Public Education for Sale?

Public education is becoming big business as bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity investors are entering what they consider to be an “emerging market.” As Rupert Murdoch put it after purchasing an education technology company, “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone.”

Education historian Diane Ravitch says the privatization of public education has to stop. As assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, she was an advocate of school choice and charter schools; under George W. Bush, she supported the No Child Left Behind initiative. But after careful investigation, she changed her mind, and has become, according to Salon, “the nation’s highest profile opponent” of charter-based education.

On this week’s Moyers & Company, she tells Bill Moyers, ”I think what’s at stake is the future of American public education. I believe it is one of the foundation stones of our democracy: So an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.”

Diane Ravitch is America’s preeminent historian of public education. Her newest book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.

 

Obama’s neoliberal agenda for education

WRITING IN March 2008, the editors of a Rethinking Schools book on charter schools held out hope that the end of the Bush administration would mean new possibilities for a progressive education agenda:

This country is on the cusp of a new political dialogue. The conservative stranglehold on political debate is ending, opening up new opportunities for progressives to regain the initiative. How this opening will affect public education in general and charter schools in particular is not yet clear, but it ushers in new possibilities not imaginable a decade ago.1

Two years later, the direction of education policy under the Obama administration is indeed clear. The biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression has called into question whether our public schools will be funded at even the most basic level required for their functioning. Last year, budget cuts cost 40,000 teacher jobs. This year, 66 percent of school districts across the country have cut more jobs, while 83 percent of districts project cuts for the 2010–2011 academic year.2 Kansas City’s school board has voted to shut down twenty-eight of the city’s sixty-one schools. In California, more than 23,000 teachers received pink slips in March, and students hoping to attend college are facing tuition increases of 20 percent at the California State University and 32 percent at the University of California.

These devastating cuts are being applied to a public school system that is already in horrible shape. Many schools are overcrowded and crumbling, lacking essential technology and materials; learning is often dull because teachers are exhausted or focused on preparing for standardized tests; and students rarely get experiences that connect what they are learning to the real world. These abysmal conditions have led to a high school dropout rate of nearly 30 percent nationwide, and more than 50 percent in many major cities.3

Education should be at the center of a national debate on social priorities, led by a president who promised “change.” Instead, the economic crisis is being used by the White House to dramatically accelerate a neoliberal agenda for education, going far beyond what George W. Bush’s administration was able to do with its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy. With Arne Duncan, a political operative with no formal training in the field, as education secretary, the administration has aggressively promoted an education program with three principal elements: using test score data to evaluate teachers, shutting down and “reconstituting” schools deemed to be failing, and expanding privately-run, mostly non-union charter schools. Other elements include the standardization of curriculum and the lengthening of the school day. This agenda is supported by a nearly unified front of the powerful—Wall Street, Democrats and Republicans at all levels, and many non-profit organizations.

Obama recently signaled the lengths to which he’s willing to go to implement this agenda. Speaking before an audience of business executives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on March 1, the president supported a Rhode Island school board’s decision to fire all seventy-four teachers and nineteen other school employees at Central Falls High School. “If a school continues to fail year after year after year and doesn’t show sign of improvements then there has got to be a sense of accountability,” he remarked.4 As the only high school in the poorest community in Rhode Island, Central Falls has been chronically underfunded. Yet it seems that the only people being held accountable are the teachers who have dedicated their lives to working with Central Falls students.5

As a Democrat and the country’s first Black president, Obama has much more leeway to implement a conservative agenda than the Bush administration did, under the guise of promoting equity and civil rights. Though Obama may use different language, his education policies are an intensification of the Bush agenda. Yet many teachers’ union leaders who derided NCLB during the Bush era are now supporting Race to the Top (RTTT). American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, after praising the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its contributions to the AFT, announced that, “With the exception of vouchers, which drain vital resources from public schools, everything is on the table in terms of reform, as long as it is good for kids and fair to teachers.”6

This situation presents education activists with tremendous challenges, but also an opportunity to build a new movement for public education. It raises the question of our country’s priorities, when teachers are being fired while banks receive bailouts and soldiers are mobilized for Afghanistan. It raises the issue of public versus private control of vital community resources. And it has the potential to connect the labor movement in the form of teachers’ unions with a social movement by communities of color struggling for basic rights.

In order to build this kind of movement, our side must have a comprehensive response to the crisis of public education in the United States. We must be able to explain and organize against the neoliberal agenda, while at the same time putting forward our own vision of how to dramatically improve the quality of education that children receive in the richest country in the world. This article attempts to begin this process.

Education shock doctrine 
The Obama administration’s education program is following a neoliberal playbook, using stimulus funding and increased federal monitoring of the education system to coerce states into attacking teachers’ unions and handing over an increasing percentage of schools (and state funding) to privately-run charters.

Emerging as the dominant ideology of rampant free-market capitalism in the 1980s (until the Great Recession brought massive state intervention back in play in order to bail out the financial sector), neoliberalism is a set of economic policies that emphasizes the minimization of state intervention in the economy, privatization of sectors of the economy once thought to be the domain of the public sector, deregulation of markets, slashing government spending, and promoting anti-union “flexible” labor policies making it easier for employers to depress wages and fire workers at will. In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein shows how times of crisis have been used as opportunities to push through these neoliberal policies. Klein emphasizes that neoliberal polices involved not only directly selling off public enterprises to private interests, but also governments taking on an increasingly close partnership with the private sector, which acts as a contractor that receives state funds in exchange for providing services.7

Recently, a comprehensive critique of Bush’s (and now Obama’s) education agenda has come from unexpected quarters. Diane Ravitch was assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board under President Bill Clinton. Considered one of the nation’s most serious and credible education scholars, Ravitch was initially an advocate of NCLB, charter schools, standardized testing, and using the free market to improve schools. But she’s had a radical change of heart, as chronicled in her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.8 The book critiques the NCLB mindset, in which schools function as businesses and competition is valued over collaboration. It chronicles how school districts from New York to San Diego are undergoing the “shocks” of heavy-handed market reformers using corporate models to “discipline” their teachers.

Why is the neoliberal model being pursued by such a united front of political and economic elites? Since the Reagan administration issued “A Nation at Risk,” its report on the state of public schooling, government education policy has shifted from an emphasis on equity to strident calls for “excellence.” As part of a backlash against the civil rights movement, the report shifts responsibility for public education’s failures from government to individual schools and teachers.

This approach is especially jarring today, when the Bush and Obama administrations have pumped hundreds of billions in taxpayer money—$70 billion to Goldman Sachs alone—to bail out the banks. And that is not even counting the trillions handed out in low-interest loans—essentially free money—to the banks.

“A Nation at Risk” was also motivated by a fear that a poorly educated workforce would make the U.S. economy less competitive. This was echoed in Obama’s first major speech on education. “In 8th grade math, we’ve fallen to 9th place,” he remarked. “Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one… It’s time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world.”9

The administration may truly believe that increased standards and testing, closing “failing” schools, and making teachers work harder will bring up the skill levels of American children. Some schools may indeed improve scores as they focus on “test prep” at the expense of critical thinking and meaningful curriculum. But for schools in the most oppressed communities, this agenda is so punitive that it is likely to fail even on the narrow terms of test scores. These children are being prepared for occupations where higher skills are not necessary—or for prison.

A major goal of this agenda is to weaken teachers’ unions, by portraying them as bureaucratic, selfish obstacles to quality education. This is part of an overall attack on public-sector unions in this economic crisis. State budget crises are providing the justification to go after public-sector unions in the same way that private-sector unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) were attacked over the past decade. Together, the 1.4 million-member AFT and the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA) represent the biggest single sector of unionized workers in the U.S. today, and therefore a central target of today’s war on labor. The expansion of mostly non-union charter schools provides a powerful weapon.10

Some charter school operators are in it for the easy money—public education is a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars. But the agenda is much bigger.

While the evidence shows that increasing standards and testing, closing “failing” schools, replacing them with non-union charter schools, and making teachers work harder won’t actually bring up the skill levels of American children overall, that isn’t really the point. Business leaders are excited about education “reform” in general and charter schools in particular because they help to spot talent and recruit the cream of the working class that can be funneled into higher education and employment as technical personnel, frontline managers, and professionals.

That’s why charter schools have the fulsome backing of foundations run by billionaires like Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, Los Angeles real estate magnate Eli Broad, and the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame. In an age of austerity, capital isn’t interested in shouldering the cost of fully funding public education for all. Instead, education is to be divided into distinct tiers, and access to it is to be rationed. Business accounting methods—in this case, test scores—are to be the criteria for making such decisions.

Charter schools and “performance pay” for teachers bring the ideology of competition into education, instead of education being a government-guaranteed right for all. Sometimes, pushing free-market ideology is an explicit part of the plan: the original petition by Green Dot charter schools to take over Los Angeles’ Locke High School required that students in history classes “demonstrate a belief in the values of democracy and capitalism.”11

The attack on public education also fits with the goals of local elites in urban areas, who want to restructure their cities in ways that make them more hospitable to business investment (and consequently displace poor communities of color). For example, consider Chicago’s “Renaissance 2010” plan to “reconstitute” failing schools:

The mayor and Civic Committee are operating from a larger blueprint to make Chicago a “world-class city” of global finance and business services, real estate development, and tourism, and education is part of this plan. Quality schools (and attractive housing) are essential to draw high-paid, creative workers for business and finance.12

In order to achieve this ambitious set of goals, control over the school system must be more centralized. In many cities, the move toward charters has been facilitated by imposing mayoral control over school districts.13 And the Obama administration’s RTTT program signals the federal government’s desire to increasingly dictate educational policy at a national level.

The neoliberal agenda for education can be accelerated now for two reasons—the economic crisis, and a president who is far less likely to face opposition from unions and the left than previous administrations. Arne Duncan is quite open about the fact that he is implementing a “shock doctrine” approach. In an interview on ABC News in January, Duncan said,

I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans and this is a tough thing to say but I’m going to be really honest. The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster. And it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that we have to do better. And the progress that it made in four years since the hurricane, is unbelievable.14

The “unbelievable” progress Duncan is referring to is the fact that after the hurricane, all New Orleans schools were closed and the teachers fired. Fifty-seven percent of New Orleans schools have now been reopened as non-union charter schools.15 The fact that half of New Orleans children are no longer in the public schools because they were driven from their homes doesn’t seem to bother Duncan.

Like a nationwide hurricane, the economic crisis has provided the disaster excuse for pushing drastic changes to education policy nationwide. Speaking in San Francisco in May 2009, Arne Duncan said that California is facing a “moment of opportunity and a moment of crisis…Despite how tough things are financially, it’s often at times of crisis we get the reforms we need.”16 States have been plunged into such deep budget problems that they are rapidly revamping their education policies in hopes of attracting tiny portions of federal stimulus money from RTTT.

Arne Duncan: CEO of School Closings 
The strategy of closing or “reconstituting” schools deemed to be failing was pioneered by Arne Duncan in the Renaissance 2010 (Ren 2010) program that he implemented as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Duncan is a non-educator who was brought into the Obama administration on the basis of Ren 2010’s supposedly stellar record for improving CPS.

Initiated by Mayor Richard Daley and the Commercial Club of Chicago, the goal of Ren 2010 was to close sixty “low-performing” public schools and open one hundred new ones as small schools, charters, or “contract” schools by 2010. To date, at least fifty-one neighborhood schools have been closed or consolidated, and eighty-six new ones opened, the vast majority as charter schools.

