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Taking democracy seriously: Beyond the Little Rock School District

There was a lot to be struck by at the candlelight vigil held by the OurLRSD coalition on October 9th. Students, parents, teachers, and community members attended by the hundreds to stand together against the latest effort to segregate, control, and ultimately privatize the Little Rock School District. The energy was palpable, the people were excited. But what struck me the most was the language used by both the speakers on stage and the people in the audience. A student speaker put it best when she said, “Education is not a commodity.”

The language of commodification is not something I’m used to hearing outside of the online leftist spaces where I spend my time. Yet, here, in Little Rock, AR, a young woman used that language in front of a crowd of people and received generous, enthusiastic applause.

Just before she took the microphone, the president of the Little Rock Educator’s Association, the Little Rock School District’s teacher’s union, gave a rousing speech about the value of labor. Not only the labor of the teachers, but of the paraprofessionals like bus drivers and nutritionists and nurses and custodians who keep the schools running smoothly. Another speaker said clearly:

“The union is the only thing standing between the LRSD and privatization.”

I felt like I was standing in a Wobbly hymn. The Union makes us strong, there is power in the hands of the worker. So, with the overwhelming support that the LRSD cause has gathered locally, I would like to ask everyone: what else is not a commodity?

When we privatize education, we ensure that there will be some people who can afford to attend a quality school, and some students whose schools will be defunded, neglected, and failed by those in power. If the LRSD returns to democratic community control, what do we say to students whose housing is unstable when they go home? Who can’t afford food? Whose parents can’t afford healthcare? What else do we consider a human right that some people simply cannot afford because it is a commodity traded on a market?

The day after the vigil, the State Board of Education voted to strip the union of their bargaining power and maintain control of the district, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over. The union is still favorable. The community and the students are still engaged. People are still ready to demand democracy and autonomy from the state. I personally hope the union will call a strike, and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. The state knows it too, as the administration has already threatened to fire potentially striking teachers, which could be illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.

Labor rights have been eroded steadily in the United States since the 1940’s, with Arkansas being the first state in the nation to adopt Right to Work legislation. A strike used to be considered the right of the workers, but that threatens the power of the employers. The reality is that employers have a huge amount of power in their relationship to their employees, and the state here has even more power. If teachers and students and community members act individually, that power struggle is clearly in favor of the bosses. But what’s more powerful than one teacher? Two teachers. Three. If everyone stands together in solidarity and unity, the LRSD can tip the scales of power back in the favor of the people.

We can do that for the school district, and we can do it in every other place in our lives where people don’t have access to their basic human rights because it’s not profitable to keep them alive and healthy. There are more people in this city struggling, working multiple jobs, keeping the city running day-to-day than there are legislators and bosses and administrators. If we work together, we can tip the scales beyond the school district and improve life for everyone, not just those at the top.

Rabbi Barry Block spoke at the vigil. It was Yom Kippur, and he had spent the day observing the holiday, fasting, and repenting for his sins. He said, “Tomorrow, it is time for the State Board of Education to repent.” The crowd began chanting, “Repent, repent!” When you see your fellow Little Rock citizens sleeping on the street, going to work sick because they can’t see a doctor, or going hungry because they can’t afford food, who else should repent? Where else can we stand together for a better life?

Bemundolack is a writer, artist and video creator. Their goal is to inspire people to organize and take political action while offering hope for the future. Support and follow them on Patreon or Ko-fi.

Bemundolack is a writer, artist and video creator. Their goal is to inspire people to organize and take political action while offering hope for the future.

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