A funny thing is happening in the United States. Across the country, headless schools are opening. One opens this fall in Detroit: the teachers’ terms of employment are still governed by their union’s contract with Detroit Public Schools, but they will administer themselves on a democratic, cooperative basis.  In just the past couple of years, schools run by teacher cooperatives have opened in Madison, Denver, Chicago, Boston, and New York.  Milwaukee has 13 teacher-run schools.

These aren’t universities. They are elementary schools, kindergartens, high schools of the arts and humanities, high schools for budding scientists and programmers, high schools for social justice. Sometimes four or five co-operatively run and publicly-funded schools share the same building and grounds.  Few of them operate in wealthy neighborhoods. Nearly all of them serve students who are struggling because English isn’t their first language, or because their homes and neighborhoods are scarred by poverty, neglect, substance abuse and crime. They are generally successful by any measure, even the fatuous assessments of standardized testing. They are broadly popular with students, teachers, and parents.

Over the next few years, dozens–perhaps hundreds–of similar schools will open in Los Angeles:  teachers will have control over curriculum, work rules and every facet of academic policy. In every school, councils of students, teachers, and parents provide active, intellectual leadership.  Every school has a student-, community- and teacher- centered system of governance imagined from the ground up by faculty and citizen co-proposers. They will all have at least one principal administrator, so they have not amputated the head, only shrunken it.  Nonetheless it is clear that community leaders, students and teachers will hire, evaluate and severely circumscribe the authority of their (usually) solitary administrator  in a self-conscious, explicitly distributed system of leadership.

The remarkable Los Angeles situation is a startling victory for grass-roots democracy in education.  Less surprising is the fact that you haven’t heard about it. This victory has been ignored and misrepresented by the US corporate media, many of whom also operate as for-profit education vendors.  Leading national figures in both political parties, including the current Democratic administration, actively support the sectarian and profit-driven private management of public schooling.

One way to understand what’s happening in L.A. is as a crisis in teacher unionism, a subset of the near-collapse of unionism in the country after decades of hostile law created by politicians slavishly pursuing corporate interests.  The immediate trigger for bold action by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) was the determination by Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) that as many as 300 “poorly performing” schools would be opened to bid by charter or for-profit management over the next few years, with a first round of community “advisory votes” on bids scheduled for February 2010.

The district was already the site of more privately managed public schools than any other in the country; three hundred  more would essentially have broken the union.

Desperate for a new strategy and inspired by the usually union-supported headless schools springing up elsewhere, this time the behemoth UTLA declined to square off against giant LAUSD in the traditional all-or-nothing pitched battle.

Instead UTLA chose to throw its resources behind a series of grassroots actions, negotiating the right for teachers to submit their own bids. It sent money and personnel in active, energetic support of groups of teachers, parents and students, helping them to generate highly individual school visions.
Within weeks: in neighborhoods across the city, teachers and parents met to hammer out proposals–at least one for every school put out for bid, 36 in the first round.

The results of the February 2010 “advisory votes” conducted by the League of Women Voters were stunning. In every school up for bid, the grassroots and teacher-led proposal won decisively, averaging 87% over all alternatives, including rich politician- and media- backed national education-management chains already established in the city such as like Magnolia, Aspire, and Green Dot.

“Advisory” or not, the parents’ vote was so overwhelming that it produced tangible political fear of electoral backlash, leaving the schools supervisor and district board little choice but to award the majority of the bids to proposals featuring workplace and community democracy. Of the 36 schools up for grabs, four were awarded to the Los Angeles mayor’s nonprofit management corporation, three to private charters and management corporations; 29 went to teacher-parent proposals.

If the grass roots win the same percentage of all those offered to bid in the district over the next few years, 240 democratically-operated schools will open. There would be 60 operated by politically-connected nonprofits or profit-seeking corporations, though all of them would do so against the wishes of local parents.  

What does it mean to “occupy” a school? A school occupation is not, as the corporate media like to portray it, a hostile takeover. A school occupation is an action by those who are already its inhabitants–students, faculty, and staff–and those for whom the school exists. (Which is to say for a public institution, the public itself. ) The actions termed “occupations” of a public institution, then, are really re-occupations, a renovation and reopening to the public of a space long captured and stolen by the private interests of wealth and privilege.  The goal of this renovation and reopening is to inhabit school spaces as fully as possible, to make them truly habitable–to make the school a place fit for living.

Lessons From Schoolteachers: Permanent Occupation
It is hard to overstate the radicalism of this spreading front of action. Teachers, supported by their unions, in partnership with students and parents, are taking back the schools–literally hijacking mechanisms designed by politicians to hand schools to religious, ideological, and capitalist control. Their intention is clear: permanent occupation of the schools,  a full, rich inhabitation.

