Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
Written by an anonymous Oakland substitute teacher
Oakland, California has always been a hotbed for radicalism. On the morning of October 25th 2011, the Oakland Police along with numerous other police agencies “broke-up” the first Occupy Oakland encampment. Later that night an ex-marine almost lost his life after being struck in the head by a “non-lethal” projectile fired by the police into a crowd of peaceful protesters. The following night, October 26, saw a crowd of near 3,000 retake Oscar Grant Plaza (formerly Frank Ogawa Plaza) and vote for a November 2nd General Strike in response to the outrageous police violence from the previous day. Also that night, not too far from where the historic Occupy vote took place, another vote decided the fate of five public elementary schools in Oakland. The Oakland School Board decided to close these schools saving a mere two million dollars. At that same meeting there were several charter representatives applying for charter school renewals. The growing divide between public schools and charter schools was on full display during that contentious meeting.
As a teacher who has taught for both types of schools, I am not inspired by either model. However, where I have criticisms of the public school system, I am completely against the corporate charter model. Specifically – the nationwide ‘Knowledge is Power Program’ Charter Schools (aka KIPP) and California-based Aspire “Public” Charter Schools, who both list the following as “partners/investors” on their respective websites: The Walton Foundation (Walmart), The Broad Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft), The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Goldman Sachs Foundation, The Prudential Foundation, The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund (Gap/Banana Republic/Old Navy) and the Wells Fargo Foundation. It is to these two charter school organizations that I chose to direct my attention. The ruling-class – banks and corporations – that are directly responsible for creating the current conditions in urban public schools, are now investing billions in these poor working-class communities. They maintain a facade of “concern” about the state of public education, all the while viewing these schools and students as material for making profits. Through the lens of personal experience I will shed light on the questions of how and why these corporations are choosing to invest in the education of the working class.
Divide and Conquer
The ruling-class has always been very successful at producing and reproducing the divisions necessary for capitalism to exist. Although public education has the potential to produce a unified working-class, it has always been ran in the interests of the wealthy. The wealthy depend on class divisions to produce their billions in profit from the exploitation of a divided working-class. As these class divisions, as well as race, gender and other social divisions, serve as the foundation of capitalism. Public and private schools have always produced and reproduced these divisions, and charter schools are no different, especially the KIPP and Aspire models.
It is important to point out that not all charter schools are tied to ruling-class foundations. There are some that attempt to utilize a critical pedagogy in the interests of “progress,” “social justice” or some other loosely defined ideal. Unfortunately, these schools are mostly isolated and often have a hard time maintaining enough public and financial support to stay open.
In conclusion, these ruling class banks and corporations are now directly investing in poor working-class education because they want to play a more direct role in producing and reproducing the inequitable conditions that allow them to enjoy record profits. They are comfortable at the top and now have the legal structures (i.e. tax loopholes) that allow them to stay at the top. As a teacher with experience working for KIPP, and to a lesser extent Aspire, I want to give readers a sense of why I came to this conclusion. But before I go into these lived experiences I want to explain how these corporations, through philanthropic foundations, are able to open and run charter schools in these communities.
With foundations like these…
The current tax system allows for corporations to avoid being taxed on their profits by setting up foundations for charitable purposes. For instance, Walmart is allowed to put a certain percentage of their profits into The Walton Family Foundation to avoid being taxed on these profits at the government’s current rates. These millions to billions of dollars that would otherwise go towards state tax revenues for necessary social services are now put in foundations who are only mandated to give six percent of those profits annually to charity. These foundations both allow for corporations to maintain their positions atop the ruling class and manipulate education to serve their interests.[i]
The Knowledge is Profit Program – aka KIPP Schools
KIPP is a huge chain of 109 charters enrolling 32,000 students in all grade levels, with a majority of middle schools. They serve 95% African American and Latino students, 80% of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch.[ii] I worked at the KIPP charter school in West Oakland for one year. In that short time I knew this was not the type of school I wanted to work for, that this was not the model that would lead to any kind of wide-scale “educational progress” for working class Black and Latino students.
