Issue XL: The War on Public Education

27 Jul

“Rarely is the questioned asked, ‘Is our children learning?'” – George W. Bush

When Hurricane Katrina blew into New Orleans, it washed away much of the historic city’s buildings, neighborhoods, boats, demographics, and culture.  What you may not know is that it washed away the school’s public school system.  The ailing public school system was essentially privatized and contracted out to charter schools.  Over 60% of students now go to charter schools in Orleans Parish.  It’s not alone, but the city’s school system was just the most radically transformed school district in America’s escalating thirty year war on public education.

People don’t realize it, but America invented public schools.  What first started out in Massachusetts had spread across the United States after the Civil War.  By 1900, the United States had more educated and literate people than any other developed nation.  Also around the Civil War, the Morrill Land Grant Act funded the construction of agriculture and mechanical colleges teaching “practical” subjects like farming, engineering, and science instead of Greek and Latin like those “gentlemanly” Ivy League schools in the Northeast.  In every other area of the country, the great state universities (Michigan, Illinois, Texas, California, Wisconsin) arose to give the regular folk the kind of book learnin’ only noblemen and the clergy got in the Old World.  The University of Michigan, for example, aimed to give an “uncommon education to the common man.”  It was government by and for the people dammit.

Like most bad ideas, it came from California.  De-funding of the nation’s best K-12 education began in the 1970s. California voters passed Proposition 13 (see last year’s Dispatch from California) which limited the amount of property taxes the government could collect.  Property value assessments could not rise more than a few percent a year and could only be completely reassessed when a property changed hands.  This favored old-timers, long-term owners, and corporations over newcomers because the former could pay 1970s taxes on property that may have multiplied in value over the decades.  As the amount of money per student declined (and the number of poor minority children in the school system increased), the state fell to next to last of the 50 states for education by the 2000s.  The fact that the California middle class emigrated en masse to other Western states didn’t help, and neither did those who send their kids to private school instead.  The result?  The most segregated school system in America, according to UCLA.

But that was okay, because California still had the best public university system in the world: the University of California System.  Under its Master Plan, the system planned for a tuition-free future for those qualified to attend  Then the right-wingers and the limousine liberals got to work.  How do you do mess up a good thing?  Bring in the Ivy Leaguers!

Back in the day, the Northeast never developed good state universities because its elite went to the older schools founded under British rule.  The State University of New York (SUNY), for example, never even developed a flagship school because the private universities smothered the system in its infancy by lobbying Albany (strangely enough, Cornell snatched the land-grant money and a non-compete clause from the state system).  Now that’s all well and good for Connecticut and New Jersey (two of the richest states in America), but what happens when notable Ivy League dickheads like UPenn graduate Mark Yudof get exported west to Minnesota, Texas, and California?  Turn it into a rich man’s racket, just like back East!

First, start destroying tenure by hiring more and more non-tenured faculty who work on poverty-level semester contracts.  Then, start making questionable investments in high risk sectors.  Start acting like your mission is to make money by investing in construction over instruction.  Outsource everything and cram more students into bigger and bigger classes.  Make your accounts very opaque and then just claim financial crisis at every opportunity despite having record revenue.  Sometimes make two different budgets for your different audiences (investor and bond makers versus the state and students).

Tuition has skyrocketed to $10,000 per year.  The system actually has a stake in destroying nonprofit, state education because the University of California has invested millions of dollars into ITT Tech and other for-profit educational institutions.  This investment coincidentally overlaps with Regent Richard Blum’s San Francisco hedge fund.  It’s good being a senator’s husband.

If you think investing in the failure of your school system is dumb California limousine liberal groupthink, think again because our brilliant Texas State Board of Education decided to invest $100 million of the Permanent School Fund into charter schools.  Which brings us to our next topic.

