Public schools are under attack by billionaires, conservative think tanks, philanthropists, business lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Trump administration. These attackers argue that public schools are an ineffective, needless tax expense that can be replaced by privatized, profit-making charter schools that they claim are “more efficient.”
In Waiting for Superman, a film critical of public schools, this outlook was stated thus: “For generations, experts tend to blame failing schools on failing neighborhoods. But reformers have begun to believe the opposite — that the problems of failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools.”
This debate — between the “reformers” who blame “bad” schools, teachers and teachers’ unions for a decline in education, and the defenders of public schooling (such as teachers, teachers’ unions and community activists) — is important because it exposes the self-serving actions of many of the “reformers,” as well as the struggles of the defenders. The debate is also deceptive, for, with few exceptions, it ignores the fact that public education is an integral part of the political economy, and that many problems involving public schooling reflect problems within capitalism. Over the years, as US capitalism has changed, public education has also changed.
The era of laissez-faire capitalism ending in the Gilded Age was a time of unregulated capitalism that brought forth the creation of public schools needed to train compliant workers and citizens as industrial capital rapidly grew. It was a time when transactions between private parties were free from government intervention.
This was an era of rapid industrialization, immigration, labor strife, no income tax and enormous income inequality. Capitalists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie made fortunes and preached “survival of the fittest” in business. US education moved from private to public schooling. Reformers Horace Mann and Henry Barnard created the first statewide common schools. They believed education for the masses would “preserve social stability and prevent crime and poverty.”
By 1900, compulsory attendance for students from ages 8 to 14 was required in 31 states; by 1918, for every state. At this time, US high schools expanded: 200,000 students attended high schools in 1890 and almost 2 million in 1930. This increase was related to the arrival of European immigrants who needed to be trained for the strict discipline of factory life. Public education became class education devised to retain the economic class divisions maintained by capitalism. This unregulated economy led to corruption, extreme exploitation of labor and vast income inequality. Capitalists recklessly grew their power and wealth, eventually leading to the Great Depression.
The Great Depression ended laissez-faire capitalism. The US government stepped in to regulate the economic system, creating the New Deal, president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) attempt to save capitalism from itself.
FDR and the New Deal
FDR saw unrest among the unemployed, organized labor and leftist political parties, and feared that this could lead to a revolution. Pressure from below led him, as well as a portion of the wealthy, to promote changes: higher taxes for the rich and programs giving relief to the working class (ignoring the plight of people of color).
US public schools suffered from the Great Depression. Many rural schools shut down. In New York City, an estimated 20 percent of students suffered from malnutrition. The Roosevelt administration responded, providing funds to relieve those schools and districts most in danger of collapse, but was against federal funding for education because FDR (still holding some patrician views and having little respect for educators) felt public school teachers and administrators failed the nation’s low-income youth.
The New Deal and the victory in World War II gave the United States an economic advantage and control of the world’s economy since its industrial and trade rivals were destroyed. The years between 1948 and 1973 were the golden age of capitalism and the golden age of universal education when public schools were better funded. In the ’70s, the New Deal began to gradually lose its effect as the business community pushed back, reacting to rising inflation, unemployment, several sharp recessions, and competition from Japan and Western Europe.
Capitalism, in its need for new sources of profit and maintaining control, began to see public education as a new source of moneymaking that could provide compliant workers and passive citizens, ushering in our current era of neoliberalism.
The US business community seized the offensive in the early ’70s. In order to increase profits, US companies began to outsource industry and find cheaper labor in other countries. The effect in the US was unemployment, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs and, ultimately, the Rust Belt.
The 1970s economic crisis further encouraged the business movement, later inspired by the presidency of Ronald Reagan, to advocate “free-market” policies, deregulation and privatization. This shift was called neoliberalism, and it led to massive tax cuts for the rich, a destruction of trade unions, wealth inequality, a growing military budget and the dismantling of government safety nets.
One of the most essential privatization projects was the replacement of public schools with profitable private charter schools. To encourage this shift, corporate lobbyists, as they pushed for cost-cutting measures, tried to convince the population that public schools were failing. To support their allegations, they covertly pushed for changes like increasing class sizes, online instruction, lowering accreditation standards for teachers and getting rid of elected school boards. The most effective strategy was to use a deceiving report presented in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Titled, “A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform,” the report falsely warned that public schools were failing and hurting the economy. Its intention was to replace public schools with private profit-making charters that focused on teaching, studying and testing for jobs, while sidelining humanities for the majority.
