No Water, But Lots of Tests

I was recently at a social event when I mentioned to an educator friend that I was off to protest the Detroit water shut offs the following day.  I also added that every educator should be there.

She paused and looked at me, and then asked, “Give me the nutshell explanation that connects water shut offs to educational issues.”

Without the nutshell part, here goes…

Some Context- Detroit Today

As a city on the forefront of what David Blacker calls the  “neoliberal endgame,”  Detroit is a fascinating, if tragic study.  Detroit is under the rule of an Emergency Management.  The laws allowing for the emergency manager were promoted by ALEC legislation (sound familiar educators?) and have disenfranchised the voters of Detroit in favor of a ruler, Kevyn Orr, who has virtually no accountability in our so-called democracy.  Upon acquiring this office, Orr almost immediately led Detroit into bankruptcy.

At the same time, Detroit Public Schools have been under Emergency Management since 2009.  Clearly, this experiment isn’t working in Detroit.  As quoted in Eclectablog:

“What the Detroit schools situation shows is that the problems in Detroit aren’t simply financial and they aren’t simply a matter of poor management. Without addressing the core issues of poverty, blight, crime, and a host of other modern plagues experienced by our aging urban cores, no amount of cost-cutting, privatizing, experimental teaching models, or management gimmickry is going to have the desired impact.”

In addition, the lowest 5% “performing” schools in the state, as measured by achievement data, have been removed from Detroit Public Schools and put into a newly created state-run district, the Educational Achievement Authority.  The EAA is run by a governor appointed superintendent who doesn’t have the pesky obstacle of democracy in his way.  This district is, to no surprise, failing miserably.

Water

So it is in this very general context that the water shut offs are occurring.  Some background:

In May of this year, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department began a crusade to collect unpaid fees by residents of Detroit.  They are currently shutting off water access to any Detroit resident who is either $150 or two months behind in payment. This will affect over 120,00 account holders over a 3 month period at a rate of 3,000 shut offs per week.  (The suspicion of many is that the shut offs are occurring in the midst of Detroit’s bankruptcy in order to make DWSD more attractive for privatization.)

Mind you, this is occurring in a major US city, the richest country in the world, that has a poverty rate of 44%, is over 80% black, whose residents have already have their democratic vote similarly cut off, in a state that is surrounded by 4 of the largest fresh water lakes in the world.

At the same time, commercial interests in Detroit owe over $30 million in water bills, yet their water flows evenly.  (See more here.)

Hmm….

It seems that many of those factors have a strong correlation to the false narrative of  “failing schools.”

Coincidence?

Me thinks no.

Water

Market Fundamentalism

The foundation of neoliberal market fundamentalism is the assumption that all things, including human beings, are valued according to their worth in the market place.  This value is determined by level of  “achievement.”

In education, achievement is measured by test scores.  Those who score highest win.  Those who don’t are punished- and the means of this punishment is defunding, the closing of schools, the loss of local agency, and the correlating re-opening of schools as for profit charter, a race that Michigan is winning hugely with over 80% of its charters being for profit.

In other areas of life, achievement is measured by job status and salary.  Worth is determined by ability to pay.  The less you are able to pay, the less you are actually valued. Those in poverty really aren’t worth much.  Their “value added” to the efficiency of our economy is a negative. Such humans are punished with a system that blames them for their poverty, and then shuts off such necessities for human life as water.

The logic of blaming schools, teachers and students for their problems, in spite of the context that they exist within, is the same as the logic of blaming the poor for their problems, in spite of the context they exist within.  Our market driven system’s answer is to develop “incentives” to drive behavior. Achieve, in spite of the forces working against such achievement, or have your schools defunded and shut down.  Pay, in spite of the forces working against your ability to so, or have your water shut off. (No coincidence that these forces in both contexts are identical.)

Neoliberalism uses the politics of austerity to blame, punish, and then profit.  It erases the context of poverty for the purpose of privatizing the common good.

The United Nations has determined that the water shut offs are inhumane.  So very true.

At the same time, the shut offs simply follow the logic of neoliberalism.

And it is the logic of neoliberalism that those of us who are not in the 1%, including educators, are really fighting.

