The U.S. ruling class and its political representatives at all levels have launched an all-out assault on public education. While disparate elements of this campaign have been in place for the past three or four decades, we are today seeing a confluence and culmination of these trends, orchestrated by President Obama and his Education secretary Arne Duncan, under their “Race to the Top” (previously “No Child Left Behind”) program. Cutbacks, school closings, tuition increases, the “business model,” high-stakes testing, school closings, and privatizations/charterizations are all aimed at discrediting, fragmenting, and, ultimately, eliminating public education.
Disingenuous enemies of public education make the claim that charters — independent schools owned and run by corporations, foundations, or other organizations, and ostensibly regulated by state and municipal governments — are not private schools. Charters are housed in public school buildings and provided with tax money that should go to resource-starved public schools. Make no mistake: the goal of the push for charters is privatization. In a market economy, fragmented “quasi-private” charter schools will give way to for-profit corporations running chains of schools on economies of scale. In New York City, for example, several for-profit charter schools are already absorbing public resources, while others have been established with hedge funds which have no other purpose, ultimately, than to guarantee high rates of return for investors. And, in New York City, at least, the proliferating charter schools largely accept only students that score in the highest percentiles in standardized tests.
Public schools — particularly urban public schools — have deteriorated over the past decades as a result of waves of cutbacks, bureaucratic mismanagement, re-segregation, and marginalization of schools serving low-income communities – all of which served to create the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure conducive to the current onslaught. The response by the public education authorities has been increasingly to label such schools as “under-performing” and close them down, rather than providing the resources and assistance necessary to improve them. The dynamic that has materialized involves the closure of such schools (many of which are not under-performing at all), the shunting of the highest-performing students to charters, and the concentration of the rest into more and more overcrowded and resource-starved public schools, which will then undoubtedly become “under-performing.”
But, if you think the current public education with its inequities and disparities is a disaster, just wait until the privatizers have their way! If you want a glimpse at how our education systems will run as charters, look to our health care system. The for-profit health care insurers deny coverage to those most at risk. That is how a privatized educational system will work. Those at the bottom will undoubtedly be offered the remaining, underfunded dregs of public schooling or some form of meager subsidies in segregated charters, little more than Dickensian workhouses with revolving doors into the correctional system.
State and city universities have also faced waves of cutbacks in recent decades. This, together with tuition increases and cutbacks in financial aid and affirmative action programs (not to mention falling real wages), has undermined the ability of working-class families, particularly the most marginalized, to send their children to college. The decimation of public schools will further reduce the number of working-class applicants to universities, justifying further cuts in public higher education and further tuition increases down the road. Again, this process is, in fact, already underway. Eventually, public colleges and universities may be privatized as well.
Faced with mounting attacks on public education, students, parents, teachers, faculty, and other educational workers in many parts of the country have increasingly taken to the streets in defense of public education, their educational rights, and jobs. Last September, faced by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plans to drastically cut the state education budget and raise state university tuition, the education community staged a one-day general strike, shutting down schools and universities across the state. They followed this by a series of statewide stoppages and demonstrations when the state board of regents met in November. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s planned closing of 19 public schools and giveaways to charters has been met with a wave of community organizing and protests, culminating at a January demonstration at Bloomberg’s chic Upper West Side residence and another at the meeting of his stage-managed “Panel on Educational Policy” in February.
Our struggle is about more than just public education. The powers that be are currently seeking to impose at home the very same neo-liberal agenda they imposed in countries of the Third World in decades past, complete with structural adjustments, firings, union-busting, privatizations, attacks on the public sector, and a corresponding “downsizing” of public expectations. Our various branches of government have demonstrated their fealty to their real power base by gift-wrapping the health-care market for the insurance companies, ratifying corporate ownership of political candidates, and pouring trillions of dollars into the financial institutions, while Obama announces a three-year freeze on social spending.
In fact, we would do well to engage with and learn from the movements that have confronted — in many cases, successfully — neoliberalism in the countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In Bolivia, for example, efforts by transnational corporations and local elites to privatize water and other natural resources were defeated by community organizing, which resulted in a democratizing movement that ultimately brought about the election of the first indigenous president in that majority indigenous nation.
In the U.S., all of us struggling against this corporate agenda have a vested interest in the struggle to defend public education, just as students, parents, and educational workers have a vested interest in resisting other efforts to turn the public domain over to the market. Last December, public education proponents in California issued a call for a national day of action in defense of education on March 4, 2010. For the moment, March 4 is the spearhead of all efforts to beat back the neoliberal agenda. We should all come out in defense of public education and in solidarity with the students, parents, teachers, workers, and faculty in California!
Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is an adjunct in the City University of New York and parent of a public high school student.