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Labor's Placebo Politics

Privatization Hounds Bay at the Moon

by DAVID MACARAY

One of the biggest con games going on at the moment is the sustained attack on the U.S. public school system.  It’s being perpetrated by predatory entrepreneurs (disguised as “concerned citizens” and “education reformers”) hoping to persuade the parents of school-age children that the only way their kids are going to get a decent education is by paying for something that they can already get for free.  You might say it’s the same marketing campaign that launched bottled water.

The profit impulse fueling this drive is understandable.  All it takes is a cursory look at the economic landscape to see why these speculators are drooling at the prospect of privatizing education.  Millions of students pulling up stakes, bailing out of the public school system, and enrolling in private or charter schools?  Are you kidding?  Just think of the money that would generate.

Mind you, these “education reformers” are the same people who want to privatize the world—the same people who want more toll roads, who want hikers to pay trail fees, who want city parks and public beaches to charge admission. Indeed, they’re the same tribe of people who convinced a thirsty nation to voluntarily pay for drinking water they could otherwise get for free.

Before comparing private and public schools, let’s revisit the bottled water craze, the stunning marketing phenomenon that made beverage companies wealthy and added a billion plastic bottles to our landfills and oceans.  For the record, since passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), municipal water, unlike bottled water, has been stringently regulated by the EPA, which is why bottled water contains more impurities and bacteria. In truth, city water is safer, cheaper and better for the environment.

Of course, there are people who refuse to believe one word the government (municipal or otherwise) tells them.  They don’t believe the census, they don’t believe the figures in the federal budget.  They regard EPA statistics as state-sponsored propaganda.  Fine.  You’ll never get these people to change their minds, so save your breath.  Let them and Grover Norquist do whatever it is they need to do.

And then you have your beverage connoisseurs who (even though blind taste tests tend to dispute this) insist that they can not only instantly tell the difference between bottled and tap water, but can tell the difference between varying brands of bottled water.  I’m not saying that some of these epicureans (taste test evidence aside) can’t do this.  All I’m saying is that they’re fanatical about it.

Offer a glass of tap water to a beverage connoisseur who, before the bottled water craze swept the nation, had happily guzzled city water his entire life, and he’ll recoil in horror, as if you’d invited him to drink from your toilet. I’ve joked with these people that if I ever introduced a brand of bottled water, I would name it “Placebo.” [A few years ago they had a blind tasting of bottled water of various private brands and water from various municipal systems. The winner was Desert Hot Springs City Water. Editors.]

Back to education.  The thing about private schools is that they’re very much like bottled water.  They are far less regulated than public schools.  In fact, they’re largely unregulated.  Take California, for example.  In order to teach in a California public school (elementary, intermediate or high school), you must have both a college degree and a teaching credential.  The private schools require neither.

Not only can you teach in a private school without a credential or degree, but private teachers earn significantly less than their public counterparts.  Less education, less certification, less salary.  The obvious question:  Which institution—private or public—is going to attract the better instructor?  Would we ever choose a medical doctor with those startling deficiencies?  Yet, free enterprise hounds continue to extol the virtues of privatization, pretending it’s the cure to what ails us.

Another component to this anti-public education campaign is the Republican Party’s ongoing attempt to subvert organized labor by attributing the flaws in our public school system to the teachers’ union.  In 2008, labor is reported to have donated $400 million to the Democratic Party, which has been a rallying cry for Republicans ever since.  Their stated goal is to neutralize the Democrats by crippling organized labor.

Of course, the irony here is that labor is furious at the Democrats for having more or less abandoned them.  Labor places $400 million in the Democrats’ war chest, and what do they get in return?  A pat on the head and a condescending lecture on the virtues of patience from Rahm Emanuel.  Talk about your placebo.

DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.   He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net