This was the question asked by two people in the short Q&A period at the Diane Ravitch event at Rhode Island College last week. What is the real agenda of the corporate reformers of public education? What are they actually trying to accomplish? This is a question for which Dr. Ravitch herself has not much of an answer—perhaps because the Q&A period was barely 10 minutes long, but also perhaps because she’s an education historian, not an economist. Dr. Ravitch probably knows as much about running a major corporation as Bill Gates does about education—though at least she would have the modesty to admit it.
So here are my answers. I will leave it to others to document the arguments, but in brief: 1) public education represents a huge amount of untapped cash for the private sector; 2) the corporate reforms being enacted now are meant to make the US competitive with the low-wage economy of the up-and-coming competitor on the world stage, namely China.
1. PUBLIC EDUCATION IS A POTENTIAL CASH COW. I think everyone who works in public schools can think off the top of their head of at least a few forms of creeping privatization. At a basic level, in my district, I can name at least six:
a) The buses are subcontracted. In the midst of a financial crunch, they’ve pared down the bus routes to eliminate a bus, but they’re not eliminating it altogether. This is something that the district my mother works in (where I went to school) in Ohio is eliminating—because the school district runs it directly.
b) The cafeteria workers are subcontracted, meaning the same lunch ladies have worked in that cafeteria since the time when they were employed directly by the school district. Then the school brought in Aramark. When Aramark lost the contract to Chartwell, Chartwell claimed that the lunch ladies were “new employees” (to Chartwell) and thus had no claim to seniority, nor to be paid any more than minimum wage. (They have since organized themselves as part of UNITE HERE local 217.)
c) The system of student attendance is subcontracted to an Internet-based company in California.
d) The system of teacher attendance is subcontracted to an Internet-based company called “AESOP”. We used to have building subs, people who came in every day (and had work almost every day), who got to know the kids and thus had much more real control than a random person from off the street. They were replaced by AESOP, which pools subs between districts and means that subs are not actually vetted by district personnel before they walk into a school. Just this year I’ve had two subs who were dismissed before the end of the school day—one of them for taking pictures of my students with his cell phone.
e) The system by which we request physical repairs is subcontracted to an Internet-based company.
f) The digital portfolio, which became a requirement for graduation after the implementation of the Rhode Island New Diploma, something that was mandated by No Child Left Behind, is housed on the server of a private company that gets several hundred thousand dollars per year.
So there are already a million leaks in the dam, whereby public money flows into private hands—and the public is largely blissfully unaware. But the corporate reformers want to burst the dam altogether. They’ve spent the last 30-40 years, using the tools of deregulation and privatization to open up new areas to “investment”, i.e. to find ways to squeeze profit out of those things that should never have had a profit motive, such as public services. This agenda, known broadly as “neoliberalism”, is what’s behind the deregulation of everything from airlines (under Carter) to financial services (under Clinton). It’s what’s made college tuition go through the roof, even as the state schools receive less of their funding from the state—when I was at URI, it was about 26% state funded, and I’m sure that’s even less now. It’s what’s made healthcare an utter nightmare for tens of millions of Americans—a situation which Obama’s reform did nothing to remedy, as it mandated a whole range of people to buy insurance, thus creating a new “customer” pool for insurance companies. It’s how public utilities became private.
And now the last stone unturned is the public school system. Why is it the Billionaire Boys’ Club that runs the education reform show? Why is it that hedge-fund managers are so prominently featured in the reform movement? Why is it that charter schools—which Ravitch claims was originally an idea of AFT president Al Shanker—are such a big deal these days? The “reformers”, Ravitch notes, are completely ignorant of educational practice, and focus solely on managerial reforms and techniques to the detriment of actual education. Why do this? Because it’s precisely the managerial end that allows them to find ways to suck profit out of the education system. Once the business model is in place in the public sector, then it’s assumed that charters, i.e. schools in private hands that receive public money, must naturally run better. They are, after all, more profitable. And, if the “reformers” can convince a municipality that they can get better results with a charter school, that’s millions of dollars in public money that they can walk away with, no real strings attached.
2. PUBLIC EDUCATION IS ABOUT AMERICAN DOMINANCE. That argument, stated so simply, seems utterly absurd. Yet this has been the raison d’être of public education in political discourse in this country since the height of the Cold War. Why did Obama talk about “this generation’s Sputnik moment” in his State of the Union Address? Because that’s where it starts. First, it was the Russians who, with their high-tech economy, were going to be able to outcompete us militarily. Then, it was the Japanese who, with their high-tech economy, were going to be able to outcompete us economically. Now, it’s the Chinese who, with their…oh, right, their economy is not based on high-tech. It’s based on low-wage labor. The whole basis of competition shifts dramatically.
I’m not certain to what extent they talk about it in these terms at the Department of Education or in the think tanks. But if we’re competing with China for profit—and profit comes from labor, and in greater quantities when wages are depressed—then the goal of education in America must be to lower wages. This may sound absurd, but it’s clearly going to be the outcome—if not the stated goal—of education policy from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top. There are actually too many well-educated people in America, and they have this crazy notion that higher education should entitle them to better jobs and better wages. So how do we correct the situation? We pretend that all of our students are going to achieve 100% proficiency by a given date (originally 2014), and that we’re preparing all of them for college (the stated goal of RTTT). That is, we set the bar unbelievably high so that most students fail—and when they fail, we can blame them for their own manufactured “failure”. This is how the business class is going to get its workers to accept even worse wages in the future.
RTTT actually does take this one step further. With its focus on “teacher quality” and evaluations, RTTT lays the basis for the devaluation and deskilling of the teaching profession, and for the implementation of merit pay programs, based on “student achievement data”, i.e. test scores. If it’s all about the test scores, and if anyone who can drill and kill to prepare kids for standardized tests can “teach”, then we don’t need highly-educated teachers with experience who can give student a rich knowledge of a content area and teach them to think critically. We want quite the opposite—and so we want to get rid of those highly-paid teachers (whose salaries will never rise to the levels of bonuses in Corporate America) and replace them with brand-new teachers, preferably Teach for America kids who’ll work in return for student loan forgiveness. That way, we can cheapen education by drastically reducing the outlay on human resources, thus freeing up more resources to be given away to investment bankers and other corporate “reformers”.
This, in a nutshell, is what I believe “they” want. For private-sector investors it is a dream come true. For us and our children, it is a nightmare vision of the future. It’s a battle, a struggle that teachers and parents and students find themselves thrust into, but also one in which we can fight back. It’s a struggle in which, believe it or not, teachers have a crucial role to play as teachers, fighting our own academic freedom and that of our students, all while putting ourselves and our rights on the job front-and-center. Millions of students and parents hate the testing regime—and that means we have millions of allies in this fight.