The president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Randi Weingarten, was arrested on Thursday night in Philadelphia while protesting the closing of 23 local schools.
“This was really a plan to eliminate public education,” Weingarten told The Huffington Post after being released Thursday. “This is not about how to fix public schools, but to close them — not how to stabilize but to destabilize public schooling.”
Video released by AFT on Friday showed Weingarten and members of a group of 18 protesters locking arms and blocking access to a meeting of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC), the five-member board in charge of the city’s public school system. All 19 demonstrators were arrested and released Thursday night.
KYW-TV reported that the commission voted to shutter 12 elementary schools, 8 high schools and 3 middle schools after the 2012-13 school year. Four other schools under consideration for closing were spared.
“This was a difficult vote, but it focused on our goal to provide safe, high-quality seats while being fiscally responsible,” commission chairperson Pedro Ramos said in a statement. “By not taking action now, we would continue the deterioration of our public schools to the point where they become obsolete to the children that we have sworn to serve.”
But critics, including Weingarten’s group, have argued that closings rarely lead to improved performance either fiscally or educationally; the Post cited a study (PDF) by the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago showing that only 6 percent of students forced to switch schools after closing performed better in their new settings.
Community members also told the Associated Press that many students could be placed in danger by having to walk through unsafe areas to get to their new schools. One parent, Antione Little, said during the meeting that his daughter’s walking route to her new school would take her past abandoned buildings and areas known for drug trafficking.
“Imagine doing this every day with no police escort,” he told the commissioner.
Union members also decried the closings at a protest Thursday afternoon before the meeting.
“Public salvation has been the salvation of this country, and it is at risk in Philadelphia because of your governor and because of this SRC,” Weingarten told demonstrators.
Watch footage of the protest, and of Weingarten’s arrest, in this video released by AFT on Friday.