After thousands of Boston public school students marched to protest school budget cuts last week, city officials and Boston media suggested the students are simply misinformed and don’t understand what they’re doing.
Last Monday, students walked out of classes and marched from Boston Common to City Hall and Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the Boston Globe reported. These protests came soon after Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang announced cuts that would cover part of a budget shortfall of $50 million for the 2016-17 school year. Chang said $10 million to $12 million would be cut from the per-student funding formula and $20 million would be cut from the central office budget.
Now, student protesters say that city officials want to “explain” the budget cuts to them. On Tuesday, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh will visit Snowden International High School to meet with the main student organizers of the protest.
Other rhetoric from city officials and local media also suggests that students aren’t entirely capable of understanding the issue for themselves. Some critics are suggesting the high schoolers weren’t responsible for the decision to protest in the first place because they received support from Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, which boasts the National Education Association as a member organization. The Boston Education Justice Alliance also promoted the protest. It includes the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts and its local affiliate, the Boston Teachers’ Union, as member organizations.
In an editorial entitled “Boston students duped,” for example, the Boston Herald asserted that teachers unions were “encouraging easily misled students to ditch class to lobby on their behalf” and criticized students for leaving class.
“I’d love to see who’s behind the walkout,” Mayor Walsh said. “Whoever’s behind it, I hope they start to feed the young students in our city with accurate information and not misguided information.”
Given Walsh’s visit to Snowden International High School, it appears he does know who the actual organizers of the protest are. But it’s worth noting that it isn’t unusual at all for teachers unions to get involved in protests that revolve around education issues. During the height of the so-called opt-out movement against standardized testing last year, for example, teachers unions played a significant role. Although teachers unions’ involvement was covered heavily in the media, parents generally weren’t portrayed as their helpless, naive pawns.
According to Nikhil Goyal, the author of Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice, that’s because high school and middle school students often aren’t taken seriously as activists.
“I find that sometimes people who push for corporate education reform state that when youth protest against standardized testing or budget cuts, there must be a union or another organization instructing their every move. It’s condescending,” Goyal said. “In recent years, young people, on their own, have organized, lobbied, and engaged in direct resistance against tuition fees and hikes, high-stakes testing, school closures, deportation policies, police brutality, and war. Adults need to trust and take the concerns of young people seriously.”
Edward Tapia, a sophomore at Excel High School and member of the Boston Student Advisory Council, a group of student leaders who represent their high schools and communicate student concerns to a BPS committee, has been involved with the organization of the protests. He says it’s not true that students simply don’t understand the school budget.
“The students do understand what is going on with the budget cuts,” Tapia said. “We are passionate about wanting our schools to be fully funded, and maybe there were some misunderstandings, but I’m sure most of the students are concerned about what is going on.”
Of course, students see the consequences of budget cuts firsthand. Tapia said he became involved in student activism — and with last week’s protest in particular — because he saw schools cutting back on elective classes, school librarians, programs for students with special needs, and sports teams. He is especially worried about how students will be accepted into colleges, not to mention prepared once they get there, if they are losing elective classes, such as forensic science.
Tapia also rejects the narrative that Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools’ involvement in any way delegitimizes students or takes away the students’ agency in their decision to protest. Boston, like many major cities, has a robust network of student activists. Meanwhile, Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools has been organizing protests against budget cuts across the country. The launch of their campaign was Feb.17, and students and teachers in over 30 cities across the country protested budget cuts, including Boston, but the latest protest had a much larger turnout.
Goyal added that he finds it strange to suggest that unless students are working completely by themselves, they aren’t aware of their own agenda.
“It’s important to note that adults and young people should work in tandem for justice. It’s not a competition. I think young people offer very fresh perspectives and are often more militant in their strategies,” Goyal said.
Student activism at the middle school and high school level is unlikely to drop off at a time when it’s easier than ever to spread your message through social media.
Baltimore students have used student activist accounts on Twitter to draw attention to freezing temperatures in their schools, spurring many people to call in to the school district at once to inquire about the lack of heat in schools. Students attending schools near Denver, Colorado, have been particularly active. Ponderosa High School students staged a walkout to protest high teacher turnover this week, and last year, students in the Jefferson County School District protested changes to Advanced Placement history classes.
Goyal said he is surprised at how quickly some of his friends became involved in activism.
“Young people have become politically radicalized by the Black Lives Matter movement, Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and crusades for economic and social justice for the working class, immigrants, and people of color,” Goyal said. “I am regularly amazed that people I went to high school with who I would have never imagined becoming involved in political work often post statuses and links to Sanders, Black Lives Matter, and other issues on Facebook, and are attending protests.”