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Facing the Complexities of the Charter School Debate

The educational justice movement must balance opposition to privatization with support for the unionization of charter school teachers.

(Photo: Students In Class via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

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The battle with charter school expansions is further revving up in Los Angeles, as a group of private foundations explore plans to expand the number of charter schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District. The Los Angeles teachers union, UTLA, has vowed to fight the private foundations behind this effort, including the Broad, Keck and Walton Family foundations that have over the years been central to supporting the corporatization of large charter management organizations and disrupting the collective bargaining efforts of teachers unions.

It is in the midst of these recent developments that UTLA has also begun its support of the unionization of teachers in charter schools. Although this move by UTLA may appear contradictory to some, it actually may represent the union’s concerted political effort to immerse itself in the public-charter school debate in a more complex and multidimensional way, which is far more consistent with the concrete realities that classroom teachers – particularly teachers of color – are facing in our communities.

During the last 30 years, radical educators deeply committed to public schools have consistently opposed the privatization of education, seeking to push back and shut down widespread efforts of private foundations aimed at transforming the education of our children into a profit-making commodity and destroying the progressive ethos of public education. Nevertheless, beyond our broad-based political concerns, there also exist pesky complexities that cannot be ignored in our larger struggle for educational justice and culturally democratic education.

Unveiling Complexities

One discursive complexity that often arises is the rigid binary or dichotomous nature of public-charter debates that, given the circumstances today, is becoming more problematic and, at times, even counterproductive to larger liberating education efforts tied to educational justice within working-class communities of color. This refers, in particular, to charter schools developed by and with critical educators, parents and communities of color themselves, who infuse their educational programs and curriculum with deeply emancipatory values and culturally democratic pedagogical practices. Many of the educators establishing and working in these schools are also indisputably committed to serving the most impoverished and academically abandoned children in communities of color, stepping up consistently to engage the economic disparities and racism so rampant in our society today.

How can we structure our political arguments in ways that do not demonize teachers working in charter schools, yet still pose important and necessary critiques?

To unveil the complexity of the argument further, there is also the huge question of big business influences within public education that cannot be ignored. The inherent split between public-private economic arguments can often lead us to overlook all the backroom deals cut by public school superintendents and their administrative teams with big corporations. Some clear examples are deals cut for bringing technology into the classroom or the millions of dollars paid for testing paraphernalia and textbooks to huge corporations who peddle their wares and whose products have a direct impact on the education of our children. But there are also corporate monies that feed into public schools in a variety of ways for so-called special programming and curricular support. Not to mention the number of big business advocates who sit on public school boards and advisory committees, shaping educational policies and practices in ways that fit their own interests, rather than those of students who attend schools in these districts and even less so the interests of less affluent communities they are meant to serve.

Yet, despite the seeping of corporate interests into public education, radical educators have maintained our unwavering and deeply committed advocacy to public education, given our belief that: 1) the nation-state has a fundamental responsibility to educate all our children; 2) greater public control by the community can potentially be exerted upon public education; and 3) market-based solutions and free-market logic have been shown to be far more susceptible to reproducing educational inequalities and racialized exclusions, given the absence of rigorous oversight and their profit-based priorities. Nevertheless, in the tension of today’s deeply unequal climate, we cannot pretend that there do not exist a myriad of ideological, epistemological, pedagogical and curricular evils that extend across both public and charter schools, including authoritarian banking educational practices and a high-stakes testing culture that reproduce and sustain a hidden curriculum of racism, patriarchy and class apartheid.

Acknowledging Shared Commitments

Similarly, in all settings across the educational spectrum, whether public or charter, we find excellent teachers who share an uncompromising pedagogical and political commitment to the creation of a more just world. This, of course, is why schools like Chula Vista Learning Community Charter in San Diego, La Escuela Freire Academy in Santa Ana, Academia Semillas del Pueblo in Los Angeles or Roses in Concrete Community School in Oakland, for example, must cause us to pause and think more critically about the manner in which we express and live our revolutionary politics, when it comes to the education of historically oppressed communities.

