The battle to privatize education as part of the neoliberal shock doctrine is in full swing–on one side we have a rank and file movement of public school K-12 educators and parents mobilized by the Chicago teachers’ strike trying to save the teachers unions and neighborhood schools — on the other side we have the “educational reform” agenda using the full power of Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RTTT) policy which uses government funding to force the closure of “nonfunctioning” public schools and replace them with privately run “Charter” Schools .

This article will briefly outline some of the current issues and battles surrounding privatization. Much of the information was taken from Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation, edited by Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp and Grassroots Educational Movement (New York), Chicago; also: gemnyc@gmail.com. Next month we will take up solutions from a Marxist perspective.

Who Are the Culprits? Education is a particularly vulnerable part of the privatization agenda because the mainstream folks that are supposed to be on the “right” side in this struggle (who at least nominally support unions, social security, medicare, etc.) have jumped ship and are actively supporting privatization.

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This certainly includes the Obama/Gates/Duncan triumvirate which has trumpeted the success of its “Race to the Top” (RTTT) policy as educators, individual teachers and students are forced to compete for federal funds by implementing a policy which has resulted in thousands of public schools closures and the implementation of a publicly funded/privately run school model.

Behind the scenes, our most wealthy & influential capitalists such as Bill Gates and the Walton Family are using their combined $30 billion dollars in capital to mold the educational program into a corporate model, with little or no accountability to the general public or the parents.

The media has jumped into the fray with movies which demonize public school teachers (“Waiting for Superman” and “We Won’t Back Down” starring celebrities like Viola Davis). MSNBC recently aired a six hour discussion called Education Nation which put the Educational Reform agenda front and center as the possible answer to all our woes from saving our children to saving our financial system and saving the American Way of Life.

Al Sharpton as a spokesperson for a large section of the black community has travelled the country with Newt Gingrich (!!!) promoting this educational reform agenda.

And it includes many middle class white liberals and “progressives” who are all for a government social agenda — except when it comes to the education of their own children where they tend to run away to the all white schools in the suburbs, homeschooling, alternative schools or private or charter schools.

The Role of Education in a Capitalist Society. The public school agenda to educate our entire populace has been touted as one of the crowning achievements of US democracy. It attracted and still attracts immigrants from all over the world with the promise of free education and upward mobility. While this agenda is one of the real advantages our society has inadvertently offered its citizenry, it was not then nor is it now the real agenda of education. From a Marxist point of view, education, as a part of the economic superstructure, has always been used to benefit the capitalist class and impose the values of capitalist ideology. In the 1800s, when the US capitalists needed more educated labor as we switched from a farming to an industrial economy, capitalists encouraged mass public education to provide the factory owners with the future workers they would need. This educational model was top down, authoritarian, teaching workers external disciplines such as working on a time clock and to accept the information they were being taught without question. The perfect model to get industrial factory workers to obey their bosses.

The decline of the US public schools in the current period began in the 1970s with the globalization of Capitalism and, interacted with the racist legacy of slavery after we failed to fully integrate our society and schools following the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

As globalization has made it increasingly advantageous for capitalists to take their business abroad and outsource their work for cheap labor, the need for workers in this country is becoming more and more obsolete. The capitalist class is no longer willing to support universal public education and has begun a half underground/half overt campaign to end public education as we know it by starving the public schools of funding and resources and shifting its support to a “corporate market model” of education better suited to the “flexible needs of 21st century global capitalism” (per Bill Clinton).

Under the new public/private, for-profit school model, the focus has shifted to a market approach where education is no longer promoted as a public good but an individual choice where educational consumers (children) now become customers of a product (education) at which the corporations can make a profit. While the ideology of the corporate model still mouths the ideology that “No Child Will Be Left Behind,” by presenting students with “a variety of educational choices” in the market, it does not take into account the underlying social inequities of class, race and sex and assumes all students come “equal to the market place.”

The problems of globalization are piled on top of the other major legacy which has created huge inequities and divisions in the working class and, consequently, in public schools — the legacy of racism. For centuries the history of slavery and legal segregation divided the working class. Unions were mainly white (and male), women and people of color could not buy property (houses) in many states, and jobs and schools were restricted or segregated. Efforts of the civil rights movement of the 60′s to integrate white and black US citizens and other minority groups to overcome class, race and cultural differences were only partially successful.

There was a brief period of integration in the 60s and early 70s, when supported by funding from the government’s Great Society poverty programs, the achievement gap between black and white students actually did narrow. However, the backlash toward individualism and a conservative social agenda in the 1980s ended that forward movement in the schools. With white middle class parents fleeing to well-funded all white suburban schools, urban schools have become even more segregated today than they were thirty years ago.

