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Jitu Brown, a community organizer who last year helped lead a 34-day hunger strike to reopen Chicago's closed Dyett High School, on Thursday urged a Little Rock crowd to fight against what he sees is a national movement to privatize public schools.

The hunger strike by 15 people last August drew national attention and resulted in the Chicago Public School System reopening the neighborhood school that had been closed after the 2014-15 school year because of low student performance and declining enrollment.

"There needs to be an education revolution in this country," Brown said. "Brothers and sisters, it is our responsibility to say what we want to see in our schools and demand -- not ask -- demand that we get nothing less for our children.

"So you think, 'Would I ever do a hunger strike?' but if you want to change the game you have to indicate to folks in positions of power that if they don't treat our children like the beautiful human beings that they are, then, excuse my language, there will be hell to pay," he said. The successful campaign for the high school brought Chicago's mayor "to his knees" and "we made him a mayor in exile," he said. "The people did that."

Brown, the national director of the Justice for Journey Alliance that works with parents to defend community schools, spoke to a diverse audience of about 200 at a "Teach-In Town Hall" at St. Mark Baptist Church regarding the future of the Little Rock School District.

The event was coordinated by organizations that have come together under the label #StandUp4LR. The coalition formed after state Education Commissioner Johnny Key announced that he will replace district Superintendent Baker Kurrus effective June 30.

The Arkansas Board of Education voted in January 2015 to take control of the Little Rock School District after six of the district's 48 schools were labeled by the state as academically distressed. Fewer than half of students at those schools scored at proficient or better on state tests over a three-year period.

At the same time that state education leaders are overseeing the district, they have allowed independently operated public charter schools to open or expand in Pulaski County. And legislation was introduced in early 2015 that, had it passed, would have allowed state leaders to turn academically distressed schools and districts over to charter management organizations -- including for-profit organizations -- on a seemingly permanent basis.

Brown on Thursday criticized the use of standardized test scores as a sole measure of students and schools. He said the nation knows how to operate good schools -- as evidenced by schools in low-poverty communities -- but doesn't have the political will to do it for all students.

Large budgets for public school districts -- as much as $5 billion in Chicago and $300 million in Little Rock -- are a nest egg, a kitty, to those who are driven by profits, he said.

Brown warned, "No one is your friend who demands silence or your right to vote. To remove your voting rights ... it's all about greasing the rails for privatization."

He cited the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation of Los Angeles, the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville and the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative state lawmakers and others, as some of proponents of the movement to privatize school operations.

Audience members Thursday included state Sens. Linda Chesterfield and Joyce Elliott, both of Little Rock; displaced Little Rock School Board members Greg Adams and Joy Springer; Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola; various community activists; and past and present district employees.

Marion Humphrey Jr., an organizational specialist for the National Education Association, called on the audience to expect additional public forums and to use the coming summer to build a movement against privatizing public education.

Metro on 05/06/2016

Print Headline: Speaker advises fight for schools

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