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Introduction: Autonomous political organizations and educational politics

Of recent I’ve put forth a number of diaries discussing the need for autonomous political organizations. An autonomous political organization would be able to be able to create a class coalition, to unite the poor to demand a fair share of the economic pie. An autonomous political organization would not care much about whether President Obama were an accomplished leader or a corporate shill, preferring instead to make up its own mind about policy regardless of what Obama thinks about any particular issue. An autonomous political organization, then, would be independent of the "Veal Pen" by which political organizations are constrained to avoid controversy.

Here I’m going to recommend that, if we are to have an autonomous political organization, it would best be advised to take a position on educational politics, in opposition to the corporate use of the public schools as a cash cow.

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Body: Education Politics and its Drab History in the Zeros

Generally speaking, educational politics has had a drab history over the past decade. Other than the No Child Left Behind Act, it hasn’t been eventful, and I don’t know of any progressive organizations which have taken it up in that timespan. There don’t appear to be many activists for progressive change in the public schools, either, at least not relative to the energy which has been focused on health care. Oh, sure, there are a few independent activists who have focused upon educational politics and have actually posted in the blogosphere, such as Susan Ohanian or Henry Giroux or the late Gerald Bracey. There are also a number of educational activists on DailyKos.com who post now and then: SDorn, for instance, or teacherken or Horse Philosopher. But there doesn’t appear to be a lot of coordinated progressive activism in educational politics these days. Perhaps that could change with the start of a new decade.

The last time I heard of any public education politics that was "happening," any public activism or anything really open for debate as regards our government’s conduct of our schools, was with Proposition 227 here in California. This initiative was promoted by millionaire Ron Unz and the "English Only" forces in the state. The so-called "progressives" waged a "battle" against Proposition 227 which consisted in trusting a statewide organization to do all of their work, and the statewide organization tried to defeat Proposition 227 without mentioning (never mind defending) bilingual education itself. Needless to say, this strategy didn’t work. Proposition 227 won.

What did this mean for California schools? Per the requirements of the ESEA and as modified by the Bilingual Education Act and various Supreme Court cases, California students were (before 1998) given a regime of "subtractive" bilingual education. Within this framework, education in the students’ native language, which in my neighborhood meant Spanish, was treated as a sort of remedial education to deal with a "learning deficit," the inability to speak, read, and write in English. (This, after all, is how the courts deal with bilingual education.) The biggest problem, then, with this version of bilingual education, was that it did not sufficiently value the ability to speak, read, and write in Spanish as a positive asset. These classrooms, then, segregated the Spanish-speakers from the population of students as a whole.

However, the state of California, before 1998, could not marshal the resources to sufficiently deal with its own bilingual education mandate. Before the passage of Proposition 227, it was estimated (I’m still trying to remember by whom) that maybe 30% of the "bilingual" Spanish/ English classrooms in the state of California actually had a teacher who spoke Spanish. For the most part, then, the classrooms used teachers who did not speak English, accompanied by instructional aides who spoke Spanish. After the passage of Proposition 227 the percentage of "bilingual" classrooms dropped to about 10%, so it can be said that Proposition 227 relieved the pressure on the state of California to produce bilingual teachers, at the cost of ditching 90% of its bilingual programs. Bilingual education (generally a source of trouble these days) in California was thus made to conform to Ron Unz’s notion that everyone in the public schools could learn (academic) English in a year if the curriculum were larded down with second-language content.

Proposition 227 thus fit firmly into a tradition which could be called "meat cleaver reform." With meat cleaver reform, the legislators putting out the reform (or who have been mandated to put it out) threaten to smash the schools into little pieces unless every student is educated to become a genius. The end result of meat cleaver reform, typically, is that the test scores come back, the students do not prove to be geniuses, and the schools are further blamed for not having created legions of geniuses. Was that what the schools were supposed to do?

The most prominent example of meat cleaver reform in America today is the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB. NCLB, an initiative of the Bush administration, imposed a high-stakes testing regime upon classrooms throughout the US. In this regime, all schools must worship at the altar of "Adequate Yearly Progress," or AYP, which (typically) means an increasing conformism imposed upon each teacher’s yearly curriculum to reflect the need to increase test scores. As NCLB’s critics show, the law requires of each school an increasingly onerous set of improvements in order to avoid being put in the "failing schools" category; the eventual result of increasing requirements in AYP will be to make the teaching profession into a great game of Musical Chairs, with increasing numbers of seats being removed as the game drags on. As FairTest points out:

The reality is that without adequate resources in schools and communities, children will continue to be left behind, as the Children’s Defense Fund points out. Turning schools into test prep programs leaves more children behind. By 2014, most schools will fail, because every year the bar goes up. While strong and consistent progress is possible, the goal of uniform proficiency by 2014 was never achievable, which the law’s architects knew. The impossible goal has served primarily as a club for beating up the nation’s under-resourced public schools.

As teachers are in real life different people with different talents, squashing these talents in order to make them all uniformly proficient at test preparation is not likely to make them all better teachers. However, the current administration’s emphasis upon charter schools reveals the ultimate plan at work here: the privatization of the public schools. Let the states fail, and proliferate the charter schools, and before you know it you will have public schools dependent upon private funders for their very existence as institutions.

No Child Left Behind passed in 2001 by a broad cross-section of the political class (Senate) (House) (and without a whole lot of debate). It promotes the educational objectives of the Business Roundtable, which isn’t shy about its connection. Justifying NCLB is a mythology about "global competitiveness," the idea that every student must score ever-higher on standardized tests if the national economy is to be "globally competitive" with foreign economies. As if the US has actually been "competing globally" as its corporations ship its jobs to low-wage havens throughout the world. Yep, that’s what we’ve been doing here in America, "competing globally." Uh-huh.