This has given the cities more incentive to cut corners in the urban schools since the populations that are left –lower middle class, the working poor, children of color, disabled students, new immigrants– have very little political power to demand a seat at the table. The teachers’ unions have been one of the few effective voices in getting issues like smaller classes, more innovative programming and enrichment programs addressed.

However, since teachers are mainly white in urban schools where the student populations are predominantly black or Latino, the degree of mistrust of parents of color toward the school system and the degree of mistrust of teachers toward their students often remains very high. While there are many exceptions, since most teachers do not live in the area or send their children to the schools they teach in, there is often a failure on the part of teachers to understand and respect the differences in culture, knowledge and experience of the communities that their students come from.

One of the most egregious examples of racial conflict in the school system was the 1970s strike in New York City where predominantly white unionized teachers failed to support the black community in the Ocean Hills-Brownsville area who were demanding parental control of schools.

The new grassroots movement in Chicago and elsewhere, has overcome some of these problems since there is black leadership in their union movement. In one of the most radical moves which Rob Emmanuel and Duncan (Obama’s education gurus) are fighting tooth and nail is the establishment of local school councils in the Chicago schools which have a high percentage of low income parents and women of color in elected leadership positions.

The Role of Charter Schools.

Charter Schools were originally marketed as a limited alternative to traditional schools where outside groups – nonprofits, private corporations, universities, interested community groups — would “partner” with a public school. The public schools would provide the funding and the outside group would govern the school. It was felt the outside group, often a private for-profit business, would bring “creativity,” “choice”, money and resources, to experiment with new models that were freed from the bureaucratic control of the government. Moreover, it was supposed to be geared to helping disadvantaged students enter the mainstream.

From the 1990s to 2010 the number of Charter Schools grew from a handful of schools to some 4,600 enrolling 1.4 million children nationwide, about a quarter of which are run by private for-profit Companies. Although this increase was due in part to parents frustrations with dysfunctional public schools, it was primarily do to Obama’s major educational policy, “Race to the Top” which requires schools around the country to compete for educational funding which they can only get by increasing the number of Charter Schools and closing “nonfunctioning” public schools.

In the beginning, some well meaning liberals (including the United Federation of Teachers in New York City) supported this idea. In reality, the movement allowed private organizations and for-profit businesses to use public space and tax payer funds, free of charge & with little accountability for the day to day administration of the schools and control of the schools’ message. The only measure of success has been the improvement of students’ standardized test scores. Instead of freeing schools from government bureaucracy, the private sector (particularly private enterprises) have taken on an increasingly close partnership with the government to promote the neoliberal agenda and further their own corporate interests.

The neoliberal agenda in the educational reform movement can be seen in five specific features:

1) The use of austerity measures imposed after the 2008 financial meltdown to make working people pay for the economic crisis. In education over 350,000 teachers have been laid off, thousands of schools have been closed. The included the intentional effort to break the teacher’s union and establish non-union schools to cut labor costs.

2) The increased stratification of the educational population, separating out a minority of elite youth being prepared for the white collar knowledge economy in a few, select, Charter Schools, while investing as little as possible in the education of everyone else. Indeed, the name of Obama’s policy, “Race to the Top” expresses this idea quite clearly. This agenda is often clothed in the talk of “School Choice” which sounds like a very liberating option to many of us, but has consistently ended up in increased stratification where we cannot be sure that our children will not end up on the bottom.

3) Increased social control and an ideological shift from education as a social institution for the public good to a model of Ayn Rand “individualism.” The ideological emphasis on education as the means to survival in the “new economy” increases the competitiveness not only among educational institutions, but among teachers (who are now evaluated individually on the test performance of their students), and the students themselves.

The current trend is to shift the dialogue from equity and a basic education for all citizens to one of education as each person’s individual responsibility. Put into a corporate business model, the student becomes the consumer of the product, a product which they must acquire if they are to succeed in 21st century capitalism. The degree to which we succeed or fail, however does not take into account the larger society questions of poverty, sexism and racism as factors in educational outcomes, but simple talks about the “achievement gap” in certain populations and how we can make it up “individually.”

4) The privatization of the remaining public assets of this country. This is clearly advocated in the Race to the Top (RTTT) policy which will not award any money to a school district unless it increases its number of charter schools. Textbooks and testing companies and other subsidiary forces have also profited from privatization.

5) Following a corporate model, the neoliberal model promotes the centralization of power to one centralized body or one person such as a mayor or a state appointed overseer). In the educational system this means eliminating local, democratic parental/classroom teacher control. As Bill Gates notes “The cities where our foundation has put the most money is where there is a single person responsible.”

The Success (or Lack Thereof) of the Privatization/Charter School Movement.

While the financial incentives of the RTTT program have had a lot to do with the explosion of Charter Schools, the already decimated and many dysfunctional traditional public schools, especially in the inner cities where the poorer and more disadvantaged population have essentially been left to fend for themselves, added another incentive.

