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Interview

“We don’t have money; but we‘ve got people and that’s our power” – Houston Teacher

On January 8th, the Travis County District Court granted the Houston Independent School District (HISD), in a motion filed by the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), an injunction against the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) state takeover of the school district. The court decision followed months of organizing and protest from teachers, staff, students and parents against the elimination of community control in a majority African American and Latino school district. Seth Uzman spoke with Ruth Kravetz, a teacher, HFT member and leader in Community Voices for Public Education about the struggle for public education in Texas and the fights that remain ahead in the city. {…}

On January 8th, the Travis County District Court granted the Houston Independent School District (HISD), in a motion filed by the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), an injunction against the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) state takeover of the school district. The court decision followed months of organizing and protest from teachers, staff, students and parents against the elimination of community control in a majority African American and Latino school district. Sans C. spoke with Ruth Kravetz, a teacher, HFT member and leader in Community Voices for Public Education about the struggle for public education in Texas and the fights that remain ahead in the city. For more about the political economy of state takeovers, you can visit Section 44’s School Takeovers as the “New” Redistricting.

Can you give a little background about the takeover?

Schools serving Black and Brown communities in the state have been under-resourced, under-served, under-supported for generations. Instead of looking at effective tools – like fully funding them, ending endless STAAR testing – the state’s solution is to takeover them over in order to close or charter them. So, they passed this law in 2015 – which some Democrats voted for, though they seem less comfortable with it now – which allows the state to takeover schools based on STAAR metrics. And, the bigger reason for the takeover though is that the Republican leadership doesn’t like cities with black and brown, women-led school districts. That’s the local backstory and the national backstory, of course, is a conscious effort to dismantle public schools. 

And the wider campaign?

The wider campaign is less about the state takeover of HISD and more about challenging the three barriers to having strong, powerful, effective public schools in Texas. The first barrier is that our schools are seriously underfunded and have been since forever. But it entered a new phase in the 80s – the same time ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] gained its power – with the ascendency of the neoliberal agenda, which formalized the underfunding of public education. Another crucial phase was 2000 to 2010, in which we see the corporate reform model really dig-in. In 1998, there were barely any charters in Houston, but this changed over the next ten years.

The second barrier is the accountability reform model. This was formulated in the 90s – the “great Texas miracle” of high-stakes testing, and the “gift” Texas gave the rest of the nation. They take someone’s temperature all day long and call it a cure. Parents know the testing-based model harms their kids. Teachers know it hurts the quality of instruction they’ve provided.  Students know they’re missing stuff, when they talk to older family members about their experiences in school. I remember when biology was a class in which students dissected sea urchins and frogs, making connections with actual life. But ever since TAKS and STAAR tests made ninth grade biology a tested subject for which kids could be shamed and not graduate, teachers fired, and schools closed, we stopped seeing lab-based science, because the needs of the test superseded the needs of the kids. 

What’s the third barrier?

The third barrier is that people pretend the world in which the school exists has nothing to do with how the school functions. There are poor neighborhoods here; then they build freeways around the poor neighborhoods, so it’s possible for some people to spend their entire lives without ever travelling to the North Side, the East End, Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens, Sunnyside etc. In the 1980’s when there were large Juneteenth celebrations at Emancipation Park and the Third Ward was primarily African American, there was never any money to improve the park. Once richer, white people moved into the fast gentrifying Third Ward, the city “miraculously” found $5 million to spend on an Emancipation Park upgrade. We don’t have a system that ensures the equitable distribution of even the minor things – like having a pedestrian overpass over the railroad track on the Northside. I worked at least thirty years at Northside/Davis High School and kids were late to school every day, because they had to go all the way up to 610 or Downtown to avoid the train. Well-intentioned liberals know they need to fight poverty, but they think the problem is metrics. The easy truth is that if a kid is homeless and going to school – and we have lots of homeless kids – there needs to be more money, and we don’t get it. We get no more funding for the many kids who spend their nights sleeping at Moody Park, with no internet, no beds, no toothbrushes, no water or a place to go to the bathroom. Without addressing poverty and its consequences, without honoring neighborhoods, without ensuring mechanisms that expand the resources of communities, we’re not going to improve our schools.

