Whittier Elementary School

Refreshing Militancy in Struggle to Defend Public Education

This period of history is characterized by cuts in public services, lack of jobs and deteriorating living conditions. The global crisis of the economy, in which the capitalist class has nowhere to turn but to place the burden on working people, is firing up many youth and workers, radicalizing them, and bringing them to the realization that our conditions won’t improve unless we ourselves fight back against austerity measures. At the forefront of the beginnings of this development around the world have been labor unions and student movements fighting to defend public education and mobilizing to fight budget cuts, tuition hikes, and school closures. Although the level of the fight back has been modest so far, we can expect big things in the coming period.

Whittier Elementary School in the impoverished Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago has been involved in a seven-year struggle for desperately needed resources and renovations. The parents’ association, mostly made up of immigrant workers, has fought for their tax money to be allocated to their children’s education. Whittier has been among 160 Chicago public schools without a library.

In September, the school administration decided to spend $350,000 to demolish a field house on the Whittier campus, which had been used by students and parents for various activities including arts, crafts, and parents’ higher education.

After making this decision, the administration commissioned an inspector who declared the building unsafe for public use. However, the community hired an independent inspector who found the building in good overall condition, requiring only minor repairs on the roof, which would cost far less than the $350,000 needed to demolish the building entirely.

The parents responded to this scandalous state of affairs by voting to occupy the building and demand its transformation into a library instead. During the following five weeks of the sit-in, roughly 40 parents took over the field house and hundreds of books were donated by the community to fill their new makeshift library. More publicity was built up when the school cut gas supply to the building on Oct. 4th. The Chicago City Council later ordered the gas to be turned back on and for the demolition to be halted for six months.

Two weeks later, the Chicago Public Schools system agreed to build a library and scrap the plans for demolition. The parents’ association will be forming a permanent non-profit organization which will lease the building for $1 a year after repairing the roof.

In the context of the relentless attacks on public education, the Whittier parents’ example of organizing and militant action should serve to inspire other workers and students to take a stand and fight for the resources they need. While the Whittier struggle shows that this sort of community organizing is indispensable, the success of the broader student movement against cuts and closures will depend on the formation and strength of permanent student organizations and committees of struggle in every school and on every campus to coordinate regional, state-wide and nation-wide actions.

It is absolutely essential for the teachers’ and other unions to get involved and be at the forefront of this fight. The fight for free, quality public education, which is in the interest of working people, will have to defeat the budget cuts being imposed from above. This cannot be separated from the struggle of the unions to preserve every gain they have fought for in the past. Public education is here for the children of workers and we must mobilize together in order to defend our class interests.


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