Poverty & Race- What Education Can’t Do

In staying with the theme of poverty and education that I addressed in my previous post, I want to make readers aware of two different writings that have come out that explode the myth that education by itself is the tool of leverage that can alleviate poverty.  Both works are important, and I urge you to read them in their entirety.

The first, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case For Reparations, appeared on the cover of the Atlantic.  This article deservedly went viral. Coates describes the history of how America has continuously used race as a means of marginalizing those of color while at the same time privileging whites.  Though the article isn’t specific to education, it is necessary for understanding the history behind our equity gap.

The second can be found on the Colorlines web-site. Colorlines is a fantastic resource that has developed a continuing series on the impact of race in America called Life Cycles of Inequality. Why Young, Black Men Can’t Work  is an article from this series.  This piece does address the impact on poverty and race on education, and the reasons why education by itself offers little or no way out of poverty for the marginalized.

In following the attempts of the article’s main protagonist, Dorian Moody, to find work after graduating from high school, author Kai Wright writes,

“As he left school in 2010, he was among more than 40 percent of black high school grads aged 17 to 20 who had no job. That number has inched downward, but it remains at nearly 35 percent—significantly higher than any other race or ethnicity. Federal data isn’t granular enough to measure the idle rate among men in this group, but all other data suggests it is more profound than anywhere else. Take, for instance, the eye-popping statistics we’ve seen about joblessness among young black men for years. Indeed, even before the recession, way back in the boom year of 2004, a congressional study noted with alarm that joblessness among young black men had galloped away from the rest of the country. In New York City, 18 percent of black men were jobless in the year Moody graduated.”

And what is the reason for this intractable unemployment?  Following the privileged, conventional assumptions of most Americans, and of educational reformers, is it that Moody (and so many others disenfranchised like him) is lazy uneducated, not trying, and doesn’t  care?

Is he mired in a “culture of poverty”?

Doesn’t he just need to show more grit and then get access to the right charter school of his choice?

Not quite.

“… a growing mound of research gives the lie to the notion that black men who fail in the modern economy have brought it upon themselves. Rather, it’s increasingly clear that they have instead been locked out of the male-tracked, skilled labor jobs that, for better or worse, still make the difference between poverty and working-class for many families. Even when accounting for failed personal responsibility, more and more research suggests that white men with similar backgrounds—without a college degree, and even with a criminal record—find far more opportunity than their black peers. One pre-recession study in 2003 even found that white job applicants with criminal records are more likely to get called back than black applicants with identical resumes and no record.

This is an inequity that grows from tangled roots—historic labor market discrimination, ongoing residential segregation, stubborn racial biases among employers. But it’s also one with consequences that stretch out beyond the men themselves, and that will linger long past today’s troubled economy.” (emphasis added)

In spite of the efforts of many of those who are disenfranchised, in-spite of their attempts to access costly educational opportunities, in-spite of doing everything the American myth of success tells them to, they remain unable to access work in our economy.

As Wright’s article shows, education alone clearly is not the tool that will allow those like Moody access to our economic system.

Until we address poverty and the correlating American history of the encapsulation of race, we have no hope.

We will continue to drift, allowing the rich to get richer while leaving living humans behind and blaming them for their misfortune. (And thus, because education is the way out of poverty, this simplistic, misdirected argument of the elites continues, we need to improve teachers, principals and schools, and blame them.)

We need to look at the broader issues of class and race outside of the isolation of education.

We need to continue to listen to the authentic, radical message of American hero Martin Luther King, a message we don’t hear too often these days.  His words here perfectly illustrates Coates’ and Wrights’ work.  The sad news is, King spoke these words over 45 years ago.  When will we be ready to listen to him?

 

Allowing the Market, Failing Kids

The Detroit Free Press has come out with a scathing indictment of charter school operations in the state of Michigan.  The series reveals the greed and almost total lack of oversight that has allowed charters to churn over $1 billion in public money spent into private profit.  The series is well-done and a necessary must read. However, because this report accepts the basic assumptions that allow for privatization in the first place, it also dangerously obscures the pattern of elements that continues to decimate public education.

