What's on the school privatizers' agenda?

Steven Miller has been a high school teacher in Oakland for 23 years. He is the author of several articles on education, including "The Corporate Surge Against Public Schools," co-written with Jack Gerson. At the Trinational Conference to Defend Public Education in April, he talked to Gillian Russom and Sarah Knopp about the privatizers' agenda and how it can be challenged.

Series: Teachers' roundtable

Teachers and education activists gathered at the Trinational Conference to Defend Public Education to document the different aspects of the neoliberal attack on public education and take stock of the lessons of the struggle against it. In this series of interviews, teachers from across North America and the Caribbean shared their experiences.

Rafael Feliciano Hernández
Puerto Rico's teacher rebellion

Michael Molina
Privatization and the Katrina solution

Eustolia Mateos Luna
The struggle in Oaxaca goes on

Jinny Sims
Mobilizing teachers' power

Steven Miller
What's on the privatizers' agenda?

WHEN DID you become aware of the problem of privatization?

IN OAKLAND in 2003, the state took over public schools, because we were theoretically in debt. It was actually a big scam. The state took over, and they put in a loud and domineering state administrator named Randolph Ward, who immediately ran up debt and doubled it. And then they started changing the model of education.

The school that I teach in right now is one of the only three schools not in program improvement. We send kids to college at a rate of 90 percent, and they're trying to close us down. They claim that our building doesn't match the earthquake requirements. But they tell everyone, "The building is safe, don't worry."

And funny thing--now we have charter schools, which in California can claim any empty property, coming around saying, "This might be a really nice place for us to be next year," even as they're trying to kick us out. They're taking a decent school for poor people and moving its location up into the hills.

Steve Miller (Sarah Knopp | SW)Steve Miller (Sarah Knopp | SW)

The school that I teach in only offers Spanish, we have no counselor, we have no nurse, no psychologist. The school that I used to teach in offered Latin, German and French to the same so-called "ghetto" kids. We had counselors, we had nurses, we had a clinic. All of that has been eliminated. So everything the corporate privatizers do reduces the quality of education.

And now we're in a contract situation. Our union contract is up on July 1 in Oakland, and they want to have all-day kindergarten so the kids can take standardized tests. The kids don't get naps, they freak out, they get hysterical. Teachers can't trust the kindergartners to bubble in the tests, so they have to do it on their own time. So instead of the teachers providing an engaging lesson, they're constantly doing this kind of paperwork, over and over.

YOU'VE PROBABLY followed the situation with Green Dot Charter Schools here in Los Angeles--what they try to do is appropriate the language of the civil rights movement. They point to the disaster in public education and say, "That's why parents should get behind this charter." How do you convince parents that a charter school isn't the way to go?

What else to read

Many of the issues discussed at the Trinational Conference and in these interviews are taken up in a paper written by Steve Miller and Jack Gerson, "The Corporate Surge Against Public Schools."

For a more general look at the imposition of neoliberal economic policies, read Naomi Klein's most recent book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Jonathan Kozol has written numerous books exposing unequal conditions in U.S. schools, including Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.

Kozol's interview in the International Socialist Review, "Change can't come without protest," takes up the issues in his books, plus the question of education activism.

THAT'S A tricky question, because there's a wide variety of things going on in charter schools. Some are led by visionary teachers and parents who got together. So in Oakland, we find that condemning all charter schools is not the way to go.

We do want to point out that they are being used against public schools in a myriad of ways to destroy the system. That's not necessarily the fault of those who are involved with charter schools. We feel that we have to make that distinction.

But most charter schools are run by corporations. They're run for a profit, and not just because they're a plucky startup. When have corporations ever provided quality anything? Gas is now $4 a gallon in this state. Food is hitting the roof and shows signs of going higher. Is Disney quality? And just because Green Dot says they're going to do something today doesn't mean that we have any control over them doing it in the future.

WHAT ABOUT an entity like Green Dot that is officially a non-profit? Do you think there's a significant difference there?

NON-PROFITS are allowed a certain percent of profit, like 3 or 4 percent. Then they can fiddle with how much they're reinvesting, so that's not "profit"--but it's excess money that they generated.

Their bigger goal is to use these things to undercut and destroy a system of public control over the schools. Once the public no longer has control over the schools--which we actually still have, to some degree--the corporations are going to run wild.

Look at public control over electricity in this state, where we were raped by Enron for $40 billion. The public control was given up, and that's what happened. In the banking industry, we're in crisis because the system was deregulated.

So they want to deregulate schools. But it's a big problem, because in every community, people are under the impression that they control their schools. So it has to be a long-term project for them, and they're not stupid--they're going step by step, and they have experience in a lot of different areas of gradually changing the debate. Bit by bit, they take a little more, and a little more.

HOW WOULD you respond to some of the young participants at this conference who say, "I'm just fed up with public education," and they decide to find five teachers and some parents, and start their own school?

FIRST OF all, I share their frustration, and where they're coming from. They're trying to find a way to establish quality education. And the question is--can we do it individually?

It's really the same question that comes up with food prices going through the roof--can everybody get their own little plot of land and raise their own food? It's just not going to work like that. So we have to have a system where we begin to work in a cooperative way, and we have to take back and expand what the public runs.

WE'RE TALKING about large forces that have a vision and a plan. You quote the book The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein in your article, which makes this case. What do you think it would take to successfully take on some of these forces?

IT REALLY begins with a different vision of what kind of society we want. A privatized society is a dog-eat-dog world, where every individual is against every other individual. We have to have a vision of a collective and cooperative society, where all of us make it together, and there's no such thing as people who can't get health care, who go hungry, who are denied education or a place to sleep. These are fundamental human rights.

If we can destroy Iraq to the tune of $3 billion a week, we can do anything. They've demolished their own argument. We need a different vision, and I think that that comes before--and infuses all of--the different battles and issues of reform that are different in every community.

YOU TALK in your article about the New York teachers' union supporting merit pay and how, in Oakland in 2003, there was very little fightback. Why do you think this is?

MOST OF the unions, including the teacher unions, developed in an era when they could cooperate with the powers that be, and win some tiny victories for their members. So they bought into a model of cooperation and collaboration, and are completely tied to the politicking of the Democratic Party.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) has hundreds of millions of dollars all tied into promises and deals with the Democratic Party, and they don't want to rock the boat. This is true with pretty much every union.

IS THIS what motivated you to start writing about these issues?

YES, BECAUSE we were being sold out by the Oakland Education Association and the CTA. I haven't had a pay raise since 2001--in fact, we've had a pay cut, not to mention inflation.

I figured that at the very least, I was going to tell the story. I wasn't going to lie, and I wasn't going to remain quiet. When I stated teaching 23 years ago, I said to the kids, "I'm not going to lie to you."

CAN YOU talk about the slogan "Quality Education is a Civil Right"?

WELL, FIRST of all, nobody can win any battle by being against something. They have to be for something. Even in the civil rights movement, people were for civil rights rather than against segregation. Of course, they were against segregation, but people just don't rally to a negative image.

So we were raising the slogan of "Quality Education is a Civil Right" because we want to fighting for a better quality of education. We got the slogan from Bob Moses.

Public education is being reduced back to what it was the 1890s, where the talented tenth gets by, and everybody else be damned. It's because the wealth of this country is polarizing faster than ever in history, and they don't intend to have systems to support poor people.

That's a waste of money in a country where the government has been virtually privatized by corporations. So they're going to reduce the quality of education down to the bottom.