The closing of neighborhood schools has caused great hardship for students who must relocate, and led to a spike in school violence when students are forced to commute to schools in the territory of rival gangs. The number of students fatally shot on CPS campuses has nearly tripled since 2005.17

Chicago parent Cheryl Johnson spoke at a CPS board meeting about the closure of her child’s school:

Carver High School has been in our community ever since 1974. We should have a right to have our kids go to a school that is in the neighborhood, not to take two buses and to walk to a school that they’ve been fighting in for the last four or five years… Renaissance 2010 is just an avenue for our kids to be killed on a regular basis.18

As Jitu Brown, Rico Gutstein, and Pauline Lipman explained in Rethinking Schools, “For affected communities who have longed for change, Renaissance 2010 has been traumatic, largely ineffective, and destabilizing to communities owed a significant ‘education debt’ (to quote Gloria Ladson-Billings) due to decades of being underserved.”19

Renaissance 2010 has not succeeded in improving test scores. When Obama appointed Duncan in December 2008, he said standardized test scores had risen in Chicago’s elementary schools by 29 percentage points during Duncan’s seven years as superintendent. But according to one research group, the real improvement was only about 8 percentage points, trailing behind six other major cities. Duncan’s closure of low-performing schools didn’t improve achievement on tests. Moreover, according to a study by the Commercial Club of Chicago (a sponsor of Ren 2010), under Duncan’s watch, gains on state test scores were inflated when Illinois relaxed passing standards.20

The problems of inner-city schools are a result of poverty, lack of funding and resources, and underpaid teachers. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that shutting these schools down or “reconstituting” them by firing dedicated teachers doesn’t solve these problems. In the UCLA Law Review, Andrew Spitser argued that reconstitution is arbitrary, violates collective bargaining agreements, and has a negative effect on the quality of teachers and instruction.

The loss of legitimacy and morale that would attend the labeling of a large number of schools as failing, and the upheaval caused by reconstitution in so many schools counsel further against reconstitution… school officials need to take care that the methods used to hold schools accountable do not end up punishing the children that the Act is intended to help… reconstitution threatens to do just that.21

Yet as more and more schools fail to reach the ballooning test score expectations of NCLB, we are going to see more students’ educations disrupted with this failed strategy. In addition to the high-profile “turnaround” of Central Falls High School, New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy voted in late January to close some nineteen public schools in mostly working-class Black and Latino communities. A judge has blocked the closings, but the city is appealing the decision. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already closed some ninety-one schools since 2002. And in February, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced its first “reconstitution” of Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles.

Why would the government doggedly pursue this strategy that so clearly will not solve the problems of our most-embattled schools? Because it is the logical conclusion of the “accountability” rhetoric at the heart of the neoliberal agenda. If they are going to argue that “bad teachers” must be “held accountable” for a school’s “lack of progress,” then ultimately they must get rid of some teachers to prove that they are serious. The schools that are closed or “reconstituted” are intended to set an example and discipline the rest of us to fall in line.

The Obama-Duncan agenda: A Race to the Bottom 
Obama’s first major policy initiative on education was the “Race to the Top” program (RTTT) announced in July 2009. Bringing the spirit of “free-market” competition to the highest levels of government policy, RTTT asks that the fifty states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico compete for a pool of $4.35 billion in stimulus funding for education.

On March 15, the administration announced that fifteen states and the District of Columbia had been chosen as finalists for the first round of RTTT money. The handful of winners will share less than half of the total money (about $2 billion). If a state receives the grant, 50 percent of the money must be subgranted to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) including local school districts and charter schools. As we went to press, Duncan had so far chosen only two states to receive RTTT money, Delaware (set to receive $107 million) and Tennessee (set to receive as much as $502 million). According to the Washington Post, “Duncan acknowledged that the small winner’s circle was designed as an incentive for other states to continue revamping their education policies.”22

RTTT’s criteria for awarding grants are carefully calibrated to get states to do two main things: massively expand charter schools and create data systems that allow teachers to be evaluated based on their students’ test scores. In the selection process for RTTT applicants, fifty-eight points are awarded for “improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance,” and forty points for “ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools,” while only ten points are allotted for “making education funding a priority.”23

To be eligible for a grant, states must link student test scores to individual teachers and principals for the purposes of evaluation. Applications are judged based on what percentage of a state’s schools may be charters. RTTT guidelines suggest that “reviewers should give States high points if they have no caps or caps of 10 percent or more; medium points if they have caps of 5 to 10 percent; and low points if they have caps of less than 5 percent.”24 Points are also earned for getting teachers and other unions to sign memoranda of understanding agreeing to their “reform” plans.25

The RTTT funds are a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the budget shortfalls. Yet the promise of these funds has been used to push through major changes to education policy in dozens of states. For example, if California had been chosen, the state would have gotten at best $700 million in one-time funds, scarcely 1 percent of its education budget. With these paltry funds as justification, the state passed a bill in December mandating punitive “turnarounds” of the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools and forcing schools to be converted to charters if 50 percent of parents sign a petition.26 Obviously, these policies were pushed not only to be eligible for the grant money but also because they coincide with the goals of politicians—from Republican Governor Schwarzenegger to liberal Democratic state Senator Gloria Romero (who sponsored the new law).27

The sixteen finalists were chosen not because of educational quality, but because they have gone farthest toward implementing neoliberal policies. Finalists Louisiana and Florida schools have consistently earned low rankings, but Florida is a shoo-in for the grant because they already have a “data system” that tracks their students’ test scores from preschool to college. Louisiana was chosen because of its thorough conversion to charter schools and busting of the teachers’ union in New Orleans. Ohio was an early proponent of for-profit charter schools, which had a horrible record in terms of student achievement.28 Rhode Island was no doubt rewarded for its dramatic attack on teachers at Central Falls High School. And six of the sixteen are Southern “right-to-work” states with weak or no unions for teachers. Now Obama has proposed extending the program, as well as expanding it by $3 billion, to fund new “innovations,” especially at charter schools.

Rebranding No Child Left Behind 
When Obama took office, his administration signaled a desire to get rid of some of the negative connotations associated with NCLB. As the Washington Post reported,

The Obama administration has made clear that it is putting its own stamp on education reform. That will mean a new name and image for a law that has grown unpopular with many teachers and suburban parents, even though it was enacted with bipartisan support in Congress. “It’s like the new Coke. This is a rebranding effort,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.29

On March 15, the Obama administration released “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the ESEA.”30 Though there may be some “rebranding” going on (Obama doesn’t use the term NCLB), the Blueprint leaves all the basic pillars of Bush’s law untouched. Like NCLB, the Blueprint focuses on “accountability” for teachers and schools based on test scores. The administration claims that the Blueprint changes the focus “from punishing failure to rewarding success,” and schools that are improving will be granted more freedom from federal intervention. But the plan calls for increased intervention for “low-performing schools.” It sets up “school turnaround grants,” which states can only receive if they choose one of four models for their most troubled schools: transformation (replacing the principal, extending the school day, and implementing new governance and “flexibility”); turnaround (replacing the principal and rehiring no more than 50 percent of the school staff); restart (closing the school and reopening it under the management of a charter operator); or closure.

Like NCLB, the Blueprint also sets unattainable goals for school improvement, requiring all students to be on track to be “career and college ready” by 2020. As Monty Neill of FairTest explained, “If this reasonable goal is attached to an impossible timeline, it will simply become the new basis for continuing to castigate schools and teachers for not accomplishing what society has failed to provide the resources to accomplish.”31

“Pay for Performance”? 
Among progressive teachers, there are some interesting debates taking place about the issue of “differentiated pay.”32 Should we push for extra compensation for teaching in hard-to-staff schools or to attract and retain new teachers? And if we want teachers to have more power and a voice in what happens in schools, should we consider giving extra compensation to those who serve as mentors for their fellow teachers or who take extra time to develop curriculum?

Unfortunately, none of these ideas are what Obama and Duncan mean when they talk about “performance pay” for teachers. The administration is pushing a system to reward—and punish—teachers strictly based on their students’ test scores.

In his March 2009 education speech, Obama argued, “Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.” Duncan later clarified what “excellence in teaching” means—improving student test scores. “What you want to do is really identify the best and brightest by a range of metrics, including student achievement,” he told the Associated Press.33

The push toward this kind of “performance pay” will be disastrous for three main reasons. First, because it will tend to punish teachers in the most challenging schools in poorer districts who must battle larger obstacles to improving their students’ learning outcomes. Teachers in less challenging schools and districts with more affluent students will be rewarded. In one county in Florida, where “merit pay” has been most fully implemented, three-fourths of the nearly 5,000 teachers who received merit pay worked at more affluent schools, and only 3 percent worked at low-income schools.34

Second, “merit pay” creates an atmosphere of competition rather than collaboration among teachers. This will severely weaken union solidarity, and is poisonous to the kind of collaboration that is so essential for good teaching. As the creators of the Web site Teachers for CEO Merit Pay explain:

Performance pay structures in education force teachers to compete for a limited pool of merit-pay money, instead of collaborating to provide the best possible education. This creates a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. Thus, the main way teachers learn their craft—studying from their colleagues—is effectively discarded. If you think we have turnover problems in teaching now, wait until new teachers have no one to turn to.35

Third, “merit pay” only raises the stakes on the high-stakes testing that has been proven to be both biased and a poor gauge of actual student learning. In its report, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing reviewed a range of research showing that “merit pay” leads to score inflation, narrowing the curriculum to focus solely on math and science, flawed results from for-profit testing companies, and a distortion of the goals of education—and that it may not even raise test scores.36

If we want to improve teacher quality, we need to value the teaching profession by raising the bar on teacher pay overall in the United States. A 2007 study found that starting teaching salaries in the U.S. are far below the international norm. Average teacher pay in South Korea is 141 percent of per capita gross domestic product, and just 81 percent in the U.S., which had the lowest teacher pay of the ten countries surveyed. And when teachers are compared to professionals in occupations with comparable levels of education and skills, teachers’ weekly earnings were on average almost 15 percent less.37

Charter schools 
According to Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top guidelines, charter schools “offer one of the most promising options for breaking the cycle of educational failure.”38 The evidence shows that while charter schools have been a useful way to eliminate or weaken teachers’ unions, in every other measure, they haven’t proven to be the educational Holy Grail that their promoters have claimed them to be [see “The Case Against Charter Schools” in this issue].

Responses by teachers’ unions
National leaders of the AFT and NEA have accepted many of the assumptions of the neoliberal attack. “We finally have an education president,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, following Obama’s first education speech that stressed “performance pay” and charter schools. “We really embrace the fact that he’s talked about both shared responsibility and making sure there is a voice for teachers, something that was totally lacking in the last eight years.”39

In response to the same speech, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said, “President Obama always says he will do it with educators, not to them. That is a wonderful feeling, for the president of the United States to acknowledge and respect the professional knowledge and skills that those educators bring to every job in the school.”40

Both unions initially voiced their support of RTTT. Weingarten said of the program, “The Department of Education worked hard to strike the right balance between what it takes to get system-wide improvement for schools and kids, and how to measure that improvement.”41 And Van Roekel said, “While NEA disagrees with some of the details surrounding the RTTT initiative, this is an unprecedented opportunity to make a lasting impact on student achievement, the teaching profession, and public education.”42

Weingarten has been supporting forms of merit pay and charter schools for years. When she was president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) from 1998 to 2009, the UFT opened two of its own charter schools and partnered with Green Dot to run a third where teachers are under separate contracts from the rest of the UFT. In October 2007, the UFT implemented “performance” bonuses for teachers at schools that improved their test scores.

Now, Weingarten is touting the new contract for New Haven teachers as “a model or a template” for the rest of the country. The contract implements performance bonuses for schools that improve their test scores; gives the school district the right to shut down and reconstitute low-performing schools as charters; and makes it easier for the district to fire teachers after a 120-day “improvement period.” New Haven teachers approved the contract by an overwhelming vote of 842 to 39.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the AFT “recently issued a batch of innovation grants to districts that are tying teacher pay to performance,” and the NEA “is taking similar steps to encourage tougher evaluations and to loosen seniority systems, moves that Mr. Duncan called ‘monumental breakthroughs.’”43

The NEA, which had largely refrained from criticizing Obama, did issue a critical statement after the release of the Blueprint:

We were expecting to see a much broader effort to truly transform public education for kids. Instead, the accountability system… still relies on standardized tests to identify winners and losers. We were expecting more funding stability to enable states to meet higher expectations. Instead, the “blueprint” requires states to compete for critical resources, setting up another winners-and-losers scenario. We were expecting school turnaround efforts to be research-based and fully collaborative. Instead, we see too much top-down scapegoating of teachers and not enough collaboration.

Nevertheless, the NEA has not put forward a clear strategy on how to shift education policy.

