Keith Catone
Many education reforms result in the dismantling of public education programs without community input, but grassroots organizers are voicing their own vision for improving schools.


In spite of the lofty reform rhetoric about the Common Core State Standards and “21st-century skills,” when public education is discussed today, what emerges is a portrait of a system in crisis. Massive budget shortfalls; shrinking investment in large urban public school districts; a lack of attention to the needs of low-income communities and communities of color; and toxic divides between new education reformers and teachers and communities, with young people often caught in the middle – something is amiss.

Author Keith Catone answers questions related to this commentary.

What’s Going on in Urban Districts?

To go deeper into the contradiction between rhetoric and reality, consider the following examples.


The recently passed district budget was characterized by a recent New York Times article as “draconian.” Without state aid to cover major budget shortfalls, the current proposal includes laying off over 3,800 school staff. Schools will open in September with fewer teachers, larger class sizes, and virtually no support staff such as classroom aides, school counselors, nurses, secretaries, assistant principals, and security personnel. The district will struggle to purchase basic supplies like books and paper, and music and arts programs will be abandoned. The mayor’s chief education officer is quoted as saying, “It’s an atrocity, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves if the schools open with these budgets.”


Nearly 850 Chicago Public Schools employees, including approximately 550 teachers, received pink slips on June 14, less than a month after the Chicago Board of Education voted to close an unprecedented 50 schools and programs. While city officials say these drastic measures are necessary due to huge budget deficits, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and community-based organizations representing students and families have very publicly opposed the plans and offered less drastic alternatives. CTU president Karen Lewis said:

The district’s solution has been to aggressively cut resources that benefit students and spend scarce resources on unproven initiatives, rather than identify and forcefully advocate for new revenue. Their 21st-century plan looks more like a 19th-century plan. They are leading our district and students in the wrong direction.

New Orleans

For the 2013-2014 school year, nearly 100 percent of the schools under the control of the state-managed Recovery School District – which oversees the majority of public schools in New Orleans – will have been transferred to private charter school operators, eliminating local parent input. Of the 18 schools still governed by the local Orleans Parish School Board, 12 operate as charters. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reflected on these changes, which resulted from the dramatic reengineering of the public school system in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina:

The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. The education system was a disaster, and it took . . . Katrina to wake up the community to say that “we have to do better.”

Sadly overlooked and ignored in this “charterizing” of the Crescent City are the important roles of parents, students, and grassroots community leaders as more than mere educational consumers.

Tucson, Arizona

The popular and hugely successful Tucson Unified School District Mexican American Studies (TUSD MAS) program was shut down by state officials in early 2012 after years of being targeted by state superintendent of public instruction turned state attorney general Tom Horne and others intent on shuttering the program. In what was widely interpreted as a racist attack backed by legislation that was clearly written to specifically target the TUSD MAS program, the Tucson community lost a successful academic program with proven results for not only Mexican American students, but also for students of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

Communities Assert Alternative Visions

These four episodes of school crisis paint a grim picture of the future of our public education system, especially those parts of it primarily serving urban communities of color. Yet even amidst these examples of what communities see as the supervised dismantling of public education systems and programs, there is reason for hope, stemming from the organizing and activism originated by the youth, teachers, and community members at the grassroots level who are fighting back and asserting their own alternative visions for how their public schools can better serve their communities.

Students in Philadelphia have led consistent organizing efforts and protests against the devastating cuts to their schools. Two youth organizing groups, Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change, are at the forefront of a community-based response to find alternatives to the current plans. In Chicago, the CTU is a vocal critic of school closure plans and staff layoffs, while partnering with community organizations to offer a proactive vision for “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve.” In the face of fierce interests to the contrary in New Orleans, parent activists are working together through organizations such as the Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center to hold charter schools accountable to the community by demanding they equitably serve all students, especially students with disabilities and special needs. And in Tucson, teachers and students have revived the MAS program through a partnership with Prescott College.

Each of these community-based responses should offer hope and inspiration generated by dedicated youth, parents, teachers, and community members who refuse to surrender as they watch the reforms in their respective cities dismantle public education.

Building a Movement: Free Minds, Free People

At the upcoming Free Minds, Free People (FMFP) Conference in Chicago, an anticipated 1,000 attendees from around the country will gather to learn about the struggles faced in each other’s communities. The July 13 conference plenary session will feature Sharron Snyder, a youth leader from the Philly Student Union who was a recent guest on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show; CTU President Lewis; Karran Harper Royal, New Orleans public school parent and education advocate; and Sean Arce, former director of the TUSD MAS program. The panelists’ work and experience will provide a rich foundation for a broader conversation exploring how youth, parents, and teachers can work together to develop strategy and a movement focused on building public education systems that work for the empowerment and liberation of low-income communities and communities of color across the United States.

This is a conversation that must occur more frequently across the field of education, and one that we expect to continue beyond July’s FMFP as communities continue to organize around their own visions for their children and schools, planting seeds of hope.

The Free Minds, Free People plenary session will be co-moderated by Patricia Krueger-Henney, assistant professor in the College of Education & Human Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and commentary author Keith Catone.


Organized Parents, Organized Teachers (video)
This 2012 video produced by AISR showcases organized Twin Cities parents working collaboratively with teachers to strengthen their schools, instead of pitting them as bitter enemies in an endless and unproductive blame game.

Prepared by:

493 Keith Catone 
Principal Associate
Community Organizing and Engagement
Annenberg Institute for School Reform