Attack of the fake “reformers”

January 29, 2009

David Rapkin, a high school teachers and member of the United Teachers Los Angeles board of directors, looks at attacks on public education in the guise of education "reform"--and how we can fight back.

WITH SPECTACULAR budget shortfalls threatening school districts around the country, it comes as some relief that President Barack Obama's bailout plan reportedly includes over $20 billion in aid to K-12 education.

According to the White House, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan will modernize 10,000 schools and fund other crucial improvements. In California alone, up to $11 billion from the latest stimulus package could be used to help close the colossal $42 billion state budget deficit, and fund health care and education programs slated to be axed.

Yet while plans for federal bailout money are good news, these remain perilous times for public education.

First, $20 billion or $30 billion is far too little to confront the enormous crisis in our schools. The Congressional Budget Office projected several years ago that adequate school construction and refurbishment alone would cost in the neighborhood of $150 billion.

Plus, the deep recession we are entering will continue to produce new challenges. Teachers and their students will be asked to "tighten our belts" even more as the crisis worsens.

Los Angeles teachers hold a protest as a battle over budget cuts looms
Los Angeles teachers hold a protest as a battle over budget cuts looms (Sarah Knopp | SW)

In LA, we're told that thousands of layoffs are "inevitable," which automatically translates into increased class sizes for at-risk students. Already, we're sharpening pencils until they are too small for children to hold.

Simply put, our schools, especially inner-city schools serving predominantly students of color, are starved for resources. Only massive tax hikes targeting the rich and corporations could possibly begin to put the nation's poorest schools on a more equitable footing with wealthy districts.

IF THE American ruling class were content to destroy our schools through underfunding, and then sit back and watch our kids suffer, that would be criminal enough. But of course, they don't stop there. They starve us, then blame teachers, students and parents for "failing schools."

Especially, they blame teachers.

Once teachers are to blame, the answer, from the point of view of Bill and Melinda Gates and the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame and a host of others, is to promote a brand of "educational reform" that attacks unions, undermines teachers' professional autonomy and ultimately dismantles the concept of public education itself, all in the name of saving "the children."

In Oakland, Chicago, Seattle, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., LA and many other cities around the country, this fake model of educational reform has resulted in the wholesale closure of public schools and the corresponding mushrooming of charter and other "experimental" schools that erode our unions, work to turn teachers into mindless robots, and bring private corporations and their "non-profit" front groups in to feed at the trough of public money.

In LA, some 7 percent of our former students attend charters. Ten percent of Arizona children are in charters. In Chicago, the Renaissance 2010 program championed and run by Arne Duncan, Obama's new education secretary, has stolen and re-opened as many as one in 10 public schools. And in post-Katrina New Orleans, the transformation into charters has been virtually complete.

Perhaps most infuriating to teachers and most destructive to kids is the standardization of curriculum and corporatization of instructional materials that are the cornerstones of No Child Left Behind, and the handmaidens of privatization and union-busting.

I recently received an e-mail from a union sister, Jamee, a 20-year veteran and a master teacher. She is being threatened and harassed for refusing to go along with a particularly insulting series of lockstep corporate lesson plans. "We need to be the creative teachers we used to be before all this was pushed on us!" she writes.

Jamee is one of UTLA's best activists, but her principal is wearing her down and ruining her lifelong love of teaching. Her plight, and that of her struggling students, is the human face of the irreparable damage being done to our public schools every day.

The deadly combination of vicious cuts and phony reforms, promoted by local school boards, area business leaders and big capital alike, demands a huge response from union activists. The fights in Seattle, Chicago and Rhode Island, described on, are exactly the kinds of activism we need to push back and assert our own agenda in the face of this onslaught.

Here in LA, we have published and distributed a strike handbook to all of our 45,000 teachers. We are holding a big rally and march January 29 that will demand an end to school district waste and budget cuts from the state. We are fighting against layoffs and to defend our health care. And we have just begun a boycott of periodic assessment tests that symbolize the waste and destructiveness of a corporate-driven curriculum.

Key to victory will be our willingness and ability to build alliances between parents and teachers, and to reach out to the communities we serve with the loud message: Teachers and parents will not allow our children to pay for your economic crisis. And we will not allow you to ruin public education and call it "reform."

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