How Occupy Wall Street is Also an Education Justice Movement

(From parentsacrossamerica.orgBy Jason Langberg and Lewis Pitts

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has taken the country by storm. Tens of thousands of Americans are taking to the streets to protest corporate greed and government corruption. The People are sick and tired of capitalism destroying what’s left (after Citizens United) of our environment, our social safety nets, and our democracy. Indeed, there’s no corner of our country uncorrupted by the visible hands of moneyed elites and their puppets in government. Public education is no exception. It has undergone a corporate coup. That is why the OWS movement is also an education justice movement.

The OWS movement comes three decades after the beginning of what has, unfortunately, been a well-organized, well-funded, and highly-successful movement to undermine public education and make it better serve corporate interests. The high-jacking of public education was initiated in the 1980s by the Business Roundtable and the infamous publication, A Nation at Risk, and has since become a bipartisan venture. It has been orchestrated and funded by an interlocking network of: billionaire hustlers (e.g., David Tepper, Whitney Tilson, and Mark Zuckerberg); non-profits (e.g., StudentsFirst, New Schools Venture Fund, and American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research); political action committees (e.g., Democrats for Education Reform); foundations operating under the false pretext of “civil rights” concerns and the guise of “disinterested” philanthropy (e.g., Broad, Gates, Walton); politicians (e.g., Michael Bloomberg, Chris Christie, Barack Obama, Rick Scott, and Scott Walker); and cronies in education policymaking positions (e.g., Cathy Black, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, and Michelle Rhee). Finally, it has been perpetuated by the slick marketing of a propaganda machinery (e.g., Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman and Steven Brill’s Class Warfare) that sets up an overly simplistic false dichotomy—teachers and advocates mischaracterized as “self-interested defenders of the status quo” versus “altruistic and “honest reformers.” In a recent speech at the Northwest Teachers for Social Justice Conference, Stan Karp, a long-time teacher and education policy expert, stressed the absurdity of turning over public schools to market-based or neo-liberal “reforms” when free market fundamentalism has ruined every sphere of the globe: “Only in the U.S. could a campaign of billionaires to privatize and dismantle what’s probably the most inclusive democratic institution we have left be dressed up as a selfless campaign for civil rights.”

Admittedly, many children experience public education as a system of oppression. Public schools in the U.S. have appalling achievement gaps and school-to-prison pipelines, with children from low-wealth families, children of color, children with disabilities, and children with limited English proficiency as the primary victims. However, both the achievement gaps and the pipeline are primarily products of systemic racism and a culture of white supremacy, segregation, poverty, inadequate funding, zero tolerance, and over-policing. Moreover, research shows that market-based reforms exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, these problems.

The reasons for corporate America’s infiltration of public education are relatively simple: 1) resource starvation of public systems equals lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy; 2) undermining public education equals the maintenance of a permanent underclass to supply low-cost labor; 3) public funds flowing into private schools, for-profit charter schools, testing, technology, and school construction equals huge profits; 4) narrow and shallow curricula, drill-and-kill teaching to the test, and high-stakes testing equals more easily controlled consumers and voters, and replaceable workers and teachers; 5) blaming students, parents, teachers, and public education for an inability to compete in the global economy and economic conditions, such as the recent recession, equals distraction from increasing and grinding poverty and inequities caused by capitalism; and 6) imputing teachers equals undermining unions.

The mega-buck mafia’s buyout of public education is alarming for additional reasons. First and foremost, market-based “reforms” are incompatible with public education. As Diane Ravitch writes: “[E]ducation is not interchangeable with business. Education is not a business. It is supposed to provide a good education to all children, not to segment its market and compete with others in the marketplace. It operates on the principle of equality of educational opportunity, not a race to see who can sell the most or win the biggest market share and beat out the others.” In other words, free markets have winners and losers; public education shouldn’t. All the talk of “Race to the Top” and “competition” implies few winners and many losers in schools, just as in society. Such class hierarchy should be dismantled, not replicated, through the public education system. Businesses choose their customers; public schools can’t. The corporate world is about competition; public education, particularly in an era of austerity, must be about community and cooperation. Mass production relies on assembly lines and interchangeable parts, whereas each child is unique and presents different needs.

The second reason, a logical consequence of the first, is that market-based reforms havenot proven to be effective; in fact, they generally result in worse outcomes for students. Third, unlike elected officials, such as school board members and state legislators, the corporatists dictating education policy are not democratically accountable. Finally, blind deference to organized money and those chosen to carry out their plans, disrespects, undermines, discourages, demoralizes, alienates, and renders invisible the true experts—those who’re central to the success of public schools—students, parents, and teachers.

North Carolina is one of the many states in which the corporate occupation of public education is painfully obvious. For example, a current commercial banker at Wachovia and a former Lehman Brothers analyst currently serve on the North Carolina State Board of Education. The mission of the State Board mirrors the same old capitalist dribble heard in school districts across the nation: “every public school student will graduate from high school, globally competitive for work and postsecondary education and prepared for life in the 21st Century.” The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction boasts about being one of twelve recipients of the 2010 federal “Race to the Top” grants—President Obama’s and Arne Duncan’s way of holding desperate, cash-strapped states hostage with a ransom of market-based reforms that continue down the failed path of No Child Left Behind. To administer the funds, the North Carolina Governor, Beverly Purdue, created the “Governor’s Education Transformation Commission,” which includes the state executive director of Teach for America, the state president of AT&T, and a vice president in the transportation division of AECOM, a Fortune 500 company.