So what business does business have in schools? Well, if the schools have become test-prep institutions, the businesspeople can design the tests and the test-prep materials. As Gerald Bracey pointed out, "The law gifts testing companies over $2 billion annually. [vi]" Check out Bracey’s document on NCLB money, too. To a certain extent NCLB was borne of the cozy relationship between the Bush family and the McGraw family — that’s McGraw, as in McGraw-Hill, the prominent textbook-publishing corporation. It all came, as well, with the express blessings of the DLC — so they have their fingers in the school-business pie as well.

Don’t expect the Obama administration to save the schools from corporate takeover, either. Education Secretary Arne Duncan promotes more of the same, under the aegis of a $15 billion ‘Race to the Top’ fund. As this letter points out, "Race to the Top" seeks to connect teacher pay to test scores, but what is most firmly correlated to test scores is the socioeconomic status of the parents of the students. But, instead of raising the socioeconomic status of the parents of the students, the plan is to institute merit pay.

It’s not as if teachers can ask the Senate to save low-income schools from corporate predation, either: what we get from the Senate is bills like S2740, the LEARN act, which will also mandate more of the same. Take a look, for instance, at the comments section here, where all of the heavy hitters for the educational profession weigh in on the most recent attempt to legislate "excellence" upon schools which are uniformly suffering from one thing: the financial poverty of the parents of the student bodies.

Imagine what would happen at this point if all of this money, supposedly going to test-prep materials, to testing, to the enforcement of NCLB, to teacher merit pay and so on, were to go to parents of lower socioeconomic status, with the intention of improving their socioeconomic status and thus helping them prepare their children for success in school. Why, they might actually have a chance!

One might also ask why the current episode of neoliberal school reform is largely concerned with proliferating charter schools. Charter schools, after all, are a seemingly harmless innovation: allow individuals to design their own schools, within limits, and with the blessings of public school systems. There are doubtless quite a few good charter schools, and if I were still in the business of teaching in public schools I would be teaching in a charter school now. The easy answer is this: "charter schools" allow corporate business to skim profits off of the operation of schools, while at the same time removing debate about the operation of said schools from the public sphere. If anyone here has a more appropriate answer I’d like to know.

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Diagnostic Conclusion

So what is wrong with having business interests torture our low-income schools? Not a whole lot, if you don’t mind business raids upon the public treasuries, or if your kids go to a school with lots of money. The problems arise when you think of the real-life students in lower-class neighborhoods, the "future of America," which have to endure an educational process determined by intrusive policymaking amidst parental poverty, rather than by supportive parents with decent incomes and enthusiastic teachers full of purpose. The bottom-line malaise of our "ghetto" public schools was laid out in full color by Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation. Kozol’s book discusses the de facto segregation of the nation’s schools, by race and by class, and the conditions in the poorer schools, in which scholastic police states, school uniforms, high-stakes standardized tests, and desperation tactics are supposed to substitute for a decent average parental income.

And me personally? The actual complaints which I hear and read about public schooling are (for the most part) from the students themselves, especially from students of high-school age, who typically claim that public school is "boring." The one reform movement I know which has most specifically addressed the problem of "school being boring" is the Coalition of Essential Schools. The long-version rationale for the "Essential Schools" is given in Theodore Sizer’s books. If you want to investigate "school reform" in American high schools from the attempt to answer the "school is boring" complaint, you should go in that direction.

In the mainstream politics of schooling as a whole, however, schools are a diversion. None of the established financial interests who have been setting policy for the last decade really care about the education of children. Test materials are mere product, and once they are exchanged for your tax dollars the deal is done. The political class doesn’t care either — otherwise the patrons of the LEARN act would have bothered to find out how the standardized tests correlate most strongly with the socioeconomic status of the parents. As Walt Gardner points out in this editorial, "the goal of a healthier education system can be achieved only by the implementation of economic and social reforms aimed at narrowing the differences in the backgrounds of children whom schools serve." But those in power who control the reform agenda for the public schools have not even thought through the problem to that point — if they’re even interested.

If you really want to solve the social class problem, then, as well as the classroom problem, you have to get the lower classes to demand their fair share of the economic pie. Now, this is an activity which can be taught, and in school, too. The method by which it is done would optimally be called "revolutionary critical pedagogy," advocated by the likes of anti-capitalists such as Peter McLaren. It would wage what Antonio Gramsci called the "war of position." Of course one would not expect to see such a thing implemented as part of a legislative policy package from the current historic bloc — thus the war of position will have to remain an underground current of any mass movement to fortify the collective aspirations of working people. The real priority, then, is integrating "education politics" into the struggle to form a class coalition. Within this framework, explicit proposals for the schools should center around the return of control over the schools to those to whom they matter the most: teachers, students, parents. "Accountability" has typically meant the statistical disparagement of schools through manufactured data, without reference to the perspectives (or lack thereof) of those who actually use the schools, and of their parents. If one is going to change anything about the operation of the public schools themselves from a managerial perspective, why not change that?

And for "progressive" political institutions who crave autonomy from the "Veal Pen" and from corporate power as a whole? It’s really past time for them to take an interest in educational politics. America’s public schools are its future. Why leave them to NCLB and to the futile task of meeting AYP expectations every year, when they could be vibrant places of learning and growth?