What have we learned?
Waiting for Superman, a propaganda film for school privatization, was not nominated for an Academy Award for documentary filmmaking because it was revealed that the “documentary” staged scenes. Michele Rhee, who was in consideration for NJ Education Commissioner and is the most public face of corporate education and teacher union busting, was considerably discredited when it was revealed that when teachers in D.C were told to act like greedy corporate executives they, not surprisingly, cheated on their evaluations to get more money.
It almost sounds impressive when people like Cerf and Rhee say they want to “run schools like a business” until you see how they run their businesses.
Public education is not a business. What? But business is magical, making things about money always makes them better. Actually, no. Making things about money just makes them about money…
Public education is actually a relatively new idea. Previous to the introduction of a public or state education only the rich and powerful and their children received even the most basic knowledge. It was a genuine belief that poor and powerless people did not only not deserve an education but that it could be dangerous to give them one. One of the better examples of this view was that if an American slave was caught reading they would often be executed.
In fact, even public elementary school education was not widely available in America until the late 1800s becoming compulsory in the early 1900s with the launch of the Progressive Era – the heritage of those who believe in public education today. With the rise of Progressives came an expansion of public education to both the entire country and what would today be called high schools. Later colleges, notably land grant universities would be established (like Penn State).
Progressive John Dewey was one of the first to make a connection that seems obvious today; the link between education and civil society. Dewy proposed a radical notion that citizens in a democracy should be educated so they can make informed decisions. He would later be called a “dangerous radical” in the 1950s when progressive ideas were labeled communist and socialist. One of the chief smear merchants of progressivism was the John Birch Society, founded by Fred Koch – hmmmm.
In an intersecting and parallel track Booker T. Washington began advocating for black educational opportunities during the still segregated Progressive Era both elementary, high school and college.
With the rise of mass education also came the first Teachers Unions – National Education Association founded earlier was reorganized into its modern form in 1917 along with the American Federation of Teachers being founded in 1916.
Only after World War II, with the passing of the GI Bill in 1944 did higher education become something possible for the average person, and even then just for male war veterans.
Only after the civil rights and the Great Society bills passed in the 1960s were non-whites and women given full public education opportunities.
What’s my point? This is not a new battle. Entrenched powerful interests have always hated being taxed to pay for public services like education and have always wanted to exploit the poor/poorer who become more difficult to exploit once educated. School privatization is the tip of a very long spear. A spear that was present when public education was first instituted.
Bob Ingle, a political columnist for Gannett’s New Jersey newspapers, wrote a successful book called The Soprano State detailing corruption within New Jersey’s state and local government. Though Ingle may be a conservative, the idea of rooting out corruption among powerful interests (public or private) is well within the progressive tradition.
But somehow a clarion call for greater purity in public service has transformed into an obnoxious scream to drown out the sound of cash registers.
Chris Christie is not a “reformer” he is now what he has always been, a lobbyist, a shill for the rich and Big Business interests. It is not news to anyone who knows him or his history.
He and his friends are trying to make money. Money that will line their pockets, put an addition on their mansions and slowly but surely trickle its way into their campaign accounts. But there is a larger point besides corruption in New Jersey government.
Ronald Reagan and his fore-bearers, most notably Barry Goldwater, sought to undo Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. And starting in 1980 up to the present they have made considerable progress in turning the clock back to 1929 – with predictable consequences.
Now reactionary conservatives want to go even farther backward to a time when there were no public education. They claim a corporate business model is the best approach, that business is the solution – but public education is not a business. If public education was such a great business idea it would not have taken progressives to force its progress through coercion by the state. Rich people have never liked paying taxes for poor/poorer people’s children to be educated, this is not a new phenomenon.
So what has changed?
The rich and powerful have become shameless. They are more than willing to watch those less fortunate die in the streets than pay a pittance of the massive wealth they have captured beginning in the 1980s to provide for their fellow man (and woman). In an era of bank bailouts, crony capitalist defense industries and corporate tax cheats it is unions and public education that must be destroyed.
Some attribute this shamelessness to economics, culture, religion (or lack thereof) I attribute it to a reactionary attack on society itself. Margaret Thatcher, Regan’s contemporary and hero to the conservative movement once said “there is no such thing as society.”
If you believe that and most Neoliberals do, then progressives are truly a menace. “Collectivists” as Alan Greenspan‘s mentor Ayn Rand would call them. Looters, thieves, the worst kind of parasites – the weak who demand concessions from the strong. Nietzsche, Ayn Rand’s inspiration, called it “slave morality.”
Which is a useful term because if things keep going on like this it’s going to feel like the bottom 99% are living on a plantation.
So we know what the reactionaries trying to wreck government services like public education believe and we know what progressives believe. What does America believe?
I offer a view from one of the earliest Americans, even before there was an America. Reagan himself stole a key concept from him and in reciprocity so shall I.
John Winthrop was Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and once gave his view of the society some claim does not exist/want to destroy. It may be useful for the shameless to consider what some of America’s earliest leaders thought the country should believe in:
“We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”