The KIPP behavioral model insures that the students will know one thing before they leave, conformity. The typical KIPP school day is based largely on how well students are able to stand in a straight line and “assign themselves” while in line. “Assign Yourself” is the language a KIPP teacher is required to use to let a child know that they must also be reading or working on homework while in line. Each class must assemble outside the classroom in this fashion before a lesson can begin. On average a KIPP student is denied at least 15 to 20 minutes of learning per day as they wait for fellow “KIPPSTERS” to assemble in a straight, silent and active line. Of course this is my personal experience and may not be reflective of all 109 KIPP schools. Yet, I do feel that the KIPP behavior management model is designed to produce uncritical conformist students who are “prepared for college.” If these students never make it to college then they are readily prepared for a future of conformity in the service, military, or prison industry which are always in need of workers, soldiers or prisoners, disproportionately made up of working class people of color.
Seeds of Elitism
I want to highlight a situation I experienced during my year at KIPP. The school shares their campus with West Oakland Middle School, a traditional public school. This situation, where different schools share the same campus, is quite common in today’s educational landscape, a landscape that has seen the rapid rise of charter schools. Anyone visiting the campus would notice the difference in student behavior in the hallways of the two different schools. What that visitor would not notice is the way KIPP teachers and administrators use the less disciplined behavior of the West Oakland Middle School students to instill a sense of elitism in the “KIPPSTERS.” I constantly heard the KIPP staff tell the students how they are better than “those kids.” Many of these students are from the same neighborhood. However, during the school day, KIPP students would be told that they are not like “those kids” and any unruly behaviors by “KIPPSTERS” would be equated with the behaviors of the West Oakland Middle School students. Then, after school, the students of both schools would walk home together and play at the same parks. This imagined elitism being sold to charter school students is another example of the many divisions produced and reproduced daily in the capitalist education system.
Aspire Public Schools is another California based charter chain that, like KIPP, serves primarily impoverished black and brown youth and follows their self-prescribed “College for Certain” model.[iii] At Aspire as well as many other charters, “open” admissions is a lottery process that the school claims is “random drawing” while, at the same time, stipulating priority to “founding families” and residents of the district. My brief experience with Aspire Schools came in the form of an interview for a teaching position at an Aspire school in East Oakland. During my interview, I asked the Assistant Principal about the demographics of the school. He informed me that the majority of the students were from Latino families. The neighborhood surrounding the school is split between African American and Latino families. I asked him if the school demographics have created any tension within the community. His answer was, of course, “yes.” He went on to describe the piece of land that was being coveted by the charter school for use but belonged to the African American Christian Church next door. The church was concerned that this school serves almost exclusively Latino students in a racially diverse neighborhood. I don’t know the outcome of the conflict but it leads me to wonder, how is it that this alleged “public random drawing” continually favors one ethnic group over the other in an ethnically diverse area? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I’ll assume it has something to do with test scores. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that this “lottery” system results in tension between African American and Latino families in the surrounding neighborhood.
The experiences I have had working at KIPP and interviewing at the Aspire School leads me to believe that charters are doing a great job of producing and reproducing the divisions necessary for capitalism to survive, whether it is African American and Latino families struggling for scraps from the table of big banks and corporations or KIPP middle school students being misguided to believe in their superiority over traditional public school students. These are only two of the many divisions being produced by the wave of charter schools that bring a divide and conquer tactic to education as well. This corporate colonialism looks like primarily white ruling-class foundations backed by big business operating in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Of course there are many families who swear by the KIPP and Aspire Charter Schools. I have heard many parents refer to KIPP and Aspire Schools as a blessing. This is why we must provide these critical perspectives to all working class parents whose students go to public, private or charter schools. The more students, parents, and teachers know about the ways in which the ruling-class divides us, the better chance we have of forming a unified movement to confront these divisions.
[i] The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, ed. Incite! Women of Color Collective, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007