If you have enough money, you get to create education policy

When a society sees children as fodder for profit instead of tomorrow’s citizens to be educated, privatization has surely gotten out of hand. Shortcomings in education, a product of larger societal deficiencies, would best be addressed in a systemic manner, but instead we get hedge-fund managers leading attacks on those favorite scapegoats of the Right, teachers.

The latest exhibit comes to us from New York City, where new Mayor Bill de Blasio is under sustained attack for applying the most gentle tap to the brakes in the runaway train of charter-school approval. What crime did Mayor de Blasio commit that has brought thunderous denunciation onto his head? He approved only 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the administration of the previous mayor, financial industry billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge

New York City already has nearly 200 charter schools. These are controversial not simply because public money is directed from public schools to private, for-profit companies, but because the charter schools take space away public schools and pay no rent. Yep, private operators use public space for free while public school students lose facilities.

One of the largest operators of charter schools in New York is Harlem Success Academy, which operates 18 of them — all located in public school buildings. Juan Gonzalez, a columnist for the New York Daily News, reported on the experience of the Mickey Mantle public school for special-education students when the academy arrived:

“ ‘We lost our library and a bunch of classrooms that [first] year,’ [special-education teacher Lynn] Manuell says. The following year, as Harlem Success increased its enrollment, Mickey Mantle was ordered to give up more space. ‘We lost our technology room, our music room, our art room and we had to start sharing the cafeteria, the gym and playground,’ Manuell says. … A fellow teacher conducts four periods a week of gym in a regular classroom because so little time has been allotted in the main gym to the Mickey Mantle pupils.”

Those with less get less so those with more get more

The chief executive officer of Harlem Success is Eva Moskowitz, who drew a salary of $488,000 in 2011. Her ability to pay for the public facilities she uses is demonstrated by a teacher who writes on education issues, Mercedes Schneider:

“Since 2006, Eva Moskowitz has been running a small charter empire that has at least $50 million in government per-pupil funding, at least $30.9 million in total, end-of-year assets, and the support of hedge fund millionaires. Why is it, then, that her Success Academies have never paid a dime in rent for the public school space occupied by her charter schools?”

A good question. Ms. Moskowitz, a former city council member, justifies her charter-school empire by saying that her students get higher test scores than the citywide average. But as a private school, her academies can pick and choose their students, notes education researcher Diane Ravitch:

“The media do not know that her schools do not serve the same demographic as the children in the public schools. She enrolls fewer children with special needs and fewer English language learners. Her schools have a high suspension and attrition rate.

Her logic seems to be that since she gets high test scores (note the above sentence as one does tend to get high scores by keeping out low-scoring students), she deserves to get whatever space she wants, rent-free. By that logic, the city should give extra privileges to students with high scores, and should take away space and privileges and programs from those with low scores.”

Maybe they aren’t better after all

Better results on standardized tests is a primary argument proponents of charter schools routinely make. The corporate media accepts these claims without investigation, yet the facts tell a different story. At best, charter schools have roughly comparable results; those that show better results are in the minority.

A widely cited 2009 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that 83 percent of charter schools studied in 16 U.S. states had results that were either worse or not significantly different than public school results. A second study by the center in 2013, covering 26 states and New York City, found that 75 percent of charter schools had results that were not significantly different or were worse than public school results.

The Rand Corporation, hardly an entity hostile to business interests, reached substantially similar conclusions in its study of California charter schools:

“Regarding student achievement, results are mixed. Students in charter schools generally have comparable or slightly lower test scores than students in conventional public schools, but there is variation among the types of charter schools. With respect to governance, only a small proportion of chartering authorities are collecting accountability information such as student grades, promotion rates, and dropout rates.”

Halfway across the country, in Milwaukee, a report released in December 2012 by the Forward Institute found that the higher scores of the city’s charter schools in comparison to public schools “is explained by their bias selection of low truancy students.” Overall, however, this report found that charter schools have had a negative impact on student poverty because “schools with higher poverty enrollment levels have experienced per-pupil funding cuts more than two times the cuts in the most affluent districts.” The report’s sobering conclusion is this:

“[W]hen controlling for school and community factors, charter schools in Milwaukee do not offer a better educational outcome for students.”

Just as in New York, you can “achieve” better results if you can pick and choose your students, and provide more resources.

This offensive against public education is not new. When I was a student myself in 1970s New Jersey and an adult still living there in the following decade, the incessant ideology was that Catholic schools were better than public schools. The Catholic schools also could rid themselves of less desirable students, and the thesis wasn’t true anyway. When a ranking of area high schools was undertaken, the two public high schools in my home town were ranked first and second, while the Catholic schools ranked well down the pack. I was fortunate to grow up in a town that put money into its school system.

Turning schools into drill halls

Charter schools place a heavy emphasis on standardized testing. Yet even if it were true that charter schools could deliver consistently higher scoring on them, it is questionable at best whether such tests are actually evidence of student learning.