Obama, the Foundations, and the Charter Schools
A key element on the war on public education has been the voucher movement to have the state sponsor poor children to go to private schools.  A key sponsor locally has been Dr. James Leininger who has pumped millions into supporting Republicans that endorse vouchers.  Critics argue this will de-fund an already strapped education budget and increase educational inequalities.  The private schools can discriminate (by religion, disability) and cream skim the brightest and most committed students.  A coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans (not many private schools in the sticks) defeated these initiatives in Austin.  But the voucher movement and James Leininger’s checkbook don’t even compare to Barack Obama’s privatization plan: “The Race to the Top”.

George W. Bush dreamed of being  the “Education President” back in 2000 saying his education record in Texas showed his commitment to young people.  Bush claimed that standardized testing, choice, and accountability for low performing schools had produced the “Texas miracle” of rising test scores without increases in funding.  Congress and he framed this philosophy into the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) by requiring all states to start standardized testing and to improve low performing schools or shut them down.

Of course, the Texas miracle was a myth and high-stakes testing encouraged states to dumb down tests and for school districts to falsify test scores and drop out rates.  Outside measures (SAT scores, federal surveys, and rates of remedial classes in college) showed no improvement in Texas during his governorship.  But this was now a national policy and opposed by many Democrats in 2004.  What happened when Obama walked into the Oval Office?  He double-downed and pushed the Bush policy into overdrive.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a private-schooled Ivy Leaguer, moved from his job pushing the privatization of school systems in Chicago to Washington.  The Administration started pushing charter schools and mass firing of teachers in low-performing schools.  Stimulus money provided billions for the “Race to the Top” grant program which brings the business mentality to public schools: perform or perish.  The charters will have non-union labor pulled from hordes of fresh college grads who will be motivated to teach unlike the old timers.  It’s an attractive idea, until you consider that in Texas, charter schools perform worse than public schools in meeting statewide standards (66% versus 98%).  Nationally, only 17% of charter schools outperform public schools while 37% are worse.  Research in Sweden, which pioneered charter schools in the 1990s, showed similar or worse performance by charter schools.

In fact, former Education Secretary for George H.W. Bush, Diane Ravitch, has come out furiously against the ideas of she supported as a conservative.  The ideas of accountability, choice, and testing simply don’t work, and may do huge harm to public schools.  In her book, The Death and Life of American Public Schools, she goes through history of education reforms and finds that this trend is just another (harmful) fad.  Schools will be dumbed down and focus on teaching to test taking skills.  Only with a nationally agreed upon content standard, can testing have any meaning as an assessment.

But in the neoliberal era, where money talks and bullshit walks, silly ideas like “an uncommon education for the common man” are seen as quaint throwbacks to the eras of Jefferson and Lincoln.  Critical thinking and a common knowledge base as supported by Ravitch would lead to dangerous thinking if it were tuition-free.  When the American oligarchy can opt out of state education (and privatize what remains), do you really think they care that millions of Americans are functionally illiterate?

For if the people started to really settle down and do some book learnin’, they might start to ask from whence our oligarchs came.  But America’s emerging oligarchy is next issue’s topic.

Democracy Now – Diane Ravitch Interview

3 Responses to “Issue XL: The War on Public Education”

  1. Paul July 27, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    Anand, this is one of your best pieces yet! It’s pretty infuriating to watch America’s school system fall by the wayside while the politicians duke it out. At this rate, we’ll have an effective education policy in 3022. I’m curious to know if there is more recent research to support that “charter schools perform worse than public schools in meeting statewide standards.” That study was in 2004. If this is the case, why aren’t we hearing this more often in the national debates in favor of public education?

    Keep it up and THANK YOU!

  2. Poonam July 28, 2010 at 10:33 am #

    It’s been a while since I’ve made time to read blogs or informative emails…glad I read this one. I won’t comment on it because I get too upset reading about the real world but great work!


  1. Issue LVI: Manufacturing Consent – TED Talks and the ideology of innovation « The Bhatany Report - May 28, 2012

    […] promoting their vision of charter schools and a business approach to public education (see my previous post on this topic).  Roy points out how big business in India is now adopting these tactics by […]

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