Additionally, ultra-wealthy, ultra-conservative businessmen (e.g., Art Pope and Bob Luddy—North Carolina’s version of the Koch Brothers) have poured millions of dollars, viafoundations and think tanks (e.g., Americans for Prosperity NC, Civitas Institute, John Locke Foundation, John Pope Foundation), into a hostile overthrow of the North Carolina General Assembly, which consequently is Republican-controlled in both houses for the first time in over a century. State legislators, many of whom were purchased by Luddy and Pope, have slashed public education funding by nearly one billion dollars over the last two years (moving North Carolina nearly to the absolute bottom nationally in public education funding and causing more than 1,800 teachers and teacher assistants to be laid off) and lifted the statewide cap on charter schools. What is worse, a toxic combination of additional market-based reforms may be on the horizon, including vouchers, tax credits, merit pay, mass firings, increased class size, virtual classrooms, and the elimination of tenure and seniority rights (teachers in North Carolina are already deprived of collective bargaining rights).

The corporatization of education has trickled down to local North Carolina school districts. For example, The Broad Foundation, which has funneled more than $400 million into market-based reforms over the last decade or so, has left its mark on the state. It installed Peter Gorman as superintendent in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). During his five years in CMS, Gorman deployed the Broad playbook: top-down tyranny, re-segregation, school closings in mostly Black neighborhoods, budget cuts, layoffs, reliance on novice Teach for America teachers, performance pay for teachers, and a litany of new high-stakes tests (Gorman rolled out 52 new exams for students). In June 2011, Gorman abruptly announced his resignation. Two months later, he became a senior vice president for the new education division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (the same News Corps. that operates Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, and has been involved in a phone hacking scandal in England). He now works for fellow non-educator turned superintendent turned News Corps. employee, Joel Klein. In his new position, Gorman will primarily be in charge of selling and implementing News Corps.-owned education technology in school districts across the country.

The Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) is also infected with the Broad virus. The current superintendent, Anthony Tata, was hired in December 2010, with no community input, by a new, conservative school board majority that was elected with big money from Pope and Luddy. Tata spent 28 years in the U.S. military, stationed in Panama and the Philippines, and then participating in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. He then authored tawdry, fictional military novels, served as a Fox News commentator, and was a blogger. He once declared Sarah Palin “far more qualified to be president of the United States than the current occupant of the White House” and “precisely the kind of leader America needs.” Moreover, Tata has no degrees in education and no experience as an educator. In fact, his only experience working in public education was an eighteen-month stint as Director of Operations (he handled procurement, logistics, and food service) under Michelle Rhee in the D.C. Public Schools (while she autocratically made the free-market formula fashionable and cheating on standardized tests routine), and his only formal training was a ten-month course at The Broad Center in Los Angeles. During his time in D.C., The Broad Foundation described Tata as “a distinctive, alpha-male presence at a school headquarters.” Tata came to WCPSS claiming that he would “energetically reap best practices” of the Rhee era in D.C.

Tata made his intentions clear when his first local public appearance was at the Wake County Taxpayers Association (a conservative organization funded by Luddy). Since then, he has taken things one corporatization/militarization step at a time. He helped replace Wake County’s nationally-renowned socio-economic diversity policy with a “choice” plan and gained approval for locating two single-sex “leadership academies,” with mandatory J-ROTC, in Raleigh. In June 2011, The Broad Foundation conducted the first of three planned audits of WCPSS. It recommended that WCPSS hire a “Chief Transformation Officer.” Promptly, Tata got the school board to hire Judy Peppler, Oregon president of Qwest Communications, the biggest phone company in Oregon, and a twenty-three year veteran in the telecommunications industry, including serving as a lobbyist. Peppler, like Tata, went through The Broad Superintendent Academy and has no experience as an educator. Finally, in September 2011, WCPSS announced two cyber security competitions for students. The competitions are brought to our children by the likes of the U.S. Air Force, AT&T, a big financial backer of the Tea Party, and companies that produce killing machines, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon.

The examples of corporation domination of public education in North Carolina could go on and on and on. For example, Guilford County Schools actually discussed proposals to permit marketing, ranging from ads inside schools to selling naming rights for school stadiums and buildings.

There can be no full education justice until there is true economic justice and the elimination of capitalist power over public schools and all other public institutions, including all three branches of government. This is why we are overwhelmed with joy as a result of the ever-growing, increasingly powerful OWS movement. Our brothers and sisters heating up the streets from New York and D.C. to CharlotteRaleigh, and Greensboro give us hope that public education is not doomed.

We act in solidarity with them as we envision a vastly different type of public education system—one in which students: 1) are supported and nurtured, treated with dignity, compassion, and kindness, and encouraged to exercise their natural curiosity and imaginativeness; 2) learn to think critically, creatively, and courageously as is necessary to fully participate in a self-governing democracy; and 3) gain the knowledge, skills, and experiences required to become solutionariesconscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers—for a better world through whatever careers they choose.

We once again turn to Stan Karp to summarize what is ultimately at stake in the fight to save public education:

“It’s whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed—however imperfectly—by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?…It took well over a hundred years to create a public school system that, for all its flaws, provides a free education for all children as a legal right. It took campaigns against child labor, crusades for public taxation, struggles against fear and discrimination directed at immigrants, historic movements for civil rights against legally sanctioned separate and unequal schooling, movements for equal rights and educational access for women, and in more recent decades sustained drives for the rights of special education students, gay and lesbian students, bilingual students, and Native American students. These campaigns are all unfinished and the gains they’ve made are uneven and fragile. But they have made public schools one of the last places where an increasingly diverse and divided population still comes together for a common civic purpose.”

Thank you, OWSers, for recognizing the enormity of the moment and acting boldly for education justice.

Lewis Pitts and Jason Langberg are public interest lawyers and education justice advocates in North Carolina. They can be reached at lewisp121247@gmail.com andlangberg@gmail.com.

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