by Brian Washington
North Carolina educator Bryan Proffitt describes it as some of the best organizing he’s witnessed on a tight timeline. In just three weeks, a broad coalition of public school advocates, including hundreds of parents, prevented a superintendent from recommending that a for-profit charter company run two Durham elementary schools.
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“It ended up being a straightforward campaign to convince this one guy not to recommend Durham public schools,” said Proffitt, a history teacher who heads up the Durham Association of Educators (DAE), which has hundreds of members throughout the city. “We had to figure out how we could stand on his foot, get his attention, to let him know that this is something the community was not going to get behind.”
Within the last two years, the Republican-controlled state legislature approved legislation creating what it called an “Innovation School District” or ISD. Lawmakers hired an ISD superintendent to make recommendations to the State Board of Education about which low-performing schools to include in the district. They also took bids from for-profit companies to run them as charter schools.
It was just straight up privatization,” said Proffitt. “There was no illusion about it. This was not going to be a state-run thing. It would all be run through a private charter company.
By the end of September, out of 48 schools from across the state, lawmakers selected six possible choices for the ISD—two in Durham County, two in Robeson County, one in North Hampton County and one in the city of Rocky Mount.
“These are all areas with heavy African-American populations,” said Proffitt. “Robeson County is actually home to our biggest American Indian tribe, the Lumbee Tribe. It doesn’t have federal recognition, but it’s a big tribe.”
Launching the Campaign
After learning the superintendent’s recommendations would arrive in three weeks, Proffitt and his DAE colleagues sprang into action. Within days, they pulled together an online media presence—complete with memes educating the public about privatization. They met with education leaders and held community meetings at each of the proposed sites.
“At the first school, we turned out 260 people,” said Proffitt. “The room was filled with a majority of parents from a community that is mostly black and Latino with poor and working class families.”
The meetings covered the basics of privatization and gave educators, parents, and activists a message frame they could use to talk to family, friends, and neighbors.
Stop calling charter schools public schools because they are not,” said Proffitt, repeating some of what he told those in attendance. “They are unaccountable private schools that get public money.”
“We also talked about the need to defend and transform public schools,” he said. “The principle fight is the existential threat of privatization, but if we don’t transform our schools into vibrant, democratic, anti-racist places with highly-skilled educators, we’re going to lose the battle to privatizers.”
A United Community
Educators, parents, and community allies stuffed the superintendent’s inbox with hundreds of protest emails. His voicemail collapsed under the weight of all the phone messages. The press adopted the campaign’s messaging, using words like “privatization” and “takeover” when doing stories about the ISD.
What happened as a result of all of this is that people in Rocky Mount started pushing back,” said Proffitt. “People in North Hampton also started pushing back. And then, on the night before the decision was made, people in Robeson County started pushing back too.
Educators in those areas fighting the ISD also got help from the North Carolina Association of Educators, which represents thousand of educators across the state. They spread the word throughout communities that this unaccountable takeover scheme did nothing to improve student achievement.
“Having for-profit management companies takeover public schools will do nothing but rip apart our communities,” said Mark Jewell, the veteran educator who serves as the group’s president. “We are making it loud and clear the communities and educators do not want this.”
At the end of three weeks, the superintendent backed away from Durham’s two schools and ultimately decided to recommend just one elementary school in Robeson County. The three-week campaign paid off.
“This is work that really relied on networks that we built over years,” said Proffitt. “We’ve cultivated a pretty sophisticated relationship with our district, and part of that has been electing a progressive school board and maintaining a principled united front with district leadership.”
“And I also think we just really figured out a way to talk about privatization in a language that people could really hold on to.”