Wayne O'Leary

School Daze

Bipartisanship has had a bad run of it lately, but in one area at least, there is broad political agreement; that area is public education. Nothing else unites prominent policy figures from the Bush and Obama administrations, conservative red-state governors and centrist blue-state governors, and billionaire entrepreneurs from Wall Street to Silicon Valley like the belief that, in college dropout Bill Gates’ description, America’s public-school system is “obsolete.”

This view is immensely popular in establishment circles because it provides ready scapegoats (teachers and their labor unions) for intractable problems otherwise bound to necessitate deep soul-searching about our socioeconomic system and fundamental systemic reforms of a politically difficult nature.

A half-dozen years after the financial crash and the ensuing Great Recession undermined middle-class America, genuine recovery remains an elusive dream for the majority. There must be a facile explanation for the disappeared jobs, reduced living standards, and rising youth unemployment that doesn’t entail radical restructuring of the economy or call into question the motives of those in charge of it. In blaming public education, many people think they’ve found the requisite simple answer.

The purported explanation holds that school systems are not sufficiently attuned to corporate America’s technocratic needs and are staffed by poorly motivated instructors. It’s those lazy, incompetent teachers, protected by tenure, rewarded beyond their value, and backed by unscrupulous unions cynically bleeding the taxpayers, who are the problem; they are why Americans increasingly can’t compete and get ahead.

The image of a shoddy educational product served up by pampered and overly indulged public servants ostensibly holding back the American economy conveniently ignores the real causes. These include lack of domestic private investment; continuing export of US jobs (including the service employment previously thought impervious to the trend); the latest merger wave, which by its very nature is shrinking the jobs base by eliminating competing sources of employment; and the deliberate corporate strategy of replacing people with technology wherever feasible.

There are, in fact, plenty of Americans with the skills necessary to perform the economy’s tasks; even highly prized STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workers are in abundant supply nationwide. There is actually an over-supply of such workers domestically, as Beryl L. Benderly clearly established in an illuminating Columbia Journalism Review article in May-June 2013. But American business would rather not hire them, opting instead for cheaper foreign STEM workers and holding out for a legislatively increased level of H-1B visas likely to guarantee a steady supply of poorly paid immigrant IT workers with limited job mobility.

So what’s the hidden motivation for the ongoing attacks on US public education as presently constituted? Quite simply, there’s gold in them thar hills, if American education can just be turned into a business. Rupert Murdoch no less, whose News Corp. has an education investment subsidiary called Amplify, says the sector could potentially be worth $500 billion. In some respects, our educational system is already well on its way to becoming a private industry; that’s what the charter-school movement, the key component of what education historian Diane Ravitch calls “corporate education reform,” is really all about.

A case in point is New York City’s prominent charter chain Success Academy, whose founder and director Eva Moskowitz has parlayed political connections (to neoliberal Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg) into a $93 million yearly taxpayer contribution ($13,900 per pupil) to run her operation — charters are privately operated, but publicly funded — and provide a $485,000 annual executive salary for herself. This is far higher pay than the compensation received by public-school administrators responsible for many more students.

In addition, Moskowitz’s technically nonprofit charter chain — 90% of New York State charters are administratively nonprofit — benefitted from $18.3 million in so-called financial aid (seed money) between 2007 and 2013 from “venture philanthropists” interested in education as an investment enterprise and from institutions like the Broad and Walton (Walmart) foundations that support market-oriented causes. At present, Success Academy is campaigning for either free classroom space in New York’s public schools or, alternatively, a rent subsidy from city taxpayers.

Outside of liberal New York, unapologetic for-profit administration of public charters is increasingly the rule, with such schools run by private education-management organizations, or EMOs. This is especially the case in conservative-controlled Michigan, Florida, and Arizona, as well as in Pennsylvania, where $1 billion was spent in 2010-11 on charter schools, much of it destined for large, profit-based corporate “vendors” that made millions selling curriculums, technology, and their own management services.

Creeping privatization also draws parasites in the form of private-equity firms and hedge funds eying education reform as an indirect moneymaking opportunity through investments in EMOs and companies producing software for the endless testing reform entails. And, of course, there are the ubiquitous education consulting firms, which make up to $1,000 a day advising change-minded school systems on teacher evaluation, test preparation, and the like.

The reform movement’s effort to impose business values on public education by creating a ruthless competitive environment is a direct outgrowth of the Bush administration’s 2002 No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), which the Obama White House adopted whole hog through the perverse influence of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the president’s worst appointment other than Timothy Geithner at Treasury. The Obama-Duncan Race to the Top initiative is basically NCLB with $4.3 billion in federal stimulus money attached to encourage the force-fed adoption of charter schools.

Both programs share two salient characteristics: 1) test-based accountability (using student performance on standardized multiple-choice tests to measure the effectiveness of teachers and schools, thereby establishing a base line for either rewards — merit pay and bonuses — or sanctions — mass firings and school closures); and 2) the creation of privately operated, nonunion, regulation-free charter schools to replace “failing” neighborhood schools.

The pressure of high-stakes testing as a scholastic way of life has downgraded public education and led to easily measured curricula, constant test preparation, and teaching to the test. Despite this dumbing-down, surveys by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2003 and 2006, Stanford University in 2009, and the Department of Education in 2010 indicated that traditional public schools were still substantially outperforming “superior” charter schools. But so what? Money was being made, and that’s the important thing.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2014


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