End of Empire Education

What a coincidence! The day that Cathie Black steps down as Chancellor of the NYC school system, an 11×17 glossy booklet arrives in my mailbox ? “Mike Bloomberg: Fighting for our kids.” Really? The message is loud and clear:

Kind, benevolent Mike Bloomberg is fighting the good fight with those up-state Albany bureaucrats to get money into “our schools,” to help “our kids” ? a real hero for the working person. Never mind that the whole, fancy flyer contained ? along with the misleading information ? a total of four sentences (and about five additional sentence fragments). That is all, I guess, they think a working person educated in today’s school system can handle.

Who, then, are “our” kids, “our” schools? Did anyone think for even one moment that the billionaire Mayor chose Cathie Black to be Chancellor because he ? or anyone ? believed she’d do a good job managing a system she knew little or nothing about. Perhaps we all might have expected the media mogul to have a little more media savvy; we may have thought she’d last longer than three months ? passed along because she could barely open her mouth without offending one or another of the traditional stakeholders of education: parents, teachers, administrators, students, or community members. Wasn’t Black the perfect choice for Bloomberg because of her great symbolic value in the campaign to change who the “we” are meant to be? Schools, in the 21st-century “Race to the Top” context, are businesses that need to be well-managed by people with good corporate sense; no educational qualifications, experience, or interest is required.

Parents are consumers, with the charter movement framed in the rhetoric of parental “choice.” That the corporate model reduces these choices to shells of what community-based schooling for equity and democracy used to look like is really beside the point. Charters are managed from a business model (where public monies can more easily be diverted in contracts to the friends of the business “managers” ? free from pesky rules about the way government funds can be spent).

Students are the products ? and their test scores are the basis by which to judge the quality of that product. Do you want a Grade A slice of meat? Those may cost a bit more, and may spend some time in college. A Grade D slice is cheaper and may be easier to hire faster and get rid of whenever you want ? but how good of a job will they do? Principals, in most cases, are little more than middle management, with some local authority but with little power to significantly shift the direction of the system. And teachers in this model are little more than cogs in the machine, to be deployed where best utilized given an immediate need, and shifted to another site or assignment when need be. A fast turnover of new and energetic idealists is perfect for these high-priced, well-educated cogs. No one with any sense would choose this as a long-term profession, especially as the field is being de-professionalized and dumbed-down, with anything but respect being shown to those who have devoted their lives to making the country a better place through the development of critical thinking skills. Well-run education centers in the corporate business “reform” model neither need nor want public critics.

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and am raising my two children there as well, in some of the best public elementary schools in the country. So it is with some pride to note that Chris Owens, son of the legendary leader of the Congressional Black Caucus Major Owens, along with a representative of local Assemblyman Hakim Jeffries (also a parent, with his kids also in the public schools) were two leaders of the Deny Waiver Coalition. Their statement on Cathie Black’s resignation is telling. Though a “clear victory” for the parents and community members who campaigned against her initial assignment to the position for which she was so clearly unqualified, the Coalition statement implied that the real problem ? mayoral control run amuck, with no accountability to anyone ? had not been addressed. “Mayor Bloomberg’s political treatment of education,” they wrote, “is leading to disaster for our children.”

Daniel Diver, writing for the London Guardian, makes the point clearly when he writes that the Black resignation is, at best, a minor set-back for the national movement for “reform” ? re-forming a system intended to serve as the “great equalizer” between rich and poor, Black and white, into a system reminiscent of the pauper schools of 150 years ago. In those days, the rich sent their kids to the private boarding schools which Cathie Black and her children are so familiar with, and the rest of us got to fend for ourselves in schools designed to prepare children for factory jobs which don’t really exist anymore. “The school privatization movement is one of unparalleled genius,” states Diver. “It proposes free-market solutions to a problem created by the free market: wealthy tax-payers refusing to adequately fund poor people’s schools and a de-industrialized service economy that has eliminated good jobs for the working class?. The ‘shock doctrine’ ? Naomi Klein’s term for big business taking advantage of crisis to get its way ? is the order of the day, from Wisconsin to the school house door.” The so-called reformers have, in fact, never been stronger.

National Black Education Agenda activist Sam Anderson helps us to connect the dots from Cathie Black to new Chancellor Dennis Walcott, all the way back to Bloomberg. With his nine years as the Deputy Mayor, asking “how high?” whenever Bloomberg suggests he JUMP!, Walcott derives some “street credibility” based upon his years as a recent New York director of not-yet-defunct, old civil rights group the Urban League. Another Bloomberg buddy, Rev. Al Sharpton, has the job of selling Walcott to the grassroots, while also cozying up to President Obama’s education czar Arne Duncan. With a national election coming up, it is a win-win situation for Bloomberg and the reforming billionaires. “With a potential $2 billion re-election war chest,” Anderson notes, “Obama will need a few ‘acceptable’ Black folk to ? once again ? convince U.S. educators to gather their collective strength and campaign and vote for this version of evil.” If, on the other hand, the Republican Party seems to be in a potentially winning position, ‘Sir Walcott’ (as Anderson calls him) “is also their man.” Walcott will have eighteen months to work with them on their national education policies ? truly a lose-lose situation for parents, teachers, and students.