A National Research Council report in 2011 found that “The available evidence does not give strong support for the use of test-based incentives to improve education.” That shouldn’t be a controversial statement — turning schools into drill halls so students can regurgitate material to pass a test is not a substitute for leveraging teachers’ professional skills to encourage creative learning. The council’s report states:

“The tests that are typically used to measure performance in education fall short of providing a complete measure of desired educational outcomes in many ways. This is important because the use of incentives for performance on tests is likely to reduce emphasis on the outcomes that are not measured by the test.

The academic tests used with test-based incentives obviously do not directly measure performance in untested subjects and grade levels or development of such characteristics as curiosity and persistence. However, those tests also fall short in measuring performance in the tested subject and grade in important ways. … [S]cores on the tests used with incentives may give an inflated picture of learning with respect to the full range of the content standards.”

Here we have an important clue. Corporate titans want employees with strong technical skills without the ability to think independently. In U.S. universities, there is a heavy emphasis on business and business-friendly courses while liberal arts are under sustained attack. The charter-school movement is very well funded and promoted by industrialists and financiers — this is not altruism based on supposed concern for student learning, but rather an attempt to take over education to suit their narrow economic interests.

The billionaires who drive education policy

On the national level in the United States, by far the three biggest funders are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Microsoft founder Bill Gates became wealthy producing software that doesn’t work well because he can exploit a monopoly he was accidentally handed; Eli Broad became wealthy building suburban houses, taking advantage of the many government subsidies that enabled the suburbs; and the Waltons benefit enormously from Wal-Mart’s leading role in forcing manufacturers to re-locate to China because that is the only way they can meet Wal-Mart’s demand for low prices.

What possible qualification do such people have to dictate education policy?

Nonetheless, they have driven policy across the country, even at the federal level. The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition for education funding, the intellectual product of the three foundations, induced states to change laws and favor charters to get the money, according to a detailed report by Joanne Barkan in Dissent. The Gates Foundation even supplied consultants to states to help them win Race to the Top money. That is merely one of numerous examples, Ms. Barkan writes:

“A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.”

Hedge-fund millionaires are bankrolling much of the push for charter schools on the local level in Chicago and New York. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (“Mayor 1%”) sought to crush the teachers’ union and drastically increase the use of charter schools as part of his neoliberal agenda when his hard-line tactics induced the teachers to go on strike in September 2012.

He failed because the union worked with the community ahead of time to explain the stakes, and to prepare parents for the possibility that the teachers would be forced to go on strike. When the inevitable attacks came in the predictable form — “the teachers are greedy” “the teachers only care about getting more of your tax money” — they did not have the usual impact. Mayor Emanuel had clearly expected the community to be on his side; instead the people were with the teachers.

Providing muscle for Mayor Emanuel were hedge-fund managers running an organization called “Education Reform Now,” an advocate for charter schools that paid for a series of automated telephone calls to Chicago parents during the three-day period in June when the teachers were voting to authorize a strike, and for a barrage of television commercials attacking the teachers during the strike.

Hedge-fund money talks, politicians snap to attention

And that brings us back to New York. Hedge-fund managers are major backers of charter schools there; they are heavily represented on the boards of the Harlem Success Academy and its individual schools. They are also financial backers of New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo, himself a promoter of charter schools and corporate agendas in general who spoke at rally organized by Eva Moskowitz on March 4.

That was an event in which Ms. Moskowitz closed her schools and bused her students to the rally, which merited no comment in the corporate media. Just ask yourself: What would the reaction have been had public schools closed for political purposes, particularly if done so with union backing. Everyone would have to wear earplugs the screaming denunciations would be so loud.

The fact that charter schools tend to be non-unionized with less experienced teachers making less money and possessing less job security should not be left out of the picture.

Governor Cuomo has racked up considerable contributions from financiers seeking to control education, according to a Chalkbeat New York report:

“Cuomo’s reelection bid has so far received nearly $400,000 from a cadre of wealthy supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter School network, according to an updated tally of newly-released campaign filings. Some money has even come from Moskowitz’s political action committee, Great Public Schools, which has given $65,000 to Cuomo since 2011. … By one tally of the 2014 filings, Cuomo racked up at least $800,000 in donations from 27 bankers, real estate executives, business executives, philanthropists and advocacy groups who have flocked to charter schools and other education causes in recent years.”

Although recently disbanded when watchdogs began requesting its donors be made public, the governor had set up a “Committee to Save New York,” a group of wealthy business leaders and real estate barons that spent $17 million promoting government austerity, cuts to pensions and tax cuts for the rich.

Education advocates in New York City — those concerned with students and not profits — have pinned their hopes on Mayor de Blasio, who promised that he would charge charter schools rent. So far, however, he seems to have gotten cold feet. He has yet to announce a plan, and now says he wants to charge them on a sliding scale rather than a standard rate. The New York City Independent Budget Office has calculated that the city would generate $92 million by charging a flat rate of $2,320 per student.