For the AFT, Weingarten has issued a strategy piece entitled, “A New Path Forward.”44 Her proposal for fixing public education contains four elements: 1) a new, more fair, and “expedient” process of teacher evaluation and for dealing with ineffective teachers; 2) a new fair and faster system of due process for teachers accused of misconduct; 3) giving teachers the “tools, time, and trust” to succeed; and 4) creating a trusting partnership between labor and management.

Although the document purports to challenge teacher scapegoating, Weingarten’s first two recommendations accept the logic that individual classroom teachers are what’s standing in the way of quality education. The piece makes no mention of the decimation of school funding nationwide. Most importantly, “A New Path Forward” stresses collaboration with politicians and school districts at a time when we need to be mounting a serious fight against them for funding and democracy.

Why aren’t the national unions taking a more aggressive approach to fight Obama’s anti-union agenda? Obviously, their close ties with Obama and the Democrats are a major factor. Moreover, it has been a long time since teachers’ unions in the U.S. waged any large-scale struggle for our rights, and there is the perception that the Obama agenda has such broad support that it would be impossible to challenge—so if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

In addition, the national unions’ approach is based on an underlying recognition that people are fed up with our public schools. Yet in the absence of our own grassroots, democratic vision of school transformation (that also protects and extends union rights), these union leaders just end up picking and choosing which aspects of the top-down reform agenda to get on board with.

Social justice teachers’ unionism 
If teachers’ unions and public education are to survive the onslaught of attacks against us, we will need to challenge the assumptions of the “partnership” model and make a fundamental shift toward social justice unionism. Social justice unions see themselves as fighting for the interests of the whole working class, not just their own members. To do this, unions must operate with a class struggle approach, take on all forms of oppression, build alliances with members of the communities in which they work, and have a global outlook.45

We know that teachers’ unions could be the leading force in a social movement for public education. The March 4th Day of Action for Public Education showed the tremendous potential for such a movement. The Day of Action was initiated by college students protesting tuition hikes in California, but eventually all California teachers’ unions got on board, holding leaflettings, school-site actions, and citywide rallies that highlighted the attacks on our public schools. Actions were also held in dozens of cities outside California. Our simple message—that public education and social services must be the top priorities of our society—resonated broadly with the general public. March 4th showed that there is no reason for our unions to be timid right now. Our fight for public education could attract millions to our side.

We will need such a mass movement to sweep away the dominance of “free-market” notions in education policy and return to the emphasis on equity that emerged from the 1960s. To win this fight, we must also win in the battle of ideas. State and federal administrators want us to believe that there are limited funds and that therefore “sacrifices” must be made (always for workers, never for well-paid administrators and executives). Nationally, the states’ total budget gap may be $375 billion for 2010-2011—half of the TARP fund used to bail out the banks. It’s not a question of a lack of funds but of priorities. Billions have been spent to bail out bankers and big businesses and to fund two unpopular wars. California spends more on prisons than it does on higher education. The rich have been under-taxed for decades now.

Such a movement will have to force major changes in how education is funded and run in this country. In California, we will have to overturn a system of state laws that have sapped the funding base from public education: the Proposition 13 cap on property taxes, tax breaks for the wealthy, and a two-thirds rule that makes it nearly impossible for the state legislature to raise taxes. This means that teachers’ unions will have to develop a serious, long-term strategy to build up a power base and push political change.

Grassroots, democratic reform versus top-down, corporate reform 
We also need to be deeply involved in putting forward our own vision and concrete plans for transforming our own schools. The left within the teachers’ unions has always fought back against cuts, but for the most part has been hesitant to get involved in reform projects to transform individual schools. We have been clear about what we are against, but much less clear about what we are for.

At the same time, radical education reformers whose focus is creating alternative school models have mostly been working at a distance from the teachers’ unions, which they see as uninterested in questions of school transformation.

If our goal is to build a mass movement for public education, radicals in the teachers’ unions need to reclaim the terrain of education visionaries and combine it with our struggle for school funding and stronger union rights. We need to be part of the small struggles to improve schools in the here and now, because these will help build the community coalitions and power to fight for the massive increase in resources that we need. Of course, meaningful, progressive school reform is unsustainable without adequate funding—and that struggle must continue. But developing a vision for the changes we want to see at each school can bring more teachers, students, and parents into our struggle and lend urgency to the fight for more resources.

In other words, we need a dual strategy to confront the dual attack of budget cuts and top-down reform. Progressive teachers in several cities have formed organizations to take on this challenge: The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators in Chicago, the Grassroots Education Movement in New York City, Educators for a Democratic Union in San Francisco, and Progressive Educators for Action in Los Angeles.46

Fighting privatization in Los Angeles 
As the Los Angeles Unified School District proceeds with large-scale cuts and layoffs, it has also begun a process that could give away dozens of our schools to privately-run organizations.

Approved by the school board on August 25, 2009, the misnamed “Public School Choice” (PSC) process opened up fifty brand-new schools and 227 “low-performing” schools to bids by “internal and external stakeholders”—including both charter schools and teacher groups. Twelve existing schools and twenty-four brand-new schools were selected as “focus schools” subject to possible takeover for the 2010-2011 school year.

The PSC process for selecting a school operator is completely undemocratic. To submit their own proposal and prevent an outside takeover of their school, teachers and parents who work full time must spend countless hours in the evenings and on the weekends to complete the lengthy application. In contrast, charter schools employ staff members working full time on the process. This year, school proposal teams had just three months to develop, discuss, and write their proposals for major transformations to their schools—a setup to exclude most voices from the conversation. And though school employees and parents can vote on which plan they prefer for their school, the vote is merely “advisory” as the superintendent and school board make the final decision.

It was tempting to abstain from this horribly flawed proposal process altogether. But without teacher and parent proposals, there would have been a far greater risk that the schools would be turned over to charters. And abstaining from the process would have left the question of what kind of changes our schools need completely in the hands of the district and the Charter Management Organizations (CMOs).

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) decided to enter the playing field, and supported teacher groups in submitting proposals for all thirty-six focus schools. This process put teachers into discussions with each other and with parents about what kind of changes we want for our schools. How can we ensure teacher control of curriculum? How can we create more opportunities for teacher collaboration? How can we give parents a genuine voice in school decisions? How can we make students’ learning experiences more rigorous, authentic, and interesting?

“[W]e’re trying to show that we can, as teacher-educators, build a school that will benefit our children because we know our children best,” said Josephine Miller, a first-grade teacher at focus school Hillcrest Elementary. “That’s what makes this exciting.”47

UTLA’s Charter Schools Task Force developed a framework of ten social justice principles that guide our efforts toward grassroots, democratic school reform: Access, equity, excellence, personalization, relevance to students’ lives and the real world, public management and local control, public purpose, school and community connection, sustainability and capacity, and commitment to unions and collective action. We think all proposals for school reform should be judged according to these principles, and we used the PSC process to educate parents about why charter schools don’t meet these criteria.

When 87 percent of parents voted to support the teacher-developed PSC proposals in the “advisory votes,” it gave us the best piece of propaganda for our side. The whole PSC process was justified in terms of “letting parents choose”—but parents had clearly chosen to support teacher-developed plans over outside takeovers.

In the end, the school board’s final decision gave twenty-nine of thirty-six schools to the local school plans developed by teachers. Despite a process that was set up to benefit them, charter schools took only four of the twenty-four new schools they bid for, and the two largest CMOs in Los Angeles (Green Dot and Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools) were rejected completely. Three schools went to the Mayor’s Partnership (whose teachers are still in UTLA). None of our schools should have been given away, but the combination of local proposal development and grassroots community outreach helped us save the vast majority of our schools and win people in many Los Angeles communities to opposing charter takeovers.

Many more schools are up for possible takeover next year. As the attacks continue, our challenge is to show how the budget cuts and school takeovers are part of a single, neoliberal agenda for education, and to bring those concerned with budget cuts and those working toward democratic school reform into a large, unified movement.

Conclusion 
The neoliberal assault on education has the potential to destroy public schools and teachers’ unions within the next decade. Challenging it will require that we build a movement that is both militant and visionary about the future of public education. To create a broad movement of teachers, parents, and students, we have to consistently tie the issues of reform, resources, and union rights together. A movement for public education has the potential to lead the way and open up a much broader challenge to all the broken promises and conservative policies of the Obama administration: the attacks on all public-sector unions, the budget cuts to all important social services, and the funding of banks, prisons, and war instead of people’s needs.

Ultimately, a movement for public education will have to confront not just the neoliberal agenda, but the overall role of schooling in a capitalist society. If students leave school only to enter an economy where the vast majority of jobs are alienating, unfulfilling, and disempowering, how can we expect to have an education system that prepares them to be creative, critical thinkers?

As Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argued more than thirty years ago:

What we demand of U.S. schools is perfectly straightforward. We envision an educational system which, in the process of reproducing society, vigorously promotes personal development and social equality. What we have shown is equally straightforward: The major characteristics of the educational system in the United States today flow directly from its role in producing a work force able and willing to staff occupational positions in the capitalist system. We conclude that the creation of an equal and liberating school system requires a revolutionary transformation of economic life.48

This is not just a matter of the current wave of education policy, but the structure of our society itself.

How education reform drives gentrification

Public school teachers in Portland, Ore., and their students are doing a victory lap. Nearly a year after unveiling a contract proposal that would have put the squeeze on the 2,900-member Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), the Portland School Board on March 3 approved a contract that acceded to virtually every demand from the teachers’ union.

The board was acting as a stalking horse for corporate attacks on unions and public education nationwide. It initially wanted to saddle teachers with higher health care costs, fewer retirement benefits, more students and a greater workload in a city where 40 percent of teachers already work more than 50 hours a week (PDF). The board also demanded expansive management rights (PDF) and allegedly wished to link teacher evaluation more closely to standardized testing. The PAT opposed the board, arguing that low-income and minority students would pay the heaviest price as their classes grew larger, more time was devoted to testing and resources for curriculum preparation and teacher development got slashed.

Only after 98 percent of the PAT voted to strike starting Feb. 20 — and students vowed to join the picket line — did the board blink. Alexia Garcia, an organizer with the Portland Student Union who graduated last year, says students held walkouts and rallies at many of the city’s high schools in support of teachers’ demands because “teachers’ working conditions are our learning conditions.”

The deal is a big victory for the teachers’ union in a state where business interests, led by the Portland Business Alliance, call the shots on education policy. The school board had brought out the big guns, authorizing payments of up to $360,000 to a consultant for contract negotiations and $800,000 to a law firm, despite already having a full-time lawyer on its payroll. But, emulating Chicago teachers who prevailed in an eight-day strike in 2012, the PAT went beyond contract numbers, winning community support by focusing on student needs and rallying to stop school closures in underserved communities.

Most significant, the teachers helped expose the role of education reform in gentrifying the city, making it nearly impossible for every neighborhood to have a strong school. This is a process playing out nationwide, from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Milwaukee to Washington, D.C. But it is particularly striking in Portland, so noted for quirkiness and tolerance it has spawned a hit television show, “Portlandia,” During a public forum on the contract negotiations, one teacher observed that the show was a reflection of how “we march to our own beat in Portland.” This has held true for the teachers’ approach to education.

Test scores by ZIP code

The current fight over public schools began in January 2013 when teachers, parents and students successfully blocked the board from closing or merging half a dozen schools, mainly in the historically African-American neighborhood of Northeast Portland, which had already seen two schools shut down the previous year. This helped to mobilize community support behind a vision of public education that contrasted starkly with the Portland School Board’s ideas.

The tussle over teacher contracts has underscored how cozy the board is with corporate interests that promote school ratings, standardized testing and school choice, which allows students to freely transfer to other public schools. Touted as a way to use market forces to improve schools, school choice instead creates a two-tier system.

The racial effect of school choice is stark in Northeast Portland, where more than 40 percent of the black population has been pushed out since 2000, and which is 70 percent white today. City documents reveal that more white children in the area opt for charter, magnet and public schools in other parts of the city than attend their assigned neighborhood school. For African-American children, barely one-fourth access those choices.

