The school deform agenda

September 17, 2012

Jeff Bale, co-editor of the collection Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation, looks at the strategies being pursued by the corporate "reformers."

AS THE new school year gets started, a new phase in the attack on public education is underway. The battle cry this time? So-called "parent trigger laws," which stipulate that if 51 percent of parents in a given school sign a petition (the trigger), the district can fire the staff, turn the school over to a charter operator, or close the school altogether.

The current momentum behind "parent trigger" laws exposes several strategies that corporate reformers use to push their agenda for restructuring public education in order to suit their own interests.

The first strategy behind these laws, as well as the broader corporate reform agenda, is ideological. In September, the movie Won't Back Down will be coming to a theater near you. Based roughly on events at the first school to invoke a trigger law, the movie propagates many of the most common--and most inaccurate--myths about what's wrong with public schools.

As education activist Sabrina Stevens recently argued, the movie frames the crisis in public education in terms of apathetic, incompetent teachers simply clocking in and out for a day's work, while ignoring the crisis in funding as well as the broader social conditions with which schools must contend.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan (right) visits a classroom with Barack Obama
Barack Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan are pushing the school deform agenda

This bias should come as no surprise: Leonie Haimson of Parents Across America has noted that the movie was produced by the Anschutz Film Group, the outfit backed by oil and gas tycoon Phillip Anschutz also behind the anti-teacher film Waiting for "Superman".

The group has also partnered with Wal-Mart to sponsor "Teachers Rock," a star-studded promotional concert on CBS featuring clips from Won't Back Down. With this one example, then, we see how mainstream media and major corporations collaborate to directly shape the dominant ideas in society about school reform.

The second strategy is funding "astroturf" organizations--groups that pretend to have a grassroots base, but in reality are the creatures of corporate sponsorship.

The first parent trigger laws were passed in California, partly due to advocacy by Parent Revolution, a group based in Los Angeles. Despite the sexy name, there was nothing grassroots or revolutionary about it. As Parents Across America noted in its fact sheet about parent trigger laws, Parent Revolution operates with a $1 million annual budget drawn from a number of corporate foundations, including the Walton Foundation (the Walton family's wealth comes from Wal-Mart), the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

When not bankrolling groups like Parent Revolution, these foundations donate generously to lobbying operations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Council of State Governments (CSG) to do their bidding. In their exposé in Truthout on these and other lobbying groups, Sarah Lynne and Steve Horn documented the critical role that ALEC and CSG have played in pushing trigger laws and other anti-union measures in state houses across the country.

The third strategy is to donate generously to both political parties in order to ensure that each is friendly to the agenda of corporate education reform. Sadly, this is all too easy to implement, since both Democrats and Republicans are squarely behind corporate-driven reforms. At the federal level, the Obama administration has not only maintained Bush-era policies, but in fact has doubled down on them. As teacher and union activist Gillian Russom has described, the $4.35 billion in funding from Obama's Race to the Top policy was made available only to those states that expanded charter school growth and tied teacher evaluations to student test scores.

However, this bipartisan consensus on corporate-driven school reform exists at the state level as well: Calif. State Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat, introduced the legislation that became the first parent trigger law, according to Parents Across America.

CORPORATE REFORMERS first honed the strategies that they used to push through "parent trigger" laws years ago when they began implementing their broad agenda in the form of charter-school expansion and direct attacks on teachers' unions.

Charters schools first emerged in the early 1990s, and they now have an enrollment of more than 1.6 million children nationwide. Whatever the original intent, the current function of charter schools is abundantly clear: 1) to restructure the school system and place it in private, often for-profit, hands; 2) to make the teachers and other staff work harder and longer for less--and usually without a union; and 3) to accelerate the rationing of quality education and the segregation of students who receive it.

For example, two cities in Michigan, Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, recently became the first in the U.S. to turn their entire school systems over to charter operators.