The push for charter schools continues even though data show that the charter model has done nothing to improve test scores, which have been essentially unchanged since the 1970s. Countries like Finland that focus on community-based schooling, which values equality, have consistently higher Program for International School Assessment (PISA) scores than US schools, both public and charters. (PISA is a program that evaluates educational systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.) Of course, there are a few charters that, with parent participation, wealth and inspired leaders, are excellent, but most are large corporate franchises based on knowledge transfer, testing and profit.
Ten years after neoliberalism’s 2008 crash, the benefits of the “economic recovery” have gone to a tiny portion of the superrich who claimed success for everyone. But success amounted to creating a new serfdom, replacing unemployment with underemployment, a declining infrastructure, a declining middle class, increasing homelessness, poverty, wage theft and growing inequality. “Limited funding” and “budget crunch” became catchphrases for addressing public school issues. The future doesn’t look so good either.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics work projections are that low-wage jobs will grow the fastest, while middle-wage work will continue to decline. The corporate class recognizes that unskilled, low-payed work exacerbates income inequality and creates a potential for uprisings. This danger was partly solved in the 1930s by FDR’s New Deal. But conditions today are quite different.
The neoliberal approach — under pressure from the corporate elite and with little pushback from a depleted labor movement — combined with systemic diversion through updated “bread and circuses” has pacified the public and allowed children to languish in charter schools and declining public schools, using curricula designed by the corporate elite. As Einstein said, “The ruling class has the schools and press under its thumb. This enables it to sway the emotions of the masses.”
In the meantime, the wealthy train their children to become future leaders in the elite schools reserved for the US’s ruling class, and some prestigious private elementary and secondary schools and universities.
However, when capitalism doesn’t sustain growth, it is forced to use crisis, conflict, chaos and corruption instead of production as its source of profit. Wrecking public schools is a form of profiting by catabolizing the public sector.
Worldwide energy and financial crises are beginning to strangle growth, heading us into the age of “catabolic capitalism.” Without the energy needed to generate growth and profit, catabolic capitalists find profits by feeding on failing institutions and selling them. As described by Craig Collins:
As tax-starved public services and social welfare programs bleed out from deep budget cuts, profit-hungry capitalists pick over the carcasses of bankrupt governments. Revenues for Social Security, food stamps and health care programs are chopped to the bone…. Schools and libraries go broke, while exclusive private academies employ a fraction of the jobless teachers and university professors to educate a shrinking class of affluent students.
These changes are hastened by the policies of the Trump administration through its systematic attack of public school funding and support of charter schools, championed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Naomi Klein’s book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, is portrayed as a “shock” to neoliberalism. Her description of Hurricane Katrina as the cause of the destruction of the New Orleans public schools, while correct, mistakes a shock for the early stages of a new form of capitalism seeking profit without the energy needed to generate growth — catabolic capitalism. Hurricane Katrina merely accelerated the change that Klein perceptively portrayed, which led to the destruction of public schools, the firing of unionized teachers replaced by inexperienced low-wage teachers willing to work long hours in privately managed charter schools.
Currently, the New Orleans charter system remains segregated by race and economic status. Most African American teachers have been dropped from the system, administrative costs have risen and teaching resources have declined. The poorest students are in the few remaining public schools that are run down. New Orleans is the most privatized school system in the US with the most charter schools per capita. Other examples of catabolic capitalism attacking public schools are in Detroit, Michigan, second in the nation for its number of charter schools behind New Orleans; Newark, New Jersey a victim of arrogant philanthropists; and Puerto Rico, where a return of the “shock doctrine” has seen 84 percent of public schools shut down after Hurricane Maria.
Debate about the need for public schools should continue, while recognizing that under capitalism, state and federal funding are controlled by the wealthy few, who, driven by greed and profits, control tax policy, lobbying and the military budget, which maintains protection for corporations around the globe while turning world education systems into corporate controlled structures.
The recent wave of teachers’ strikes and the growing rejection of charter schools gives some hope for change, but actions must incorporate an understanding of how capitalism creates passive victims, poverty, income inequality and ecological disaster around the world, harming school systems, workers, communities and the Earth. If there is any hope, it lies in educating students and citizens for survival, which requires criticizing capitalism and its social, psychological, educational, class divided, patriarchal, racist and military outcomes, while seeking its replacement.