The appointment of Cathie Black – the Hearst magazine executive with zero education experience – as New York City schools chancellor is further evidence of the complete collapse of the 20th century model of liberal public education in the US. The cynical compromise between Mayor Bloomberg and his liberal opponents to appoint an educator as deputy chancellor only serves to highlight the obvious message: education is a business that is too lucrative in these difficult times to leave to teachers and communities. It now seems inevitable that we will move to a dual education system not seen since the days of legal segregation, with minorities and the poor shuttled through a system of for-profit institutions emphasizing standardized testing, uniform lessons and rote learning.
It is remarkable how quickly the liberals caved. Maybe this is because of the way pro-business education reformers co-opted the traditional liberal discourse of equality and civil rights. Or maybe it’s the money. It is heart-warming to see the captains of industry, hedge fund managers and politicians across the political spectrum lining up to bankroll an attempt to level the playing field for the poor. This equalization is a noble cause, and one that is difficult to criticize. Unfortunately, it is also a scam. Once again, the rich are preying on the hopes of the poor in order to further their monopoly on wealth and power. The education reforms enshrined in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), like charter schools, increased testing and subcontracted tutoring and provided a huge opening for private education entrepreneurs, even as public school budgets are repeatedly slashed. If anyone had any doubts about the true intentions of these corporate conquistadores, the announced departure of current New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein to Murdoch’s News Corp in order to pursue opportunities in the “education marketplace” makes clear their objectives.
School reformers focus on the racial “achievement gap” as a source of social inequality. This is naive at best and a red herring at worst, distracting us from the real causes and remedies of inequality. Education, in itself, is neither a cause nor a solution to the systemic problems of racism and poverty in the US. The promise to prepare all students for college seems admirable, until one realizes that the “colleges” where most students are to be sent are for-profit diploma mills where students graduate, if at all, with high debts and few prospects of a well-paying job. As for charter schools, a recent study shows that more fail than succeed. Those that do are invariably the beneficiaries of generous private grants that guarantee funding at much higher levels than those of regular public schools. No matter. The attraction of charters continues as poor people, accustomed to the indignity of lining up for lottery tickets, continue to hope for that lucky break. When reformers promise us that “every child can succeed,” they are trafficking in cheap platitudes. True success would involve a redistribution of wealth, the creation of decent jobs and a commitment to real equality.
But to think of these reforms in terms of education misses the point. Their real goals are cutting costs and increasing profits. Education reforms have been marketed by demonizing public school teachers and their unions. As systemic inequality and unemployment grow, teachers have become the scapegoats for an economic system in crisis. Demands are growing for an end to job security and other benefits and the firing of teachers based on poor student test scores, despite the fact that the most relevant variable in test scores is poverty, not teaching. In charter schools, these problems have been addressed through increased “productivity” (such as longer teacher hours for less pay) and the elimination of job security and benefits. Many charters do not even offer teachers a pension.
The assault on teachers, however, does not target all teachers equally. Nobody is complaining about teachers in rich, suburban districts, or even in the predominantly white, middle-class (read “successful”) urban schools. Those teachers are at little risk of losing their job security or benefits. Virtually every school closed down for “poor performance” has been predominantly low-income and minority. Minority teachers are much more likely to work at minority schools, and are thus disproportionately targeted by reformers as being “bad” teachers. When poorly performing schools are closed or reorganized, the teachers who are let go find it difficult to find new positions. Many are forced into charters, with longer work hours, less job security and reduced benefits. Those who cannot find positions are pressured to quit. The focus on “bad” teachers has also led school districts to tighten requirements for new teachers, which has further reduced the number of minorities in the teaching profession. In New York City, the percentage of teachers who are black has fallen from 22 percent in 2001 to 20 percent in 2008. More ominously, the percentage of new teachers who are black fell from 27 percent to 13 percent during the same period.
Reformers demand that we sacrifice teachers’ benefits for the sake of student achievement, but this kind of zero-sum calculus is just plain wrong. Public schools have benefits beyond individual student achievement. As state institutions, they function as a conduit for the flow of money into poor communities. Public schools serve as community centers. Often, they are important employers in neighborhoods ravaged by unemployment and poverty. They employ local residents as aides, custodians, and other staff. In most cases, local communities enjoy a remarkable degree of influence over their neighborhood schools, even the “failing” ones. Of course, public schools are notoriously inefficient and prone to a certain degree of graft and nepotism, but even this, ultimately, benefits the local community. In any case, this level of graft is chickenfeed compared to what goes on in many privately run charters. The move to charters has severed the economic ties between poor communities and their schools. Instead of redistributing state funds to the community, school reform directs the money to privately owned charters, outside educational entrepreneurs and overpaid directors. For example, in her book “Making Failure Pay,” Jill Koyama points out that under NCLB legislation, failing schools are required to divert already scarce funds to private tutoring companies. When “failing” schools are closed and replaced by charters, the organic relations with the local community are severed and poor communities lose yet another source of support. The new schools answer to corporations, not the community.
Reformers denigrate teachers’ perks, such as tenure, good pensions, paid health insurance and labor contracts. And this battle for benefits, rather than education, is the main point. There are over 4 million public school teachers in the US. Teaching is traditionally an occupation that provides an avenue of upward mobility for the working class and other marginalized groups that face obstacles in most professions. After World War II, teaching provided opportunities for Jews to rise into the middle class in significant numbers. Minorities and other marginalized groups, such as blacks, Latinos, women, gays and leftists are still heavily represented in the teaching profession. In this sense, schools provide opportunities not just by teaching knowledge, but also by hiring teachers.
This upward class mobility is what the current reforms are targeting. By replacing public schools with charters, reformers aim to destroy the opportunities provided by the teaching profession. By de-professionalizing and devaluing teachers in working-class schools, reformers are creating an entry for profit-seeking educational entrepreneurs that will divert public funds to private coffers. Predominantly white, suburban teachers will have their privileges preserved, while urban teachers will be demoted to private employees, serving at the whim of private corporations and overpaid executives. For the rich, this is a win-win situation: lower taxes, higher profits and they even get to keep their own kids’ schools. As usual, the people who will pay the price are the poor communities that depend on schools and the teaching profession for some degree of protection from the ravages of neoliberal reform.