Defending Public Schools

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(Host) As a new school year begins, commentator Ellen David Friedman reminds us that public education is a grand experiment in caring for all kids as if they were our own.

(Friedman) We who are parents, or we who have been parented, all know at least something about that fierce and single-minded advocacy that parents can
muster for their children. It’s a powerful impulse to protect ones own. But just a few days I ago I was lucky enough to meet a woman who fights that way for all children, as if they were hers, as if her life depended on their survival.

Bertha Lewis is a middle-aged woman from a poor background in South Philly. For twenty years she has been a community leader, struggling like crazy to get good housing and good schooling for poor brown, white, and black kids in desperate neighborhoods of New York. She sees the new waves of immigrants and undocumented workers – Caribbean, Latino, Chinese, Vietnamese – flooding into her neighborhood and takes on their struggles as her own. Getting a safe place to live and a decent education for these new Americans is as high on her agenda as paying her own rent.

Recently, through my association with the Progressive Party, I was involved in bringing her to Montpelier to speak at a conference called Affirming Public Education. She warned us that there are enemies of public education out there. There’s a growing lobby for the privatization of education: for providing elite prep schools for middle class kids, while using public dollars to open charter schools for a small number of poor kids. And studies are suggesting that these schools
may actually be less effective than the public schools they are replacing.

Bertha Lewis knows this fight inside-out. She organized parents to prevent the New York City Board of Education from turning over schools to the Edison Corporation, and helped lead a successful fight last year to raise the income tax on New York’s wealthiest citizens to increase funding for education.

Bertha Lewis, a poor person, African-American, community organizer, was honored by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government with a 2004 Citizen Activist Award. When she talked to us, she made us sit up, take notice, and remember what public education is. “It is democracy,” she told us. She reminded us that it is the root and branch and flower of democracy. It is the way we care for all of our kids. not just those who can afford to pay. She reminded us that the fight is on. As we start another school year, she inspired us to keep fighting for this grand experiment in caring for all kids as if they were our own.

I’m Ellen David Friedman in East Montpelier.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the labor movement for 25 years. She spoke to us from our studio in Montpelier.

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