Millionaire hedge-fund managers and other wealthy backers are opposed, helping to orchestrate ferocious attacks in the corporate media, particularly by the city’s tabloids. The New York Times reports that charter advocates “warn that such a move would alienate donors amid worries that their contributions would end up in the city treasury.” Everybody, through paying taxes, sharing responsibility for the most basic of social services — educating children — should be the most minimum duty for anyplace that considers itself civilized.

That little tidbit about “alienation” speaks volumes about the inequality that has become so pervasive and reveals the real agenda here — educating some children so that they become corporate drones and throwing away other children as excess humanity without value. Why doesn’t this sicken more of us?

Defending Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present has always been a controversial book. We are taught as young students that history is made by monarchs, emperors, presidents, generals and industrialists who created the modern world, the only world that can be. The overwhelming majority of humanity is putty shaped by these great men, and we should all be grateful for what they have bestowed upon us.

Professor Zinn’s work is a direct challenge to such narratives, illuminating the struggles of ordinary people against the dominant classes through long periods of history and the violence that accompanies the creation and maintenance of institutional inequality. The potent challenge that People’s History represents more than 30 years after its first printing is demonstrated by a vitriolic attack on it published in the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers, American Educator.

The article, “Undue Certainty,” was brought to my attention by a dedicated New York City high school teacher who is not confident that the AFT will publish a response. The author of the article, Sam Wineburg, could not long maintain his mask of neutrality despite his attempts to root his challenge in a supposed concern for “balance.” A perusal of Professor Wineburg’s curriculum vitae shows no obvious ideological slant, and I shall not attempt to assign him one. Moreover, he took pains to write from a centrist position. Nonetheless, his false equivalences between Right and Left ultimately ring hollow, and his assertions that he is standing up to the “dominant narrative” of People’s History badly at odds with reality.

After acknowledging that traditional school textbooks “too often” hide the history of ordinary soldiers and everyday people, Professor Wineburg’s first critique is that People’s History “is naked of footnotes,” similar to traditional textbooks. It is true that direct footnotes aren’t used, but People’s History contains 18 pages of references, grouped by chapter, and often provides sources in the text, so it is not difficult to find relevant sources.

Questioning the questioning of World War II

The core of Professor Wineburg’s argument centers on a critique of “A People’s War?,” People’s History’s chapter on World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. (Professor Wineburg uses the 2003 HarperCollins edition while my copy is the 1995 edition, so the page numbers I will cite will vary a bit from those cited in the American Educator article.) The professor begins his critique of the chapter by pouring cold water on the questions raised by Professor Zinn concerning African-American attitudes toward the war, although he does acknowledge that the Black press wrote about the “Double V” — victory over fascism in Europe and over racism in the United States.

Professor Wineburg asserts that Professor Zinn “hangs his claim on [only] three pieces of evidence” — a quote from a Black journalist, a quote from a student and a poem published in the Black press [page 28]. It is strongly implied that these were lone unrepresentative voices. But Professor Wineburg leaves out that the student quote was was read to a crowd of “several thousand people in the Midwest,” according to People’s History, and was met with loud and sustained applause, to the “surprise and dismay” of the NAACP leader who is directly quoted. [page 410]

Moreover, Professor Zinn immediately follows those examples with these two sentences: “But there was no organized Negro opposition to the war. In fact, there was little organized opposition from any source,” save for a handful of very small socialist, anarchist and pacifist groups [page 411]. A page later, the book states, “Public opinion polls show[ed] large majorities of soldiers favoring the draft for the postwar period.” These passages are hardly consistent with Professor Wineburg’s contention that Professor Zinn one-sidedly declares that the U.S. seethed with hostility toward the war.

Professor Wineburg then complains that the number of conscientious objectors was not only low, but that Black C.O.s were proportionally fewer than White C.O.s. He simply uses the raw numbers in these categories without making any attempt to analyze them, an irony when a primary accusation against People’s History is that it is too simplistic. I am not an expert on World War II and am in no position to issue judgments, but a reasonable analysis would take into account the fact that Blacks consistently faced much harsher punishments than Whites, perhaps dampening the willingness to act on ambivalences toward the war. We might also consider the racism that would have made it more difficult for a Black objector to be granted C.O. status by White decision-makers.

Any analysis would surely have to contend with the fact that, as People’s History does but Professor Wineburg does not, the World War I-era espionage act criminalizing dissent was still on the books and the Smith Act passed in 1940 made criticism of the war effort illegal. These acts, while applied ruthlessly against Left critics of the wars, likely would have come down especially hard on African-Americans who publicly objected and wielded as racist object lessons. Would this not have an effect?

War aims and the decision to drop the atomic bomb

Professor Wineburg continues his critique of the World War II chapter by complaining that Professor Zinn asks “yes-no” and “either-or” questions [pages 29-30]. People’s History does ask big questions, but that is rather the point. The book openly asks if an Allied victory would deliver a blow to imperialism and if U.S. post-war policies would match the country’s stated ideals and values. Considering post-war McCarthyism, continued Jim Crow laws and the forcing of women back into the home, these hardly seem irrelevant questions.