Sekai Edwards is a sophomore at Jefferson High School in Northeast Portland, the only African-American-majority school in the city. It’s ranked in the bottom 15 percent of the state’s schools. Edwards says Jefferson is “portrayed as failing, as having a lot of violence and gang activity, so fewer kids want to come here.” Jefferson has about 500 students, a third of the size of some other high schools in the city. Since funding is tied to enrollment, Edwards says the only foreign language offered is Spanish, and her anatomy and physiology class has 43 students in it. She says, “I just want to focus on schooling,” but with constant fears of her school being shut down, she adds, “I don’t think I’ll get that at Jefferson.”

History of displacement

What’s happening in Portland is white flight in reverse. Middle-class families eye Northeast Portland for its undervalued homes but choose different schools because neighborhood ones are pegged as bad. Declining enrollment bleeds money from already underfunded schools, making them less attractive and creating a downward spiral in which the schools are rated as failing, subsequently closed and eventually replaced by charter schools that can cherry-pick students.

School choice is layered atop a racialized terrain, allowing middle-class families to profit from lower home prices while avoiding the cost of bad schools.

As public schools in Northeast Portland shutter, black households are displaced as redevelopment pushes rents upward. Karen Gibson, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, analyzes how government policies, banks and developers ghettoized Portland’s blacks. The history of black Portland is one of high unemployment and incarceration rates, toxic land and shoddy housing, institutionalized segregation and redlining practices, poor schools, minimal social services and overpolicing. Gibson wrote that for 40 years blacks were subjected to “predatory and exploitative lending practices by speculators, slumlords, bankers and real estate agents,” being denied routine mortgage and rehab loans or the ability to move to other neighborhoods. When Northeast Portland was slated for rehabilitation in the ’90s, government assistance, bank mortgages and business opportunities flowed to whites, while black homeowners, often not realizing how much their homes had appreciated, took below-market cash offers from speculators. For the two-thirds of black households who don’t own homes (as opposed to the 57 percent of white households who do), rising rents hit harder, as their per capita income is barely $16,000, half that of whites.

Despite decades of promises to address such displacement, the city has pushed ahead with policies that intensify racial disparities. Most recently it offered a $2.6 million parcel of land for a mere $500,000 to the billionaire-owned Majestic Realty to develop a Trader Joe’s outlet. The deal would have increased displacement without any guarantees for community hiring or affordable housing. After an outcry from the African-American community, Trader Joe’s withdrew from the deal.

Ironically, the same cultural wave that has brought “Portlandia” to young audiences has also encouraged more gentrification. The show trades on residents’ obsessive tendencies about food, facial hair, bicycling, dumpster diving — any activity untainted by mass consumer culture. But the quirky authenticity attracts new residents to the city, driving up rents and spreading the hipster culture that has colonized much of New York City, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area and other places. In its wake it leaves its own form of homogenization: new residents who are largely white and wealthy.

Beyond cold numbers

School choice is layered atop this racialized terrain, allowing middle-class families to profit from lower home prices while avoiding the cost of bad schools. It’s the existing residents who foot the bill. Elizabeth Thiel, an educator who has taught in five Portland public schools over the past 11 years, lives in Northeast Portland. She says the white middle-class families moving into black neighborhoods are genuinely concerned about “trying to find the best education for their kid.” But according to Thiel, the education-reform movement, with its focus on standardized testing, has legitimized the naming of schools as failures. Families thus feel justified in saying, “Well, I live in that neighborhood, but I would never send my kid to that school.” Thiel says, “People stop thinking about what a school really is. It’s a community, and community is defined by the people who participate in it.”

In fact, standardized test scores mainly measure income and race. Students from wealthier and whiter neighborhoods score higher on the tests than students in low-income black areas. Portland schools use parent-led foundations to fundraise. In wealthier neighborhoods those efforts can translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to pay for support staff, technology, arts classes and electives lacking at schools like Jefferson.

Looking ahead

By the time the two sides struck a deal on Feb. 18, the school board had conceded (PDF) nearly every demand of the PAT, agreeing to hire more than 150 teachers to reduce class size, minimize changes to health care and bump pay by a modest 2.3 percent per year. Many of the concessions directly affect the learning process: The board backtracked on demands to lift the cap on how many students a teacher can have at one time and decrease the amount of time for lesson planning in elementary schools, and it agreed to allow teachers more leeway in tailoring instruction methods to the needs of students.

The success of Portland teachers in fighting off misguided educational policies could help counter the swelling inequality that is pulverizing the city’s neighborhoods. More important, by advocating for high-quality public education for all children as the building block of stable communities, the teachers have shown how to fight corporate-driven gentrification and education reform at the same time, regardless of the city.

Abstract Facts and Figures about Education

General Facts and Figures

For the 2010–11 academic year, annual current dollar prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated

1.        $13,600 at public institutions

2.        $36,300 at private not-for-profit institutions

3.        $23,500 at private for-profit institutions

Causes of Tuition Increases

1.        Privatization and Cost Shifting- the reduction of state and federal appropriations to state colleges, causes an institution to shift the cost over to students in the form of higher tuition. State support for public colleges and universities has fallen by about 26 percent per full-time students since the early 1990s. The shift from state support to tuition indicates an effective privatization of the public education.

2.        Bubble Theory- According to the theory, while college tuition payments are rising, the rate of return of a college degree is decreasing, and the soundness of the student loan industry may be threatened by increasing default rates. College students who fail to find employment at the level needed to pay back their loans in a reasonable amount of time have been compared to the debtors under sub-prime mortgages whose homes are worth less than what is owed to the bank.

According to Ginsberg, “there have been new sorts of demands for administrative services that require more managers per student or faculty member than was true in the past.” The Goldwater Institute echoes this sentiment with its findings that, “Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent.”

3.        Student Loan: Another proposed cause of increased tuition is U.S. Congress’ occasional raising of the ‘loan limits’ of student loans, in which the increased availability of students to take out deeper loans sends a message to colleges and universities that students can ‘afford more,’ and then, in response, institutions of higher education raise tuition to match, leaving the student back where he began, but deeper in debt.

4.        Lack of Consumer Protection: A third, novel, theory claims that the recent change in federal law removing all standard consumer protections (truth in lending, bankruptcy proceedings, statutes of limits, the right to refinance, adherence to usury laws, and Fair Debt & Collection practices, etc.) strips students of the ability to declare bankruptcy, and, in response, the lenders and colleges know that students, defenseless to declare bankruptcy, are on the hook for any amount that they borrow -including late fees and interest (which can be capitalized and increase the principal loan amount), thus removing the incentive to provide the student with a reasonable loan that he/she can pay back.[16][17] As proof of this theory, it has been shown that returning bankruptcy protections (and other Standard Consumer Protections) to Student Loans would cause lenders to be more cautious, thereby causing a sharp decline in the availability of student loans, which, in turn, would decrease the influx of dollars to colleges and universities, who, in turn, would have to sharply decrease tuition to match the lower availability of funds.

Other factors [12] that have been implicated in increased tuition include the following:

·         Colleges and universities have accumulated multi-billion dollar endowments, especially at elite universities. Harvard University announced its endowment was worth $32 billion, and Yale reported an endowment of $19.4 billion on returns that were tax-exempt.[25] In 2011, California’s two public university systems had more than $7 billion in endowment funds but raised tuition fees by 21% combined.[26] These figures raise related concerns about “institutional gap” — meaning that universities may not be managing their endowments appropriately and that other universities try to compete with elite institutions, thus charging higher tuition fees in the competition to retain high faculty- and status-ranking.[27]

·         The practice of ‘tuition discounting,’ in which a college awards financial aid from its own funds. This assistance to low-income students means that ‘paying’ students have to ‘make up’ for the difference: increased tuition.[12] According to Inside Higher Ed, a 2011 report from the National Association of College and University Business Officers explains more about the practice of tuition discounting. The article notes that “while the total amount spent on institutional aid for freshmen rose, the average amount that institutions spent per student actually dropped slightly,” and gives, as one possible reason for this drop, that between 2008 and 2011 “colleges and universities had to lower the amount they gave to each student to help cover a larger number of students.”[28]

·         According to Mark Kantrowitz, a recognised expert in this area, “The most significant contributor to tuition increases at public and private colleges is the cost of instruction. It accounts for a quarter of the tuition increase at public colleges and a third of the increase at private colleges.”

·         Kantrowitz’ study also found that “Complying with the increasing number of regulations — in particular, with the reporting requirements — adds to college costs,” thus contributing to a rise in tuition to pay for these additional costs. Since deregulation, the average cost of tuition and fees at the state’s public universities has increased by 90 percent, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Of the 181 members of the state’s 83rd Legislature, more than 50 have voted at least once to advance efforts to end tuition deregulation, while fewer than 20 have consistently voted to uphold it. Many have never voted on the issue, and more than 40 members are freshmen. This rise, however, is not entirely negative. Tuition increases help universities make up for that in their budgets

 Point of Interest: Disproportional Inflation of College Tuition

Cost of living increased roughly 3.25-fold during this time; medical costs inflated roughly 6-fold; but college tuition and fees inflation approached 10-fold. Another way to say this is that whereas medical costs inflated at twice the rate of cost-of-living, college tuition and fees inflated at four times the rate of cost-of-living inflation. Thus, even after controlling for the effects of general inflation, 2008 college tuition and fees posed three times the burden as in 1978.

[http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/the-high-price-of-a-free-college-education-in-sweden/276428/]: Important article that gives a slight preview of an alternative education system that will be viable in the United States of America.

Neoliberalism and Commercialism of Higher Education

[http://www.theinternational.org/articles/448-neoliberalism-and-the-commercialization-o]

Increasingly, education is fashioning students into a productive labor force rather than teaching them more traditional academic ideals.

The neoliberal turn to privatization and the commercialization of education is an area of concern for British universities. Since the 1980s, neoliberalism has been expressing itself in university syllabi. Abandoning previous values of critical-thinking and challenging basic assumptions, the focus leans towards teaching vaguely defined “skills” such as “teamwork,” “communication” and “leadership.”

Last year’s plans to raise tuition fees in Britain to a maximum of £9000, $13,731 at today’s exchange rate, were coterminous with cuts of £2 billion in funding for education. Universities’ lack of funding caused them to compensate for lost income by hiking up tuition fees.

What is Neoliberalism?

In the 1970s, responding to a period of stagflation (inflation with rising unemployment), former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan were the first to advocate the creeds of neoliberalism. This involved political-economic practices of privatization and deregulation besides the promotion of free markets and free trade. Neoliberalism rapidly spread across all G7 countries (the seven wealthiest countries on earth, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan) before being imposed via violent military coups onto many countries in the ‘developing’ world, including Iraq, Poland and most of South America.

The main intent of neoliberalism is to generate wealth by opening up countries to free trade, trade between countries that is not regulated by the government, allowing for deviance from ethical practices. However, studies such as those by economists Duménil and Lévy indicate that the primary effect of neoliberal strategies across the world has been for wealth to become increasingly concentrated within the richest strata of society. According to these studies, neoliberalism does not even improve economic growth, with global growth falling by almost 3% last year. In contrast, countries such as India and South Korea, spared from certain aspects of neoliberalism, saw rapid growth thanks to investment in industry.

Other implications of neoliberalism include the reduced power of organized labor, increased productivity paralleled by declining wages in order to extract more value, and most poignantly, as analysts such as David Harvey have found, the pumping of wealth from the poorest to the richest members of society via transfer pricing and cheap migrant labour.

Neoliberalism and higher education

Many academics are against the reforms in education taking place, whilst others argue that it is a necessity in a time of economic crisis. Doctor Jason Hickel, lecturer in Economic Anthropology at theLSE explains, “This seems like a relatively innocuous change, but to me it’s a sign that the way we think about higher education is changing for the worse.” Some might reject this, claiming that teaching career-orientated skills are crucial in order to bolster students against the current economic climate. “Of course, students need to get jobs upon graduating. I am sensitive to that.

The proponents of the New Enhanced Course Guides argue that students will be able to use the language from the skills section to fill out their CVs and to convince employers to hire them.” Nevertheless, as Hickel argues, “The kinds of skills that the New Enhanced Course Guides [at the LSE] include, reflect the language of the corporate world and the ethic of entrepreneurial self-management. Even if they didn’t, they would still send students the wrong message, namely, that education is designed to equip individuals with marketable skills, and that the ultimate end goal is productivity.”

