With federal civil rights protections for students set to be rolled backand $9.2 billion in proposed cuts poised to decimate public schools, education advocates nationwide continue to ring the alarm about the potential impact on America’s kids. That’s why thousands of teachers, parents, students, and community members will be taking to the streets as part of the nationwide March for Public Education, a grassroots effort demanding that politicians and policy makers commit to protecting students and working to elevate the nation’s public schools.
The event, which will take place on Saturday, July 22, in Washington, D.C., and in more than a dozen other cities across the United States, is open to anyone who cares about public education. For its national co-chairs — Steve Ciprani, a veteran teacher at a public high school in Westchester, Pennsylvania, and Pavithra Nagarajan, who taught sixth-grade in New York City and is now working toward her doctorate degree in sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University — that should be everyone.
“Public education is the bedrock of our democracy. It’s the chance for every student and every child to get a good shot at a productive future and a productive life,” says Ciprani. “You should want to have an educated workforce and want people to care about their country and think about it in a critical way.”
“The fact that zip codes can predict how many resources students get has never sat right with me,” adds Nagarajan. She says the March for Public Education is a jumping-off point for “elevating the conversation about education to be an issue of justice,” at both the national and local level. “We’re trying to rally around, what does this mean for kids? If this is what the budget looks like, what does this mean for kids?”
The duo acknowledges that some folks might be reluctant to come march in the streets for public education. “There is a perception that people at protests are throwing bombs or starting fights, or only the angry people do that,” says Ciprani. But, “just as we need to advocate for students, we also have to model for them what advocating for justice looks like,” adds Nagarajan. “If we feel there’s a gross miscarriage of justice happening, that you aren’t getting what you deserve, it’s important to show students what to do.”
Just over 10,000 people have either RSVP’d or expressed interest in the D.C. event, which kicks off at the Washington Monument. Bob Bland, one of the co-chairs of the National Women’s March; Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association; and Mary Cathryn Ricker, the vice president of the American Federation of Teachers will be among the speakers in the nation’s capital. Several student groups, such as the Youth Caucus of America and the nonprofit Student Voice, will also be attending. Together they’ll march to protest outside the U.S. Department of Education.
Nagarajan and Ciprani say they were inspired by the National Women’s March held in January, which they both attended separately. “I was just so blown away by it,” says Ciprani. “And on my ride home I just started thinking, ‘We need to do something like this. We need to bring this energy back home for education.’”
They each took to Facebook to connect with other people who wanted to shift the national conversation about public education and ended up finding each other. They’ll meet in person for the first time when they head to D.C. for the March for Public Education. “We were both on the same page in terms of what we want to accomplish,” says Nagarajan.
Of main concern is putting pressure on the feds to reverse the proposed cuts to fundamental programs that serve students, particularly those who are most marginalized. “Those are the programs that are giving money to special needs, after-school care, and work-study programs. We want them to reverse the decision to funnel money from all children to an elite few. We want to resist the idea of cutting funding for AP and STEAM courses, and the arts and teacher development.” says Nagarajan.
The effort’s website also states that the event seeks to “challenge the educational status quo that leaves students over-tested, dehumanized and financially burdened by their educational experiences,” and “supports teachers, students, parents and communities, advocates for educating the ‘Whole Child,’ calls on legislators to address the student debt crisis and opposes the privatization of public education.”
Given that the U.S. Constitution leaves responsibility for education up to the states, the longer term goal of the march is to spark change at the local level, which is why the duo teamed up with grassroots organizers across the nation to organize sister marches in their cities and towns. “We want to think long-term about setting up local branches and an active community people can draw from,” says Nagarajan. For example, the march in Detroit is shaping up to be one of the largest regional events. In recent years, public education has been decimated in the Motor City. “They’ve felt the effects of eroding institutions longer,” says Ciprani.
To that end, the March for Public Education has also partnered with Pack Your Back, a nonprofit started by students from Central Michigan University, on the Backpack Initiative. Together they’re raising money to purchase school supplies and backpacks for 2,000 students in Detroit and Washington, D.C. “We don’t think that things should end when the march ends on Saturday,” says Ciprani. “So that’s why we are trying to bring energy home.”
“If you want to support democracy, if you want a well-read, well-educated electorate that is voting, if you want to be competitive in a global economy, come out and join us,” says Nagarajan.