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Why We Defend The Public Square

The following are the texts of the two speeches from the opening session of our recent two-day conference, “In Defense of the Public Square,” which was held on May 1-2 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The introduction was delivered by Leo Casey and the keynote address was delivered by Randi Weingarten. The video of the full event will be available soon here.

Remarks by Leo Casey

We meet here today in “defense of the public square.”

The public square is the place where Americans come together as a people and establish common goals in pursuit of our common good.

The public square is the place where Americans – in all of our rich diversity – promote the general welfare, achieving as a community what we never could do as private individuals.

The public square is the place where Americans weave together our ideal of political equality and our solidarity with community in a democratic political culture, as de Tocqueville saw so well.

It is through the public square that Americans provide essential public goods – education, health care, safety, and mass transportation, among others.

And yet, today the public square is under assault in unprecedented ways.

These assaults strike at the common good itself.

They take aim at our ability to chart a course for the future that realizes the American dream – a dream of equal opportunity, of liberty and justice, not just for a privileged few, but for all.

That is why we gather to defend the public square.

The urgency of this gathering is illustrated by the consortium of seven organizations that are sponsoring this conference. That number includes three of America’s largest and most dynamic labor unions, all primarily drawn from the public sector: AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; SEIU, the Service Employees International Union; and my own AFT, the American Federation of Teachers. It includes two of America’s most influential journals of progressive thought and opinion, The American Prospect and Dissent Magazine. And it includes the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor here at Georgetown University, a widely respected labor studies program, and the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy think tank on issues of education, unionism and democracy. In their different arenas of work, each of these organizations has grappled with the destructive impact of growing attacks on the public square.

The Public Square and American Democracy. In organizing this conference, we began with one core conviction: A vibrant and robust public square is the foundation of American democracy.

American history provides insight into this vital relationship between the public square and American democracy. As a proud high school Social Studies teacher, let me draw a few of these connections.

Today, we use the term ‘public square’ both literally and metaphorically. Our public square is not limited to actual physical spaces, but has a broader existence. In the age of the Internet, it even takes on a virtual reality.

But in the earliest days of the young American republic, the public square began simply as a physical place, such as the Boston Common or New York City’s Bowling Green. It was an open space in the urban landscape, surrounded by community institutions such as churches, city halls, courts and the offices of printers, newspapers and lawyers. Community activities such as town meetings, parades, sporting events, festivals and markets were held within the public square. It was the place where the entire community would assemble and meet – and did so on increasingly democratic terms, open to the diversity of the streets of the emerging city.

As the center of community life, the public square became a vehicle for the political voice of the community. Opposition to British colonial rule and demands for independence found expression in Revolutionary Era demonstrations and rebellions in the public squares of cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

Over time, a rich public life beyond the physical confines of the public square developed, giving greater vitality to American communities. Institutions such as coffee houses became places where ongoing public conversations and debates on the great issues of the day took place. Publications with readerships in several cities, such as Revolutionary Era broadsides and serial pamphlets, arose. Ideas that the ‘public’ and ‘public opinion’ were independent – forces that the state was learning it must heed – began to take hold.

America’s civic and political life was built on the foundation of this blossoming public square. Our founders conceived of our young democracy as a republic, an institution which was public even in its name, drawing its legitimacy from the people rather than the divine right of monarchs.

As cities and the young republic grew, new public institutions emerged: orphanages, hospitals and the common school, which educated all of the children of a community. The common school was a particularly crucial public institution, one that was responsible for educating American youth in the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

Public services such as police, fire brigades and the post office took shape. The ‘public works’ of America – public buildings, roads, harbors, bridges, canals, and railroads – created the infrastructure that would ultimately grow the our economy into the greatest in the world. The power of that economy lay in the balance it established between private initiative and public enterprise, between the market and the public good.

The ‘public square’ was not immune from the challenges of American democracy, especially its struggles with race, sex and class. But the civic life that emerged from the ‘public square’ was the spawning place for the mass movements that took on those issues – abolitionism and the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage and the feminist movement, workers’ rights and the labor movement. The public square enabled our American democracy to begin the long, hard struggle to achieve equality and full democratic rights for all citizens.

