Yinzercation banner and some matching Yinzercation t-shirts at the PFT headquarters on the Southside. Seven boisterous Yinzercators boarded the bus with more than 150 boisterous members of our new coalition, Great Public Schools, which includes Yinzercation, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT), PA Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), One Pittsburgh, SEIU, and Action United.

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After we arrived in Harrisburg we found hundreds of teachers and school workers who had come to protest the destruction of their school district on the Capitol steps. They wore signs that said, “I’m a teacher and I buy my own paper,” “Education should not be for sale,” and, “There is nothing left to cut.” They had also prepared thousands of signs that showed the “faces of the layoffs,” the names, faces and school affiliations of each of the nearly 4,000 teachers and staffers who are about to be unemployed.

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During the rally we listened to speakers from Philadelphia, like PA State Senator Vincent Hughes (who had seen our banner and gave a shout out to the “Yinzers” in the crowd), and even our own Pittsburgh area Representative Ed Gainey, who spoke powerfully about the education budget disaster in Philadelphia and across the state. We also checked in briefly with our wonderful representative Dan Frankel and his staff. Frankel is one of the great public education champions in Harrisburg—just yesterday he drew attention to education cuts on his facebook page and reiterated his support for revenue raising solutions such as “a reasonable Marcellus Shale drilling tax, closing the corporate tax Delaware Loophole and freezing a corporate tax rather than letting another scheduled big-business tax cut take effect.”

During the rally we were also incredibly moved by the testimony of the Philly school workers and parents who are on their 11th day of a hunger strike to restore the cuts to the Philly school budget. (You can follow their journey on Twitter at #Phillyfast.)

After the rally we spread out around the Capitol Dome and made a human chain around the Capitol—a feat based in sheer numbers no other recent activist group has been able to do. We were MOVED to make our voices heard in Harrisburg!

Believe it or not, yesterday was a “moving day” for Governor Tom Corbett. After the Great Public Schools coalition added our voices to the chorus at the Capitol building, we navigated our busses a few blocks away to the front the Governor’s official state residence. We brought with us the People’s Moving Company, a few activists dressed in moving jumpsuits, some bull horns and our naturally boisterous voices. We chanted “One term Tom,” and “Hit the road, Tom,” and “What do we do when education is under attack? Stand up fight back!”

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We headed back to Pittsburgh as real-life storm clouds gathered above us in the sky. We were tired, hot and hungry, but re-energized, too, by the passion and the fighting spirit we saw in our Philadelphia brothers and sisters. Their fight is our fight. Our fight is their fight.

At the end of the day were moved by each other, but as the song proclaims, we SHALL NOT be moved by the forces that want to privatize, monetize, standardize and downsize public education. Public education is a public good. Call your legislator before June 30th and remind him/her to restore Philadelphia’s education budget and put $270 million back into the budget for all of the Commonwealth’s beautiful, brilliant school children.

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Black Holes

Could someone fetch Rep. Daryl Metcalfe back from outer space? Earlier this week, the Cranberry Republican co-sponsored a bill in the state house to send the proceeds of liquor store privatization to infrastructure improvements, rather than to education, as Gov. Corbett had initially proposed. [See “Kids or Booze”] Pennsylvania certainly needs to support all of its public goods – including infrastructure – but what is appalling about Rep. Metcalfe’s bill is that it rests on a shameful disregard for public education.

At a news conference with several other Republican legislators, Rep. Metcalfe complained, “When you give the money to the education establishment like this, it’s like throwing it into a black hole.” Wow. This man thinks our children’s future is a black hole. He calls our schools “the education establishment” as if our kids are somehow the problem. Of course, what he really means is that our teachers are somehow the problem, as he makes clear in his next sentence: “All it will be used for is to drive those salaries up that are continuing to be one of the main drivers for our pension problem.” [Post-Gazette, 4-16-13]

Actually, we do have a pension problem – but the blame for that lies heavily with Pennsylvania legislators themselves who have kicked the can down the road to this point. [See our “Pension History 101” for an easy to read explanation of this important issue.] Rep. Metcalfe suggests that providing desperately needed funding to our schools will “drive those salaries up” – does he mean that districts will turn around and give raises to teachers? Highly unlikely when most schools are now struggling to even buy textbooks or chalk. Perhaps he is worried that school districts will hire back some of the 20,000 teachers our children have lost these past two years? Heaven forbid our kids get their art and music teachers back in their classrooms. Or that we will ever see full-time librarians again.

