If some racist made an inappropriate remark about the First Lady or her children our national “civil rights leaders” Obama fans all of them, would be all over that. But standing up for ordinary black children is something our leaders just don’t do much any more. When was the last time you heard Sharpton, Jealous or any of that tribe inveigh against school closings and the creeping privatization of our schools?
In what should be the biggest story of the week, the city of Philadelphia’s school system announced Tuesday that it expects to close 40 public schools next year and 64 by 2017. The school district expects to lose 40% of current enrollment to charter schools, the streets or wherever, and put thousands of experienced, well qualified teachers, often grounded in the communities where they teach, on the street.
Ominously, the shredding of Philadelphia’s public schools isn’t even news outside Philly. This correspondent would never have known about it save for a friend’s Facebook posting early this week. Corporate media in other cities don’t mention massive school closings, whether in Chicago, Atlanta, NYC, or in this case Philadelphia, perhaps so people won’t have given the issue much deep thought before the same crisis is manufactured in their town. Even inside Philadelphia the voices of actual parents, communities, students and teachers are shut out of most newspaper and broadcast accounts.
The black political class is utterly silent and deeply complicit. Even local pols and notables who lament the injustice of local austerity avoid mentioning the ongoing wars and bailouts which make these things “necessary.” A string of black mayors have overseen the decimation of Philly schools. Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous and other traditional “civil rights leaders” can always be counted on to rise up indignant when some racist clown makes an inappropriate remark about the pretty black First Lady and her children.
But they won’t grab the mic for ordinary black children. They won’t start and won’t engage the public in a conversation about saving public education. It’s not because they don’t care. It’s because they care very much about their funding, which comes from Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, from Wal-mart and the Walton Family Foundation, from the corporations that run charter charter schools and produce standardized tests.
To name just one payment to one figure, Rev. Al Sharpton took a half million dollar “loan” from charter school advocates in New York City, after which he went on tour with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Newt Gingrich extolling the virtues of standardized testing, charter schools and educational privatization. Bill Gates delivered the keynote speech at the latest gathering of the National Urban League. And the nation’s two big teachers’ unions, NEA and AFT have already endorsed Barack Obama’s re-election, and will funnel him gobs of union dues as campaign contributions, despite his corporate-inspired “Race To The Top” program which awards federal education funds in proportion to how many teachers are fired and replaced by inexperienced temps, how many schools are shut down, and how many charter schools exempt from meaningful public oversight are established and granted public funds.
The fix has been in for a long time, and not just in Philadelphia. Philly’s school problems are anything but unique. The city has a lot of poor and black children. Our ruling classes don’t want to invest in educating these young people, preferring instead to track into lifetimes of insecure, low-wage labor and/or prison. Our elites don’t need a populace educated in critical thinking. So low-cost holding tanks that deliver standardized lessons and tests, via computer if possible, operated by profit-making “educational entrepreneurs” are the way to go. The business class can pocket the money which used to pay for teachers’ and custodians’ retirement and health benefits, for music and literature and gym classes, for sports and science labs and theater and all that other stuff that used to be wasted on public school children.
The national vision of ruling Democrats and Republicans and the elites who fund them is to starve, discredit, denounce and strangle public education. Philly and its children, parents, communities and teachers are only the latest victims of business-class school reform. And they won’t be the last.
One of the recent CEO’s of Philadelphia Public Schools was a guy from Chicago named Paul Vallas. Vallas’s previous job was head of Chicago’s Public Schools where his “innovations” included military charter schools and wholesale school closings to get around local laws that school parent councils veto power over the appointment of principals. Vallas was succeeded by Arne Duncan, now Secretary of Education, and arrived in Philly in 2002. As CEO of Philly schools he closed and privatized chunks of 40 schools, leaving town for post-Katrina New Orleans where he closed more than 100 public schools and fired every last teacher, custodian and staff person to create a business-friendly citywide charter school experiment. After his post-Katrina destruction of New Orleans public education, Vallas went to post-earthquake Haiti to commit heaven only knows what atrocity on the corpse of public education there.
So the carving up of Philadelphia public schools IS a national story. It’s just one that corporate media won’t tell. Not in Philly, not in LA, not in Kansas City or anywhere, for fear that ordinary people might try to write themselves into a leading role. Polls show that the American people don’t want their schools privatized, and don’t believe education should be run by business people like a business. People want to take the money we spend on wars and bailouts and use it on education. Telling the story might give people the notion that the ultimate power is in their hands, not of mayors and chambers of commerce or the so-called “CEOs” of school system. It’s time that story was told, and more of us heard it.
Kwame Toure used to say that the thing to do is join an organization and pick a fight. If you can’t find an organization you like, he said, start one and then pick a fight. It’s that time in Philly, and in Los Angeles and New York and wherever you are. It’s time to stand up for our children and grandchildren.