Education as an Economic Utility

The first assumption that the Free Press uncritically accepts as normative is the idea that the purpose of education is economic.  That is, education serves to allow for individuals to have access to our economic system.  That the purpose of education is to allow for students to make money in the future and drive our country’s economic engine.  In his introduction to the series, Free Press editor Stephen Henderson starts with the presumption that charter schools are in theory, as he puts it in the first two words of his article, a “Great idea.”  He positively references former Michigan Governor (and current president of Business Roundtable) John Engler’s push for charters in 1993- a push that was motivated by economic utility.  (And Business Roundtable continues to promote the idea that we need a solid education system because, “America needs a world-class, skilled workforce to lead in global innovation, ensure future economic growth and drive…”) Henderson later writes that children’s future success, “… is largely determined by the quality of public education.”

The problem is that this frame of economic utility and the idea that “future success is largely determined by the quality of education” are what allow for the privatization of education in the first place.

Education is important.  Among other things, it’s important as a foundational aspect of democracy. However, we all suffer when education is treated as an individualized commodity that is justified by its effect only on our economic standing. The Insight Lab’s report describes the problem this way:

“Most school reform proposals, as well as policies current among the status quo, were measured by fairly narrow criteria: will more students be prepared for college? Will they have the skills they need to pursue remunerative jobs? Will they form a workforce that will keep the United States competitive? …given that the highest ideal offered by the model was the economic success of individuals, it would be illogical for most parents to commit their time and energy to the future of children besides their own.” (emphasis added)

Education imagined as a one-dimensional, individualized economic vehicle simply doesn’t serve the whole very well.  It becomes one more consumer commodity, and my job is to get mine.

This idea is particularly delusionary when in reality, and especially as our society becomes more polarized and less mobile on the basis of class, education does not cause economic success, in spite of the continuing myth that education is the lever for pulling kids out of poverty.  Instead, as Paul Thomas writes, “Education, then, is a marker for privilege/affluence and poverty, but is not the cause agent for the outcome.”

As Matt Bruenig writes in, What’s More Important: A College Degree or Being Born Rich?:

“So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!”

As Bruenig describes, rich people stay rich in our society.  And, regardless of educational level of attainment, with few exceptions, (which  due to college costs is more and more of a dream for those in poverty), poor kids stay poor.

Thomas puts it succinctly, “In short, education alone is not the key to social reform. Period.” 

The myth that education is the answer to poverty allows us to blame the poor for being poor, and to avoid addressing poverty itself.  After all, the logic goes, if education is the way out of poverty, all it takes is some grit and a good school (Charter or private preferably. And is there a difference? )

Wrong.

In The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, David Blacker writes, “The scene of resistance is the class struggle.  In fact, an excessive focus on education, say, in the form of advancing an allegedly liberatory pedagogy, in the absence of a broader and enveloping social movement, is ultimately going to be delusional.” (pg. 100)

It would be nice if we could stop pretending that education is the silver bullet.

It would be nicer if we could actually address poverty.

The False Narrative of Failing Schools

The other assumption that Free Press accepts as normative is the idea that “schools fail” as determined by the competition of “school rankings.” Henderson’s introduction is ripe with the business language of corporate education reform, of “accountability” and “results matter.”  “Results,” in this formula, are test scores. The need for “accountability,” in this formula, is meted out based on test results. This sentence makes my hair stand on end: “And competition can raise standards- when it’s managed competition.”  All of this shows an acceptance of the neoliberal pipe dream of the market as reformer. Though Henderson critiques an all-out market model, he also assumes the that the educational market model is appropriate and can work, it just needs to be better managed.

The issue being addressed by the Free Press isn’t the model of the market wrongly imposed on a public system- it’s the management of the market.  And the winners of the competition within said market are determined by “school rankings,” and such rankings are based on test results.

And test results are the tool that furrows the ground for the seeds of privatization.

As I’ve put it previously, “What do we know about test scores?  That the best predictor of success is socio-economic status. It is well known that what test scores indicate is not ability, but class status and geography. So what are these test scores really measuring?  By and large they are measuring the health of the communities the schools serve, not the schools themselves.  ‘Failing schools’ do not exist.  What do exist are communities that we have failed.”

So what do school rankings show us?  Where poverty is concentrated.  However, they are used as indictments of the whole public school system, thereby justifying the need for privatization, vouchers, value added measurements, and lots of charter schools, even if, as in the state of Michigan, almost 80% of these charters are for profit.