Furthermore, the way people are taught will have transformative effects on the world as a whole, as generations of students progress into the jobs market and foreign students return to their countries of origin, carrying with them the neoliberal articles of faith. After coming home with neoliberal values, many American-educated students led military coups in which the pursuit of commercial ideals implicated the death of hundreds of thousands. This was the case for Chile in 1973, where the insurgent government was led by US-educated graduates. More recently, in 2009, a coup in Honduras was led by graduates taught at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a US training ground based in Georgia, which has been linked to to torture cases, dictatorships and military coups. Countries that experienced such coups, according to data gathered by the CIA, are among the most economically unequal in the world. With an intake of students from 145 different countries, spanning from South America to the South East Asia, the global impact of education at universities such as the LSE will be equally significant.

Besides the circulation of powerful neoliberal ideologies throughout academia, tuition hikes also become subject to marketization, the treatment of education as a business and students as a future labour force. Evidencing this, one year into its term in office, the British Conservative Party held meetings to discuss how universities could help contribute to growth in the economy.

In this process of marketization, austerity measures have led to increased tuition fees, which students find increasingly difficult to pay and applications to universities are declining. In 2011, there was a decrease of 20,000 applications. This implicates the bursting of the tuition bubble which has led to a further neoliberal assault on education through managerial-imposed readjustments of academic faculties as well as closures of poorly achieving departments. This in turn has led to declining moral and increased strategic competition between academic staff.

Education has also become increasingly quantified via standardized testing, as universities and departments are ranked by performance in a way that brushes over divergences in opinion, steering the control of curriculum and organization of departments. With layoffs as well as cessations of entire disciplines in certain universities, underachievement is blamed upon the teachers rather than the effects of reduced funding.

For example, the closure of Exeter University’s chemistry department in 2006, determined principally by financial motives, was met by vociferous resentment on the part of the chemists as well as students, academic unions and the Royal Society of Chemistry. The department was shut down due to its low position in the university ranking, the high cost of running its laboratories and in order to attract further grants. Students and teachers alike responded with letters and emails of complaint. Nevertheless, the university’s director, Steven Smith, persisted in this profit-making tactic.

What are the viable alternatives?

Neoliberal techniques involve the commercialization of education, focusing principally on preparing students for the world of work. As Hickel argues, “Those of us who teach in the liberal arts and social sciences generally reject this approach. We encourage our students to value learning for its own sake, and we try to sow in them a passion for asking difficult questions about the world and equip them to think critically about taken-for-granted assumptions.”

From the start of the 21st century, academics and institutions have started calling for a revival of the cosmopolitan ethic (‘an injury to one is an injury to all’), which provides tangible alternatives to neoliberalism. Others advocate Democratic Learning, which, in drawing on the views of the educator, John Dewey, provides a framework for teachers, involving methods influenced by the students themselves and, takes a humanist approach to teaching, concerned with human welfare. So doing, lecturers will supply students with the tools necessary to become fully active democratic citizens. As Hickel claims, “We need to be empowering students to resist this kind of commodification of everything rather than encouraging it, especially given that all indicators seem to suggest that it’s leading our society down a dead-end road. For us, higher education is more about learning how to challenge the status quo rather than simply learning how to climb the ladder.”

On the other hand, some take a less optimistic view of British education. As Tarak Barkawi, lecturer in Politics at the New School for Social Research explains, “For many years now in the UK, faculty have been forced to put things on their syllabi (like learning aims and outcomes) so that battle was lost some time ago.” Barkawi also introduces yet another side of the debate: “For what it is worth, the neoliberal modernizers are bad, but so too are those who cite traditional academic values to protect cosy jobs, or to not do their jobs, or to carry on doing what they always have done. So you have to be a little careful at taking everything at face value.”

As broached by Barkawi, the commercialization of British education is not a black and white issue but a more nuanced matter of much contention. There are those who advocate a profit-orientated education, others such as Hickel who plead for a return to critical engagement and a humanist outlook, and finally, those such as Barkawi who have a more tentative view. However, as the league tables demonstrate, for British universities not to lag behind the rest of the world there must be a reassessment of the purpose of education.

Neoliberal Education

The democratic mission of public education is under assault by a conservative right-wing reform culture in which students are viewed as human capital in schools that are to be administered by market-driven forces.

neoliberalPublic education is under assault by a host of religious, economic, ideological and political fundamentalists. The most serious attack is being waged by advocates of neoliberalism, whose reform efforts focus narrowly on high-stakes testing, traditional texts and memorization drills. At the heart of this approach is an aggressive attempt to disinvest in public schools, replace them with charter schools, and remove state and federal governments completely from public education in order to allow education to be organized and administered by market-driven forces.1 Schools would “become simply another corporate asset bundled in credit default swaps,” valuable for their rate of exchange and trade value on the open market.2 It would be an understatement to suggest that there is something very wrong with American public education. For a start, this counter-revolution is giving rise to punitive evaluation schemes, harsh disciplinary measures, and the ongoing deskilling of many teachers that together are reducing many excellent educators to the debased status of technicians and security personnel. Additionally, as more and more wealth is distributed to the richest Americans and corporations, states are drained of resources and are shifting the burden of such deficits on to public schools and other vital public services. With 40 percent of wealth going to the top 1 percent, public services are drying up from lack of revenue and more and more young people find themselves locked out of the dream of getting a decent education or a job while being robbed of any hope for the future.

As the nation’s schools and infrastructure suffer from a lack of resources, right-wing politicians are enacting policies that lower the taxes of the rich and mega corporations. For the elite, taxes constitute a form of class warfare waged by the state against the rich, who view the collection of taxes as a form of state coercion. What is ironic in this argument is the startling fact that not only are the rich not taxed fairly, but they also receive over $92 billion in corporate subsidies. But there is more at stake here than untaxed wealth and revenue, there is also the fact that wealth corrupts and buys power. And this poisonous mix of wealth, politics and power translates into an array of anti-democratic practices that creates an unhealthy society in every major index, ranging from infant mortality rates, to a dysfunctional political system.3

What is hidden in this empty outrage by the wealthy is that the real enemy here is any form of government that believes it needs to raise revenue in order to build infrastructures, provide basic services for those who need them, and develop investments such as a transportation system and schools that are not tied to the logic of the market. One consequence of this vile form of class warfare is a battle over crucial resources, a battle that has dire political and educational consequences especially for the poor and middle classes, if not democracy itself.

Money no longer simply controls elections; it also controls policies that shape public education. One indicator of such corruption is that hedge fund managers now sit on school boards across the country doing everything in their power to eliminate public schools and punish unionized teachers who do not support charter schools. In New Jersey, hundreds of teachers have been sacked because of alleged budget deficits. Not only is Governor Christie using the deficit argument to fire teachers, he also uses it to break unions and balance the budget on the backs of students and teachers. How else to explain Christie’s refusal to oppose reinstituting the “millionaires taxes,” or his cravenly support for lowering taxes for the top 25 hedge fund officers, who in 2009 raked in $25 billion, enough to fund 658,000 entry-level teachers.4

In this conservative right-wing reform culture, the role of public education, if we are to believe the Heritage Foundation and the likes of Bill education-is-a-process1Gates-type billionaires, is to produce students who laud conformity, believe job training is more important than education, and view public values as irrelevant. Students in this view are no longer educated for democratic citizenship. On the contrary, they are now being trained to fulfill the need for human capital.5 What is lost in this approach to schooling is what Noam Chomsky calls “creating creative and independent thought and inquiry, challenging perceived beliefs, exploring new horizons and forgetting external constraints.”6 At the same time, public schools are under assault not because they are failing (though some are) but because they are one of the few public spheres left where people can learn the knowledge and skills necessary to allow them to think critically and hold power and authority accountable. Not only are the lines between the corporate world and public education blurring, but public schooling is being reduced to what Peter Seybold calls a “corporate service station,” in which the democratic ideals at the heart of public education are now up for sale.7 At the heart of this crisis of education are larger questions about the formative culture necessary for a democracy to survive, the nature of civic education and teaching in dark times, the role of educators as civic intellectuals and what it means to understand the purpose and meaning of education as a site of individual and collective empowerment.

This current right-wing emphasis on low-level skills removes the American public from examining the broader economic, political, and cultural forces that bear down on the school. Matters concerning the influence on schools of corporations, text book publishers, commercial industries and the national security state are rendered invisible, as if schools and the practices they promote exist in a bubble. At work here is a pedagogy that displaces, infantilizes and depoliticizes both students and large segments of the American public. Under the current regime of neoliberalism, schools have been transformed into a private right rather than a public good. Students are now being educated to become consumers rather than thoughtful, critical citizens. Increasingly as public schools are put in the hands of for-profit corporations, hedge fund elites, and other market driven sources, their value is derived for their ability to turn a profit and produce compliant students eager to join the workforce.8

What is truly shocking about the current dismantling and disinvestment in public schooling is that those who advocate such changes are called the new educational reformers. They are not reformers at all. In fact, they are reactionaries and financial mercenaries who are turning teaching into the practice of conformity and creating curricula driven by an anti-intellectual obsession with student test scores, while simultaneously turning students into compliant subjects, increasingly unable to think critically about themselves and their relationship to the larger world. This poisonous virus of repression, conformity and instrumentalism is turning public education into a repressive site of containment, a site devoid of poetry, critical learning and soaring acts of curiosity and imagination. As Diane Ravitch has pointed out, what is driving the current school reform movement is a profoundly anti-intellectual project that promotes “more testing, more privately managed schools, more deregulation, more firing of teachers [and] more school closings.”9 There are no powerful and profound intellectual dramas in this view of schooling, just the muted rush to make schools another source of profit for finance capital with its growing legion of bankers, billionaires and hedge fund scoundrels.

Public schooling is increasingly harnessed to the needs of corporations and the warfare state. One consequence is that many public schools, especially those occupied by poor minority youth, have become the new factories for dumbing down the curricula and turning teachers into what amounts to machine parts. At the same time, such schools have become increasingly militarized and provide a direct route for many youth into the prison-industrial complex or what is called the school-to-prison pipeline.10 What is buried under the educational rhetoric of hedge-fund and casino capitalism reform is the ideal of offering public schools students a civic education that provides the capacities, knowledge and skills that enable students to speak, write and act from a position of agency and empowerment.

dont_privatize_r_schools_1Privatization, commodification, militarization and deregulation are the new guiding categories through which schools, teachers, pedagogy and students are defined. The current assault on public education is not new but it is more vile and more powerful than in the past. Crucial to any viable reform movement is the need to understand the historical context in which public education has been transformed into an adjunct of corporate power as well as the ways in which the current right-wing reform operates within a broader play of power, ideology and other social forces that bear down in anti-democratic ways on the purpose of schooling and the practice of teaching itself. Making power visible is important, but only a first step in understanding how it works and how it might be challenged. But recognizing such a challenge is not the same thing as overcoming it. Part of this task necessitates that educators anchor their own work in classrooms, however diverse, in projects that engage the promise of an unrealized democracy against its existing, often repressive forms. And this is only a first step.

Schools should be viewed as crucial to any viable notion of democracy, while the pedagogical practices they employ should be consistent with the ideal of the good society. This means teaching more than the knowledge of traditional canons. In fact, teachers and students need to recognize that as moral and political practice, pedagogy is about the struggle over identity just as much as it is a struggle over what counts as knowledge. At a time when censorship is running amok in public schools, the debate over whether we should view schools as political institutions seems not only moot, but irrelevant. Pedagogy is a mode of critical intervention, one that believes teachers have a responsibility to prepare students not merely for jobs, but for being in the world in ways that allow them to influence the larger political, ideological and economic forces that bear down on their lives. Schooling is an eminently political and moral practice, because it is both directive and actively legitimates what counts as knowledge, sanctions particular values and constructs particular forms of agency.