The prescient blog post by “Raging Horse” put it eloquently: Cathie Black’s tenure with the NYC Department of Education “perfectly embodied” the hubris of the reformers. The scolding arrogance which Black overtly displayed in all her dealings with the ‘huddled masses’ were, as the blog suggested, “surreal, illuminating, and emancipating” moments. “They exposed the idiot logic guiding not merely Bloomberg but all the well-heeled narcissistic imbeciles whose imaginations are so paralyzed and egos so bloated that they believe to the core of their beings that corporate business people (like themselves) have somehow attained the highest form of human intelligence and therefore that all human institutions ? libraries, hospitals, governments, schools, whatever ? should be subordinated to the corporate business model.”

Tom Engelhardt, a modern-day Tom Paine who (like Paine) seeks to water the liberty tree with common sense for common people using sharp writing and reporting skills, recently asked what it might feel like to be inside of an imperial super-power when it starts to fall into decline. Surely, in the field of teaching and learning, the machinations of the “education Mayor” (as Orwellian a concept as a Nobel peace prize winner who rains down cruise missiles on North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia) must present some insight as to what “end times” for empire might portend. Oregon-based scholar Yong Zhao suggests, in his Race to Self Destruction, that “America may succeed in raising test scores but it will likely end up as a nation of great test takers in an intellectually barren land.”

So what are we to do? Where can we find hope, and help to cushion the blows, so that when this empire ends, America can become a place committed to the ideals in which at least some of “We the People” believe: true democracy (the kind that isn’t just exercised once every four years); economic, social, and cultural justice for all; peace through an end to militarism; internationally recognized human rights and liberties. Since every empire in history has had its fall, the question is one of timing: when and not “if.” More to the point, questions about the end of this empire have more to do with “how soon” and “what can we do to push it towards a fast demise that will result in progressive ideals and not fascism.” Perhaps it will be through linking support for the burgeoning (but much-attacked) union movement with the peace studies community facing similar conditions under different circumstances? Or maybe we should take a page from the insightful playbook of master strategist Bayard Rustin, whose 100th birthday celebrations will be coming up in 2012.

Rustin has gone down in history as the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which in turn has gone down in history as the “I Have a Dream” march. Putting aside for the moment that Rustin had a long history in the radical nonviolence movement for two decades before that massive, historic demonstration (he was actually on leave from the staff of the War Resisters League at the time), putting aside that Rustin has also recently been celebrated for his contributions as a Gay man to the modern LGBT movement, and putting aside the fact that the March was more than “I Have a Dream” (and Martin Luther King’s politics and glorious speech-making had three more years of amazing heights before he was cut down in his prime) ? putting aside all that, does anyone remember what Rustin did immediately following the August 28 march?

Always a coalition-builder, with a special interest in the ties between the teachers unions and the civil rights organizations, Rustin was at the center of the movement to push for racial justice within the New York City school system. Early in 1964, Rustin coordinated what he long felt was one of the most successful and dramatic moments of the movement: a Schools Boycott that saw no fewer than 450,000 students and families essentially shut down the city’s schools. Even some teachers stayed away, despite broad threats and few of the job protections which teachers now have but are quickly in danger of losing. Though the 1964 boycott appeared to have little immediate effect, it was just this type of widespread, radical organizing which made the sweep of the civil rights movement an irrepressible force in the years to come.

Perhaps, as we celebrate democracy in the coming year with campaigns, primaries, and elections, we can take a moment to do some extra building of people-centered democratic action. Perhaps, as we get ready to commemorate anniversaries and birthdays, we can work to replicate some of the alliances and militant actions which inspired people then as they would today. Perhaps, as we experience the horror of expanded warfare and death, we can begin to imagine what a post-empire US might look like, and what we would need to do to build it. And, in New York and elsewhere, as the education “reformers” seem unstoppable ? with their piles of money and their breathtaking bile ? perhaps we can show the force of an organized and united community of stakeholders “yearning to breathe free.”

Perhaps, just when it seems that all (or most) is lost, we can help spark a resurgence that makes the last great tide of resistance seem, in comparison, like a little ripple. Now wouldn’t that be a nice “coincidence”?

Matt Meyer is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.