Most parents were looking for a “good educational experience” for their children. Many parents in the black community were looking to form schools that would safeguard their children against the racism in the traditional public schools. Any many of the white middle class parents were looking to find schools where they would be assured that their children would be in classrooms where they would not feel “different” (read what you want). In both cases, parents were seeking to protect their children by opting out of the community, leaving others behind.

Unlike traditional public schools which have a commitment to provide a basic education to all students, most Charter Schools, in an effort to raise the standardized test scores (the main criteria used to evaluate their success and subsequent funding ) have managed to avoid populations who do not test well by writing their Charters to exclude these populations. Students with limited English won’t be able to attend a school that does not provide bilingual or ESL classes; students with disabilities will be excluded if there are no special education programs. The students with the least support from home will be excluded if the charter is written to require parental involvement and the child’s parents work two jobs and can’t participate.

When these measures fail (i.e., a percentage of the students are selected by lottery), the Charters have developed a strategy of “attrition” where they “counsel out” students who seem “inappropriate” for the school. As one student who was “counseled out” put it, using the new corporate language of the Charter Schools, “I got fired.”

The two for-profit Charter School networks who received the highest rates of excellence this year, KIPP and Democracy Prep, have a reputation for very high attrition rates. These schools received ratings between 89-95% and will receive 9 billion dollars that would have gone to traditional public schools. Moreover, there are, apparently, still 5% of public schools that rated higher –but that are not eligible for any of this money since RTTT requires that you only get the money by increasing the number of Charter Schools.

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Even given the “policy” advantages. increased resources and populations which have selected out the potentially most “successful” students, the overall record of Charter Schools, has not lived up to its promotion.

A national 2003 study by the Dept of Education under George Bush showed that, using the limited criteria of standardized test scores, the Charter Schools, did no better on average than public schools. The study was suppressed because it did reach the desired conclusions. A 2009 study by Stanford economists which included 70% of all Charter School students, found an astonishing 83% of the Charter Schools are no better and often worse than other Public Schools serving similar populations. Indeed, bad Charter Schools outnumbered good Charter Schools by a ratio of two to one.

The reasons for the low performance of Charter Schools are multiple, but one significant finding shows that for-profit schools tend to increase the ratio of students to teachers in an effort to increase profit (since schools are paid by the state on a per pupil basis). In Ohio, where half the charters are for profit, educational results lag significantly behind mainstream public schools (8% excellence to 63%, respectively). Since the implicit goal of the Charter School movement is to remain non-union to keep costs down, Charters generally have less experienced lower paid teachers with a significantly higher rate of turnover, again lowering the educational outcome.

Another outcome is the greater racial segregation of students in the Charter movement than in public schools, even though public school segregation has also been increasing. Studies attribute this to the “Choice” model. Wherever school choice, is included, there is greater stratification and racial segregation.

But the real tragedy of the charter school movement is that it is intended to serve only a small percentage of students, draining and debilitating the general public school population both financially and in terms of high achieving students.

Moreover, the closing of public schools has caused great hardship for students who must relocate when their schools close– especially if they have to take two buses and a train to school each day, adding an hour each way to their school day. If both parents work, this sometimes provides extra stress in how to get your children to school when the parents can’t take them. Often older siblings are late to their own classes because they have to drop off younger brothers and sisters before they can go to their school.

Since Charter Schools often co-locate in public school space, that space is no longer available to the general student population. In one school in Brooklyn, a for- profit Charter School owned by a hedge fund billionaire pushed the students who had previously been in that space into classrooms in the basement, next to the boiler room. The billionaire, who planned to make a profit off the school, did not pay one cent to rent the space in the public school that had been paid for by taxpayer money.

As Jitu Brown explained in “Rethinking Schools,”for affected communities, [the charter school movement] has been traumatic, largely ineffective, and destabilizing to communities owed a significant educational debt due to decades of being under-served.

How Can We Get Educational Equity in a Capitalist system?

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Capitalists will tell you that you can get equal opportunity and upward mobility (which reflects the “Race to the Top” model) but it implicitly only works for a few. Besides, the US now offers less upward mobility than any other industrialized country. So you can take your chances on escaping the worst excesses of capitalism for your child — but it is a risk.

Marxists will tell you, you can’t. That the educational system is only a reflection of the larger economic relations and there will be no meaningful reform of education without connecting this struggle to the larger movements for social justice in society (how you bring the classroom struggles to the social movements and how to bring the movement into the classroom. This follows a “we’re all in the same boat” philosophy and also has its risks, but at least you’ve got a lot more progressive friends in the boat with you. So, what are our real options for our children and our society? Stay tuned to next month’s article on some revolutionary ideas for real educational change.