What to Do with the Not-so Public Schools in the Midst of Perpetual War?
For purposes of discussion as much as anything, I would like to differ a bit from Peter's thought that the whole point of the stardardistas is Privatization. I realize that Peter's post is short, an email, and so I am not suggesting this as a criticism of him, but of an idea that he abbreviated. And, since I have said that privatization is the key point of the testistos myself in quick posts, this is also a criticism of me.
I think that suggesting privatization is the key plan of US elites, is too limited, one sided.
Privatization may be one of many points of testing/curricula regulation, but it is not the whole point, and I don't think it is the main point.
Let me come at this from a different angle. Many honest and smart people who I respect are now engaged in what they see as a struggle to 'Save public education." That we disagree, and still remain close friends and comrades, is a matter of all of us knowing that we have been wrong in the past. We respect each others integrity in trying to figure out what is true.
But just what is it that they want to save? There really is no single system of public education in the US. There are, maybe, six or seven systems of public education, each segregated by class and race (sometimes sex and nearly always in terms of disability), mostly based on the socio economic status of the parents of the kids in the school. These school systems teach different curricula, using different methods. They range from pre-Stanford prep, to pre-prison, with a smattering in between of pre-teacher, pre-Walmart, etc.
This segregated system is the result of social relations in the US, based on exploitation (always tied to racism and sexism) and resulting inequality--and, now, perpetual imperialist war.
To support the "public school system" is to support the substance of that social system, capitalism, and the vicious social relations that create it. It is to support a government that now stands clearly exposed as a weapon of the rich. Those "public schools" are not Our schools, though we do play a significant role in them, and could play an even bigger role. At the end of the day, those schools are still Their schools.
Elites in the US surely do use public schools as a source of profits, a maneuver that has been thrown into hyper-speed in the last decade. Schools are,after all, huge markets---and in most cases now the marketing involves not just school bus expenditures, or textbooks, but the sale of students and the school work force as well.
Sections of elites in the US would indeed benefit from privatizing schools. This may be true of elements in the Bush cabinet, Chris Whittle and others too.
However, most elites in the US, I think, benefit more from public schooling than they lose, as they see the key role of public schooling as Social Control, funded by an unjust tax system which makes the victims of public schools pay their own way.
I visit public schools all the time, and have for the last twenty years. I teach in a public university, SDSU, which our chancellor says is a "work horse school" compared to the "race horse school, UCSD." I am routinely in k12 classrooms. I see hard working dedicated educators who, usually, are deeply concerned about their kids and their own performance.
But I also see that these good education workers are routinely teaching lies to kids (the police are your friends, anyone can be president, and the unspoken assumption that the US is the highest attainable form of human existence and will last forever), using methods that make the process of uncovering what is true so incoherent, and meaningless, that kids learn to not want to learn, as that is what goes on in school.
Kids not only learn not to want to learn, but they learn to be subservient in the process, even when they think they are engaged in rebellion. Moreover, the learn that they are not the creators of history, but its victims. That, I think, sweeps across the entire spectrum of public schooling---with exceptions of course, those teachers who swim upstream against domination. But those teachers are not the 'public school system,." They often identify themselves as its opposition. They are cracks in the empire. Their courage, anti-racism, ability to wisely locate themselves in the historical moment and seek change, makes them quite different from most of their colleagues who were trained as technicians and are, wittingly or not, just missionaries for capital. History suggests that some teachers will be pivotal in the changes ahead, but most will not.
If we wish to change public schooling--even to beat back the big tests-- or more to the point to create a truly public system---we need to completely rearrange the social relations that set schooling up. As Jean Anyon has said so often, "doing school reform without doing social and economic reform in communities is like washing the air on one side of a screen door."
For elites, who claim to do school reform through NCLB, Big Tests, curricula regimentation, etc., and for some of their critics whose critique remains entirely within the boundaries of school reform and not social change; I think Anyon's premise is so easily grasped that it is fair to point at their work and call it dishonest.
There are consequences to the "defend the public schools" position. My union, CFA, for example, in now engaged in forming a coalition with my bosses at SDSU and across the CSU system---a united front they call it--to Save the CSU. This fits in with their outlook of unionism for the purposes of solidarity with business, government, and workers--in the national interest. That is the viewpoint of the corporate state, and I have problems with that.
But it also means that my union voted AGAINST the interests of the student body, in favor of a big fee increase, the bulk of which would go to the athletic department, here a notoriously failed and corrupt operation. Since students (whose hopes are now being dashed by the social relations that create schools) are likely to be the most active group on campuses, my union essentially cut off possibilities to side with them on a vital issue. The students, gladly, voted the increase down, but the university president, with CFA and faculty support, will probably override them. In some instances, what "save education" meant in this case was, "save me." There is no shortage of opportunism in the ranks of the teaching force---at every level.