Diane Ravitch, in Reign of Error, describes the debilitating pattern of achievement testing used as a tool for privatization this way: “Competition may produce better shoes and jeans, but there is no evidence that it produces better schools. The advance of privatization depends on high-stakes testing.  The federally mandated regime of annual testing generates the data to grade not only students and teachers but schools. Given unrealistic goals, a school can easily fail. When a school is labeled a ‘failing school’ under NCLB or a ‘priority’ or ‘focus; school according to the metrics…it must double down on test preparation to attempt to recover its reputation, but the odds of success are small, especially after the most ambitious parents and students flee the school…the more school struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability.” (pg. 319)

This test based accountability is simply a death spiral for public education that justifies the existence of charters and privatization. Blacker again, “It should now be clear that to everyone that neoliberal education policy is not about reforming public schools.  It is about obliterating any remaining vestiges of the public square via a market discipline that is officially supposed to apply to everyone but in reality is selectively applied only to those lacking sufficient wealth to commandeer state policy.”  (pg. 106) It is this market driven process of the obliteration of the public square that the Free Press fails to address. According to it, the issue is not privatization, but only the management of that privatization.

Let me be fair.  The Free Press does critique the profit making of many of the charters, and the series appropriately takes these charters to task.  Kudos.  Yet it fails to critique the system that allows for said profit making.  And in doing so, it allows for the continued avoidance of the root cause of failing communities- concentrated poverty and the racialized context those communities exist within. If we don’t directly address the issues of poverty and race, the increasing inequity in our country, we will continue to leave children behind.

Read the whole report.  You will find the level of greed and deceit involved in propping Michigan’s charter system absolutely infuriating- though not surprising. (And highly predictable.)

Just keep in mind what it isn’t saying.

The Quest to Eliminate Public Education

It’s summer reading time.

So please read David J. Blacker’s book, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame

Blacker does a tremendous job of helping us understand the economic background behind what is driving the current mode of corporate education reform. It’s important to understand this because education reform is greatly affected by the context it exists within, and this context is neoliberalism.

Trying to summarize Blacker’s thesis in a short blog entry is impossible, but let me try. He argues that because of the technological changes affecting everything, combined with capitalism’s inherent internal structure, the ability to create profit is shrinking. Adjustment to this profit shrinking requires a shift from extracting from labor for profit to extracting from financial markets, a shift that is aided and abetted by technological advances. With this shift, not only is labor no longer needed to the same degree, but it becomes an obstacle to profit. As Blacker puts it, “In capitalism’s neoliberal phase, however, the ‘more is better’ mania for exploitation is replaced by a technologized ‘less is better’ mania for eliminating labor costs.”  People become dispensable.  Austerity rules. And thus students, who in the past were educated for positions in a labor economy, have no additive function.  Which makes an education, and schools, and educators, expendable according to neoliberal logic.

Got it?

You, educators and students, are at best superfluous and costly burdens on the back of a neoliberal economy.

Here is a more from his introduction:

“Not as many workers are needed to turn whatever profits remain and government largesse is reserved exclusively for ‘too big to fail’ financialized capitals which have, as a result, become state-corporate hybrids that exist as government-secured monopolies even while they spout neoliberal rhetoric about ‘freedom,’ ‘competition,’ and the like….the bulk of the population is no longer seen as a resource to be harnessed- as dismal as that moral stance once seemed- but more as a mere threat, at best a population overshoot to be managed by a self-perpetuating and therefore pseudo meritocracy.  If the peasants are no longer needed to work the fields, then why not go ahead and kick them off the estate?  The scenery will improve.” (pgs. 10-11)

So this is the economic context in which we exist.  An economy that once was able to extract profit through labor is no longer able to do so.  It’s searching recklessly for profit, and labor has become simply a cost with no value.  It must be cut- eliminated.

Public education must be eliminated.

Blacker continues:

“This is where the austerity kicks in.  It’s a one-two punch sort of situation: fewer human beings are needed for capital accumulation and the public coffers are urgently needed by elites in order to continue leveraging their insatiable cash cow financial sector (almost all of the sovereign indebtedness is due to tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations and, more importantly, the bailouts and federal guarantees that have been tendered to the banking sector).  Thus the ‘shit rolls downhill’ nature of austerity that requires teachers and schoolchildren to pay for the solvency of sinecured bankers and their political enablers.” (pg. 11)

I must admit- that’s depressing.