Despite ample evidence of hostility to change by the country’s rulers, it is difficult not to conclude that Professor Wineburg is offended by the mere asking of these questions. People’s History presents a long series of evidence of the true U.S. goals of economic dominance covering five pages, backed by quotations directly from U.S. government archives [pages 401-405]. Some of the documents reveal that officials explicitly told Allied governments they would be allowed to keep their colonies.

The U.S. has a long history of interventions in other countries, often to directly benefit U.S. corporations. The U.S. intervened militarily almost 100 times in Latin America alone before 1970 and has a long history of overthrowing governments not to its liking. Does this history truly have no relevance to an analysis of U.S. war aims in World War II? It should not be controversial that the first world war was fought for imperial gains and colonies, nor that a struggle between the U.S. and Germany to be the successor to Britain’s declining world dominance was a factor in early 20th century foreign affairs. World War II did in fact end with the Allies dividing the world among themselves, nor did the Allies exert themselves to stop the Holocaust.

Professor Wineburg is certainly entitled to draw different conclusions than Professor Zinn, but his accusation that People’s History asks one-sided questions to pre-determined answers itself appears to be pre-determined. Professor Wineburg’s subtle contention that Professor Zinn gives insufficient credit to the Allies’ supposed zeal to defend Jews is complemented with a more direct accusation that People’s History fails to acknowledge the suffering of Poles. As I am Slavic and a Marxist intellectual, I need no lectures on Nazi barbarism; I am painfully aware of what the Nazis did to people like me in the Mauthausen death camp. I doubt Professor Zinn needed such lectures, either. Nonetheless, Professor Wineburg writes:

“Zinn is silent about Poland. Instead, he approvingly cites Simone Weil, the French philosopher and social activist. At a time when the Einsatzgruppen were herding Polish Jews into the forest and mowing them down before open pits, Weil compared the difference between Nazi fascism and the democratic principals of England and the United States to a mask hiding the true character of both. … Zinn adds that the real struggle of World War II was not between nations, but rather that the ‘real war was inside each nation.’ Given his stance, it’s no wonder that Zinn chooses to begin the war not in 1939, but a full year later.” [page 30]

That is a heavy charge. Did Professor Weil really say that? When we examine the relevant passage, we find that what she wrote was rather more subtle; neither she nor Professor Zinn is quoted accurately. Here is the relevant passage in People’s History:

“A few voices continued to insist that the real war was inside each nation: Dwight Macdonald’s wartime magazine Politics presented, in early 1945, an article by the French worker-philosopher Simone Weil: ‘Whether the mask is labelled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship of the Proletariat, our great adversary remains the Apparatus — the bureaucracy, the police, the military. … No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this Apparatus, and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.’ ” [page 412]

There are no direct comparisons of countries. Reasonable minds can disagree with Professor Weil’s anti-authoritarian stance or her imagery, but her writing unmistakably is a cri de coeur for democratic values to be honored, an end to oppression everywhere and for people to have control over their lives. That is not unreasonable. Jim Crow and racism was enforced with state-sponsored and -enabled terrorism across the U.S. South, women could hardly be said to have attained equality even if their labor was needed for the war effort and all sorts of national hatreds coursed through the populations of all belligerents.

That the evil of Nazi Germany was a unique menace that had to be eliminated is not an excuse for Allied countries not to take stock of themselves. No Allied country was anywhere near as cruel as the Nazi régime — but is that the bar we wish to set for ourselves?

Finally, Professor Wineburg addresses Professor Zinn’s contention that Japan was seeking to negotiate a surrender in the months before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that it was not necessary to drop them as the dominant narrative has consistently maintained. The complaint here is that Professor Zinn relies on “the two defining texts of the revisionist school, Gar Alperovitz’s Atomic Diplomacy (1967) and Martin Sherwin’s A World Destroyed (1975).” But Professor Zinn also quotes from U.S. government documents that are based on interviews with “hundreds” of Japanese civilian and military leaders, and also notes that the U.S. had broken Japanese codes, revealing that Japanese leaders were talking of surrender.

Moreover, Atomic Diplomacy has a “selected bibliography” of 28 pages and A World Destroyed supports itself with more than 100 pages of notes, sources and documents. It is rather difficult to argue that these books are not well sourced. Nonetheless, Professor Wineburg rests his case on his disbelief that the Japanese had any intention to surrender. He writes:

“The Japanese had been courting the still-neutral [in the Pacific theater] Soviets for months, with airy proposals containing scant details about surrender terms. In fact, as late as June 1945, their backs to the wall and all hope seemingly lost, the Japanese were still trying to barter with the Soviets, going so far as to offer Manchuria and southern Karafuto in exchange for the oil needed to stave off an American invasion.” [page 31]

Is it really so remarkable that the Japanese were maneuvering to avoid a surrender they were becoming reconciled to, even if they had only the slimmest of hopes? This passage “proves” that Japan was willing to try anything to avoid a surrender, not that they were definitively determined to fight on no matter what. For a critic so quick to accuse Professor Zinn of “undue certainty” in the support of a preferred narrative, Professor Wineburg appears to be the one rather casual with documentation.

