Redesigning America’s Schools In The Corporate Image
- Liz Gordon
The public schooling system of the United States is in a mess. There are probably five main problems: a three tier system of administration (school district, state and federal), fragmentation of the system into numerous little oligarchies called school districts, huge social and educational inequalities, school curricula guided primarily by standardised textbooks and external testing and a large dollop of the “Matthew effect”: much is given to those that have, and little to those who have not.
While the system is the second best funded (behind Lichtenstein) in the world, it languishes around half way down the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) scale in terms of educational performance. What is to be done? Well, there is huge scope for rethinking schooling for the 21st Century. Lots of places that a sound, empowering, equalising, policy programme could start. With all those lovely educational funds around (almost double is spent per child compared to New Zealand), surely there is much that can be done?
In the early 1990s the direction of educational change was set in the USA. It did not involve improving public schools, but bypassing them. The sole reason for this, as far as I can see, was that the reform agenda was run by neo-liberal individuals, politicians and think tanks. And it still is. And, in January 2013, I went to one of their conferences. I received my invitation to the Second International Academic Conference on School Choice about a year ago, from a colleague that I knew a little. Basically, I was offered $US1,000 towards a trip to Florida to give a paper on school choice in New Zealand, as part of an international keynote presentation.
At this time I did not know that the organising group had essentially been taken over by rabidly pro-choice groups. I was warned about this later, though, and pitched my presentations (I ended up giving two) towards them. The economics of the conference did not make sense. There were only about 110 people enrolled, and about half were speakers, who were all paid to attend. There is no way that the conference fees paid for the lavish venue, the meals, speaker costs and the rest. So I looked at the sponsors.
In New Zealand, the average conference sponsor pays about $500 to $1,000 in cash and/or goods (pens, pads and stuff).For this conference, sponsorship started at $US1,500 (for sponsoring an individual) and went up from there. The real goodies come from the platinum and gold sponsors. A platinum sponsor donates $US25,000 or more to the conference. Gold sponsors donate between $US15,000 and $US25,000. The conference had one platinum sponsor, the Walton Family Foundation. In 2012 this organisation invested around $US150 million in supporting charter schools. I quote from the Website:
“Our core strategy is to infuse competitive pressure into America’s K-12* education system by increasing the quantity and quality of school choices available to parents, especially in low-income communities. When all families are empowered to choose from among several quality school options, all schools will be fully motivated to provide the best possible education”. *K-12 is an abbreviation for kindergarten (K) to 12th grade (18-19 year olds). This is the education system used in the US and a few other countries. Ed.
The organisation is committed to shaping public policy and practice in favour of school choice. You will have guessed by now that the Walton family is not John Boy’s kin. No, this is the Foundation arising from the profits of Wal-Mart, the minimum wage, anti-union retail chain. There were two gold sponsors. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice carries on the work of Milton Friedman, which is essentially to privatise schools and have the State pay for education in the private sector. Friedman was a strong advocate of vouchers. American economist Milton Friedman (1912-06) was the godfather of neo-liberalism. Ed.
The other gold sponsor is the William E Simon Foundation. I had to look him up. Simon was an ultra-conservative, all round bad guy, one of the first of the corporate raiders, profiting by breaking up companies. Highly pro-capitalist, he was also a truly horrible human being, as his Wikipedia entry makes clear: “Mr. Simon is commonly acknowledged as a legendary architect of the modern conservative movement. But he was also legendarily mean, ‘a mean, nasty, tough bond trader who took no BS from anyone’, in the words of his old friend Edwin Feulner, President of the Heritage Foundation. Simon was known to awaken his children on weekend mornings by dousing their heads with buckets of cold water”.
There was also an array of bronze sponsors ($US5,000 plus) including the Alliance for School Choice and the Heritage Foundation (another arch-conservative think tank). So it looks like the sponsors donated up to $US100,000 between them for the conference, which is a pretty generous conference budget for a meeting of 110 people. Why would they donate so much to a supposedly academic conference on school choice?
I have done the maths. Of the 110 people enrolled, 35 were directly employed either by one of the sponsoring think tanks, or by another vested interest organisation. Have you heard of Cardus, or Academica, or Magnet Schools of America? Neither had I. These organisations have grown up like mushrooms to support, promote or start charter schools. About the same number again were academics in departments with research programmes directly funded by pro-choice organisations. This left about a third of us who were not committed to the charter school cause. About half of these were from overseas, and the rest an interesting collection of academics. Notable by their absence were the many anti-choice researchers and academics. The rats had deserted this ship a while ago. Thus the conference was packed full of true believers. Just to give one example, a really nice guy called Patrick Wolf, holder of an endowed Chair in School Choice, one of the organisers and the recipient over two decades of more than $US13 million in research funding. He thoroughly believed two things which were anathema to me: that the public schooling system was unfixable and that the poor needed a different, high discipline model of schooling in order to get an education.
The first of the two beliefs I will cover in the next section, when I discuss der Fuehrer’s talk. The second is a very widespread belief that the poor are essentially undisciplined and lack good family experiences. Schools are to make up for this by longer hours of schooling, a strong and assertive model of discipline and high levels of suspension for wrong-doing. This is a model that I called in my challenge to them (for I was brave, and took them on) “treating the children of the poor in ways we would never treat our own children”. I should add that I was extremely well and courteously treated at all times, even though I spoke often in opposition to what was being said. However, the velvet glove of southern American manners did not completely conceal the iron fist of power determined to achieve its own goals. It really was fascinating.
The Slavering Anti-Union Face Of The Leader Of The Movement
Terry Moe, Stanford University Professor, did not attend the whole conference, but came on the last day to declare his mighty truths to us. Moe was known to me by name from his 1990s’ book “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools”, an early pro-choice tract. I was not aware that he had spent the last few years researching the role of teacher unions. In a mouth-foaming vicious speech he denounced the teacher unions (one of the things I noticed was that speakers often assumed that everyone in the room agreed with them. This was quite useful, as they spoke in stronger terms than they might otherwise. Such carelessness then provided useful openings for loudmouth Gordon to have a go).
He explained that unions stood in the way of all reform, by protecting bad teachers and bad practices, and refusing to entertain school choice options. As his book blurb notes: “Why are America's public schools falling so short of the mark in educating the nation's children? Why are they organised in ineffective ways that fly in the face of common sense, to the point that it is virtually impossible to get even the worst teachers out of the classroom? And why, after more than a quarter century of costly education reform, have the schools proven so resistant to change and so difficult to improve?” The answer is teacher unions, of course. I have not read Moe’s book, but I envisage it as the “Mein Kampf”* of the pro-choice Right, except with unionised teachers replacing “the Jews” as the cause of all problems in the world. It was positively scary. * “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”) by Adolf Hitler; written before he became der Fuehrer (the Leader). Ed.
I came away with one firm conclusion: the Right have money, influence and power in ways that those of us on the Left could never even dream of. It is a darn sight much easier to be Rightwing than Leftwing: research funding, advancement within your job, the favoured privilege, like a sprinkling of pixie dust, of those that embrace the dark side. It was interesting how the influence works – they all endorsed each other’s work and sought to improve their status, to become the largely unchallenged masters of the universe. How do they see us? Well, I think really just as minor glitches on the road to the Promised Land. Whether we oppose choice and privatisation, corporate takeovers or foreign acquisition of land, resources and profit, we are the ragged band of opponents and protestors trying desperately to plug the dam before it bursts. They are used to winning and to playing the game on their own terms. Very scary.