In other instances "Save public education," will probably mean, "Vote Kerry." That will do nothing to change the social relations that create schooling, and it will waste hundreds of millions of dollars, and hard organizing work that could have been devoted to something else. Kerry openly promises wider, bigger, wars. His national security advisor is Gary Hart, who wrote the skeleton of the Patriot Act. Kerry might, in fact, dump the NCLB (though probably not since he supported it and has never said otherwise---true of nearly the entire Democratic Party), and we could go back to the good old days of segregated not-so-public- schooling, using different exams, with less and less money, bulging classes, no books or supplies, etc.
NEA and AFT will likely dump every classroom struggle over the coming months in order not to interfere with their leaders schemes to elect Kerry, just as the UAW and the AFL-CIO betrayed the Detroit Newspaper strike, in order to have a peaceful pretense for Clinton's election. Already, NEA halted a campaign to collect signatures for a ballot measure to shift California's tax burden a bit, and to pay for schools, even though many thousands of signatures had been collected, in part because the link of Kerry-NEA-taxes would be too easy to make. So, for NEA, saving public education dissolves to electing a Yale millionaire and trusting him. Florida teachers did something similar. They elected Bob Graham to be Governor. I was there on the steps in Tallahassee when, weeks after the election, he called Florida teachers "worse than terrorists" because they tried to call him to account for a pay raise.
The series of oil wars is going to be expensive, and the money will come from somewhere. Teachers are likely to be targets, the last people with wage jobs who have health benefits attached. While people could surely do worse things than go to a voting booth and pull a lever, voting Kerry will do nothing about the real problems of schooling and society, and, moreover, I think it is a little like tying one's own noose.
To want school reform without fundamental social change, to want to just "save public schools," is to not want the necessary struggles, uprisings, of poor and working people to defend their lives. Those struggles will happen because people are cornered now, like the grocery strikers, and they must try to fight to live. At issue will be: whose side are you on?
The kids are going to be targets too, as the endless wars require more bodies. Will we give them up to the uniformed goons in the schools, posing as respectable military recruiters--in order to obey the law, in order to save the school?
Within the confines of capitalism, it is remarkably possible to create the appearance of school and social reform, and do neither. This is the common case of missionary-like projects set up by wealthy donors, patrons, who donate vast sums of wealth to somewhat blighted areas, build schools (right after building a huge police station), establish business based accountability systems in the schools, etc. Projects like these are becoming a dime a dozen. They follow the path of the California missions. First the cops (troops) come and seize the land, under guise of the law. Then the missionaries (teachers) come, and take the kids. The teachers teach kids they are beneficiaries of the rich, in effect impoverishing the kids, while land values go up, and poor kids and parents are forced out of the neighborhood.
Capitalism only works for a few, always.
What CAN we do? First, we need to understand that nobody is going to save us but us--and our conscious (class conscious) ability to make ties with people who share common interests with us---especially poor and working class kids and parents who have most to gain from a rational education. The racketeers who run the UAW, or the NEA, or the lawyers in ACLU; none of even the best of them can save us. Our ability to create close personal ties with one another, friendships as distinct from passing alliances, is radical work in the US today.
Next, we need to combine what we say we do well, construct reason, with power. It is important to do research about NCLB, to publish, to talk to people about the flaws in education, but unless that is connected to power, it means nearly nothing.
School workers' power is related to our ability to control our work places and our communities. Once we have developed a conscious base of people who can do that, we can defend what we have won, as in being able to enforce the caps on class size here in California. If we cannot do that, no matter how decent our political allies, we will lose. The caps on class size are already vanishing.The ability to control the workplace, to shut it down and open it at will, is near the center of working peoples' power--more important than any contract or law.
We should aim at that. Mass boycotts of schools during test times are on point. But they must start somewhere, with maybe one person standing up and saying "No." That person can be a student, a school worker, a parent, but someone is going to have to start it. Some of this activity may be illegal. As the grocery strikers should have learned, the law is designed to make working people lose. Really, the only illegal mass action, from a boycott to a strike and all in between, is a struggle that loses. Power is also the power of defining what is illegal.The more people involved, the more chance of winning. Indeed, the more we prepare for boycotts and strikes, and the better we are at that preparation, the less likely we will actually have to do it.
Kids are already walking out of schools, shutting them down spontaneously, taunting military recruiters on the way out the door. Next week there will be some more walkouts, and I hope to help and encourage them to go well beyond what the organizers want from the actions.
Shutting down schools is hardly winning battles, though, as the failed South African experiences show. Opening freedom schools, where kids actually learn how to comprehend and change the world; that would be a win.
But even that is not enough. If we want to overcome racism, perpetual war, mysticism, etc., we will have to completely change the social relationships that move our system, capitalism. We need to answer capital's demands for profits, cheap labor, raw materials, etc; with practices and ideas about democracy and equality---and fierce resistance: mass action where possible, other actions when not.
In a speech tonight, Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback and Sorrows Of Empire, made it clear that he now thinks the only way to change the US government , which he describes as 'fascist,' is with a "revolution." In an auditorium holding 600 students and professors, he got a standing ovation---in San Diego.
Who makes revolutions? Youth, in the military, in industry, and in schools. Who teaches them? Toward what end?
But justice requires organization.