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Detroit educational activists meet with U.S. Department of Education

Helen Moore–Detroit, Dyllan Smith–Detroit; COURTESY PHOTO

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Detroit activists joined parent and student groups from major urban centers around the country July 10 for a meeting with President Barack Obama’s education cabinet.

Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights, Peter Cunningham, assistant secretary for Communications and Outreach for President Obama’s education agenda, and Roberto Rodriguez, Domestic Policy Council and special education adviser to the president, listened to student and parent concerns about the impact of school closures, privatization and structured destabilization of schools on communities of color.

The groups from Chicago, New York City, Newark, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Atlanta emphasized the need for transformational reform and criticized current educational policies as failed and driven by corporate interests. Activists expressed concern about the power and influence of private interests in neutralizing public voices.

According to youth organizer Andi Perez from Philadelphia, private foundation money funneled through nonprofits such as the United Way pushes a privatization agenda that has repeatedly failed students of color in Philadelphia and has resulted in an apartheid system of education.

The discussion was filled with vocal protests from high school students who experienced firsthand the policies of “corporate reform.”

Joseph Duarte of New York City’s Urban Youth Collaborative demanded that student voices be brought to the table.

“Education as we know is not great. Do you think that’s fair? Ask students what is needed to make the schools better … We basically have no say in school closing policy,” Duarte said. For the past year and half, Duarte and NYC youth have been fighting school closures.

“As a result of my school’s closure, we lost space, teachers. We became secondary citizens. Our classes were taken away,” Jorel Moore, another New York City student, told the Obama administrators. “The only thing that remained was ROTC.”

Rodriquez added that only 13 percent of Black and Latino students graduate college-ready.

Detroit student Dyllan Smith gave unwavering testimony about being ridiculed and targeted for his role in organizing the student walkout at Frederick Douglass Academy. Smith told the national officials he’d been suspended “for fighting for our education.”

Detroit activist and education advocate Helen Moore criticized Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s disparaging remarks regarding Detroit Public Schools.

“We are here today with demands,” Moore told the group. “We’re not asking. We want meaningful community involvement. Meaningful parental input. We’re demanding that you stop this madness.”

Moore also voiced concerns about high-stakes accountability schemes such as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Moore asked why certain states received waivers while school districts and states serving primarily children of color would continue to be subjected to NCLB sanctions and regulations.

Assistant secretary for Communications and Outreach Peter Cunningham responded that as far as reviewing which states would be granted a waiver, “Michigan is still in the cue.”

The Department of Education communicated that they needed more time to review the concerns brought forth by this national alliance and that a follow up conversation would be planned.

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