Speech at March for Education — Paul Perry
On Resistance and Progress in our Schools
Saved by the Bell
My story started out in a prison. My mother struggled with drug addiction, lived on welfare, and was pregnant with my while behind bars. I was fortunate enough to be adopted by an incredible gay couple who were wonderful parents. They were both veterans and small business owners in our town.
One of my Dads was dyslexic, and I remember how he used to make me practice my letters over and over again on those yellow sheets of paper with the blue ruled lines. I remember being very frustrated with the incessant practice but it’s what turned me into a writer and an English teacher down the road.
Because of this background, education made all the difference for me. But the road wasn’t always easy. I went to underfunded schools in Norristown, PA that didn’t receive their fair share to support all students. I questioned then-Governor Rendell about funding inequities when he visited our school district in 2003.
Building on my fathers’ legacy of service, I went on to become a teacher in Philadelphia. Since then, I’ve worked as an assistant principals, taught in a prison, launched innovative new public high schools, and led nonprofits focused on serving our most vulnerable youth (incarcerated transition-age young people and youth with LGBTQ parents).
Now I’m running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 7th District because I am tired of being sick and tired. I can no longer endure watching public education be attacked and kids not getting what they need in our schools. I think we need more educators in Congress shaping our national conversation around education policy.
Why Resistance Matters
Resistance is important and critical at a time like this. There are powerful forces aligned to privatize our most hallowed of government institutions: our schools. We still haven’t figured out a way to equitably fund all schools and the problem will only get worse under this administration.
It’s suddenly become en vogue to attack teachers, rather than treating them as the expert they are and giving them the best possible training for one of the hardest jobs in the world. Just when we should be making the profession more selective and rigorous, we’re sliding backwards and failing to develop teaching into a truly 21st century career pathway.
We’re also failing to protect our students in many ways. Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump don’t believe in protecting LGBTQ students and want to water down those protections at the federal level.
When I was teaching, I had a student named Angela who had two lesbian moms. While in my classroom, I kept her safe from any bullying. But Angela had to walk down the halls and eat in the cafeteria too. I wasn’t always there to look out for here and no protections were in place to ensure she was safe in her identity as the child of LGBTQ parents. Learning takes a backseat when youth don’t feel safe. Students like Angela get shifted around from school to school because we’re not looking out from them through our laws and practices in schools.
Even if they make it to college or trade school, we bury students in crushing debt just to afford a higher education that has now become the equivalent of a high school diploma a generation ago. K-16 is the new K-12 and we need to resist a system that allows the government and banks to profit off the backs of our students pursuing higher learning.
But resistance alone is not enough.
Why Progress is Vital
We resist not just for resistance sake, but to secure progress for our collective future. We resist to ensure that gains for our families are even possible.
We shouldn’t be afraid to full-throatedly declare that education is a human right. Period.
We need to come together around a common purpose for education in our country. It’s not the fill the economy with mindless workers. Or to pad the bottom lines of companies with a labor force. We should insist that the purpose of education is to develop well-rounded citizens who are active participants in a democracy. From that flows a great deal of enlightened policy.
We must advance a positive agenda on the other side of our successful resistance efforts. We should support strong bills like the College for All Act which would guarantee free public university to students under a specific income threshold.
We should push for a national living wage for all workers, especially teachers, who we know must be well cared for so that they can take care of our students. We should look into forgiving students loans and offering housing subsidies to teachers as gratitude for their service and further support for their role in our democracy.
We’ll need a national campaign to redesign and revamp our learning environments for our students. We have schools design for turn of the (last) century modes of education that have now become outdated. They presuppose a particular industrial style of education that we must move beyond and quickly. Our learning spaces need to prepare students for the future rather than being anchored in the past as they currently are.
We must offer significant levels of forgiveness on existing student loans — acknowledging the imperfections in our current system that have created a debt crisis for millions of American families. And we must develop tuition-free higher learning solutions in academics and the trades.
How do we pay for this? By deploying a Wall Street speculation tax on bonds, derivatives, and trades. We’ll need to harness the immense wealth created in our financial sector and reinvest that money in our people, where it belongs.
How do we get there
How do we achieve such an ambitious agenda?
By coming together to challenge the people who claim to represent us when they fail to do their jobs. By demanding that corporations and those with significant wealth (earned in part through public benefits like education, healthcare, roads, etc.) contribute their fair share back into the public domain.
We need a new generation of leadership to help get this job done. The same old cast of characters will lead to the same old non-solutions. That’s why I am here to take this fight to the halls of Congress in 2018. Thank you!