The most emancipatory response to neoliberal educational policies and practices today still remains concerted opposition to private elite interests.

In a sense, UTLA’s leadership must take on the increasing complexity of the public-charter school debate, in its effort to stave off the encroaching privatization of education in Los Angeles while simultaneously providing support for the teacher unionization of charter schools in Los Angeles County. We must all adopt a similar willingness to engage tough emerging political questions in the larger effort to build an emancipatory educational movement in the United States. This requires us to ask, for example: How can we structure our political arguments in ways that do not demonize teachers working in charter schools, yet still pose important and necessary critiques? How do we respect and engage charter school teachers in solidarity as cultural workers, who are also struggling in whatever ways that are open to them to serve our communities? How do we engage all teachers politically in the larger anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles, both domestically and internationally?

Of particular concern, then, are charter school educators of color working in our own communities – many who have faced acute racism, been pushed out or simply been unable to persist within some very authoritarian contexts of public schools, which can dehumanize students and teachers, alike. While it is true that at times their move to a charter school does not prove to be less authoritarian, there are instances where these teachers have found or created a culture where inclusiveness and empowering conditions have become the norm.

Generally speaking, these charter schools were not motivated by profit but rather with the clear intent to take ownership of education within working-class communities of color, wherever possible. Many of these schools are run by radical educators who work tirelessly to create conditions and opportunities for teachers to integrate more profoundly the works of Paulo Freire and other critical educators, as well as enacting a decolonizing curriculum grounded in the culture and language of students and their communities. They do this actively through their everyday labor, while many public school teachers are still forced to sit through inane “professional development” activities or carry out curricula that are anything but emancipatory or culturally responsive to the needs of our children.

Challenging Racism and Class Oppression

Significant to the argument here is that although we can correctly point to the neoliberal educational privatization schemes, as enacted by the Broad, Gates and Walton Family foundations and their cronies, at the end of the day we are still contending with the manifestation of racism and class oppression that is enacted through the false generosity and elite political violence of the ruling elite, given their deficit notions of teachers and other workers in the United States and around the world. The irony here is that these are the same corporate leaders and philanthropic gurus who through technology and other economic and structural means are now making the lives of working-class people more dispensable and obsolete than ever before – a phenomenon that has been moved insidiously onto the global stage.

Consequently, the most emancipatory response to neoliberal educational policies and practices today still remains concerted opposition to private elite interests, by way of our opposition to the expansion of large charter management organizations taking over public education in Los Angeles and across the nation. However, this again is not the only conversation we need to have, in light of the intensification of racism and class oppression in the United States. Nor can we deny that public-charter education debates have become far more complex in the current educational and political climate. Digging our heels into an obstinate posture about this question may allow us to feel deceptively secure or politically self-righteous, but doing so does little to dismantle the larger oppressive conditions and structures that teachers and our children face each day, across all educational spheres. And this posture does even less to establish and nurture the political solidarity necessary to coherently and courageously challenge racism and class oppression in schools and society.

Beyond Market Solutions

As we have witnessed over the last three decades, market solutions have functioned effectively to decenter the social agency and participation of teachers, students and parents, as active participants and historical subjects of their communities, in a political and economic quest to dismantle public schooling and destroy teachers unions. Nonetheless, working-class communities hold the authority of our own experiences of survival – a knowledge and history that has been directly shaped and bound to the material conditions and social relationships that constrict and contain our lives and our futures. To create corporate-based or laboratory educational solutions, for example, without intimately involving educators, students and parents in the process, whether in public schools or charter schools, constitutes a sham or the hypocrisy of elite business leaders and educational experts who are far more invested in profits, careers and the conservation of a colonizing system of education, than in serving the needs of all children, despite the worn-out rhetoric.

If we recognize then that we are embroiled in a longstanding historical battle for our schools, our children, our communities and our destinies, this means that we also need to pay attention to the manner in which we live our pedagogy and politics across educational contexts and how we labor together out in the world. For to withstand the constant assaults on education and on teachers, whether public or charter, requires enormous strength, courage and commitment; but above all it requires political coherence and an approach that extends beyond intractable arguments and fracturing sectarianism. In other words, all the passion in the world means little without a clear emancipatory political economic vision of education and society to guide out decisions and our actions in schools and communities.