Is it really ‘neutrality’ that is the issue?

Having built up a head of steam, Professor Wineburg perhaps does not realize the extent to which he reveals an agenda, and not merely disapproval of conclusions supposedly too strong. In different passages, he issues these harsh judgments on People’s History:

“It is here that Zinn’s undeniable charisma becomes educationally dangerous, especially when we become attached to his passionate concern for the underdog. … Instead of encouraging us to think, such a history teaches us how to jeer. … A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual fascism.” [pages 33-34]

Wow! “Intellectual fascism”? What purpose is the use of such invective by someone who has spent pages claiming to be above any partisan scholarship? The purpose is to dismiss out of hand any real critique of the modern capitalist state and its workings. Professor Wineburg’s lines of attack demonstrate that he identifies strongly with these dominant powers. It is not uncommon for a person with such an identification to react with fury when patterns of domination are challenged because such patterns are so deeply woven into the fabric of society. Here is how he dismisses People’s History:

“Zinn remains popular not because he is timely but precisely because he’s not. A People’s History speaks directly to our inner Holden Caulfield. Our heroes are shameless frauds, our parents and teachers conniving liars, our textbooks propagandistic slop. Long before we could Google accounts of a politician’s latest indiscretion, Zinn offered a national ‘gotcha.’ They’re all phonies is a message that never goes out of style.” [page 33]

So there we have it. How dare Howard Zinn question our great country and its great institutions! There is no reason for anyone to complain, so he writes only to indulge a childish desire to poke people in the eye and only the immature could possibly follow him. Sam Wineburg may have convinced himself that he has “exposed” Howard Zinn, but he has exposed only his own desire to guard the honor of the powerful and keep them safe from criticism.

People’s History is an attempt to write people into the history that they lived. Professor Wineburg’s illogical contention that the Right’s efforts to erase people from history — the ideological re-writing of history in school textbooks in Texas and the elimination of Mexican-American studies in Tucson, Arizona, are merely two of the most recent efforts — is equivalent to the pioneering work of Professor Zinn is unworthy of an educator. And far less removed from such ideologically inspired erasures of history than he would like to believe.

Tuition battles, debt and union-busting: The many faces of neoliberalism

The eleven students who barricaded themselves inside Cooper Union’s tower have ended their occupation, but their struggle resonates well beyond the New York City university. Inextricably bound up in the movement to save Cooper Union’s tradition of free tuition and enable meaningful student and faculty participation in the affairs of the university is a struggle against neoliberalism.

The victorious students who endured police violence and heavy-handed legal tactics during the months of the Québec student strike earlier this year; the unsustainable student debt burying students across the United States; the union-busting offensives in Wisconsin; and the latest anti-union effort in Michigan — to name only some of the struggles from 2012 alone — should not be looked at in isolation but rather are part of a continuum of which Cooper Union is one manifestation.

Workers’ struggles and students’ struggles are linked, and not simply because today’s students are tomorrow’s workers. Education is now treated as a commodity — professors are increasingly part-time adjuncts and students are expected to hand over ever larger sums of money for tuition, and students are encouraged to think of higher education in mercenary terms, as nothing more than technical training for a job rather than (or in addition to) an opportunity to improve oneself through study. Being an employee in a capitalist enterprise is indistinguishable from oneself being reduced to a commodity — we have no choice but to sell our labor if we intend to eat and keep a roof over our heads.

All this requires atomization of society: set off at each other’s throats, fiercely competing over scraps. It is solidarity that breaks this pattern. Thus it was not surprising when a Cooper Union spokesman, presumably speaking for the president, Jamshed Bharucha, issued a statement claiming that the occupiers “do not reflect the views of a student population of approximately 1,000 architects, artists and engineers.” Did they do a survey? One suspects not.

The suggestion here seems to be that the strikers are unreasonably “spoiled,” an intimation made during recent student occupations at nearby New York University and the New School. Note that the student strikers in Québec were similarly denounced when they took to the streets in massive numbers to block an increase in tuition although Québec already had the lowest tuition of any Canadian province.

This is a favorite neoliberal tactic — attempt to engender jealousy that somebody has something you don’t have, and loudly proclaim that something should be taken away from them. This tactic was on ample display during Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s unilateral attempt to eliminate collective bargaining for Wisconsin state-government employees and impose draconian cuts to education and social programs. Government workers and unions were the designated scapegoats, making their pensions easy targets; Republican Party operatives went to rural counties and made sure to play up the fact that most people no longer have pensions, while government workers do.

