By Steve Miller
The US of A likes to brag that there are no classes in America. Of course banks and corporations regularly get billion-dollar bail-outs while the people they lay off get cut off of unemployment and then welfare. One of the really nasty examples of class politics is what is being done to the public schools.
Though their children go to elite private schools, CEOs, billionaires and their hired politicians work overtime to set punitive education policies for the children of the working class. No country in the world forces children to undergo a constant regime of testing like the United States. Many schools now test their kids 8 or 9 times a semester with tests devised by corporations. Once one test is over, they begin to prepare for the next. Such testing seldom occurs in private schools (surprise, surprise!), where the focus is more on enriching the curriculum and creating exciting educational experiences.
After September 11, Bush made a number of ominous statements. The first was that the progressive agenda was OFF the table. This meant that the historic demand for equal rights to a quality education was no longer under consideration. The second was that his education plan – No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – was definitely ON the table.
NCLB demands that schools that do not meet extremely difficult test levels take money out of the classroom and hire private corporate educational services. This policy has serious effects only on schools that teach working class kids, both rural and urban, since the threat is that the government will cut off the Title I funds that these schools alone depend on. If the goal were to identify and help struggling children, money would go into these schools, instead of be removed from them.
Opening the Door to Privatization
There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that these testing regimes improve student learning since virtually all of the tests are unscientific. Educator Peter Henry describes the tests this way: “…far from being a reliable and valid measure of student learning, standardized tests are, in fact, the equivalent of Enron’s stock certificates, sold as a panacea to the equivalent of Katrina victims stranded in a flood of inequality on America’s rooftops, produced by the equivalent of America’s subprime pushers – not because they are effective and accomplish what they are meant to – but because they create lucrative profits while placing an expanding burden around the necks of people trying to stay afloat in America’s ‘survival of the fittest’ mileu.” (Peter Henry, “Enron+Katrina+Subprime = Standardized Testing”, December 15, 2007)
Frederick M. Hess of the Business Roundtable, a huge force for privatization, completely agrees,
“In sum, NCLB represents an enormous challenge to the status quo in public education and has the potential to create a major opening for entrepreneurs inside and outside of the public system.” (Educational Entrepreneurship: Realities, Challenges, Possibilities, edited by Fredrick M. Hess, p. 80)
Testing creates a market for corporate education investment since each school’s test scores are published in the newspapers. Now corporations that specialize in financial speculation have a way to determine the “value” of each school and school district. Suddenly Congressional “experts” (none of whom dare to take high stakes tests themselves) are proclaiming that a teacher’s “value added” is measured by test scores!
Such a rating system has been used for years to replace public hospitals, especially in the inner cities, with private ones. Public hospitals must treat everyone who comes in the door. Therefore they serve poorer, sicker patients and get lower marks. Then they are replaced by private hospitals, run by HMOs, which select who they will treat. Hospitals are opened and closed based on profitability, not serving the public. Educational Maintenance Organizations (EMOs) are now appearing to profit from the already $1 trillion corporate education market.
Since private corporations are “private” they are under no obligation to allow the public to control what they do. Now that so many government services are controlled by corporations, discussions of what is in the public interest are ”off the table”.
The politics of privatization always follow the same gameplan: underfund a government service, declare a crisis, proclaim that corporations and the (so-called) “free market” can do a better job if only they were de-regulated and not under government scrutiny. Then give them vast government resources that were denied in the first place when they were publicly owned.
This scenario is certainly playing itself out in public education. California is a good case in point, though privatization is rampant in every state. Public education in California has been underfunded by a trillion dollars over the last 30 years. This created the legitimate demand, particularly in the cities, to improve the quality of public schools. Standardized testing is used to “prove” that public schools are failing.
Now the state has more charter schools than any other and subsidizes them in ways not available to public schools. These schools, which can select their students, something that public schools cannot, are mostly run by corporations. They also can teach whatever they want. In essence, this deregulates public schools, since they can teach what they want. Now school boards are off the hook for their historic responsibility to provide a quality education to each child. Study after study shows that there is no evidence that charter schools overall provide a better education.
What is occurring in the US is simply a local expression of the same politics of Neo-Liberalism that the US has used to loot and privatize public wealth from countries around the world. Naomi Klein’s important book The Shock Doctrine details how the demand for “a free market” was used to deregulate and privatize public infrastructures like water, electricity, telecommunications and schools from Mexico to Indonesia. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.
The privatizers are breaking the system of public schools apart. At every juncture and in every crisis, they demand further privatization of public wealth and the elimination of public authority. This means we must continue the fight beyond saving public control — and guarantee its expansion and extension.
Otherwise public schools will be driven towards the terrible situation of health care – fully privatized with the most expensive and lowest quality system in the world. Clearly there is no way to fight for public schools by going backwards to the old system. It wasn’t very good anyway. Improving the schools requires fighting forward towards a new system, one where every student has the right and the access to quality public education.