By Scot McCullough
On Sunday, June 7, the Madison teachers union (Madison Teachers Inc, or MTI) released what they called their ‘Anti-Racism Statement,’ prompted by the national and local protests against the police murder of George Floyd and against all police violence and all racism. While the introduction to the statement talks about the “complex systems of laws and cultural norms [that] justify [white Americans’] right to destroy, exclude, dehumanize and devalue black lives” and how “we continue to enact the hidden systems of oppression within our systems of education, policing, healthcare, and so forth”, their solution fails to stop or even challenge these systems.
For years, people in Madison have fought to demand the removal of cops from the public school system. This fight has been led by Freedom Inc and the Freedom Inc Youth Squad, and has included public forums, rallies and demonstrations, public comment at school board meetings, lobbying school board members, and so much more. They have fought not just for a removal of police from schools, but for other school improvements as well, including supporting pay raises for teachers. These young activists and organizers have continued to organize in spite of harassment from police and civilians at school board meetings and endless derision by local media. That Freedom Inc has been doing this work for years means a foundation is set for all of Madison to move closer to a world free of racist violence.
The key part of MTI’s statement reads “We call for the removal of all School Resource Officers from the four comprehensive high schools with the caveat that this only occurs when all four high schools are properly staffed with counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and mental health specialists according to the national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recommended levels.” (emphasis in original). The statement goes on to describe how some teachers support cops in schools, and then lists the total number of new positions needed to meet the ACLU levels (it is 33 new positions). They argue “if we remove police officers from our schools, but do not adequately staff those same schools with social workers, nurses, counselors, and psychologists, we are perpetuating harm upon our most vulnerable young people. If we are serious about being anti-racist as a Madison community, we must fully support our students, not just by subtracting one group, but significantly adding another.”
The understaffing of the schools that MTI calls out is appalling – 33 desperately needed positions, not counting additional classroom teachers to reduce class sizes. However, this statement creates a false equivalence between the roles performed by police and those other positions as well as the value of one position versus another. The statement actually gives justification to an often-unsaid reason that cops are staffing the schools instead of these other positions – cops are cheaper (even if they don’t do the job). 4 cops for the cost of $360,000/year compared to 33 other positions for $2,970,000/year. Decades of austerity have shrunk school and government budgets as the rich have gotten richer. As money has gotten tighter, our health, poverty, and school systems have gotten replaced by the cheaper and drastically more violent criminal injustice system.
MTI’s statement uses the staffing recommendations for support staff as laid out by the ACLU. However, MTI absolutely ignores the ACLU staffing recommendation for cops in schools – zero. As the ACLU says in their report Cops and No Counselors in the section of District and School-Level Recommendations (pg 42-43), “End Routine Policing Practices Inside Schools. Police should enter schools only to address threats to physical safety.” MTI cites the ACLU’s evidence-based recommendations for support staff, but ignores when the ACLU says that “there is no evidence that police in schools improve school safety – indeed, in many cases they are causing harm” (pg 4).
MTI’s statement also ignores what students and the Black-led movement are saying: cops cause harm, full stop. The Freedom Inc Youth Squad and others have not argued that cops in schools are overall good but that counselors are better (as MTI seems to be saying). They have argued that the presence of police is overall bad. MTI’s conditional support of the demands of the Black freedom struggle fails to adequately support the struggle.
MTI is absolutely right to call for and fight for full staffing of our schools. It is powerful to see the stark numbers of how understaffed they are and how great the need is. They are also right to connect the dots between how funds and responsibilities have been shifted from unarmed civilians to the criminal injustice system. However, to say that they only support the anti-racist demands if… fails to actually support those anti-racist demands.
The massive rebellions across the US have demonstrated that not only do we need to make radical changes to end racism, but that it will require a monumental fight by oppressed and working people against the institutions and people who benefit from the current system. Teachers have the ability to play a central role in this fight. The Chicago Teachers Union in 2012 waged and won a city-wide strike by fighting for, as they put it, the Schools Chicago Children Deserve and centering anti-racism in that fight. They called CPS an apartheid school system for its racial inequities. This strengthened the confidence Chicagoans had in the CTU and strengthened the CTU’s ability to fight for anti-racist, anti-sexist, and socially just schools.
Teachers, as workers and through union organizing, have a unique ability to make changes happen in our schools. If MTI were to fully and truly support the demands of the Black freedom struggle, the union could develop the trust and relationships needed with the community to fight and win the rest of what MTI calls for. Instead, they have placed themselves at odds with the struggle to end racism.