One of the most notable features of contemporary conservative reform efforts is the way in which it increasingly positions teachers as a liability and in doing so aligns them with modes of education that are as demeaning as they are deskilling. These reforms are not innocent and actually promote failure in the classroom. And when successful, they open the door for more public schools to be closed, provide another chance at busting the union and allow such schools to be taken over by private and corporate interests. Under the influence of market-based pedagogies, teachers are the new welfare queens, and are repeatedly subjected to what can only be described as repressive disciplinary measures in the school and an increasing chorus of verbal humiliation from politicians outside of the classroom. Teachers are not only on the defensive in the neoliberal war on schools, they are also increasingly pressured to assume a more instrumental and mercenary role. Such approaches leave them with no time to be creative, use their imagination, work with other teachers or develop classroom practices that are not wedded to teaching for the test and other demeaning empirical measures. Of course, the practice of disinvesting in public schools has a long history, but it has strengthened since the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and has intensified in the new millennium. How else to explain that many states invest more in building prisons than educating students, especially those who are poor, disabled and immersed in poverty. The right-wing makeover of public education has resulted in some states, such as Texas, banning critical thinking in their classrooms while in Arizona legislation has been passed that eliminates all curricula material from the classroom that includes the histories of Mexican-Americans.

Read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other forward-thinking scholars at The Public Intellectual Project on Truthout.

Fighting for democracy as an educational project means encouraging a culture of questioning in classrooms, one that explores both the strengths and weaknesses of the current era. I think Zygmunt Bauman is right in arguing that “if there is no room for the idea of a wrong society, there is hardly much chance for the idea of a good society to be born, let alone make waves.”11 At stake here is the question of what kind of future do our teachings presuppose? What forms of literacy and agency do we make available to our students through our pedagogical practices? I believe that this broader project of addressing democratization as a pedagogical practice should be central to any worthwhile attempt to engage in classroom teaching. And this is a political project. As educators, we have to begin with a vision of schooling as a democratic public sphere, and then we have to figure out what the ideological, political and social impediments are to such goals and organize collectively to derail them. In other words, educators need to start with a project, not a method. They need to view themselves through the lens of civic responsibility and address what it means to educate students in the best of those traditions and knowledge forms we have inherited from the past, and also in terms of what it means to prepare them to be in the world as critically engaged agents.

Educators need to be more forceful, if not committed, to linking their overall investment in democracy to modes of critique and collective action that address the presupposition that democratic societies are never too just or just enough. Moreover, such a commitment suggests that a viable democratic society must constantly nurture the possibilities for self-critique, collective agency and forms of citizenship in which teachers and students play a fundamental role. Rather than forced to participate in a pedagogy designed to up test scores and undermine forms of critical thinking, students must be involved pedagogically in critically discussing, administrating and shaping the material relations of power and ideological forces that form their everyday lives. Central to such an educational project is the ongoing struggle by teachers to connect their pedagogical practices to the building of an inclusive and just democracy, which should be open to many forms, offers no political guarantees and provides an important normative dimension to politics as an ongoing process that never ends. Such a project is based on the realization that a democracy open to exchange, question and self-criticism never reaches the limits of justice; it is never just enough and never finished. It is precisely the open-ended and normative nature of such a project that provides a common ground for educators to share their resources with a diverse range of intellectual pursuits, while refusing to believe that such struggles in schools ever come to an end.

In order to connect teaching with the larger world so as to make pedagogy meaningful, critical and transformative, educators will have to focus their work on important social issues that connect what is learned in the classroom to the larger society and the lives of their students. Such issues might include the ongoing destruction of the ecological biosphere, the current war against youth, the hegemony of neoliberal globalization, the widespread attack by corporate culture on public schools, the dangerous growth of the prison-industrial complex, the ongoing attack on the welfare system, the increasing rates of incarceration of people of color, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, the rise of a generation of students who are laboring under the burden of debt and the increasing spread of war globally.

But educators need to do more than create the conditions for critical learning for their students; they also need to responsibly assume the role of civic educators willing to share their ideas with other educators and the wider public by writing for a variety of public audiences in a number of new media sites. This suggests using opportunities offered by a host of public means of expression including the lecture circuit, radio, Internet, interview, alternative magazines and the church pulpit, to name only a few. Such writing needs to become public by crossing over into spheres and avenues of expression that speak to more general audiences in a language that is clear but not theoretically simplistic. Capitalizing on their role as intellectuals, educators can address the challenge of combining scholarship and commitment through the use of a vocabulary that is neither dull nor obtuse, while seeking to speak to a broad audience. More importantly, as teachers organize to assert the importance of their role and that of public schooling in a democracy, they can forge new alliances and connections to develop social movements that include and also expand beyond working with unions.

Educators also need to be more specific about what it would mean to be both self-critical as well as attentive to learning how to work collectively with other educators through a vast array of networks across a number of public spheres. This might mean sharing resources with educators in a variety of fields and sites, extending from other teachers to community workers and artists outside of the school. This also suggests that educators become more active in addressing the ethical and political challenges of globalization. Public schools teachers need to unite across the various states and make a case for public education. At the very least, they could make clear to a befuddled American public that the deficit theory regarding school cutbacks is a fraud. There is plenty of money to provide quality education to every student in the United States. As Salvatore Babones points out, “The problem isn’t a lack of money. The problem is where the money is going.”12 The issue is not about the absence of funds as much as it is about where funds are being invested and how more revenue can be raised to support public education in the United States. The United States spends around $960 billion on its wars and defense-related projects.13 In fact, the cost of war over a ten year period “will run at least $3.7 trillion and could reach as high as $4.4 trillion,” according to the research project “Costs of War” by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.”14 As Babones argues, the crucial recognition here is that research consistently shows that education spending creates more jobs per dollar than any other kind of government spending. A University of Massachusetts study ranked military spending worst of five major fiscal levers for job creation. The UMass study ranked education spending the best. A dollar spent on education creates more than twice as many jobs than a dollar spent on defense. Education spending also out-performs health care, clean energy and tax cuts as a mechanism for job creation.15

Surely, this budget could be trimmed appropriately to divert much-needed funds to education, given that a nation’s highest priority should be investing in its children rather than in the production of organized violence. As capital, finance, trade and culture become extraterritorial and increasingly removed from traditional political constraints, it becomes all the more pressing to put global networks and political organizations into play to contend with the reach and power of neoliberal globalization. Engaging in intellectual practices that offer the possibility of alliances and new forms of solidarity among public school teachers and cultural workers such as artists, writers, journalists, academics and others who engage in forms of public pedagogy grounded in a democratic project represents a small, but important, step in addressing the massive and unprecedented reach of global capitalism.

Educators also need to register and make visible their own subjective involvement in what they teach, how they shape classroom social relations and how they defend their positions within institutions that often legitimate educational processes based on narrow ideological interests and political exclusions. This suggests making one’s authority and classroom work the subject of critical analysis with students, but taken up in terms that move beyond the rhetoric of method, psychology or private interests. Pedagogy in this instance can be addressed as a moral and political discourse in which students are able to connect learning to social change, scholarship to commitment, and classroom knowledge to public life. Such a pedagogical task suggests that educators define intellectual practice “as part of an intricate web of morality, rigor and responsibility”16 that enables them to speak with conviction, enter the public sphere in order to address important social problems and demonstrate alternative models for what it means to bridge the gap between public education and the broader society. Of course, there are many academics, teachers and right-wing pundits who argue that the classroom should be free of politics and hence a space where matters of power, values and social justice should not be addressed. The usual object of scorn in this case is the charge that teachers who believe in civic education indoctrinate students. In this ideologically pure world, authority in the classroom is reduced to a transparent pedagogy in which nothing controversial can be stated and teachers are forbidden to utter one word related to any of the major problems facing the larger society. Of course, this position is as much a flight from responsibility as it is an instance of a dreadful pedagogy.

One useful approach to embracing the classroom as a political site, but at the same time eschewing any form of indoctrination, is for educators to think through the distinction between a politicizing pedagogy, which insists wrongly that students think as we do, and a political pedagogy, which teaches students by example and through dialogue about the importance of power, social responsibility and the importance of taking a stand (without standing still) while rigorously engaging the full range of ideas about an issue.

Political pedagogy offers the promise of nurturing students to think critically about their understanding of classroom knowledge and its relationship to the issue of social responsibility. Yet it would also invoke the challenge of educating students not only to engage the world critically, but also to be responsible enough to fight for those political and economic conditions that make democratic participation in both schools and the larger society viable. Such a pedagogy affirms the experience of the social and the obligations it evokes regarding questions of responsibility and transformation. In part, it does this by opening up for students important questions about power, knowledge, and what it might mean for them to critically engage the conditions under which life is presented to them. In addition, the pedagogy of freedom would provide students with the knowledge and skills to analyze and work to overcome those social relations of oppression that make living unbearable for those who are poor, hungry, unemployed, deprived of adequate social services and viewed under the aegis of neoliberalism as largely disposable. What is important about this type of critical pedagogy is the issue of responsibility as both a normative issue and a strategic act. Responsibility not only highlights the performative nature of pedagogy by raising questions about the relationship that teachers have to students, but also the relationship that students have to themselves and others.

Central here is the importance for educators to encourage students to reflect on what it would mean for them to connect knowledge and criticism to becoming an agent, buttressed by a profound desire to overcome injustice and a spirited commitment to social agency. Political education teaches students to take risks, challenge those with power and encourage them to be reflexive about how power is used in the classroom. Political education proposes that the role of the teacher as public intellectual is not to consolidate authority but to question and interrogate it, and that teachers and students should temper any reference for authority with a sense of critical awareness and an acute willingness to hold it accountable for its consequences. Moreover, political education foregrounds education not within the imperatives of specialization and professionalization, but within a project designed to expand the possibilities of democracy by linking education to modes of political agency that promote critical citizenship and address the ethical imperative to alleviate human suffering.

On the other hand, politicizing education silences in the name of orthodoxy and imposes itself on students while undermining dialogue, deliberation, and critical engagement. Politicizing education is often grounded in a combination of self- righteousness and ideological purity that silences students as it enacts “correct” positions. Authority in this perspective rarely opens itself to self-criticism or for that matter to any criticism, especially from students. Politicizing education cannot decipher the distinction between critical teaching and pedagogical terrorism because its advocates have no sense of the difference between encouraging human agency and social responsibility and molding students according to the imperatives of an unquestioned ideological position and sutured pedagogical script. Politicizing education is more religious than secular and more about training than educating; it harbors a great dislike for complicating issues, promoting critical dialogue and generating a culture of questioning.

If teachers are truly concerned about how education operates as a crucial site of power in the modern world, they will have to take more seriously how pedagogy functions on local and global levels to secure and challenge the ways in which power is deployed, affirmed and resisted within and outside traditional discourses and cultural spheres. In this instance, pedagogy becomes an important theoretical tool for understanding the institutional conditions that place constraints on the production of knowledge, learning and academic labor itself. Pedagogy also provides a discourse for engaging and challenging the production of social hierarchies, identities, and ideologies as they traverse local and national borders. In addition, pedagogy as a form of production and critique offers a discourse of possibility, a way of providing students with the opportunity to link meaning to commitment and understanding to social transformation – and to do so in the interest of the greatest possible justice. Unlike traditional vanguardists or elitist notions of the intellectual, critical pedagogy and education should embrace the notion of rooting the vocation of intellectuals in pedagogical and political work tempered by humility, a moral focus on suffering and the need to produce alternative visions and policies that go beyond a language of sheer critique. I now want to shift my frame a bit in order to focus on the implications of the concerns I have addressed thus far and how they might be connected to developing an academic agenda for teachers as public intellectuals, particularly at a time when neoliberal agendas increasingly guide social policy.

Once again, in opposition to the privatization, commodification, commercialization and militarization of everything public, educators need to define public education as a resource vital to the democratic and civic life of the nation. At the heart of such a task is the challenge for teachers, academics, cultural workers and labor organizers to join together in opposition to the transformation of public education into commercial spheres, to resist what Bill Readings has called a consumer-oriented corporation more concerned about accounting than accountability.17 As Bauman reminds us, schools are one of the few public spaces left where students can learn the “skills for citizen participation and effective political action. And where there is no [such] institution, there is no ‘citizenship’ either.”18 Public education may be one of the few sites available in which students can learn about the limits of commercial values, address what it means to learn the skills of social citizenship, and learn how to deepen and expand the possibilities of collective agency and democratic life.