For our nation’s marginalized and exploited groups and for generations of new immigrants, public sector employment has provided a critical path into the economic mainstream. In the wake of the 1960s, many African-Americans and Latinos, especially women, were able to enter the middle class through public sector jobs such as teachers, nurses, transit workers, fire fighters and librarians.

And yet the public square is under attack.

Remarks by Randi Weingarten

Leo talked about the public square as a metaphor for political voice, for robust civil and political life, and for public institutions that create the infrastructure to ultimately grow a shared and fair economy. All are critical to our democracy. All are under assault.

The idea of the public square – like a perfect Norman Rockwell painting or a speakers’ box in a public courtyard where anyone—black, white, rich, or poor—can speak about anything—doesn’t exist anymore.

There is a growing and harmful effort across America to make the public square smaller and smaller and to silence working people and stifle their economic aspirations.

Even the term “public,” once celebrated as a part of our national identity, is under relentless attack from governors like Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and even Andrew Cuomo. Public services are being privatized and public employees are demonized, laid off and muted. Who would have thought that a Democratic governor with the last name “Cuomo” would say the public education system is a “monopoly” that must be broken up?

Tectonic plates. We are dealing with the equivalent of tectonic plates across America. On one side, we have the deck stacked against working families, attacks on the rights of workers, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy few. On the other side, we have working families whose wages have been stagnant for decades, who don’t just want to get by; they want to get ahead. They are clamoring for change.

The gap between rich and poor is growing. The American Dream has been eroded and out of reach for too many Americans who are playing by the rules and aspire for a better life. The middle class has been squeezed. People’s lives have been upended by stagnant wages, lingering effects of the greatest recession since the Great Depression, rising household and college costs.

Today, inequality in America has reached historic heights and economic polarization is more extreme than it was during the Gilded Age of the robber barons. Today, the wealthiest 10 percent have reaped the benefits of income gains, while the rest are dealing with stagnant wages. From the mid-1990s to today, income grew 62 percent for the top 1 percent, but just 7 percent for the bottom 99 percent.

Let me try to make this a little more clear:

American CEOs in 2013 earned an average of $11.7 million—331 times the average worker’s salary of $35,293. In 2012, 3.6 million workers earned salaries at or below the federal minimum wage. Corporate executives can legally pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries. And workers across the country have to fight for something very humane—paid sick leave.

What does this tell us? The public square is not working for the average person because it’s being dominated by unaccountable private money, which has increased income inequality and slowed down social mobility.

The concentration of economic wealth in the hands of a very few has facilitated the growth of political power in those same hands. Three pivotal Supreme Court decisions helped make this happen—Buckley v. Valeo, McCutcheon v. FEC, and Citizens United. By declaring that corporate campaign expenditures are constitutionally protected free speech, and by overturning long-established limits on independent campaign expenditures, the Court’s decisions unleashed an avalanche of money into the public square.

Let me talk about the economy and inequality, and education -- two examples to show how money has undermined the ethos of the public square.

Since the Citizens United decision, funding through Super PACs — organizations whose contribution limits were eviscerated by the Supreme Court— reached $1 billion. And more than $600 million of that total has come from just 195 donors and their spouses.

Needless to say, this has distorted the notion that the public square is open to all viewpoints. The biggest megaphone now belongs to those with millions or billions to spend, like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, not the third-grade teacher; the underpaid, overworked custodian; the nurse with an unsafe patient load; or the firefighter who save lives.

The nation’s greatest representative democracy should be influenced by all people, not just those at the top.

Baltimore. Consider the tragedy of what is happening in Baltimore. (I’m headed there tonight to meet with our brothers and sisters and hold a vigil for peace and justice.) Income inequality and neglect of our urban communities has a lot to do with what we’ve been witnessing there. The trigger event was the horrendous death of an unarmed black man. But it unleashed a groundswell of anger that’s been pent up for years in that city… and not dissimilar to urban areas across the country, whether they’ve been on the news lately or not. I condemn the violence we saw in Baltimore Monday night. I equally condemn the inequality, the bias and the racism that spawns riots. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was exactly right when he said that we cannot deplore the street violence of riots without also condemning the pervasive social and economic violence that give rise to them.