It gets worse.

Blacker describes what we are seeing now, “…the demise of the grand ideal of universal education that has animated enlightened capitalism since the nineteenth century.  What capitalism gives, it now takes away.  In the realm of education, this process represents a final coup de grace:  The abandonment of government provisioned and guaranteed schooling for all- after first ‘privatizing’ and channeling those commons’ erstwhile value into elite coffers.” (pg. 13. Emphasis added)

And, with this frame in mind, understanding the importance of how the Common Core Standards were developed and supported by Gates Foundation money becomes clearer. Understanding the impetus put on high-stakes testing, on the blaming of teachers when poverty is the issue, on Value Added Measurements, becomes a bit easier.  Understanding the complete elimination of all public schooling in New Orleans, the development of Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority, etc. etc…. All of these reform attempts blame the individuals within the education system and therefore serve to take attention away from the broader context this system exists within.  At the same time, these approaches function to further serve the decimation of public education: A system that, within the one-dimensional, market fundamentalist approach of neoliberalism, serves no positive economic value.

It becomes abundantly clear that all of these educational reform measures are not put in place to help and support children.  They are natural functions of economic system that has no longer the same need for labor.  And thus the supplier of that labor, public education, is nothing other than a costly burden.

And so needs to be eliminated.

But not before a profit can be made by privatizing as much of it as possible.

Scared? You should be.

Read the book.

 

McEducation

“There is an assumption that western education, western knowledge, is something that is superior…there is an idea that we have evolved to a higher level of being, and that these people, however lovely the are, they’re going to benefit from this superior knowledge.”                                                                                               Helena Norberg-Hodge

Standardization “Works”(?)

McDonald’s is one of the most successful corporations in the history of the world.  They are now present in 121 countries and experienced “lackluster” earnings of $28.1 billion in 2013.  By any superficial measure of success, McDonald’s is there.

And how did they do this?

By instituting a highly managed process of standardization that insures that a Big Mac in Vietnam tastes exactly like a Big Mac in New York.

From Citizendium: “The standardized McDonald’s hamburger has meat that weighs 1.6 ounces (45 grams) and measures 3 and 5/8 inches (9.2cm) across; and is garnished with a quarter of an ounce of chopped onion, a teaspoon of mustard, a tablespoon of ketchup and a pickle slice one inch in diameter. The Big Mac is likewise standardized with two patties and a sauce.”

Why does this work?

Again, from Citizendium: “Ritzer (2000) argues that McDonald’s has succeeded so well because it offers consumers, workers, and managers a maximum degree of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through non-human technology.”

McDonald’s “works” because it has a standardized set of processes which increase predictability, efficiency and control, and decreases as much as possible any semblance of human individual decision-making. And who can argue with this at $28.1 billion in profits during a lack luster year?

However, problems arise when we look a little closer at what we mean by “works,” and who you ask. You see, when something “works” it is always measured against a particular set of values.  What we really need to be asking is, what are the values you are using to measure what “works?”  If the value is simply net income, then clearly McDonald’s works.  And clearly, within the set of values framed by economic efficiency, standardization is the process for insuring “results.”

But let’s look deeper.

Learning From the Ladahk- A Cautionary Tale

I few years ago I was bowled over by the book Ancient Futures, by Helana Norberg-Hodge.  It’s an incredible story of how the Ladahk, an insulated group of people who lived quite happily within a subsistence economy, changed culturally as their country began to open to foreign influence.

As described by The Right Livelihood Award web-site:

“Ladakh, or ‘Little Tibet’, an Indian region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir,  is one of the last remaining traditional cultures on earth. For over a thousand years the Ladakhi people prospered, creating a rich, harmonious and sustainable culture from the sparse resources of their region. In 1975, traditional self-reliance and cultural pride were suddenly replaced by feelings of inferiority, dissatisfaction and competition when the area was opened to ‘development’, including tourism, media and advertisement, which brought with them highly idealised impressions of life in the West. Outside economic pressures began undermining the local economy, and ills that were previously unknown – pollution, crime, unemployment, family breakdown, rapid urbanisation and ethnic conflict – began to take hold.”

