Lessons from Latin America: Reclaiming public education requires powerful fight back

The CFT’s emerging campaign for quality public education underscores the fundamental problem we face in this country — the lack of a powerful social movement for economic, political and social equality.

Such a movement, like those of the 1930s and 1960s, would have the political clout to force government institutions to create more robust opportunities for all students while improving conditions for the poor and working class. While our campaign is not a substitute for one, it can provide the leadership, structure and organization for a powerful grassroots movement.

The attack on public education in this country is taking place within the context of a global economic crisis. In much of the world, economic elites are using the fiscal downturn as an opportunity to implement austerity measures designed to shrink the public sector and privatize public services. While the assault on public education in the United States is a relatively recent development, our sister and brother educators in Latin America have been engaged in this struggle for some time.

In May, I joined an AFT delegation to Latin America led by President Randi Weingarten to look at the global nature of the attacks on public education and the public sector in general (Read the full story here).

The countries we visited — Brazil, Argentina and Chile — have been fighting this battle for years. In each of these countries, the military, beginning in the mid-1960s, intervened to overthrow democratically elected governments committed to economic and social equality and expansion of the public sector.

The military then began a systematic dismantling of the public sector, limiting or eliminating trade unions while promoting neo-liberal economic policies. The military resorted to torture, repression and murder to suppress popular movements that had brought democratically elected presidents to power.

Many of the education and labor leaders we met, including government ministers, had been active in the opposition to the military dictatorships. We talked openly about the role of the U.S. government and the American labor movement in supporting the military dictatorships but we were warmly received for standing in solidarity with our Latin American sisters and brothers.

In each country, educators, trade unionists and grassroots organizers have been fighting to expand access to public education. Progressive educators are also resisting the testing mania, a key element of the “education on the cheap” component of market reformers.

While the outlook for public education in these countries is mixed, one bright spot is the critical role labor-student-community alliances have played in demanding the reordering of government priorities.

In California we have already seen the importance of a labor community alliance supporting progressive tax reform and winning Prop. 30. We now have the opportunity to expand that important work, and like our colleagues in Latin American, build the support to ensure that all of our students have access to the finest public education available.

Watch the video!
See the AFT video about the Latin American trip.

See the story as published
Download a pdf of the story.

Read the editorial
Lessons from Latin America: Reclaiming public education requires powerful fight back

View the newsletter
Check out the entire issue of California Teacher