In both cases, the cities are run by "emergency managers"--unelected administrators installed by the governor, with the authority to override locally elected public officials and labor contracts. In both cases, the residents of these cities are overwhelmingly African American.

And in both cases, the charter operators awarded contracts to run these schools are for-profit companies. In Muskegon Heights, officials hired Mosaica Education--despite the fact that its six other Michigan schools averaged in the 13th percentile in terms of student performance on state standardized tests, according to the 2011 state rankings.

While these are smaller districts, this restructuring is well underway in big cities, too. Philadelphia announced plans in May to close 64 schools and outsource another 25 to charter-run "achievement networks," with the goal of 40 percent of children attending charters by 2017. Detroit's plans are similar, but go further to create a three-tiered system of traditional public schools, charters and schools administered by Lansing.

This track record of charter schools exposes the topsy-turvy world of corporate-driven reforms. In almost every instance, proponents shroud themselves in the language of civil rights. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described Waiting for "Superman" as a "Rosa Parks moment," and a Goldman Sachs banker declared that charter schools represent "the civil rights struggle of my generation."

Not only is the notion of Wall Street fostering racial justice patently absurd, but the simple reality is that corporate reforms have been devastating--not liberating--in communities of color across the U.S.

In addition to restructuring, the corporate reformers have labeled teachers and their unions as public enemy number one.

The "deformers" see unions as an obstacle to their drive to carry out annual evaluations and tie pay raises more closely to student test scores, as outlined in Obama's Race to the Top policy. They also want to use charter schools--or the threat of charters--to break teachers' unions altogether. And they want to erode basic workplace rights by ending or curtailing tenure, without which teachers can be fired without cause or any rights to due process. In New York City, for example, almost half of third-year teachers were denied tenure last year.

The collective impact of these assaults on teachers and their unions is to de-skill and destabilize the field by keeping a revolving door of younger, less experienced and cheaper teachers cycling through the classroom. Despite their claims, corporate reformers are thus not particularly interested in a quality education for most youth, but rather a profitable one. A more precarious--that is, union-free and un-tenured--workforce is central to that project.

Perhaps most striking about these corporate attacks is the speed at which they have unfolded. This has to do with a perfect storm of three circumstances: 1) a bipartisan consensus, with the consequence that there is no opposition in "official" politics; 2) the 2008 economic crisis that gave political cover to cut school funding and further the attack on teachers as "greedy" and "overcompensated"; and 3) extremely weak teachers' unions that adapt to the attacks--what American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten touts as "solutions-based unionism"--rather than fight them, all while subordinating workplace struggle to electing Democrats.

AS RELENTLESSLY as the attacks have come, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is demonstrating how our side can turn back the tide. After years of building alliances with parent and community groups, union activists have waged an effective campaign to challenge Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel's assault on Chicago's teachers.

As's ongoing coverage has documented, the union expanded from its initial focus on Emanuel's demands to lengthen the school day for no extra pay into a citywide school-by-school strategy for organizing informational pickets, marches and rallies. In May, the union secured a strike vote in which some 90 percent of teachers voted to authorize a strike and later embarrassed Emanuel into agreeing to re-hire almost 500 art, music, foreign language and PE teachers to ensure not only a longer school day, but a better one.

A key element of the CTU's strategy has been to appeal directly to parents and community groups in order to explain how the union's goals will help to improve the quality of education for public-school kids, especially in the city's African American and Latino neighborhoods. Even as negotiations continued in late August, the union printed more than 30,000 placards, including slogans such as "On strike for better schools," "Fighting for the schools our children deserve," and "Parents, teachers, students united."

These slogans capture the basic idea that the interests of teachers, students and communities are not, in fact, antagonistic, but are rather one and the same. Fending off the corporate attack on public schools and the people in them thus requires a united effort that not only defends schools from the corporate agenda, but also that imagines and fights for the sort of schools that every child deserves.

A version of this article first appeared in the Boston Occupier.

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