Our politics then must encompass a living pedagogy of the commons, which moves us beyond the four walls of the classroom and courageously and deliberately engages those difficult questions tied to racialized capitalism and its destructive impact upon our communities. Through a critical pedagogy of the commons, radical educators must embrace a public responsibility as cultural citizens to create ample spaces of dialogue and civic action within our communities, where teachers, students and parents can come together – in consistent and deliberate ways – to engage issues of education that genuinely matter to the well-being of our children and communities.

Moreover, since education is never a neutral affair, questions of the political economy and its impact on our labor and way of life must be central to our struggles for educational justice, as they must be to the larger struggle against racism. However to do this requires that we demythologize the free-market drive toward privatization and expert designed solutions. Instead, we must begin wherever teachers, students and communities are, so that our collective experiences and knowledge of educational injustices remain central to any social movement in education that is meaningful and responsive to the social and material oppression we face daily. This is also essential to a culture of inclusion and a structure of participation that is meaningful and supportive of genuine conditions of collective engagement aimed toward greater community empowerment.

Refuting the Myth of Empowering Others

Many educators and activists across the ideological spectrum claim that their goal is empowering students and communities. Yet, the truth is that no one can empower another. No one possesses a golden wand from which to bestow empowerment upon another human being. Instead, we are empowered through our determined and consistent hard work within a political commons that supports collective processes of reflection, dialogue, solidarity and action – within and across communities of difference.

Hence, the best we can each do as critical educators and cultural workers is to develop and use our authority, influence and organizational prowess to create with others, in consistent ways, conditions for collective empowerment – an empowerment that evolves from our intimate relationships of struggle with one another and through our strategic efforts to transform educational conditions that rob teachers and children of their humanity. Thus, if we are intent on transforming education in the United States, there must be genuine opportunities for voice, participation, decision-making and dissent for all whose lives are directly touched by educational and societal inequalities.

Revolutionary Love as a Political Force of Struggle

Revolutionary love, as a deeply political force and foundation for solidarity, is required in the struggle for educational and social transformation, particularly when we seek political coherence within very complex and often seemingly contradictory political arrangements, as we find within the public-charter school phenomenon. And this revolutionary love, often expressed by Che Guevara and Amil Cabral, should certainly not be misread as a simplistic or sentimental notion of “loving one another.” Instead this speaks to a profound political recognition that transformation of our children’s education and the world we occupy is not going to be bestowed upon on, but rather is the task of us all, to remake our history through establishing relationships of collective solidarity that defy a culture of privilege, deficit views, deadening paternalism and the dreadful fatalism underlying untenable inequalities, whether in public schools or charter schools.

If we are to navigate honestly and forthrightly the deep tensions currently at work in the public-charter school debates and struggle, in theory and practice, to dismantle the tyranny of authoritarianism, disable the wretched culture of competition and unveil deceitful practices of meritocracy that persist across the public and charter terrain, we will need to be open to new democratic possibilities and urgently needed social movement approaches – for this is not a simple struggle that any individual can either wage or win alone. Thus, engaging earnestly with the effective establishment and navigation of movement relationships, and a pedagogy of the commons is crucial to contending with the many complexities at work in our larger struggle for liberation – important political steps that have often been bypassed, ignored or even maligned in dogmatic approaches to movement work.

The powerful complexity of educational struggles today requires us to radically and strategically open the political field of engagement by asking tough questions and unveiling the many conflicts and contradictions that abound in the current public-charter educational debates. For without clear political coherence and a critical educational movement squarely committed to dismantling oppressive social and economic structures that hold our children’s education hostage – across the public-private educational arenas – we will be unable to develop the radical strategies necessary for genuine educational change, leaving us stuck in a debilitating political conundrum that ultimately benefits the wealthy and powerful.

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