As Norberg-Hodge powerfully describes it, a culture of perfectly satisfied people went from this satisfaction to the “realization” that they were actually poor, and in need of money and jobs.  This economic, and resulting cultural,  McDonaldization allowed them to experience all of the alienation, ennui and poverty that was previously limited to Western cultures.

And yes, you can now order a Big Mac in Ladakh.

This is how progress happens. Right?

Did it work?

If your value is money, yes.

If your value is culture, tradition, a sense of belonging and health of  the environment, nope.

In Who Will Roll Away the Stone?, theologian Ched Myers describes the process of progress this way.  “Today, ideologies of ‘economic development’ are used to legitimate  the European American’s continuing sense of entitlement(pg 123)…Economic exploitation became economic domination became economic determinism, now to every corner of the globe (pg. 141).”

So one way to look at this process of standardization is to say that we are increasing profit and spreading the western values of hard work and excellence.  A different frame says that we are doing so at the expense of local cultures, human connections and dignity, and the earth’s health.

We have (and continue to) arrogantly and ignorantly valued our cultural perspective of market fundamentalism and imposed that wherever our power and wealth allowed.

Which is almost everywhere.

Including, now, our schools.

McEducation?

Again, why standardization?

Because it allows for economic efficiency, predictable outcomes and technocratic control.  This is what allows for the creation of income. However, we must recognize the purpose for which standardization has historically been used, and the contextual boundaries that it is now leaping over. We must continually ask, what do we want for our children?

Teachers necessarily function with a standard of “quality” within their given contexts.   We like quality.  Yes?  But this is very different from standardization, which are standards that have leaped the bounds of the context they work within.  For instance, a teacher working directly with children may give them feedback individually based on their writing.  This feedback is crucial to their growth as writers, and such feedback is based upon said teacher’s knowledge and experience with quality writing, a developed sense of what is meant by quality, or  “standards” explicated within an appropriate context.  And this is then weighed against an intimate knowledge of that child, knowledge that grows from a real human relationship.  Feedback, the sharing of an understanding of quality, is communicated with a tentative understanding of how this feedback might best be received.  This process is entirely different from a state/nation wide standard abstracted from such a classroom and applied indiscriminately to all always.  Such abstracted standardization is a cancerous growth that technocratically controls via “accountability,” imposing itself on an individual teachers’s professionalism and judgement- erasing  the uniqueness of an individual child, and the uniqueness of an individual teacher.

It is taking my back yard grilled burgers, spiced with seasonings that I know my family loves, to the garbage in favor of serving up Big Macs to all.

Standardization is to quality what cancer is to healthy cells.

So What?

I say we want to at least explicate the underlying values hidden within the quest for standardization.

I say we  voice and stand for the messiness of democracy, for the passion that leads to uniqueness, and the creativity of individual lives protected from the always creeping forces of economic efficiency.

I am with Peter Greene, who writes against standardization:

“Standardization is safe. It’s predictable. We can walk into any McDonald’s in the country and it will be just like any other and we will know exactly what we will get. I am not excited about that prospect. Let me plop you into the center of any mall in the country and defy you to guess where you are. That’s not a good thing.”

No, that’s not a good thing.

But at least it is controllable.

Again, is this what we want for our children?

I say no.

So go ahead educators, continue to vouch for the quality of the Common Core. Continue with your arguments that they are “much deeper,” and “much richer” than any previously explicated, abstractly and mindlessly applied standards that we have had. But, please, please know the context and history you are working within, and, for the sake of our children, be willing to face that.

Myers again:

“As people of entitlement, we must walk with the devil and face the history of empire, because our structural advantages are predicated upon the suppressed traumas of the past.  We must dredge up the ghosts of Columbus and Cortes, Custer and Calley, not because we can change their historical behavior but because otherwise we cannot change our own.  If we do not, we will keep reproducing the illusions and violence of that history through repetition- compulsion.” (pg. 132)

Exactly.

Public Education in an Econocracy

Is there hope in fighting the neoliberal agenda for education?  Is there a chance of pushing back against a one-dimensional, market driven approach to everything, one that most certainly includes education?