Although a similar effort was defeated in Ohio, by forcing a referendum that was won, Michigan legislators this week approved legislation banning automatic payroll deductions of union dues. In states with such laws, unions are required to represent all workers despite receiving dues from only a portion of them, leaving unions with less resources and therefore weaker, and fueling the neoliberal ideology of hyper-individualism because “free riders” gain the benefits of collective bargaining by the union, funded by members, while not contributing dues.

Using the force of the state to break unions on behalf of capitalists to force reductions in wages is simply neoliberal austerity in legislative clothing.

Continued free tuition would be a victory for all students

Similar to higher union wages setting a higher bar for everybody’s wages, continued free tuition at Cooper Union should be defended as a gain for all students. Once lost, it is unlikely to be regained. The public City University of New York system had free tuition until 1975; tuition has risen fivefold since it was first instituted, well above the rate of inflation and a pattern replicated by public and private universities.

With that in mind, the demands of the Cooper Union student occupiers and their supporters, which have not been rescinded, are straightforward:

  • The administration must publicly affirm the university’s commitment to free education.
  • The Board of Trustees must immediately implement structural changes to create open flows of information and democratic decision-making, including making board minutes publicly available and the appointment of a student and faculty members.
  • President Bharucha steps down.

The students say Cooper Union’s weakened finances are a result of mismanagement. The university has been on a building spree of late, leveling two of its three main buildings and replacing them with expensive new buildings. In ending their occupation but vowing to continue to struggle, the students said:

“The problems at Cooper Union strike a nerve with millions of others struggling with student debt, administrative bloat, and expansionist agendas. We live in a world where massive student debt and the rising costs of higher education remain unchecked, where students are treated as customers and faculty as contracts. Cooper Union’s mission of free education affords equality and excellence and offers an alternative for a better future of higher education.

For over a century, the Cooper Union has sustained the mission of providing free education to all admitted students. After decades of financial mismanagement, the administration now seeks to implement tuition-based programs. Rather than dedicating themselves to the difficult task of maintaining the promise of free education — Jamshed Bharucha’s administration and the Board of Trustees have chosen to pass the consequences of financial and institutional mismanagement on to the shoulders of the college’s students, faculty, staff, alumni, and future generations. They’ve taken the easy way out.”

Not dissimilar to how working people are expected to bear the burden of an economic crisis caused by financiers while the financiers’ institutions are bailed out. Those same financiers are hungrily circling Social Security, falsely blaming one of the few remaining strands of the social safety net so that they can get their hands on it and plunder it for their personal profit.

Solidarity achieves tuition freeze in Québec

The struggle for a sane higher-education system is one that must be fought everywhere. The struggle to maintain free tuition at Cooper Union is not separable from the struggle to rein in out-of-control tuition increases elsewhere. The successful student strike in Québec, although centered on Francophone students in Montréal, nonetheless was a province-wide struggle that drew enormous support from working people. It was so successful, in fact, that it caused the provincial government to fall.

It also helped that students were already organized in three student province-wide associations. The Québec government, then controlled by the Liberal Party, intended to raise tuition by 75 percent over three years. Protests and strikes quickly blossomed, shutting down universities and leading to street battles as police repeatedly attacked near daily demonstrations that sometimes numbered more than 100,000. The Liberal government dug in its heels, not only refusing to negotiate seriously but passing a law making the demonstrations illegal.

That move backfired, as the demonstrations over what become known as the “Maple Spring” in a nod to last year’s “Arab Spring” only grew bigger. After months of struggle, the government called an early election, which it lost, ushering in a Parti Québecois government that promptly rescinded the tuition increases, canceled the anti-demonstration laws and, in an environmental gesture, reversed the Liberal support for fracking. That victory did not come easily (the process is called “struggle” for a reason). A supporter of the strike who is long past being a student himself wrote on the Waging Nonviolence web site:

“The revolting students paid a heavy price. They put their academic year in jeopardy and many were beat up by the cops. Over 200,000 students maintained a strike for five months, 3,387 were arrested and hundreds injured — some seriously by plastic bullets and batons.”

Moreover, students estimate that the provincial government spent C$200 million, citing police and related costs, the value of canceled classes, the costs of personnel maintaining empty buildings and the cost of making up a lost semester. Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the largest of the province’s student associations with 125,000 members, said to The Montreal Gazette that those costs exceeded what would have been collected from the tuition increases:

“The tuition for seven years was supposed to bring in about $170 million. So you can see it’s not about economics, but about ideology. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Explosion of student debt

College tuition in the United States is far higher than it is in Canada and has risen to the point that student debt is estimated to be more than US$1 trillion. A Center for American Progress report said U.S. tuition has increased more than 1,000 percent during the past three decades. (That is more than three times the official rate of inflation.) The report notes:

“One of the major self-inflicted causes is the consistent decline in state funding for higher education, which had helped colleges keep tuition affordable. The steadily and rapidly increasing cost of college nationwide prompted a dramatic rise in student borrowing—a natural result as families could no longer rely on scholarships, grants, and personal savings, which cannot keep up with the rapidly increasing tuition costs.”