In the United States, it is all too common for those of us who inhabit the university to lord it over the schoolteachers. Often we play a role in training and certifying them; we sometimes produce some of the knowledge they share, write the textbooks they use, or review their curricula.  We sometimes come from wealthier, worldlier families. Those of us with terminal degrees and tenure like to think we have enjoyed greater cultural capital or more cosmopolitan experience; we tend to have stronger loyalties to our profession than to any one community or campus.  In our own minds, at least, we are the avant-garde of knowledge production, the officer class: schoolteachers are in the trenches, education’s infantry, the grunts.

It’s not clear that our looking down on them does any harm to the schoolteachers–but it sure hurts us. Our sense of superiority keeps us from understanding basic things–that we work for a living, that we have to struggle with management to preserve the working conditions of a future  faculty, that you can’t convert status capital into hot meals, hospital beds, or a pension.

Long before there was a movement to unionize college faculty, U.S. schoolteachers joined with sanitation workers and other public employees to democratize their workplaces.

They struggled against some of the most hostile law in any industrialized nation in a series of imaginative direct actions. They rewrote the constitutions of “professional associations” that had kept them docile for decades, turning them into vehicles of unionism. They battled in the streets for the right to self-organize, boldly compelling the rewriting of unjust law after the fact of their illegal self-organization. Martin Luther King was murdered while supporting a wildcat strike of sanitation workers, demanding recognition of their illegal union.

Only after long years of bold action by schoolteachers, including the defiance of unjust law–not to mention similar defiance by the undergraduates educated by these militants–did anything resembling militant self-organization erupt among college faculty. And when that movement hit a few bumps in the road, it retreated; in many places it collapsed. Even the strongest organizations of college faculty today have already sold out future generations in bargaining multiple tiers of employment into existence.

Is it possible that the schoolteachers once again have something to teach the university?
I think so.

During 09-10 we saw a remarkable series of campus occupations in Europe and the Americas, with especially sustained, militant and broadly inclusive efforts in Austria, Italy, and Germany–not to mention the month-long, eight-city, twenty-campus events in Croatia.

There were at least a hundred occupations or related protests that year in the United States, where they are extremely unusual. Some of the earliest uprisings took place the preceding spring in New York, led by students attuned to international student militance.

By far the most extensive, militant and successful occupation on U.S. territory was that at the University of Puerto Rico, which shut down the most important university in the Caribbean, involved tens of thousands of students for nearly three months, won the support of the full faculty of the 11-campus system as well as numerous trade unions, major artists and political figures.

The most influential U.S. protests, however, were those in California, which spread, as they say, virally, from an outbreak at UC Santa Cruz. It began with a small but diverse cadre of militants, many of them graduate students, but including tenured faculty, undergraduates, and unionized staff.  Their manifestos and slogans were truly a shot heard round the world. Before the year was out, masses of students were joined in rallies and marches by the unions of schoolteachers and staff, as well as some faculty. Before it was over, California students’ ambitions for direct action had escalated to the blockade of a major highway.

It is already clear that the occupations and related events will continue through 2010-2011. As I write this, the school year has just begun in parts of the U.S., and the University of New Orleans has already seen one occupation (swiftly suppressed by riot police). A major international planning committee is bringing together large-scale events for early October, and there will certainly be at least one other such coalition effort in the spring.

The question all of these occupations raise for me is this: how to move from “occupation” as inspirational event or even regular protest practice to inhabitation? Is there a path to permanent occupation of the campus? Is victory to be measured in terms of a restoration of funding and/or the addition of student representation to bodies of administration?

I have already written in response to this question, suggesting that a permanent occupation of higher education would involve the militant inhabitation of all the organizations that comprise “the profession” of higher education, and those that intersect with it, such as metropolitan government:

A relatively small number of graduate students could begin a peaceful “occupation” of all the institutions of the profession—especially if they coordinated with students, staff, contingent faculty, and fellow travelers in the tenure stream. What would happen if the submerged 80 percent of the profession—graduate student employees and contingent faculty—occupied the governing positions of the AAUP and of disciplinary organizations like the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, and the American Psychological Association? What if they similarly occupied the governments of college towns—Ithaca, Bloomington, and Ann Arbor? What issues would they engage? Where would they direct the funds? How would they employ staff time? What improprieties would they commit in public?  I, for one, would like to know.

The schoolteachers are showing us the way toward direct democratic control of education. If we can see, here in the U.S.–at the vain, dull epicenter of global inequality–bands of schoolteachers and parents in the most impoverished neighborhoods seizing control of their institutions and banishing the dead hand of administration: how can we not imagine the same for our universities? We can administer ourselves directly and democratically. And we must–if we are to make our colleges truly inhabitable.  

An essay for the National Day of Action to Defend Public Education, October 7, 2010. Originally composed as the introduction to the forthcoming Occupation Cookbook.






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