Defending education at all levels of learning as a vital public sphere and public good, rather than merely a private good, is necessary to develop and nourish the proper balance between democratic public spheres and commercial power, between identities founded on democratic principles and identities steeped in forms of competitive, self-interested individualism that celebrate selfishness, profit making and greed. This view suggests that public education be defended through intellectual work that self-consciously recalls the tension between the democratic imperatives and possibilities of public institutions and their everyday realization within a society dominated by market principles. If public education is to remain a site of critical thinking, collective work and thoughtful dialogue, educators need to expand and resolutely defend how they view the meaning and purpose of their work with young people. As I have stressed repeatedly, academics, teachers, students, parents, community activists and other socially concerned groups must provide the first line of defense in protecting public education as a resource vital to the moral life of the nation, and open to people and communities whose resources, knowledge and skills have often been viewed as marginal. This demands not only a new revolutionary educational idea and concrete analysis of the neoliberal and other reactionary forces at work in dismantling public education, but also the desire to build a powerful social movement as a precondition to real change and free quality education for everyone.

college-grad_7Such a project suggests that educators develop a more inclusive vocabulary for aligning politics and the task of leadership. In part, this means providing students with the language, knowledge and social relations to engage in the “art of translating individual problems into public issues, and common interests into individual rights and duties.”19 Leadership demands a politics and pedagogy that refuses to separate individual problems and experience from public issues and social considerations. Within such a perspective, leadership displaces cynicism with hope, challenges the neoliberal notion that there are no alternatives with visions of a better society and develops a pedagogy of commitment that puts into place modes of critical literacy in which competency and interpretation provide the basis for actually intervening in the world. Leadership invokes the demand to make the pedagogical more political by linking critical thought to collective action, human agency to social responsibility and knowledge and power to a profound impatience with a status quo founded upon deep inequalities and injustices.

One of the crucial challenges faced by educators is rejecting the neoliberal collapse of the public into the private, the rendering of all social problems as biographical in nature. The neoliberal obsession with the private not only furthers a market-based politics, which reduces all relationships to the exchange of money and the accumulation of capital, it also depoliticizes politics itself and reduces public activity to the realm of utterly privatized practices and utopias, underscored by the reduction of citizenship to the act of buying and purchasing goods. Within this discourse all forms of solidarity, social agency and collective resistance disappear into the murky waters of a politics in which the demands of privatized pleasures and ready-made individual choices are organized on the basis of marketplace interests, values and desires that cancel out all modes of social responsibility, commitment and action. This is a reactionary public pedagogy that finds hope in the creation of atomized individuals who live in a moral coma and regresses to sheer Darwinism or infantilism. One of the major challenges now facing educators, especially in light of the current neoliberal attack on public workers, is to reclaim the language of the social, agency, solidarity, democracy and public life as the basis for rethinking how to name, theorize and strategize a new kind of education, as well as more emancipatory notions of individual and social agency, and collective struggle.

This challenge suggests, in part, positing new forms of social citizenship and civic education that have a purchase on people’s everyday lives and struggles. Teachers bear an enormous responsibility in opposing neoliberalism – the most dangerous ideology of our time – by bringing democratic political culture back to life. Part of this effort demands creating new locations of struggle, vocabularies and values that allow people in a wide variety of public spheres to become more than they are now, to question what it is they have become within existing institutional and social formations, and “to give some thought to their experiences so that they can transform their relations of subordination and oppression.”20 One element of this struggle could take the form of resisting attacks on existing public spheres, such as schools, while creating new spaces in clubs, neighborhoods, bookstores, trade unions, alternative media sites and other places where dialogue and critical exchanges become possible. At the same time, challenging neoliberalism means fighting against the ongoing reconfiguration of the state into the role of an enlarged police precinct designed to repress dissent, regulate immigrant populations, incarcerate youth who are considered disposable and safeguard the interests of global investors. It also means shifting spending priorities in favor of young people and a sustainable democracy.

Revenue for investing in young people, social services, health care, crucial infrastructures and the welfare state has not disappeared; it has simply been moved into other spending categories or used to benefit a small percentage of the population. For instance, military spending is far too bloated and supports a society organized for the mass production of violence. Such spending needs to be cut to the bone without endangering the larger society. In addition, as John Cavanaugh has suggested, educators and others need to fight for policies that provide a small tax on stocks and derivatives, eliminate the use of overseas tax havens by the rich and create tax policies in which the wealthy are taxed fairly.21 Cavanagh estimates that the enactment of these three policies could produce as much as $330 billion in revenue annually, enough to vastly improve the quality of education for all children through the United States.22

As governments globally give up their role of providing social safety nets, social provisions and regulation of corporate greed, capital escapes beyond the reach of democratic control, leaving marginalized individuals and groups at the mercy of their own meager resources to survive. Under such circumstances, it becomes difficult to create alternative public spheres that enable people to become effective agents of change. Under neoliberalism’s reign of terror, public issues collapse into privatized discourses and a culture of personal confessions, greed and celebrities emerges to set the stage for depoliticizing public life and turning citizenship and governance into a form of consumerism. It gets worse. The rich and the powerful dislike public education as much as they despise any real notion of democracy and they will do all in their power to defend their narrow ideological and economic interests.

The growing attack on public education in American society may say less about the reputed apathy of the populace than about the bankruptcy of old political languages and orthodoxies and the need for new vocabularies and visions for clarifying our intellectual, ethical and political projects, especially as they work to re-absorb questions of agency, ethics and meaning back into politics and public life. In the absence of such a language and the social formations and public spheres that make democracy and justice operative, politics becomes narcissistic and caters to the mood of widespread pessimism and the cathartic allure of the spectacle. In addition, public service and government intervention is sneered upon as either bureaucratic or a constraint upon individual freedom. Any attempt to give new life to a substantive democratic politics must address the issue of how people learn to be political agents as well as what kind of educational work is necessary within what kind of public spaces to enable people to use their full intellectual resources to provide a profound critique of existing institutions and to undertake a struggle to make the operation of freedom and autonomy achievable for as many people as possible in a wide variety of spheres. As engaged educators, we are required to understand more fully why the tools we used in the past feel awkward in the present, often failing to respond to problems now facing the United States and other parts of the globe. More specifically, educators face the challenge posed by the failure of existing critical discourses to bridge the gap between how society represents itself and how and why individuals fail to understand and critically engage such representations in order to intervene in the oppressive social relationships they often legitimate.

Against neoliberalism, educators, students and other concerned citizens face the task of providing a language of resistance and possibility, a language that embraces a militant utopianism while constantly being attentive to those forces that seek to turn such hope into a new slogan or punish and dismiss those who dare to look beyond the horizon of the given. Hope is the affective and intellectual precondition for individual and social struggle, the mark of courage on the part of intellectuals in and out of the academy who use the resources of theory to address pressing social problems. But hope is also a referent for civic courage, which translates as a political practice and begins when one’s life can no longer be taken for granted, making concrete the possibility for transforming politics into an ethical space and a public act that confronts the flow of everyday experience and the weight of social suffering with the force of individual and collective resistance and the unending project of democratic social transformation.

There is a lot of talk among educators and the general public about the death of democratic schooling and the institutional support it provides for critical dialogue, nurturing the imagination, and creating a space of inclusiveness and critical teaching. Given that educators and others now live in a democracy emptied of any principled meaning, the ability of human beings to imagine a more equitable and just world becomes more difficult. I would hope educators, of all groups, would be the most vocal and militant in challenging this assumption by making clear that at the heart of any notion of a substantive democracy is the assumption that learning should be used to expand the public good, create a culture of questioning and promote democratic social change. Individual and social agency becomes meaningful as part of the willingness to think in oppositional, if not utopian, terms “in order to help us find our way to a more human future.”23 Under such circumstances, knowledge can be used for amplifying human freedom and promoting social justice, and not for simply creating profits. The diverse terrains of critical education and critical pedagogy offer some insights for addressing these issues, and we would do well to learn as much as possible from them in order to expand the meaning of the political and revitalize the pedagogical possibilities of cultural politics and democratic struggles. The late Pierre Bourdieu has argued that intellectuals need to create new ways for doing politics by investing in political struggles through a permanent critique of the abuses of authority and power, especially under the reign of neoliberalism. Bourdieu wanted educators to use their skills and knowledge to break out of the microcosm of academia and the classroom, combine scholarship with commitment and “enter into sustained and vigorous exchange with the outside world (especially with unions, grassroots organizations and issue-oriented activist groups) instead of being content with waging the ‘political’ battles, at once intimate and ultimately, and always a bit unreal, of the scholastic universe.”24

At a time when our civil liberties are being destroyed and public institutions and goods all over the globe are under assault by the forces of a rapacious global capitalism, there is a concrete urgency on the horizon that demands not only the most engaged forms of political opposition on the part of teachers, but new modes of resistance and collective struggle buttressed by rigorous intellectual work, social responsibility, and political courage. The time has come for educators to distinguish caution from cowardice and recognize the need for addressing the dire crisis public education is now facing. As Jacques Derrida reminds us, democracy “demands the most concrete urgency … because as a concept it makes visible the promise of democracy, that which is to come.”25 We have seen glimpses of such a promise among those brave students and workers who have demonstrated in Montreal, Paris, Athens, Toronto and many other cities across the globe.

As engaged intellectuals, teachers can learn from such struggles by turning the colleges and public schools into vibrant critical sites of learning and unconditional spheres of pedagogical and political resistance. The power of the existing dominant order does not merely reside in the economic or in material relations of power, but also in the realm of ideas and culture. This is why educators must take sides, speak out and engage in the hard pedagogical work of debunking corporate culture’s assault on teaching and learning, orient their teaching for social change, connect learning to public life. At the very least, educators can connect knowledge to the operations of power in their classroom, provide a safe space for students to address a variety of important issues ranging from the violation of human rights, to crimes against humanity. Assuming the role of public intellectual suggests being a provocateur in the classroom; it means asking hard questions, listening carefully to what students have to say and pushing teaching against the grain. But it also means stepping out of the classroom and working with others to create public spaces where it becomes possible not only to “shift the way people think about the moment, but potentially to energize them to do something differently in that moment,” to link one’s critical imagination with the possibility of activism in the public sphere.26 This is, of course, a small step, but if we do not want to repeat the present as the future or, even worse, become complicit in the workings of dominant power, it is time for educators to collectively mobilize their energies by breaking down the illusion of unanimity that dominant power propagates while working diligently, tirelessly and collectively to reclaim the promises of a truly global, democratic future.

Education is Ignorance- Noam Chomsky

Education is Ignorance
Noam Chomsky
Excerpted from Class Warfare, 1995, pp. 19-23, 27-31

Noam ChomskyDAVID BARSAMIAN: One of the heroes of the current right-wing revival… is Adam Smith. You’ve done some pretty impressive research on Smith that has excavated… a lot of information that’s not coming out. You’ve often quoted him describing the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves and nothing for other people.”

NOAM CHOMSKY: I didn’t do any research at all on Smith. I just read him. There’s no research. Just read it. He’s pre-capitalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. What we would call capitalism he despised. People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits.

He did give an argument for markets, but the argument was that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets will lead to perfect equality. That’s the argument for them, because he thought that equality of condition (not just opportunity) is what you should be aiming at. It goes on and on. He gave a devastating critique of what we would call North-South policies. He was talking about England and India. He bitterly condemned the British experiments they were carrying out which were devastating India.

He also made remarks which ought to be truisms about the way states work. He pointed out that its totally senseless to talk about a nation and what we would nowadays call “national interests.” He simply observed in passing, because it’s so obvious, that in England, which is what he’s discussing — and it was the most democratic society of the day — the principal architects of policy are the “merchants and manufacturers,” and they make certain that their own interests are, in his words, “most peculiarly attended to,” no matter what the effect on others, including the people of England who, he argued, suffered from their policies. He didn’t have the data to prove it at the time, but he was probably right.

