Winning a Green New Deal for Public Schools

MDC DSA and many other chapters of the organization are bringing a socialist perspective to the return to K-12 schools around the country via the Green New Deal for Public Schools campaign.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s remarkable and targeted measure (HR4442) is designed to avoid wasting two unwaste-able emergencies — COVID and climate — by returning schools to being the vital centers of their communities.

The perils and promise of this bill, which is intended to fit into the make-or-break reconciliation package being fashioned right now by House committees, can’t fully be understood without a look at the shifting political and human landscape on which the campaign is taking place. This article aims to show why the matter is so urgent and the timeline so short. In the DMV we have great opportunities to sell this important project with a clear socialist label but need to grow capacity in a hurry to do that.

Teachers and students are cautiously and, yes, fearfully going back to school across the DMV as August turns to September, and the degree of catching up all students (let alone teachers) will need to do to reconstruct what was lost during the last 18 months is still in the guess-from-incomplete-data stage. Parents of all our students, often divided in the past by questions of equity and resource allocation in their schools, are welded together right now by concerns about their kids’ health. At every level — state, federal and local — officials will be searching for ways to support teachers, parents and students in this very unusual back-to-school season.

Public school teachers, used to being blamed by parents and by the administrator-bosses who try to fend off parents, have (in most cases) a union that can and should provide the support that they need when parents and school bureaucrats turn on them. (And they will turn on teachers, because that’s what they do when things don’t go right, as is highly likely in the next few months and years.)

One stratum of schools — chronically underfunded, embedded in low-income communities and dogged by low expectations — is starting still farther behind. And even regional and national elite schools were — pre-pandemic — underperforming badly, whether well-funded or sunk in impoverished terrain of human geography. By a quirk of early urgency, Maryland’s recent commission on restoring the state’s flagging school performance mapped not only the overall decline of the state’s — and the nation’s — K-12 schools but the special afflictions that apply to poor schools in poor communities, of which even wealthy Maryland has a big share. The pandemic — and Gov. Larry Hogan’s late-innings veto — put a hole in the state’s school-improvement timeline but has not diminished the value of the commission’s “blueprint.”

Maryland lucked out in going through the school improvement hoops early, and to some extent pre-funding the GND4PS campaign (a template that’s been praised as a national model by school-reform advocates). But the nation’s schools were already far behind on issues of both excellence and equity.

The piece of the puzzle represented by Bowman’s HR 4442 is a related but more focused imperative. In a mid-August Facebook post, Bowman said: “Our reconciliation package needs to level up our kids' learning environments by building infrastructure for their learning. The Green New Deal for Public Schools is a roadmap to a clean, green, and efficient way to do that.”

A detailed summary released from Bowman’s office as the measure was introduced said it “would make a transformative and unprecedented investment in public school infrastructure by upgrading every public school building in the country, addressing historical harms and inequities by focusing support on high-need schools, and hiring and training hundreds of thousands of additional educators and support staff.”

The human geography of the communities surrounding those schools is likely to reflect those “historical harms and inequities,” and the schools (following the “community school” wraparound-services model already being put in place in Maryland and DC) can function as potential organizing and coalition-building centers — again, with labor as the through line and working-class families as the glue. As Bowman’s summary outlines, money will be earmarked “to move towards a ‘whole child’ approach to public education; and partner with community organizations to offer a range of services to schools and surrounding neighborhoods, such as after-school programs” — a fertile ground for organizing.

With three key legislators in the DMV (Rep. Raskin of MD, DC Del. Holmes Norton and Rep. Connolly of VA) already cosponsors, MDC DSA and its branches have numerous political and organizational avenues to pursue within this phase of the project. Other House members can be pressured to sign onto Bowman’s bill, building its visibility. The PRO Act continues as an explicit structural element in the Bowman measure since it offers advantages both to existing unions and to unorganized workers in school-centered communities.

The “wraparound” services and staff expansion attracted backing from the generally more militant American Federation of Teachers (AFT), but building-trades unions have been slow to buy into the plan despite the money devoted to building upgrades and resilience (much of the rooftop solar trades are being pursued but remain largely unorganized). Still, in a recent podcast with The New York Times’ Kara Swisher, AFT President Randi Weingarten enthused about the staffing and building upgrades — without mentioning Bowman’s bill:

Swisher: What are you going to do to help students catch up andregain their mental and physical health?
Weingarten: There’s two things that we have to do — wrapping servicesaround schools, having the nurses, having the social workers, the guidancecounselors, so that you have embedded systems of support for kids and for teachers.
Swisher: How do you imagine schools will be different in the next10 years?
Weingarten: Well, I think that these two concepts that I just talkedabout — wrapping services around schools, so schools are more of communitycenters and foundational centers to communities, including making sure thatfamilies have the medical, the mental health services, broadband, things likethat. And frankly, I do think technology is here to stay. It’s going to help insome ways. It can’t substitute for education.

Helping with the catchup is very much on the minds of those re-entering school buildings during these weeks, and needs to be on the minds of DSA activists as we reimagine how to bring ecosocialism home to the school building and the community it centers.

The Economist reported on August 17 that “According to UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, since the start of the outbreak schools around the world have been wholly or partly closed for two-thirds of an academic year on average, with many children reliant on limited remote learning.” In an earlier July article, the magazine said, “Even before the pandemic things were bad. More than half of ten-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries could not read a simple paragraph. The World Bank warns this could rise to almost two-thirds. In all countries school closures will widen the gap between better-off pupils (who have iPads and quiet bedrooms for remote learning) and worse-off ones (who often don’t)."

In July the New York Times reported on a McKinsey study that furnished “an alarming picture of an education system plagued by racial and socioeconomic inequities that have only gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic.” The report painted an ominous vision of the country’s educational landscape: “an educational gap became a gulf. … the students who were most affected by the crisis were already behind their peers before the pandemic, and the added losses have pushed them further back.”

Bringing high-function and low-carbon building improvements, plus additional wraparound staff that can make schools centers of community resilience, will give students the sense that they are not returning to some Hollywood zombie-apocalypse studio set but to a terrain in which they can stay safe and continue learning. Students — who may have learned more than many credit during their time at home — might be an easier sell on this form of change than teachers, parents or the schools’ communities.

The essence of socialist practice is to show doubtful people wrapped in the capitalist web that change can be better, can be sustainable and can continue to improve — and that they have significant agency in that process through active resort to democracy, voting and otherwise.

So outreach is needed across many platforms, especially pointing toward a national day of action on September 24 that will (provisionally) include on-premises school organizing. See our channel #gnd4S-plans on MDC DSA Slack to get involved in outreach through postcard writing, text and phone banking, and letters to the editor or op-eds.

Socialists are not alone in knowing that the pandemic has nakedly exposed the disconnects in our society, clumping money and power at the top and draining power and agency from working families. Our task is to make the case to a wider public that these are not coincidence, but intimately, structurally connected with how capitalism has engineered that wrong-way flow. To reverse that flow, the major federal package of aid for human needs (which, of course, includes social and material infrastructure and is being assembled in the reconciliation budget) needs to target the community level, left behind for so many decades.

Our children’s schools are the common geographical and emotional centers of our communities and can be the principal building blocks of restoring agency to working families. The inclusion of the specific union-favoring, child and family-favoring, climate-saving and school-improving features in the GND4PS bill will ensure that the work of “Building Back Better” will reach the level of every neighborhood and engage activist community response. Otherwise known as socialism.

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