The “Inner Loop” of Highway 610. Houston’s Third Ward lies between 288 and 45, Southwest of Second Ward. Google Maps.
Life expectancy across Houston as of 2018. Houston Chronicle.

Who have been the driving forces at the grassroots level?

There was a loose coalition some years ago including the unions-Houston Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union, Houston Education Support Personnel, PTOs,  Community Voice for Public Education (CVPE), Texas Organizing Project, Parents for Public Schools and others, trying to fight the education reform of 2010 (when that awful film Waiting for Superman came out). Community Voices is a small multiracial group of parents, students, teachers and community members who believe strongly that there should be equity in our public schools, that they are the cornerstone of democracy and that they are testing our schools and students to death. Black Lives Matter, Our Revolution, Bernie Sanders’ movement, parent advocates, and lots of new groups have grown more involved. A lot has happened to explain this – not just the recent attempt at takeover – but also the election of Trump. People woke up, including lots of complacent liberals and inactive progressives and of course, the Sanders movement and the Democratic Socialists of America surged massively. As a result, in Houston we have a larger pool of activists who’ve now realized public education is an active priority and CVPE has absorbed some of this. 

What do you make of the work in Houston, in light of other education struggles in the South and the rest of the country, particularly #Red4Ed?

We’re a right to work state, so is Oklahoma and so is West Virginia. To get to that place – a structured, extended mass sick-out – most people say it takes three to five years from where we are now: under-organized among both teachers and community members. In LA, they were organizing for twenty years; in Chicago, they have deep labor roots that don’t exist here The state takeover here splits the target; it’s easier to move forward if you have a clear enemy and right now it’s the governor, it’s TEA as well as HISD. When Terry Grier ran HISD, he implemented a scorched earth policy where 40% of the district’s teachers were fired at many high need schools, disproportionately attacking African American women. Teachers are paid somewhat more in Texas too, but the key framing hasn’t happened: teachers here start at 54K, but if it’s 25 years later and you’re making 61K or 66K, just $10,000 more after a quarter century of public service, that’s ludicrous. And of course, the ongoing political awakening against Trump may also ride roughshod over the relatively higher pay here. 

Ultimately, we need more numbers. We don’t have money, but we’ve got people and that’s our power; these community forums we’re hosting may not turn people into fiery activists, but it will allow parents, students and teachers to talk to each other, maintain contact, alongside wider organizing in the city.  Even though the goal isn’t really to go on strike – it’s to win better schools for students, teachers and families – I think it could happen. Things seem to be getting worse and worse. We need to organize teachers and parents, because the first step in a right to work state is to increase membership. 

What about students?

Someone said no social movement has been successful without the youth. The rest of the country is ahead of us. Black Lives Matter at School isn’t really local here yet; LA is a good example of strong city-wide youth organization. In Houston, there’s been an uptick of activism around climate change, gun safety as well – but this hasn’t really broken beyond the white and wealthier parts of the city and into its working-class communities. In the latter, at Austin High School, there was a successful walkout by students to fight a deportation in 2018. At Wheatley High School, students organized a walk out against the firing of a longtime, beloved school administrator. So, there’s serious potential here; I think there will be space for it at the intersection of income inequality housing, climate change, gun safety, and, of course, the schools we want. 

What’s coming up next and how can folks get involved?

First, people can come to the Community Voices meeting on February 29th. Another priority, second, is the teach-in at the Governor’s Mansion in Austin on March 16th  to oppose the state takeover and the overemphasis on STAAR. The trip is free; buses will be provided. The teach-in is being organized by CVPE, HFT, HESP, FIEL (Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha), the AFL Labor Federation, Black Lives Matter Houston, Indivisible,  Education Austin and others. It’s not about only opposing the takeover but also challenging the stranglehold of high stakes testing on students, schools and communities. 

The coalition’s community forums on the takeover and the fight to improve public schools will continue over the next six weeks: February 18 at Scarborough Elementary, February 25 at Worthing HS, March 10 at Northside HS, and March 31 at Sharpstown HS from 6-7:30pm.

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