This truism was, a century later, called class analysis, but you don’t have to go to Marx to find it. It’s very explicit in Adam Smith. It’s so obvious that any ten-year-old can see it. So he didn’t make a big point of it. He just mentioned it. But that’s correct. If you read through his work, he’s intelligent. He’s a person who was from the Enlightenment. His driving motives were the assumption that people were guided by sympathy and feelings of solidarity and the need for control of their own work, much like other Enlightenment and early Romantic thinkers. He’s part of that period, the Scottish Enlightenment.

The version of him that’s given today is just ridiculous. But I didn’t have to any research to find this out. All you have to do is read. If you’re literate, you’ll find it out. I did do a little research in the way it’s treated, and that’s interesting. For example, the University of Chicago, the great bastion of free market economics, etc., etc., published a bicentennial edition of the hero, a scholarly edition with all the footnotes and the introduction by a Nobel Prize winner, George Stigler, a huge index, a real scholarly edition. That’s the one I used. It’s the best edition. The scholarly framework was very interesting, including Stigler’s introduction. It’s likely he never opened The Wealth of Nations. Just about everything he said about the book was completely false. I went through a bunch of examples in writing about it, in Year 501 and elsewhere.

But even more interesting in some ways was the index. Adam Smith is very well known for his advocacy of division of labor. Take a look at “division of labor” in the index and there are lots and lots of things listed. But there’s one missing, namely his denunciation of division of labor, the one I just cited. That’s somehow missing from the index. It goes on like this. I wouldn’t call this research because it’s ten minutes’ work, but if you look at the scholarship, then it’s interesting.noam-chomsky-israel-palestine-conflict

I want to be clear about this. There is good Smith scholarship. If you look at the serious Smith scholarship, nothing I’m saying is any surprise to anyone. How could it be? You open the book and you read it and it’s staring you right in the face. On the other hand if you look at the myth of Adam Smith, which is the only one we get, the discrepancy between that and the reality is enormous.

This is true of classical liberalism in general. The founders of classical liberalism, people like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt, who is one of the great exponents of classical liberalism, and who inspired John Stuart Mill — they were what we would call libertarian socialists, at least that ïs the way I read them. For example, Humboldt, like Smith, says, Consider a craftsman who builds some beautiful thing. Humboldt says if he does it under external coercion, like pay, for wages, we may admire what he does but we despise what he is. On the other hand, if he does it out of his own free, creative expression of himself, under free will, not under external coercion of wage labor, then we also admire what he is because he’s a human being. He said any decent socioeconomic system will be based on the assumption that people have the freedom to inquire and create — since that’s the fundamental nature of humans — in free association with others, but certainly not under the kinds of external constraints that came to be called capitalism.

It’s the same when you read Jefferson. He lived a half century later, so he saw state capitalism developing, and he despised it, of course. He said it’s going to lead to a form of absolutism worse than the one we defended ourselves against. In fact, if you run through this whole period you see a very clear, sharp critique of what we would later call capitalism and certainly of the twentieth century version of it, which is designed to destroy individual, even entrepreneurial capitalism.

There’s a side current here which is rarely looked at but which is also quite fascinating. That’s the working class literature of the nineteenth century. They didn’t read Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt, but they’re saying the same things. Read journals put out by the people called the “factory girls of Lowell,” young women in the factories, mechanics, and other working people who were running their own newspapers. It’s the same kind of critique. There was a real battle fought by working people in England and the U.S. to defend themselves against what they called the degradation and oppression and violence of the industrial capitalist system, which was not only dehumanizing them but was even radically reducing their intellectual level. So, you go back to the mid-nineteenth century and these so-called “factory girls,” young girls working in the Lowell [Massachusetts] mills, were reading serious contemporary literature. They recognized that the point of the system was to turn them into tools who would be manipulated, degraded, kicked around, and so on. And they fought against it bitterly for a long period. That’s the history of the rise of capitalism.

The other part of the story is the development of corporations, which is an interesting story in itself. Adam Smith didn’t say much about them, but he did criticize the early stages of them. Jefferson lived long enough to see the beginnings, and he was very strongly opposed to them. But the development of corporations really took place in the early twentieth century and very late in the nineteenth century. Originally, corporations existed as a public service. People would get together to build a bridge and they would be incorporated for that purpose by the state. They built the bridge and that’s it. They were supposed to have a public interest function. Well into the 1870s, states were removing corporate charters. They were granted by the state. They didn’t have any other authority. They were fictions. They were removing corporate charters because they weren’t serving a public function. But then you get into the period of the trusts and various efforts to consolidate power that were beginning to be made in the late nineteenth century. It’s interesting to look at the literature. The courts didn’t really accept it. There were some hints about it. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that courts and lawyers designed a new socioeconomic system. It was never done by legislation. It was done mostly by courts and lawyers and the power they could exercise over individual states. New Jersey was the first state to offer corporations any right they wanted. Of course, all the capital in the country suddenly started to flow to New Jersey, for obvious reasons. Then the other states had to do the same thing just to defend themselves or be wiped out. It’s kind of a small-scale globalization. Then the courts and the corporate lawyers came along and created a whole new body of doctrine which gave corporations authority and power that they never had before. If you look at the background of it, it’s the same background that led to fascism and Bolshevism. A lot of it was supported by people called progressives, for these reasons: They said, individual rights are gone. We are in a period of corporatization of power, consolidation of power, centralization. That’s supposed to be good if you’re a progressive, like a Marxist-Leninist. Out of that same background came three major things: fascism, Bolshevism, and corporate tyranny. They all grew out of the same more or less Hegelian roots. It’s fairly recent. We think of corporations as immutable, but they were designed. It was a conscious design which worked as Adam Smith said: the principal architects of policy consolidate state power and use it for their interests. It was certainly not popular will. It’s basically court decisions and lawyers’ decisions, which created a form of private tyranny which is now more massive in many ways than even state tyranny was. These are major parts of modern twentieth century history. The classical liberals would be horrified. They didn’t even imagine this. But the smaller things that they saw, they were already horrified about. This would have totally scandalized Adam Smith or Jefferson or anyone like that….

BARSAMIAN: ….You’re very patient with people, particularly people who ask the most inane kinds of questions. Is this something you’ve cultivated?

CHOMSKY: First of all, I’m usually fuming inside, so what you see on the outside isn’t necessarily what’s inside. But as far as questions, the only thing I ever get irritated about is elite intellectuals, the stuff they do I do find irritating. I shouldn’t. I should expect it. But I do find it irritating. But on the other hand, what you’re describing as inane questions usually strike me as perfectly honest questions. People have no reason to believe anything other than what they’re saying. If you think about where the questioner is coming from, what the person has been exposed to, that’s a very rational and intelligent question. It may sound inane from some other point of view, but it’s not at all inane from within the framework in which it’s being raised. It’s usually quite reasonable. So there’s nothing to be irritated about.

You may be sorry about the conditions in which the questions arise. The thing to do is to try to help them get out of their intellectual confinement, which is not just accidental, as I mentioned. There are huge efforts that do go into making people, to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase, “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be.” A lot of the educational system is designed for that, if you think about it, it’s designed for obedience and passivity. From childhood, a lot of it is designed to prevent people from being independent and creative. If you’re independent-minded in school, you’re probably going to get into trouble very early on. That’s not the trait that’s being preferred or cultivated. When people live through all this stuff, plus corporate propaganda, plus television, plus the press and the whole mass, the deluge of ideological distortion that goes on, they ask questions that from another point of view are completely reasonable….

BARSAMIAN: At the Mellon lecture that you gave in Chicago… you focused primarily on the ideas of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell [regarding education]…

Ceasefire-Chomsky-Frank-barat-Interview-6-Sep-2013CHOMSKY: … These were highly libertarian ideas. Dewey himself comes straight from the American mainstream. People who read what he actually said would now consider him some far-out anti-American lunatic or something. He was expressing mainstream thinking before the ideological system had so grotesquely distorted the tradition. By now, it’s unrecognizable. For example, not only did he agree with the whole Enlightenment tradition that, as he put it, “the goal of production is to produce free people,” — “free men,” he said, but that’s many years ago. That’s the goal of production, not to produce commodities. He was a major theorist of democracy. There were many different, conflicting strands of democratic theory, but the one I’m talking about held that democracy requires dissolution of private power. He said as long as there is private control over the economic system, talk about democracy is a joke. Repeating basically Adam Smith, Dewey said, Politics is the shadow that big business casts over society. He said attenuating the shadow doesn’t do much. Reforms are still going to leave it tyrannical. Basically, a classical liberal view. His main point was that you can’t even talk about democracy until you have democratic control of industry, commerce, banking, everything. That means control by the people who work in the institutions, and the communities.

These are standard libertarian socialist and anarchist ideas which go straight back to the Enlightenment, an outgrowth of the views of the kind that we were talking about before from classical liberalism. Dewey represented these in the modern period, as did Bertrand Russell, from another tradition, but again with roots in the Enlightenment. These were two of the major, if not the two major thinkers, of the twentieth century, whose ideas are about as well known as the real Adam Smith. Which is a sign of how efficient the educational system has been, and the propaganda system, in simply destroying even our awareness of our own immediate intellectual background.

BARSAMIAN: In that same Mellon lecture, you paraphrased Russell on education. You said that he promoted the idea that education is not to be viewed as something like filling a vessel with water, but rather assisting a flower to grow in its own way…

CHOMSKY: That’s an eighteenth century idea. I don’t know if Russell knew about it or reinvented it, but you read that as standard in early Enlightenment literature. That’s the image that was used… Humboldt, the founder of classical liberalism, his view was that education is a matter of laying out a string along which the child will develop, but in its own way. You may do some guiding. That’s what serious education would be from kindergarten up through graduate school. You do get it in advanced science, because there’s no other way to do it.

But most of the educational system is quite different. Mass education was designed to turn independent farmers into docile, passive tools of production. That was its primary purpose. And don’t think people didn’t know it. They knew it and they fought against it. There was a lot of resistance to mass education for exactly that reason. It was also understood by the elites. Emerson once said something about how we’re educating them to keep them from our throats. If you don’t educate them, what we call “education,” they’re going to take control — “they” being what Alexander Hamilton called the “great beast,” namely the people. The anti-democratic thrust of opinion in what are called democratic societies is really ferocious. And for good reason. Because the freer the society gets, the more dangerous the great beast becomes and the more you have to be careful to cage it somehow.

On the other hand, there are exceptions, and Dewey and Russell are among those exceptions. But they are completely marginalized and unknown, although everybody sings praises to them, as they do to Adam Smith. What they actually said would be considered intolerable in the autocratic climate of dominant opinion. The totalitarian element of it is quite striking. The very fact that the concept “anti-American” can exist — forget the way it’s used — exhibits a totalitarian streak that’s pretty dramatic. That concept, anti-Americanism — the only real counterpart to it in the modern world is anti-Sovietism. In the Soviet Union, the worst crime was to be anti-Soviet. That’s the hallmark of a totalitarian society, to have concepts like anti-Sovietism or anti-Americanism. Here it’s considered quite natural. Books on anti-Americanism, by people who are basically Stalinist clones, are highly respected. That’s true of Anglo-American societies, which are strikingly the more democratic societies. I think there’s a correlation there…As freedom grows, the need to coerce and control opinion also grows if you want to prevent the great beast from doing something with its freedom….

… Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, two economists, in their work on the American educational system some years back… pointed out that the educational system is divided into fragments. The part that’s directed toward working people and the general population is indeed designed to impose obedience. But the education for elites can’t quite do that. It has to allow creativity and independence. Otherwise they won’t be able to do their job of making money. You find the same thing in the press. That’s why I read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times and Business Week. They just have to tell the truth. That’s a contradiction in the mainstream press, too. Take, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post. They have dual functions and they’re contradictory. One function is to subdue the great beast. But another function is to let their audience, which is an elite audience, gain a tolerably realistic picture of what’s going on in the world. Otherwise, they won’t be able to satisfy their own needs. That’s a contradiction that runs right through the educational system as well. It’s totally independent of another factor, namely just professional integrity, which a lot of people have: honesty, no matter what the external constraints are. That leads to various complexities. If you really look at the details of how the newspapers work, you find these contradictions and problems playing themselves out in complicated ways….