Summer vacation starting in May. A four-day school week. An extra week of spring break. Do these sound like the dreams of bored students?
All of the above are changes the Portland School Board raised as possibilities for addressing Portland Public Schools’ (PPS) budget shortfall. But instead of celebrating, students at Franklin High School reacted with anger to the compromising of their education and staged walkouts at Franklin, Wilson High School, Metropolitan Learning Center, and Lincoln High School on December 19, 2002.
The organizing effort began at Franklin, where the Student Union sought ways of channeling the wide-spread wrath among the student body. As one of the people involved in planning the walkout, I liked the idea of a walkout to counter the trend I had seen develop during last year’s “Save Our School” rally.
The cornerstones for that campaign were an after-school districtwide rally downtown in Pioneer Courthouse Square, and a lobbying effort in Salem, the state capital. Both events received media coverage, but involved only a small percentage of the student population. It was an elitist vision of organizing that was largely based on well-spoken students in suits doing the lobbying. Not coincidentally, Lincoln, the high school with the most economically privileged students, led the effort. Franklin, where most students come from working-class families, had only sparse participation. I had hoped the idea of a walkout would help expand the struggle to every student, particularly those at Franklin.
The challenge was not to help Franklin’s students find their voices. Many students were angry about the proposed (and already instituted) budget cuts. But we wanted to provide an outlet for that rage. The concerns of students were as diverse as the student body itself. Some were concerned that cutting at least 15 days off of the school year would make Portland students look less attractive to colleges and prospective employers.
With as many as 40 days possibly being cut, the Portland school year threatens to become 50 days shorter than the national average. Many students were disturbed by the decision to eliminate the budgets of Outdoor School — a program that gives every 6th grader a knowledge-filled week in the wilderness — and spring sports.
We decided that a walkout would send the strongest message to the school board and legislature. The idea of a walkout quickly spread through the student body. It provided a productive way for people to express their anger and a course of action any student could undertake that might actually lead to change. We quickly revived the Franklin Student Union, which had been defunct for a while, to give students a voice in how the school was run, and began planning a walkout.
Hearing of Franklin’s action, Lincoln, Metropolitan Learning Center, and Wilson decided to hold their own solidarity walkout, sending the message that Portland students were united to defend their education.
The day of the walkout was bitterly cold. Students began pouring out of Franklin’s doors slightly before 10:15 a.m. and gathered near the Benjamin Franklin statue. I estimated that of Franklin’s 1400 students, 500-600 people participated in the rally, although by all accounts there were significantly fewer students left in the classroom than outside.
Several students spoke, and the student body chanted, “How can we get ahead when our schools are dead?” We also staged a mock funeral, as students threw baseball gloves, textbooks, and mementos from Outdoor School into a black casket with the words “RIP: Public Education” written on it. The symbolic funeral made the point that if our schools continue to get worse and worse, the families who can afford to will send their children to private school. The only students left in public schools will quickly become only those so poor they lack other options.
The event received excellent media coverage, and sent a strong statement that we will not allow the ravaging of our public education system. Not everyone who walked out agreed on the best solution to the school funding crisis, but trying to find a solution became the main topic of discussion in Franklin’s classroom for a few days. Students discussed the priorities of a society that is willing to spend unknown billions to attack Iraq but can’t find $250,000 to save spring sports, or a few million dollars to ensure the life of public education.
The walkout is not the end of student action against budget cuts. Rather, it is the beginning of mobilization, a demonstration designed to empower students and build toward further action. The Portland students will not stand for the demise of our education.