Wayne O’Leary

School Daze: Part 2

There’s a two-pronged campaign underway in this country against America’s long-established educational system, one that seeks both to blame it for society’s present-day ills and to change it beyond recognition. As suggested in a previous column on this subject (8/15/14 TPP), much of the motivation behind the campaign is purely economic — part of the trend to privatize everything in sight for the benefit of “investors” (in this case, education entrepreneurs) — but there’s more to it than that.

The attack on traditional education is two-pronged in the sense that it’s simultaneously aimed at practices in elementary and secondary schools, as well as public colleges and universities. In each instance, there are certain commonalities at work. One of these involves the concept of tenure.

Tenure, the contemporary bane of school reformers, exists for two reasons. First, it provides teaching professionals with a modicum of job security by creating a system of due process and appeal for those facing indiscriminate, unjustified, or politically based dismissal. Second, it ensures academic freedom by preventing the arbitrary disciplining or firing of instructors uttering unpopular thoughts or holding unconventional opinions.

This second protection is key to maintaining a mature learning environment. As respected education critic Diane Ravitch told New Yorker interviewer David Denby in 2012, “Without it [tenure], there will be huge parts of this country where evolution will never again be taught — or climate change, or anything that is in any way controversial.”

That scary prospect cuts no ice with tenure’s opponents, who have taken advantage of hard times in an attempt to end this scholarly perk. In higher education, tenure has been under the gun for several years, victimized by both recessionary reductions in college and university funding and an ongoing crusade by conservatives to undermine “liberal” academia by forcing out purported left-wing faculty members.

Whereas public universities used to be the beneficiaries of state-government largesse, the triumph of austerity and Republican governance has meant deliberately fewer dollars for academic budgets and an increased reliance on low-paid, part-time, and (especially) non-tenured adjunct professors. Across the US, the proportion of tenure-track faculty at institutions of higher learning has declined by one-fifth since the 1990s.

In the public schools, the move to eliminate tenure is currently less about academic freedom and budget policy than it is about a desire to banish supposedly low-performing teachers, gut seniority rules, and cripple teacher unions. A high-profile legal decision in June set the tone. In Vergara v. California, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled that teacher tenure violated the state’s constitution by depriving students of a quality education. Education “reformers,” the same crowd riding the charter-school bandwagon, hailed the verdict, prominent among them President Obama’s union-averse education secretary Arne Duncan and presumptive GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush.

The California decision has sparked similar initiatives in several other states, where anti-tenure lawsuits are either in preparation or (like New York) have already been filed. But before anyone detects a popular democratic movement under way here — idealistic, education-hungry students rebelling against selfish, incompetent teachers — it might be well to delve beneath the surface hoopla to uncover the real agendas and interests at work.

To start with, Vergara v. California was adjudicated by a single, carefully selected conservative justice appointed to office a generation ago by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. Secondly, the case was brought not by students or parents, but by an advocacy group, Students Matter, formed by one David Welch, a Silicon Valley technology magnate, who spent millions of dollars forming the organization and funding its high-priced corporate legal team. The entire exercise was designed to use the court system to by-pass California’s Democratic legislature and permanently undercut the influence of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); we’ll see, pending an appeal.

The strategy formulated by Students Matter in California with an eye toward application nationwide is a familiar one to observers of the Roberts Supreme Court: Use test cases brought by well-financed conservative interest groups to make judicial end runs around the democratic process, set hard-to-reverse legal precedent, and frustrate liberal majority opinion. All that’s required is limitless money to pay for court challenges and the identification of favorable venues containing activist judges disposed to crack down on union activity and limit teacher independence.

The former requirement (a source of deep pockets) is no problem. Corporate education reform is rife with so-called high-tech venture philanthropists anxious to see schools produce business-oriented graduates molded to fit neatly into a narrow digitized future. In addition to the aforementioned David Welch, there are Bill Gates of Microsoft; Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (like Gates, a college dropout having limited patience with traditional, “old-fashioned” education); Eli Broad, a California real-estate and insurance mogul; Marc Bodnick, another Silicon Valley venture capitalist; and the Walton family, owners of the ubiquitous Wal-Mart chain.

These self-appointed reformers view education in a very particular (and self-interested) way: it should be technical in nature, heavily vocational, and geared to the employment needs of corporate America, including their own companies. As they see it, the learning process should not be overly focused on humanistic ideals, knowledge for its own sake, or the creation of well-rounded citizens; it should produce the labor force they need, potential employees ready, automaton-like, to plug efficiently into the global economy.

Sadly, the President of the United States is in full agreement. His supposed slip of the tongue about the uselessness of an art-history degree was no mistake; it was calculated to make a point — along with his proposal to federally rank and reward colleges and universities according to performance standards, a variation of the “test-based accountability” reform theme imposed on public schools.

The gist of the presidential mindset is that college graduates in practical STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) are far preferable to those in the more scholarly humanities or liberal arts (say, history, English literature, political science, or sociology). People who “do” are to be valued above people who “think” (let alone, “teach”). That’s what corporate America wants; what it certainly doesn’t want is a generation educated to challenge the system in a reprise of the 1960s. Washington stands ready to oblige.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2014


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