An answer lies in Paul Carr and Brad Porfilio’s,  The Obama Education Files: Is There Hope to Stop the Neoliberal Agenda in Education?   This article has been around since 2011. I just stumbled on to it, and it goes a long way in helping to understand some of the underlying forces that are working to dismantle public education- and the bigger picture of how these forces are working to dismantle anything labelled “public.”

The article rests on the assumption that, “The political economy of democracy must, we argue, foreshadow any serious discussion of the role of education in contemporary times.”

And what is the current state of this “political economy”?  The authors refer to this as an “econ-ocracy,” a word which another scholar defines as “…a society where economic efficiency take precedence over all other policy decisions…”  A very fitting definition.

So the context for political decision making occurs within a neoliberal econocracy, which means that the primary value that determines anything is economic efficiency.

“According to Hursh (2011) neoliberal ideology is grounded in the belief that economic prosperity and improvements for segments of the social world, such as health care, education, and the environment, emanate from ‘unregulated or free markets, the withering away of the state as government’s role in regulating businesses and funding social services are either eliminated or privatized, and encouraging individuals to become self-interested entrepreneurs.'”

Now, you may be wondering, where does this place concerns about democracy?  Poverty? Income inequality? Educational inequity? Questions of race?

Um….nowhere.

Not only does neoliberalism not consider other values, it erases them.

Consider the context that Obama is operating within:

“Since Obama has been in office, Wall Street bankers have had free reign over the economy (Taibbi, 2010). Obama’s continued support of Wall Street has not only allowed many investors to ‘thrive right now’ (Harvey, 2010), but, importantly, has put the banks and their leaders in better financial position than before the financial collapse of 2008.  Unfortunately, catering to the financial elites has done little to eliminate poverty, homelessness, provide jobs, rebuild the infrastructure, of develop ‘sustainable energy technologies’ (Hursh 2010).  The situation is even bleaker when one considers that African-Americans and economically-marginalized groups, who were considered to form a part of his base, are most affected by the lack of attention paid to them in favor of bankers and stockholders.  The argument goes that Obama cannot speak out on behalf of those groups most affected because they would deflate his support from the wealthiest people, which elucidates the conundrum we’re facing: if he does what he said he would do, he will have only one term as President, and, if he does what the elites want, he will lose support, credibility and ‘hope’ for ‘change’.”

Got it?

The market wins at the expense of democracy.

In other words, we all lose to  the current hegemony of the free market. And in this context, democracy, the environment,  issues that affect those in poverty and of color and all others without status or power, are non-existent.

As a simple example quite close to my home: Since Carr and Porfilio wrote their article, Detroit has been taken over by an Emergency Financial Manager and then guided into bankruptcy.

Think about that.

Very simply put, the value of economic efficiency has taken precedence over the messiness of democracy.  The citizens of Detroit have had their vote trumped by a neoliberal, right-wing governor who has come to save the day.  Never mind the history behind the bankruptcy, a history which includes white flight, corporate abandonment and a state that has failed to rightfully support the city.  (Note that in this Detroit, even public pensions have been privatized.) These things aren’t relevant in a econocracy.  (For more on the history of Detroit that led to the bankruptcy, see Thomas Sugrue’s important work, The Origins of the Urban Crises: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.)

I know all of the arguments for the EFM and bankruptcy-  “…it had to happen…”

Sure.

This is exactly the logic  of neoliberalism.

And the same logic is dismantling our public schools.

In referencing the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, Carr and Porfilio rightly call it “…a $4.35 billion dollar ‘competitive incentive program’ that is designed, we contend, to further gut public schooling in the US, structure schools on market ideologies and practices, and provide the corporate elite an additional avenue to profit off of children.”

Yes, as I’ve written previously, under the corporate, market driven approach, “Students become objectified as workers for the purpose of increasing profit at the expense of the welfare of these children. Tax dollars, ostensibly spent for the public good, become corporate profit at the expense of our children.

Under the logic of neoliberalism, where the free market trumps all, it is natural that our children become a capital investment.