Perhaps Rep. Metcalfe needs to actually talk to the families he represents, where kids are now missing over $6 MILLION from their schools. Here’s a breakdown of the cuts since 2010-2011 to the five school districts in his 12th PA congressional district. [Data from Save Pennsylvania Schools]

Butler Area School District $2,723,093
Freeport Area School District $728,596
Mars Area School District $514,272
Seneca Valley School District $1,270,871
South Butler County School District $1,011,179

Total:

$6,248,011

One of those districts, Seneca Valley, was trying to figure out how to keep its Junior ROTC program alive last year with all the budget cuts – a program you might think a former Army man like Daryl Metcalfe would appreciate. At the time, Seneca Valley was also discussing “closing the pool and cutting the swim program, reducing Title I reading programs or further reduction of elementary school staff.” At that point, the superintendent warned that, “elementary class sizes already are larger than best practice recommendations.” [Post-Gazette, 4-12-13] The district wound up being forced to cut 14 positions – 11 of them teachers, including “one art teacher, two math teachers, one social studies teacher, two science teachers, two English teachers, a Spanish teacher and two health/physical education teachers.” [Post-Gazette, 4-17-12] Yes, this is the “education establishment” that Rep. Metcalfe is so worried about. To him, social studies, science, and English teachers are black holes. Or perhaps dark matter.

How does he explain his outer space theory to his representatives in the Mars Area School District, which debated cutting all art, music and physical education in its elementary schools last year? The district wound up having to cut its Kindergarten and first grade art teacher, cut back on art classes at the High School level to four days per week, eliminated two guidance counselors and two technology teachers, and did not replace four retiring teachers, “two in art, one in health and one in foreign languages.” [Post-Gazette, 5-10-12] It looks like art got sucked into a gravitational budget hole in Mars.

Last spring, students in Mars stood on the sidewalk holding signs imploring board members to “Save Our Specials.” Perhaps they could help us tell Rep. Metcalfe that their education is not a black hole but rather a bright shining star. It’s time to go super nova on Rep. Metcalfe and his fellow Pennsylvania legislators and demand real pension reform that protects taxpayers, teachers, and our schools. And we must insist on adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education – so that we are nurturing the astrophysicists of tomorrow who will study the real black holes.

What about Women?

We just wrapped up women’s history month in March. You might not think there is much connection to public education, but I spent a good portion of the month giving talks on our grassroots movement. I spoke at a women’s history conference at Sarah Lawrence College in New York; gave the keynote for a women’s history month symposium at Bowling Green State University in Ohio; and participated in a panel on our state budget sponsored by the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest PA. So what was I talking about?

First, we don’t have to look far to see that women really matter in the movement for public education: they make up the solid majority of activists and scholars, both locally and nationally. Second, over three-quarters of all public school teachers are women. [National Center for Education Statistics, 2011] For this reason alone, we might view current attacks on teachers and their unions as particularly anti-women. This is especially a concern given the persistent wage gap in this country, with women still earning only 77 cents on every dollar earned by men. In fact, just this week we “celebrated” Pay Equity Day, the day that represents how far into 2013 women had to work to reach what men earned in 2012.

Third, we have talked a lot about the ways in which race and class impact our public schools and students’ access to education – but gender also matters. (Want a big word to impress your friends? In women’s studies we call this intersectionality.) The crucial issue here is the feminization of poverty – the way that women are disproportionately represented among the poor. This is particularly important when you are talking about school-aged children because of the prevalence of poverty among single mothers.

And here is where gender intersects with race and class: compared to the top 40 largest metropolitan areas in the country, the Pittsburgh region has among the highest poverty rates for working-age African Americans. In 2008 we were actually #1, with over 28% of African Americans aged 18-64 in Southwest PA living in poverty. That same year we also ranked first in the nation for the poverty rate of black children under the age of five. These are horrific statistics and they only get bleaker when you factor in gender. Women comprise almost two-thirds (64%) of poor African Americans in our region. [Post-Gazette, 7-4-10]

So poverty is both feminized and racialized in our area. And we know that poverty has a great deal to do with student performance. What is often called a “racial achievement gap” is really an income gap. Kids who are growing up without enough to eat, without warm clothes to wear, sleeping on the floor, with instability in their lives and violence in their neighborhoods are often the ones having trouble learning in school. Yet corporate-style reforms – privatization, school closure, high-stakes-testing – are having negative impacts on these very kids and their families.

Finally, I’ve been talking about my own disciplinary fields of women’s history and women’s studies, which were founded on the tradition of activism. In fact, I’ve been describing my work lately as “scholactivism,” combining scholarship and activism. And our movement for public education has solid feminist roots. Some of my students think feminism is the “f-word,” but you can see feminist theories and methods at work in the way we strive to be inclusive, in our efforts to educate ourselves and learn from each other, and in our focus on equity (as opposed to equality). Ours is a progressive vision for the future of public education that challenges the status quo, while invoking a very old notion of the common good. And it turns out that women and questions of gender are central to that vision.

Op-ed, Opt Out, Occupy

The O’s had it this past week. First, Kathy Newman’s terrific op-ed piece on why she is not letting her son take the PSSAs went completely viral. Over 41,000 people shared the story on Facebook from the Post-Gazette’s site – and we know it spread much, much farther from there. Even more importantly, it generated a nationwide discussion of the consequences of high-stakes-testing with hundreds of people posting comments (the vast majority of which were extremely supportive).

