High School Students Across the Country Are Fighting for Their Rights

Inside the growing student-led movement for better school policy

On a late afternoon in February, a small crowd forms in front of the public school system administration building in downtown Newark, New Jersey. Cans of Brisk iced tea and a stack of pizza boxes sit beside the front door. The group is busy chanting “Let the kids eat now!” and “Student needs, not corporate greed!” when the door opens and someone announces that the food and drinks will be allowed into Superintendent Cami Anderson’s office. Outside, the crowd cheers and continues chanting. Upstairs, eight members of the Newark Students Union, along with two community organizers, await the donated food as they approach hour 24 of their occupation of the superintendent's office.

Newark high school students formed the Newark Students Union (NSU) in 2012 and are helping lead the city’s struggle against Anderson and for a return to local control of the school system. The state took control of Newark's public school system (NPS) in 1995, and current Governor Chris Christie appointed Anderson in 2011. This fall, she implemented the One Newark plan, which called for the closing and re-siting of some schools. Others were converted into charter schools. The plan also replaced neighborhood-based schools with universal enrollment, in which an undisclosed algorithm matches students to schools. Confronted with mass community opposition, Anderson stopped attending board meetings and refused to meet with those impacted. NSU occupied her office to demand that she meet with the community and resign; a week later, the state announced that it had renewed her contract for another year.

What's happening in Newark is part of a nationwide movement in which organizers are combating school closures, high-stakes testing, and a shift from district schools to privately-run, publicly-funded charters. The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), a national organization fighting public school privatization, filed a civil rights complaint arguing that One Newark, as well as restructuring plans in Chicago and New Orleans, discriminates against African-American students, violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An investigation is currently underway. According to a J4J report titled “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” Chicago’s charter school enrollment increased by 33,771 between the 2005-2006 school year and the 2012-2013 year, while district school enrollment dropped by 57,112 in that timespan. 23,341 students were lost. Some students never re-enroll after their school is closed or converted, which J4J argues increases their chances of incarceration. Newark witnessed a loss of 1,000 students over the same period. Meanwhile, faced with a $304 million budget gap, Philadelphia’s superintendent closed 24 schools in 2013. The Chicago Board of Education voted to close 49 the same year.

Parents, teachers and politicians have long dominated discussions around public education, but students themselves have recently begun playing a key role, asserting that they have the largest stake in these debates. In 1995, Philadelphia students who felt they weren’t receiving an adequate education due to a lack of funding and resources formed the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU). Leadership development has been essential in sustaining the group in more recent years. “You don’t want the organization to fail if you’re not there,” explains Nomi Martin-Brouillette, a PSU member and senior at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy. “So as I’m at my school, I’m helping politicize and develop other students so that when I graduate they can take over.” Now, students in other cities are following PSU’s lead.

Seeking a place in the conversation around a 2012 teachers’ union strike and the 2013 school closures, Chicago students created the Chicago Students Union (CSU). “The Board of Education had a voice with the press conferences. The teachers’ union had a voice. But there was no rallying cry, there was no voice for the students who are most affected by these cuts and these closures,” says Ross Floyd, a CSU member and senior at Jones College Prep. CSU is currently fighting for a democratically elected school board and helping register eligible high school students to vote in the April mayoral runoff election.

High school students also connect their struggles across state lines. “I don’t think it’s just Chicago that has a problem with [school closures],” explains Gabriel Portillo, a CSU member and senior at Prosser Career Academy. “A lot of cities just take advantage of the fact that students don’t really care or that a lot of parents’ voices aren’t really heard.” Organizers are combating that problem with collective action: PSU has hosted students who come to learn from its decades of experience, and some of its members marched alongside their Newark peers at a NSU protest in September

NSU president and Science Park High School senior Kristin Towkaniuk, speaking from inside the occupation of Anderson’s office on February 18th, reinforced that mindset: “I do think that it’s really important that we realize that this is a symptom. Newark is a symptom of a bigger movement of what’s happening in America. There’s this big privatization movement. Racial tensions are heightening. The standardized testing movement [is] sweeping the nation. We’re prioritizing everything, and we’re just a small example of what can happen.”