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The War on Public Education

When Public Schools Became Disposable

by HOWARD LISNOFF

For more than three decades, education at all levels in the US has been subjected to a frontal attack on the part of local, state, and federal governments. The inception of the attack came with the far-right presidency of Ronald Reagan, specifically with the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983). That document laid the groundwork for the frontal attack that has moved ahead without pause for over three decades. Like the missile gaps of the 1960s that scared the public into supporting a buildup of nuclear armaments, that publication painted a picture of public education on the verge of collapse. Schools were failing to produce a competitive workforce in the US, when in reality the US workforce was being undermined by corporations sending their work overseas. Like the destruction of the air traffic controllers union during Reagan’s presidency, public schools were put on notice that they had received a failing grade from the administration. The attack against unions, community schools, and teachers was on!

Jonathan Kozol caught the attention of the nation in his blockbuster book Death at an Early Age (1967) that documented his experiences as a substitute teacher in the Boston Public Schools and the miseducation that African-American children were exposed to in those schools. Over 40 years later, Kozol, as hard-hitting as ever, catalogues, in a stock market prospectus, the Montgomery Securities  group take on the privatization of public education:

The education industry represents, in our opinion, the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control…the education industry represents the largest     market opportunity…The K-12 market is the Big Enchilada (“Charter schools and the attack on  public education,” International Socialist Review 62, November-December 2008).

It was not until the so-called standards-based “reform” law of George W. Bush, however, codified in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, that the steamroller of anti-public education really gathered momentum. Charter schools sprang up everywhere as alternatives to public community-based schools that struggled to provide educations to those most in need. Public schools had long since been converted into social service agencies as the nation suffered from falling economic expectations culminating in The Great Recession that began in 2007. No Child Left Behind introduced high-stakes testing as the be-all and end-all of public schooling. Students, teachers, principals, and entire school districts began to be rated solely on the outcomes of standardized testing. Charters, which never have improved on public schooling, morphed exponentially! Teachers and teacher unions were demonized as selfish and not caring about the students who attended public schools, and especially public schools in economically devastated communities.

Charter schools have always operated with public funding, are staffed with people who are not unionized and, most importantly, can pick and choose their student population.

As if in a seamless choreography, the administration of Barack Obama has carried on the anti-public school legacy of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan without missing a beat. His secretary of education, Arne Ducan, is an opponent of teachers and public school unions and a shameless supporter of charter schools. Their Race to the Top (2009) is a $4.3 billion plan to continue the attacks on public schooling by a ruthless set of performance-based standards to measure teachers, principals, and the schools in which they work. It is no accident that Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, is carrying out the same attacks against public schooling inspired by his former boss. In a taste of the bizarre, which is often the hallmark of politics in the US, teachers were the single largest block of delegates supporting Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Talk about solidarity!

Cities like Washington, D.C. and New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg are mirror images of the anti-public school climate in the US and the charter school movement that strips public schools of needed funding. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times (”Why School Choice Fails,” December 4, 2011), a parent laments the lack of a neighborhood public middle school in a majority-black section of the nation’s capital. The lack of a public school in the neighborhood is attributed to the “cynical game” of rival charter schools.

Schools have been left reeling on a very, very uneven playing field! Strange, since public schools worked well enough when a pact existed between the government, big business, and citizens. A world war was successfully fought against fascism, people were sent into outer space, science progressed and conquered many diseases and epidemics, many people lived middle-class lives, and an average work week could support a family. Schools functioned in an imperfect society to help develop successive generations with knowledge capable of taking part in democratic governance. Then entered the global economy and the attacks against workers and unions, teacher unions being one of the most visible and public of all unions. Suddenly, public schools were suspect and failing. Teachers were lazy and undereducated. Teacher unions were focused on greed as a top priority. And neighborhood public schools were just not up to snuff anymore!

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He has taught at all levels of public education for 35 years. He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.