Similar to governments running deficits because they borrow from the wealthy rather than tax them, financiers profit from the explosion of student debt. A major contributor to this mounting debt are for-profit private colleges, many of which enroll huge numbers of students, many unprepared for college, by virtue of government-guaranteed loans given with no oversight.

Just as corporate initiatives attempt to replace public primary and secondary school systems with “charter schools” run by corporations for the profit of executives, the neoliberal model of higher education is to saddle students with heavy debt. Not only is this profitable in the short term, but it also makes the students, once they enter the workforce, more pliable employees due to the massive loans hanging over their heads.

Corporate executives want students drilled for business needs, but refuse to pay taxes needed to support education. And they want students to shoulder the burden of tuition although they, and society as a whole, benefit from an educated workforce.

The idea that anyone achieves success all on their own is preposterous — all of us rely on institutions (including schools) and build on those who came before us. Least of all can capitalists who accumulate fortunes on the backs of students, employees and freelancers, and benefit from government-funded infrastructure, claim to be free of society. The neoliberal cult of individualism is a means to foster jealousy and atomization — and to keep the 99 percent subordinate.

Chicago pushes back against the war on teachers — and neoliberalism

The Chicago teachers returning to work today earned a victory — not for themselves, but for two important ideas. The first is that dignity and security are not unreasonable for those of us who have to go to work every day. The second is that the job of schools is to build the citizens of tomorrow, not line the pockets of corporate executives and investors.

We can’t understand the reasons behind the “war on teachers” without examining both of these ideas.

An additional message from the Chicago Public Schools teachers’ strike is that democracy and community involvement are indispensable. At almost every demonstration the chant “the people united will never be defeated” is heard, and here we have an example where a significant majority at least were united. The corporate executives salivating over their potential profits, the funders of the charter-school movement seeking more takeovers and, most of all, the willful mayor who expected to steamroll over the teachers each had their agenda stalled.

Not that those powerful people were defeated, nor that the teachers won a total victory. The new contract is a negotiated settlement, with both sides getting something. That is what a “negotiation” is — a compromise by two parties. A “negotiation” is not a dictation imposed by the more powerful party, which seems to be a point of confusion for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But the very concept of democracy seems to be not well understood by Mayor Emanuel.

Undoubtedly, there was much disappointment on the part of parents that teachers did not call off their strike and return to work on September 17, as was widely anticipated. There was considerable disappointment on the part of the teachers. The principal of democracy was deemed too important to dispense with, and the Chicago teachers’ union deserves praise on this point. The union delegates entrusted with ending the strike believed they should actually read the proposed contract before voting, and that they should discuss the contract with the rank-and-file teachers who will have to live with it. Quelle horreur!

A Chicago teacher, Rita Stephanie, who has contributed daily strike updates to the Kasama Project web site, stressed the democracy of the union:

“In a televised news conference at 6:05 p.m. [union leader Karen] Lewis said that the House of Delegates wanted to exercise their right to review the contract. She said that the union is a democratic organization and that she supported the right of members to review the language of the contract. Schools will not open Monday and members have overwhelmingly decided to continue the strike. When questioned by reporters she said that a key issue was TRUST. Union members do not trust the school board or the mayor to have their interests at heart. This would be an understatement! Union delegates say that their strength lies in the strike.”

The teachers’ union would not have been able to exercise this democratic process if they had not worked with the community ahead of time to explain the stakes, and to prepare parents for the possibility that they would be forced to go on strike. When the inevitable attacks came in the predictable form — “the teachers are greedy” “the teachers only care about getting more of your tax money” — they did not have the usual impact. Mayor Emanuel had clearly expected the community to be on his side; instead the people have been with the teachers. The mayor’s response? Stamp his feet, attack, go to court to force an end to the strike. His reaction says much about the mayor and his complete adoption of corporate ideology. When you give an order, it is to be obeyed!

It wasn’t obeyed — schools are not corporations. Professional educators believe they should have a hand in shaping the education system. Imagine that. Teachers just might know something about education that the hedge-fund managers running television commercials in Chicago don’t. What if people in other professions start getting the idea that they, too, should have a hand in decision-making in the workplace?

Let’s back up here a moment. What do hedge-fund managers have to do with schools? Two hedge-fund managers (who have way more money than the teachers, or you, but likely pay a lower tax rate) run an outfit called “Education Reform Now.” This group, an advocate for charter schools, paid for a series of automated telephone calls to parents during the three-day period in June when the teachers were voting to authorize a strike, and for television commercials attacking the teachers.

Charter schools are the key here. An increasingly stressed component of the neoliberal agenda is privatization of public schools. Public schools are shuttered, and replaced by private charter schools. Sometimes the charter schools are given part of the facilities of a still-existing public school, which is given second-class treatment in its own building. Unionized teachers are fired, and nonunion teachers paid much less are hired in the charter schools. The charter schools are given money diverted from the public schools but without the accountability or requirement to follow existing contracts. Some of the money goes to pay huge salaries to the executives of the charter-school companies and for profits.