There is a pervasive feeling of hopelessness that stems from poverty and joblessness. It is this crisis that we must deal with on so many levels…with the institutions of the public square.

People are searching for a way to transform the economic system that has benefited the lucky few over the many. They are looking for fairness, opportunity, justice and real change. I believe that search does lead to the labor movement.

Unions. A strong labor movement helps create the advocacy, the power, and much-needed checks and balances so that workers and the people they represent get a fair shot. But the ideological right is intent on eviscerating unions and worker voice.

Unions and public sector employment have been central in the growth of the middle class. Strong, powerful unions in the auto, steel, mining and textile industries produced “the great leveling” of the American economy, from the New Deal to the Great Society. But over the past few decades, union density has declined and so, too, has the middle class and income equality. Today, just 11 percent of American workers belong to a union. A study in the American Sociological Review estimates that the decline in unions may account for one-third of the rise in income inequality.

As Hillary Clinton put it, “The American middle class was built, in part, by the right for people to organize and bargain.” And I’d add, the American middle class can be re-built by the right for people to organize and bargain.

Yet there is an all-out war on public sector workers and their unions. A massive vilification campaign is underway, attempting to silence workers and curb or eliminate collective bargaining.

Wisconsin vs. Minnesota. A great example why this strategy doesn’t actually work to improve the economy lies in a tale of two states that share a border but not much else – Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Just before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election bid, he promised Wisconsin families that he wouldn’t attack their unions, like he did during his first term. But then, 48 hours after a Wall Street donor gathering, he changed his mind. His relentless attacks on workers are hurting the state’s economy. And he’s proudly using his anti-union attacks in Wisconsin to set up his potential presidential campaign – even having the audacity to say his dismantling of public sector unions in Wisconsin proves that he could take on al Qaeda.

But next door in Minnesota, it’s a different story. While Walker cut taxes for the wealthy and attacked workers, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton raised taxes on the wealthy and has supported workers. The public square – the public good—is much better represented by Governor Dayton than Governor Walker. The results speak for themselves: Forbes ranks Minnesota as the ninth-best state for business. Wisconsin is ranked 32nd. As for economic climate, Minnesota is ranked 7th; Wisconsin is ranked 27th. And while Scott Walker’s policies have resulted in a $2 billion deficit, Mark Dayton has a $1.2 billion surplus. So governors and state policymakers have a clear choice—they can push ideological policies to break the backs of unions and workers, only to see their deficits grow, workers’ wages sink and their state ranked lower for business and economic climate. Or they can strengthen unions and workers’ rights, invest in public education and infrastructure, and create more good jobs. It’s a clear choice; and it shouldn’t be a hard choice.

Yet the war on public sector workers continues. From Wisconsin and Ohio to Michigan and Indiana, legislation directed against the rights of public sector workers to organize into a union, to bargain collectively, to exercise political voice has been adopted into law. In California and New York, court cases have been launched against teachers’ rights to due process in their workplace. These are attacks on the public square.

Public education. is a particularly powerful example of the problems I’ve been talking about. How do we create the conditions to help all children, not just some, succeed? If this critical issue is not for the public square to decide, what is?

Public education has the potential to be the great equalizer and is one of the few public goods left in the United States. It can help stabilize and bring together communities. And it is one of the best opportunities to promote pluralism and diversity, and limit division and polarization.

Poverty. Here’s the reality: Across the country, half of all public school students are poor. And in urban areas, the number spikes to an average of 64 percent.

Every public square has a school on the corner. But public education must get the attention of the institutions of the public square to deal with poverty and its consequences. Poverty is the key driver in student achievement. Without a vibrant and engaged public square, teachers become the scapegoat when school and student performance struggles.

It all can’t be put on the teachers’ back. We know what economists tell us—teachers play an important role yet they ultimately account for just 10 percent of the variance in student achievement. It’ll take the rest of the public square to focus on the other 90 percent.

Two philosophies. Yet there are two different philosophies for dealing with this.

One says – we must help lift all boats; provide the supports, resources and programs to help mitigate the effects of poverty in schools with high concentrations of poor children, and form a collaborative partnership with teachers, parents, policymakers and community.

