From NYC To Namibia, Public Education Is Under Attack by Free-Market Ideologues
New York City’s public-school system has endured repeated budget cuts in recent years. And now the state Assembly is considering a $492 million “compromise” cut in school funding for the city in the coming year, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg is threatening to lay off 6,400 teachers.
The media discuss school budgets in terms of these big numbers, but rarely in terms of their effects on the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren, precisely because it’s hard to imagine what large, abstract numbers mean in the real world of schools. We are not told how these cuts wreck worthwhile programs, demoralizing teachers and school professionals who have spent years fine-tuning them. We don’t hear from kids about their disappointments and frustrations about losing classes, programs and teachers that make school worthwhile.
The city’s Department of Education does not evaluate the damage done by the cuts — any of them. Yet, the cuts last year were so harmful that many principals spoke out, risking their jobs. The cuts this year will hurt even more, even if the state Legislature reduces the amount that’s cleaved.
So, how can people who are charged with protecting our public schools, such as Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who say that they care about kids and that school reform is the main social-justice issue of our time, carry out policies that injure the kids they say they want to protect?
The answers to these questions require looking beyond Bloomberg and Klein’s professed beliefs and intentions to the policies themselves, which form a coherent package which has been implemented in countries across much of the world during the past 30 years.
Known outside the United States as neoliberalism’s project in education, this package of “market-friendly” reforms includes privatization of schools and services; charter schools, public-school closings, fragmentation of the school system’s administrative apparatus; budget cuts, high-stakes standardized testing and the destruction of the teacher unions as a significant player in education. Given the state of the financial system, it’s ironic that the economic crisis has accelerated and intensified efforts in the United States to push this package of reforms.
In developing countries, the architects of these reforms are quite explicit that they aim to make education produce workers who are minimally educated and will compete for jobs that require no more than a seventh or eighth grade education. This new educational system will better serve transnational corporations and their quest for increased profits. A small number of workers will require the ability to think and be the new leaders of finance, industry and technology. They’ll receive a high-quality education, in expensive private schools or in privately-run public schools — that is, charter schools.
But in neoliberalism’s educational plan, most workers do not need much schooling, so they do not require teachers who are well educated. In fact, teachers with lots of formal education and experience are a problem because they will ask for higher wages, which is a waste of government money. Teachers for most kids need only be “good enough,” to follow scripted materials that prepare students for standardized tests, and these teachers can be put into schools through “fast track” programs, like Teach For America.
ENDING PUBLIC OWNERSHIP
The other key element of this package is privatizing and commercializing schools. Education is the last sector of the economy that is still mainly “owned” by the public, and this “monopoly” as it’s called by the architects of this reform package, has to be broken so that for-profit companies have access to the education “market.” Education is also the last sector of the economy that is heavily unionized, and the teacher unions can be a stubborn opponent of the reforms, so they too must be eliminated, or at least housebroken enough.
When I speak to audiences of teachers and teacher unionists about my research about this package of reforms, already implemented by the World Bank in Africa, Asia and South America, invariably someone argues that I’m portraying a conspiracy. Not at all. A conspiracy is secret. This project is quite public, if you look for information about it in the right places. One place you would have found these reforms touted a decade ago was on Wall Street. A Merrill Lynch report issued in April 1999 titled “Investing in the Growing Education and Training Industry” informed potential investors that “A new mindset is necessary, one that views families as customers, schools as ‘retail outlets’ where educational services are received, and the school board as a customer service department that hears and addresses parental concerns.”
You won’t find the neoliberal project explained in The New York Times or the Daily News or even MSNBC or CNN. But if you look in reports of the World Bank and research done by independent scholars, you’ll see that the programs Klein has implemented were previously forced on many other countries. The result has been sharply increased inequality in education and the creation of two separate and unequal school systems, one for the rich and privileged and another for everybody else.
We can see our future — if we fail to stop these initiatives — in what’s occurred throughout the developing world. John Nyambe, chief education officer of the National Institute for Educational Development in Namibia, observes that the fate of his country’s educational system now lies outside its people’s control and that government bodies have little control. Instead, control is in the hands of international bodies that are “driven and propelled by the insatiable demand for profit. In policy formulation, profit, instead of public welfare, occupies the center stage.”
In the United States, we see control migrating to an alliance of billionaire philanthropists that even conservative education writer Diane Ravitch refers to as the “billionaire boys club,” as well as to transnational corporations and the think tanks and foundations they fund.
How can we stop this juggernaut? The fuller answer goes beyond this article. But the big lesson I’ve learned in my research is that we must remove the blinders that keep us from seeing beyond New York’s borders. The project is the same, with a few twists, in almost every country in the world. We have much to learn from struggles elsewhere, including outside the United States. In Great Britain, charter schools (called “academies”) have been halted by an alliance of parents, teachers and students begun by activists in the National Union of Teachers. The questions they asked candidates in their recent elections are exactly what we should ask politicians who profess to support public education:
*Do you agree that public schools should be accountable to democratically elected representatives of the communities they serve and not to unaccountable private sponsors or providers?
*Do you agree that public funding of our schools should all be spent on educating our children rather than contributing to the profits of private educational providers like Green Dot, paid to provide “outsourced” services to public schools?
*If elected as our representative, do you promise that you will vote against any proposal to allow so-called “alternative” or charter schools to be run for a profit?
The project to destroy what is best in public education is global, and so must be our response. In a future article in The Indypendent, I’ll discuss the role of teacher unions and parents in these struggles.
Lois Weiner teaches education at New Jersey City University. She is the co-editor with Mary Compton of The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and Their Unions: Stories for Resistance.