Public education vs. the privatizers

To save and improve equal, quality public education, it is imperative to take on the corporate/far right/fundamentalist coalition of privatizers. Their decades-long reactionary assault on public schooling and the entire public sector is now at full throttle. It seeks nothing less than the complete dismantling of a precious, labor-led, democratic achievement.

The essence of this assault is a drive to move public education funds to private for-profit corporations or church schools. It is propelled by Wall Street, eager to get its paws on $600 billion worth of public education assets. As Margot Pepper pointed out in Monthly Review last November, the drive to privatize is engineered by pro-corporate conservative foundations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute and the Olin Foundation, with backing from right-wing big money circles like the Walton family (Wal-Mart).

The privatizers have made deep inroads into public school systems. Here are a few examples.

In 1990, Milwaukee instituted the first voucher program, allowing transfer of public school funds as partial tuition to private schools. Last year Milwaukee expanded the program after a coalition backed by big business generated pressure to get the Republican-controlled Legislature to approve the expansion. New Jersey also adopted a voucher law last year.

In Philadelphia, a state takeover has been used to turn public schools over to for-profit education corporations.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, the public schools were largely dismantled by handing public school funds to private charter schools. This was done by a Republican-controlled state legislature that declared 107 of 121 New Orleans public schools “failing” and took them over. The New Orleans Parish School Board fired all of its 7,500 teachers and support staff, breaking the union (at least temporarily). It gave public school buildings to the private charter schools. The Bush administration stepped in with millions of dollars for the charter schools. Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state board of education, called the dismantled system “the most market-driven system in the United States.”

These examples show the key role of state legislatures as well as Congress in either strengthening or dismantling public education. They also point to the crucial importance of political action by labor and allies to influence educational policy and to elect supporters of public education.

The privatizing thrust was brought to a federal level in 2004 when the Republican-controlled Congress passed the first federally funded voucher program, for the Washington, D.C., public schools. But vouchers did not help education there. As an American Federation of Teachers study shows, the touted claims for the voucher gimmick are not backed up by student performance compared to that of public schools overall. Adequate funding of public schools, not vouchers, is what is needed.

The Bush administration has exploited every opening to accelerate the undermining of public education. Most notorious is the Bush-engineered No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

While trumpeting the unrealistic demand of 100 percent student achievement, NCLB in fact curtails federal funding vital for quality educational measures like small class size and enriched teacher training. NCLB obstructs effective teaching by demanding a frenzy of standardized testing. It has turned testing into a high-profit bonanza for testing corporations, such as Ignite, headed by Neal Bush, George W’s brother. NCLB’s arbitrary standardization is a built-in formula for labeling productive public schools “failing”. This ploy is an opening to push privatizing voucher programs and undermine public education. It is most detrimental to the education of working class and racially oppressed communities.

The 2-million-strong National Education Association has issued an urgent call for mass action to support equal, quality public education. The NEA says the privatizing forces “amount to an attempted private sector takeover of the entire system of public education.”

A broad coalition is active in the struggle. Along with the two teacher unions, NEA and AFT, it includes the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the NAACP and Black and Latino state legislators.

As NCLB comes before the new Democratic-controlled Congress for reauthorization, it is important that the law be transformed in the interest of public education, not privatization. Upholding public education opens the road to improve and expand it — for instance, at the kindergarten and university levels.

The labor movement has historically championed public education. Now it is important for labor to step up its role in this struggle. It is part of a wider struggle to defend the entire public sector, including social programs to meet the needs of workers and all people, such as Social Security, Medicare, public hospitals and public housing.

As Ronald Dellums said on his inauguration as mayor of Oakland, Calif.: When private education threatens to overwhelm public education, “you are dropping a bomb on democracy.”

George Fishman is a retired teacher and trade unionist.