Carr and Porfilio do point to some hope. They argue that the educational alternative to decimation of these spaces of democracy is:

“Education predicated on the ideals of love, democracy, and justice, as well as what Freire (1973) called conscientization, and geared to fostering students’ understanding of the larger forces responsible for injustice in schools and society, has the potential to stop students from dropping out of schools, and being alienated from the formal educational process, unlike any of the Obama administration’s aforementioned policies to improve the US educational system.”

I agree.  (And  Carr and Porfilio’s book, The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education, for which this article serves as an introduction, goes a long way to addressing this.)

But maybe even more importantly, because we hope for an education that promotes democracy, and because we are all swimming within the deep waters of neoliberalism, we first of all need to recognize ALL of the spaces in which democracy is becoming constrained or disappearing as a result of these forces.

Neoliberalism is a freight train that is leaving all other values behind.

And in this case, behind means not at all.

 

Sacrificing Our Children

Can we finally move beyond the illusion that the privatization of public schools is for the benefit of kids?

Much empirical evidence says we should.

Can we finally be honest about that fact that for profit charters simply move money from that which is set aside for the common good to corporate profits at the expense of children, particularly those in poverty and of color?

A new study, Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Schools Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,  by Gordon Lafer, says yes.

Ruth Conniff, in her article, Scathing Report Finds Rocketship, School Privatization Hurt Poor Kids, shows how this study excavates the way in which the Milwaukee school system, “ground zero for school privatization,” uses children as fodder for corporate profits.

“Lafer’s research…is a sweeping indictment of the growing private charter school industry–and other schemes backed by rightwing groups and big business–that siphon public funds out of public schools and enrich corporate investors at the expense of quality education for poor children.”

Let’s be clear- despite what you hear from the right, from Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, and Bill Gates, etc., despite their lofty rhetoric of offering choices for poor families, despite their stated intentions of helping lift families out of poverty, the fact of the matter is that the corporate education reform movement functions to insure that the educational quality experienced by poor children is harmed when school privatization occurs, and corporate profit is greatly increased.

From Conniff’s article:

“Because of its extraordinarily high teacher turnover (the chain relies heavily on Teach for America volunteers), its large classes, and reductive curriculum, Rocketship [one of the for profit charter chains used in Milwaukee] subjects kids most in need of consistent, nurturing, adult attention to low quality instruction and neglect.

That model, which is also on display in Milwaukee’s low-performing voucher schools, is demonstrably harmful to kids. But it has generated big profits for wealthy investors.

From 2010 to 2013, Rocketship increased its assets from $2.2 million to $15.8 million…” (emphasis added)

Got it?

Students become objectified as workers for the purpose of increasing profit at the expense of the welfare of these children. Tax dollars, ostensibly spent for the public good, become corporate profit at the expense of our children. 

We are sacrificing our children to the god of profit.

“It appears the question [Rocketship] aims to answer is not simply, ‘How can we do better by poor kids’? but rather, ‘How can we educate poor kids while generating a 15  percent rate of return for investors.?’ ” 

But, as Conniff notes, it doesn’t stop there.  The report goes on to connect how the illusion of failing schools is used to increase privatization, and thus corporate profits.

“Worse, in pushing these efforts, politicians, rightwing think tanks, chambers of commerce, and, most of all, the American Legislative Exchange Council are actually creating the very problem of failure in the school system they claim their privatization plans will help address.

A recent proposal in the Wisconsin legislature, expected to come up again next session, would mandate that 5 percent of all of the state’s public schools receive ‘failing’ grades, which lead to closure after the third ‘F.’ Schools deemed ‘failing ‘would be replaced by charter schools such as Rocketship.” (emphasis added)

By creating a system that has 5% of schools mandated as “failures” as determined by the abstraction of standardized test score results, a pool of schools that legally must be privatized, and thus ripened for profit, has been created.

Genius!

This is already happening in Michigan, where over 80% of the charter schools are for profit, under our state’s  Educational Achievement Authority.  And despite a horrific track record, there is a daily push by Michigan’s GOP legislature to expand the EAA to a minimum of 50 schools.

Again, to be clear, the evidence shows that this push is not about children.

It is about profit.

“‘The idea that what chamber of commerce lobbyists lie awake at night thinking about is what will help poor kids…I mean, we’re adults, right?’ Lafer commented by phone.”

Let’s hope so.

Please read Conniff’s article and Lafer’s report.