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Should Kids Protest? The Case of New York City's Budget Cuts

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No one expected that Graeme Frost, a 12-year old who suffered brain stem injuries in a car accident, would become a political target after he delivered a late September radio address in support of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Commentators demurred that if a political party "send[s] a boy to do a man’s job, then the boy is fair game." The episode raised difficult questions over the role of children in political debate. Are they mini-protesters, learning the ropes of democracy, or simply political pawns?

New York City is likely to encounter these thorny questions this week, as multiple flights of public schoolchildren are slated to protest at Tweed Courthouse under the auspices of the Kids Protest Project. Truth be told, my own view on kids' budget protests is strongly shaped by my own participation in such protests as a kid. When we were in elementary school, we wrote letters. When we were a little older, a few of us piped up at budget hearings. And when we were in high school, we organized a hundred teenagers to fill rooms at Board meetings, and scared the bejesus out of the Board in the process.

We didn't understand the larger issues, but we were advocating for our short-term interests. Wouldn't each of us be marginally better off if our school had more dough? All of these experiences were formative in my attitudes towards political engagement, and I look back on them fondly - which is all a long way of acknowledging that I'm the wrong person to offer nuanced analysis on kids protesting budget cuts.

So I'll leave it to you to tease this one out - isn't this just like the Regents using a one-sided prompt on Teach for America? Or is it different because students' short-term interests are served by garnering more funds? You can read letters to Chancellor Klein from kids at PS 87 below.

Dear Chancellor Klein,

My name is Danny, and I am a student at P.S. 87. My brother is coming into this school next year. It will be my 5th year next year in this school.

The purpose of this letter is to stop you from taking money from the schools. Would you like it if you were in third grade and the chancellor was going to take money from your school? I hope this letter will change your mind.

Sincerely,
Danny

***

Dear Chancellor Klein,

Hello. My name is James. I go to P.S. 87. I just heard that you're cutting the school's budget. I don't want to be mean, but next year I'm going to be in the 4th grade, and I want it to be even better than last year, but it won't be if you lower my and other schools' budgets. There won't be enough money for books (and I'm crazy over books) and chairs for sitting on, and pencils to last us through September to June, and a lot more reasons that I don't want to talk about! So, please, stop cutting my and other schools' budgets, so that I will have a wonderful 4th grade.

Sincerely,
James

***

Dear Chancellor Klein,

Hi, my name is Nicole. I'm a student in P.S. 87. It is a public school. Please do not cut anyone from the school, and please don't take money from the school.

Love,
Nicole
6 Comments

In my opinion, using kids in campaigns is ethically wrong even if it is for a "just" cause. The end does not justify the means as long as the students are not 18 yet. It is as wrong as TFA plug, Miss Piggy's chocolates or Snapple.

For "GP" to compare kids' protesting school cuts with corporations' profiting at the detriment of our children's health, with the full endorsement of our government, is a specious argument at best. The kids are well-informed and empowered by their actions. Their actions help them belong to the community, to the city. They share the responsibility for their own educational needs. Some of my most cherished school memories are standing up to school administrators who refused to let us go protest the war in Vietnam. Our brave stance swayed their thinking and they ended up joining us on protests.

I have mixed feeling on this. A lot depends on how much is initiated or volunteered for by kids. Certainly by high school students are not just pawns. Their views may not be highly nuanced, but realistically, politicians don't give them all that much weight, either.

Younger than that, I'd leave it as something between parent and child. I don't think schools should ask kids to write letters -- but if parents are writing letters, and want to encourage their children to write as well, I don't see a problem.

What I'm uncomfortable with is adults putting words in kids' mouths -- three year olds at rallies with slogans on their T-shirts seem wrong to me.

Use this as a thought experiment - are you comfortable when you see kids holding signs protesting anything gay or holding up anti-abortion signs? Would you be comfortable with a teacher taking her students to such a protest?

Rachel and GP are right about the problem with "using kids." If the kids are in fact well-informed as Richard says, and they decided to orchestrate this campaign on their own, then bless them, and let them have a go at elected office when they're of age. But trotting out children en masse, as the website EW posted encourages, seems fairly odious. Simply because we agree that the cause is a good thing doesn't mean that it's okay for people to stick a sign in a child's hand.


I like the criterion that Rachel proposes - great above a certain age, and below a certain age, perhaps it's best left to parents to decide if they want their children involved.

As a parent who spent Tuesday morning with her daughter and other school families on the steps of Tweed, protesting budget cuts, I might not be very impartial about this subject.

I believe activism is a life skill that it is beneficial for children to learn and it is something can best be learned by doing it.

My children need to know that they have a voice. That they don't have to be apathetic or accepting when they are being treated poorly. That they can stand up and say, "No! This is wrong."

I teach them that they have the right to say this whether it's another kid who is bullying them, if they should encounter an adult who means them harm, or even if I am doing something they disagree with.

If I teach them this lesson in other aspects of their life, why wouldn't I expect them to absorb and act upon these values when faced with a government that is inclined to disregard their educational needs.

Do we really think that children don't know and don't care about budget cuts? They know and they care a lot. And they should learn that they can go and say something about it. Whether it's writing letters or standing on the steps in front of Tweed - my children deserve to voice their displeasure at the disservice that's being done to them by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein.

It's interesting to me that people think that there's a certain age at which it becomes OK as though children under 14 don't have enough presence of mind to know when they're not being treated right.

I don't know one single person who likes to quietly accept injustice, but too many people, out of insecurity or apathy or fear do just that. I don't want my children to feel apathetic, insecure or fearful when it comes to speaking out.

I certainly can't see how it's using kids to allow them to protest and speak out. If anything it's empowering them.

Comments are now closed for this post.

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Recent Comments

  • Julie: As a parent who spent Tuesday morning with her daughter read more
  • eduwonkette: I like the criterion that Rachel proposes - great above read more
  • morgan: Use this as a thought experiment - are you comfortable read more
  • Rachel: I have mixed feeling on this. A lot depends on read more
  • Richard Kaplan: For "GP" to compare kids' protesting school cuts with corporations' read more

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