Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
Written by an anonymous Oakland after school teacher
Public education is full of buzzwords these days: reform, competition, accountability, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top (RTTT), charter schools, choice, autonomy, mutual matching, and the list goes on. So many buzzwords can be overwhelming and confusing. Suddenly, education seems like either a crazy science experiment or like its finally getting the change it needs. So how do we understand all of this? By taking a step back and starting at the beginning. To clarify the picture, let’s look into why these experiments are happening, who is behind them, and where they might take us. Unfortunately, the answers are not positive.
To explain the genesis of these changes is very complicated but the most significant reason is also fairly straightforward: capitalism needs to make profits, and corporations and politicians must ensure the conditions under which it can continue to make profits. This iron law has a few effects. The first is in the job market.
Public schools play a hugely important role in our society training the next generation of workers. For the past few decades, though, American corporations have been trying to change how we, the workers, fit into global capitalism. To compete with lower wages—meaning higher profits for employers—in other countries, corporations have been doing their best to slash our paychecks. One of the best ways to do this is by cutting the first job training program every worker goes through: school. When our education is cheapened or outright destroyed, our wages go down. More high school dropouts mean more cheap workers. Thus, the increasing inequality within our schools and communities is not a sad by-product, but actually one of the intents of corporate “reform” of public education. This is also why the 1% has been attacking other wage-cushions for years, like, Section 8, food stamps, and unions. Their most recent excuse—they change all the time—is that we need to “live within our means.” Of course, this really only applies to us, while they greedily grab trillions of dollars in bailouts and tax cuts.
Another result of capitalism’s effects on education can be answered by revealing who is behind this “reform” agenda. Overwhelmingly this is the rich and powerful—not our neighbors starting charter schools out of desperation for quality community schools. Nationwide these wealthy “saviors” have funneled millions of dollars to rewrite national legislation (such as NCLB and RTTT), create local front groups, and develop powerful networks of politicians, administrators, and businessmen. For example, Eli Broad, a billionaire LA real estate developer, runs a school for administrators in LA that trained all 3 OUSD state administrators during the state takeover from 2003 to 2009, as well as numerous current OUSD executives. He actually pays parts of their salaries to entice OUSD to hire them. He has similar allies implanted across the country. Our obscenely rich “saviors,” however, are not so angelic, of course, and there are strings attached to their “gifts.”
For one, many expect to directly profit off of their investments as for-profit charter schools and outsourced education services become huge-money makers. Second, beyond for-profit ventures, these billionaire “saviors” have magnified their influence and dollars to force corporate-oriented values and practices into all of public education. Nationwide, the norm is becoming corporate models of test-based accountability, pay-for-performance, “efficient” classrooms, and business-style management. The problem, of course, is that schools should not be run like businesses. The education of human beings is necessarily a complicated process that cannot be done with assembly-line efficiency nor measured and planned simply through tests and data crunching. It takes stable teams of well-trained teachers supported by equally strong and stable communities.
Perhaps the largest flaw of all with the corporate de-form agenda is what it ignores or, worse, what it hides. About 2/3rd of what determines success in-school is actually out-of-school factors, such as socio-economic status, family life, health care, and access to healthy and sufficient food just to name a few[i]. All of these have worsened with the recent crisis, but do any of them figure in the plans of “reform?” Of course not! In fact, our “saviors” are actually unable to do anything about them because they caused many of these problems in the first place. They cut their own taxes while defunding our schools and services. They laid off millions of workers while giving themselves bonuses. They took trillions in bailouts and then asked us to foot the bill. One of the biggest tricks of the “reform” agenda is that it attempts to erase this history of corporate-driven inequality and the overriding impacts of this inequality on schooling.
Recognizing this we must realize that this is not simply a fight between different, equally well-intentioned reform agendas to improve public schools. The corporate reformers are, in reality, fighting for their particular, corporatized vision of public schools that maintains profitability for their fellow capitalists. They do not want quality public schools accessible to all students, regardless of their privilege or abilities. If that was the case, proven reforms already exist, such as smaller class sizes, experienced teachers, and more community social services. But these cost money, something the 1% has too much of and, yet, to them, never enough. Meanwhile, the corporate reformers’ plans have been studied and proven—to be ineffective! Charter schools, on the whole, underperform public schools[ii]. Experienced teachers outperform and outlast crash course Teach for America teachers[iii]. Test-based standards lead to ineffective test-based curricula[iv].
What should become clearer as we step back is that the corporate reform agenda does not reform public education at all. It is leading it to its destruction. At this moment we face the same corporate agenda that has swept through welfare, labor protections, and environmental rights. In all of these cases, corporate reformers, working with both political parties, sought to destroy public services and regulation in order to support corporate profits. For public education it is the same sorry story, reform is the excuse, destruction is the goal. This leaves us with one simple response: fight like hell. We must demand our own reforms on March 1st and beyond. We must demand that the banks bailout the district’s debt. We must demand that teachers’ rights be respected. We must demand that every student has a quality public school. We must demand public education for the 99%, funded by the 1%!
[i] Gerson, J. (2012). “The Neoliberal Agenda and the Response of Teacher’s Unions.” The Assault on Public Education. Ed. William H. Watkins.
[ii] Bracey, G. (2004). Setting the Record Straight (2nd Ed.).
[iii] Gerson, J. (2012)
[iv] Kohn, A. (2012). “Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow.” The Assault on Public Education. Ed. William H. Watkins.