The other says - test kids, sanction teachers, and tell families to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Test prep and high-stakes testing have robbed kids of the robust education that they need for democratic citizenship – including non-tested subjects like civics, music and art. And yet the test-and-sanction strategy hasn’t worked. To the believers, it’s someone else’s fault – teachers, unions, parents. Really? How do you blame the first responders for our kids – their teachers? We know this philosophy doesn’t work – just look at the flat student achievement levels over the past decade. Yet these believers persist in pushing vouchers, charters and other types of privatization that have no track record.

And when you pull back the curtain to see who’s pushing this agenda, you’ll find billionaire hedge fund managers, who give massive political contributions, receive tax advantages that exacerbate income inequality, and dictate public education policy to focus on charters and vouchers.

Community schools. What we need to do is invest to give kids with the most needs the most resources. But not a blank check. One solution is community schools. These are public schools that become the center of a community. They give poor children and their families what they need to climb the ladder of opportunity. They provide a strong curriculum, but also become a safe harbor and safety net for families with interventions like healthcare, social services, counseling, tutoring, mentors, after-school programs and other wraparound services to level the playing field.

They’re the brick and mortar of a community—a place that’s open at night and weekends, and they succeed in engaging parents and community groups and raising student achievement. They are places where teachers want to work, parents want to send their children, and kids want to come and learn.

Across the country, we’re seeing the hits and misses of education policy. I might add that these hits and misses aren’t insignificant—they affect the very lives and futures of our children.

Since the 2007 recession, austerity measures have resulted in massive disinvestment in our schools. Thirty states still fund education at pre-recession levels. Even Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen recently remarked, “The United States is one of the few advanced economies in which public education spending is often lower for students in lower-income households than for student in high-income households.”

Underfunded public education has resulted in teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, and a narrowed curriculum with a fixation on what’s being tested instead of what’s good for kids. What’s being tested has become the only thing that counts … and counting in a punitive way for teachers and schools. Music, art and foreign languages have lost out to math and English. Yet music, art and foreign languages can open children’s minds, get them excited about learning and even coming to school.

As a teacher told me last night when I was in New York, music is so important. A concert fills an auditorium, allows people to experience it together, then can prompt an provocative conversation about it later.

I should add that the top-performing countries didn’t let the recession stop their investment in education. And student performance rankings bear out that decision.

Vulnerable communities and their schools have been targeted by corporate interests and anti-public school ideologues. We’ve seen forces intent on closing public schools and turning to charters and private school vouchers. Their objective is as much to dismantle public education than it is to help the few kids they educate. Left by the side of the road is the ideal of public schools as anchors of communities and neighborhoods.

We see this in Newark, New Jersey; Chicago; and New Orleans. Yet no one can honestly hold them up as models of positive change. Detroit tried the close-don’t-fix, privatization strategy. But a recently released report by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren acknowledged the failed strategies of the past and recommended, among other things, the creation of strong neighborhood community schools and state-of-the-art career and technical centers.

As a nation, we must champion fairness, democracy and economic opportunity. We have to chart a course for the future that realizes the American dream—a dream of equal opportunity, of liberty and justice, not just for a privileged few but for all, and a high-quality public education that helps all students, not just some, dream their dreams and achieve them.

Rebalance public square. So what can we do to put the balance back in the public square? Elections matter. We need to work as hard as possible to elect state lawmakers, governors, members of Congress and a President who understand the needs of the many—the 99 percent—not obeys the requests of the wealthy. We could also call for a constitutional amendment for public financing of campaigns to overcome the undue influence of money. True, the obstacles for that are high. We couldn’t even get an equal rights amendment passed. And we need to rebuild the labor movement to make sure workers and the people they serve get a fair shot.

Our nation needs comprehensive educational and industrial policies that are aligned with what families and communities need to thrive. Preparing today’s students with a high-quality, robust K-12 education and higher education, with good jobs waiting for them, is what will move us forward.

But for sure, we have to reclaim the promise of America, where the public square is restored and the issues of economic and educational opportunity are robustly debated and everyone has a fair shot at succeeding and living the American dream.

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