The movement for charter schools is not a movement for reforming education, as promoters claim, but rather is naked union-busting. It is a bold attempt to force down wages, parallel with the decline of wages in the private sector.

The hedge-fund managers attacking Chicago teachers used the standard neoliberal line of attack: Those people have something you don’t! That’s unfair! Let’s take it away from them! Chicago teachers are mostly African-American and mostly women. Perhaps Mayor Emanuel and his millionaire backers thought they would be likely to fold. Surely the mayor and his backers, believing their own propaganda, believed they would be easy targets. Down to the similarity of the tactics, their agenda is a straight continuation of the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s offensive to take away collective-bargaining rights from government workers and to demonize them.

If some workers earn a good wage and can look forward to a reasonable pension, shouldn’t the question to be asked be “Why shouldn’t I have that, too?” Shouldn’t the answer be to organize to gain it rather than seek to take something away from somebody else?

The charter-school movement has its eyes set on many cities other than Chicago. In New York, where a billionaire from the financial industry stepped directly into the mayor’s office thanks to his lavish spending, charter schools are heavily promoted. These are promoted as alternatives that spend less and get better results, but that is not so.

Brooke Parker, writing in the Brooklyn community newspaper WG, reports:

“While charter schools receive slightly less per pupil from the city than public schools, the city’s Independent Budget Office concluded that when you factor in that they don’t pay for their use of space, utilities, janitorial services, or school safety agents, charter schools generally spend over $700 more per pupil in public funds each year, and that’s not including the substantial private money they receive. And all those public dollars are spent while charter schools, in general, don’t perform any better than public schools. So much for the idea that charter schools are less wasteful.”

Kicking out experienced teachers and replacing them with freshly minted teachers also doesn’t seem the best strategy for improving classroom performance. But often this is what charter schools do — because they can pay new teachers less than experienced teachers. This is one of the “innovations” adopted from the private sector.

Three sets of billionaires are the primary forces behind charter schools: Microsoft founder Bill Gates, businessman Eli Broad and Wal-Mart heirs the Walton family. Gates become fabulously wealthy through exploiting something he had no hand in creating, the computer, which took off thanks to the government invention of the Internet. Broad first became rich building suburban houses, taking advantage of the many government subsidies that enabled the suburbs. The Waltons benefit from Wal-Mart’s leading role in forcing manufacturers to re-locate to China to meet the company’s standards for low costs.

A Dissent article by Joanne Barkan explained who funds the charter-school movement, then exploded the myth that they perform better:

“Stanford University’s 2009 study of charter schools—the most comprehensive ever done—concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools; a 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher test scores for students; a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately. Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.”

The rate of poverty, as numerous studies have shown, is the leading indicator of student performance. Gaps in social development and cognitive functions begin before children are old enough to go to school. But to confront the vast inequalities of capitalist societies is verboten — better to blame everything on teachers. And so we come to another component of the corporate charter-school agenda: Judging teachers almost exclusively on standardized tests. Doing so deflects attention from underlying social issues (issues that are much bigger than schools by themselves) and enforces a specific agenda in education: To mold children to be proficient in narrow technical skills without the ability to think originally.

A world of corporate drones. Such a world might be fine for corporate elites wishing for a compliant future workforce, but is no benefit to the students themselves. Teachers in Chicago and elsewhere who push back against heavy reliance on test scores are reasonably protecting themselves against a rigid system that takes no account of social and other issues that are intertwined with student performance, but they are also striking a blow for a more complete, more rounded education — one in which the liberal arts and other topics are employed to teach students how to think rather than imposing a narrow education in which pre-selected answers are simply regurgitated.

It is unconscionable to claim that teachers, or teacher unions, don’t care about students or education. Surely there are scattered individuals who should not be in the classroom — but there is no profession or human endeavor without some people who are poor performers. Such people can be weeded out without tarring entire groups. As Rita Stephanie, the Chicago teacher quoted above, wrote:

“The interests are complex and if the problems of education were easily solved it would have been done already. All morning on the picket line we talked about the problems of poverty. The teachers on my picket line wanted to talk about the big problem of poverty. We still need to teach our babies, but society needs to take responsibility for the problem of poverty.”

Chicago teachers were on the front lines this month: Holding the line against the attacks on public education and the need for a holistic approach on the one hand, and holding the line against the attacks on working people and their ability to earn a good wage and pension on the other hand. A strike, particularly one that is defensive as this one, can’t succeed without significant community support. Even then the odds are often long: industrialists, financiers and the governments over which they have decisive influence possess huge power and a willingness to use it.

There is no choice but to struggle, for there is no other route to a better world. Wars on teachers, wars on women or wars on working people promoted by elite interests should no longer be tolerated. Instead, let’s learn from the experience of the Chicago teachers’ strike to build communities. Democracy is hard work but it is better than bowing and scraping.