The public response created its own wave of media attention as the story of our Opt Out action continued to race around the country. We wound up having a public dialogue with Gov. Corbett’s administration in the letters-to-the-editor section of the paper, as well as radio interviews and print articles ranging from the Washington Post to the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a run down of the media timeline:

In the middle of all this media fun, a number of people from Yinzer Nation travelled to Washington D.C. for the Occupy the D.O.E. event, April 4-7. These included Ann Aldisert Becker and Marjie Crist of Mt. Lebanon, which was just ranked the #2 school district in the entire state, and has a particularly active group of families opting out of high-stakes-testing. [Pittsburgh Business Times, 4-5-13] Parents there are seeing the same effects of these tests as families in urban areas, with the narrowing of the curriculum and the loss of arts programs and even recess.

I spoke on Friday afternoon to an enthusiastic crowd gathered on the sidewalk about Pennsylvania budget cuts and the privatization of our schools – including school closure, vouchers, and tax credit programs – all legitimized by high-stakes-testing. I connected our fight for public education to the fight for our other public goods (such as transportation, infrastructure, and parks) to think about the way in which too many people have lost faith in the very idea of a common good. That loss of faith has allowed the rise of corporate-style reforms, backed by big money, and often the insertion of a far-right political agenda into state policy making.

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Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis, spoke about the myths used to promote school closure – such as calling schools targeted for elimination “half empty” when they are not. And she insisted we stop calling them “failed schools” but rather “abandoned schools.” Early childhood education researcher Nancy Carlsson-Paige talked about the developmentally inappropriate use of high-stakes-testing on ever-younger kids, including practices that she characterized as child-abuse now being foisted on three and four year olds.

The students who led a walk-out of high-stakes-testing in Denver, Colorado also spoke and then managed to get an audience with a Department of Education youth outreach director. On Saturday, the education occupiers marched all the way to the White House. And this was no rag-tag group: the Occupy program included an astonishing list of education scholars including Diane Ravitch, Mark Naison, Stephen Krashen, Sherrick Hughes, Deborah Meier and many others. There is no doubt that ours is an evidence-based movement.

From one Op-ed that generated a national buzz, to dozens of local parents choosing the civil disobedience of Opting-Out, to Occupying the DOE in D.C. … our grassroots movement is fighting to put the public back in public education. It was a week of O’s, and here’s another: Outstanding work, everyone.

Why I’m Going to D.C.

Two weeks from today I will be standing on a street-corner in our nation’s capitol giving a speech. That’s a strange place for an academic to be giving a talk, but this is no ordinary event. I’ve been asked to go to Washington D.C. to join public education advocates from all over the country for a four-day occupation of the sidewalk outside the U.S. Department of Education.

This “Occupy the D.O.E. 2.0” is essentially a national teach-in, with a different speaker every 20 minutes for four straight days. I’m honored to be sharing the microphone with the likes of education historian Diane Ravitch, Chicago teacher’s union president Karen Lewis, early childhood education expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige, filmmaker Brian Jones, education researcher Deborah Meier and many, many others. Pennsylvania will be in the spotlight the afternoon of Friday, April 5th, and I hope all of you from the keystone state will consider coming down for part, or all, of this significant event.

The occupation runs from April 4-7, 2013 and on Saturday, April 6, there will be an organized march to the White House. Organized for a second year in a row by the grassroots volunteers of United Opt Out National, the event promises to be a “gathering of progressive education activists endeavoring to resist the destructive influences of corporate and for-profit education reforms, which began in previous administrations and persist with the current one.” The planners explain, “We cannot and will not stand silent as the threats to dismantle our system of public education continue. These threats include the erosion of the teaching profession, excessive use of standardized testing, mandated scripted curriculum, the absolute disregard of child poverty, and reforms which disproportionately impact minority communities.”

Here’s my statement that is on the United Opt Out National homepage. I hope to see you there.

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I am coming to Washington D.C. to Occupy the Department of Education this April because our public schools in Pennsylvania have lost $2 BILLION these past two years. Draconian state budget cuts of this magnitude are only possible when people stop believing in public education as a public good. Too many in this country have been swayed by the national narrative of “failing public schools” and taken in by the false promises of the corporate-reform movement with its seductive rhetoric of competition, choice, and accountability. But the implementation of those ideas has meant widespread privatization and out of control high-stakes-testing, causing real harm to our students, our teachers, and our schools. And poor kids — and students of color, in particular — have been harmed the most.

Here in Pennsylvania, our students have lost nearly 20,000 of their teachers; they’ve lost music, art, library, foreign languages and even tutoring and Kindergarten programs; kids are in classrooms with 39 students; and they are spending more and more of their precious time on testing and test-prep. Meanwhile, some of the deepest pockets on the planet have been dumping millions of dollars into our state through superPACs to get voucher laws and other privatization policies passed; ALEC has been writing our state legislation; four of the state’s top donors to political campaigns this past fall had direct ties to charter schools; and school districts in five Pennsylvania cities are literally circling the drain, on the verge of total collapse.

But there is hope. A grassroots movement of volunteer parents, students, teachers, and community members has been fighting back, educating itself on the issues, reaching out to learn from and work with others, and connecting to groups all over the country. I am coming to Occupy the DOE because in studying the history of social movements I have come to understand that ordinary people, acting together, make real change happen. I am coming to Washington D.C. to stand on a street corner with all of you to shout, “Public education is a public good!”