A Teacher Speaks to the Anti-War Movement

A version of this speech was presented at the United National Anti-War Committee Conference in New York City, on November 6, 2010.

If we took the trillions of dollars wasted on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent it on education, we could work miracles. We could make sure every kid has enough to eat and a decent place to live. We could chop class sizes in half, we could sponsor free day care centers, after school centers, and expand programs for the arts and athletics. We could revolutionize childhood in this country.

All of that should go without saying. I'd like to talk today about a deeper connection between the wars abroad and the current war on public education.

Invariably, if you walk through Harlem, and come across a beautiful new school building, or a lavishly renovated wing of an otherwise crumbling school building, chances are you're looking at a charter school. Charter schools, which have access to public funds, but are privately managed, have become something of a cause célèbre on Wall Street.

The new film, Waiting for 'Superman', is effectively a feature-length info-mercial for charter schools. But studies repeatedly show that charter schools are not out-performing public schools, so we're left with the distinct impression that the real "cause" here is privatization.

And this is where the sinister parallels with the war machine begin.

Go back to the drumbeat for war in Iraq. You will remember that the press slavishly followed the Bush administration's claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. It was a lie, but the press swallowed it whole and repeated it everywhere.

Similarly, you would be hard-pressed to find a major media outlet that hasn't broadcast the false claim that charter schools perform, on average, better than public schools. Whether it's the drumbeat to war, or the drumbeat to privatization, the corporate media are more interested in serving power, rather than checking it.

We saw imperial arrogance lead our government to believe that it had a right to re-organize someone else's country. Later it became known that the architects of the Iraq war had almost no knowledge of Iraqi society. They didn't even see the need for Arabic-speaking personnel on the ground.

Likewise, we will one day consider it a supreme folly that the current education policy makers are not pedagogues. The education "reformers" are, by and large, not educators. They are lawyers, bankers, businesspeople, billionaires, and, in a few cases, billionaire computer programmers. Teachers' voices have been absent from the discussion of what's best for education, just like Iraqi voices were absent from the discussion of what was best for Iraq.

One of the biggest scandals of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been the role of private military contractors. While raking in billions in government contracts, they operate outside the law -- of any nation -- and have faced prosecution for only a fraction of the atrocities they have committed.

Likewise, we will one day regret placing our children's education in the hands of private contractors. Is it really so shocking that, provided a steady stream of public dollars, the unfettered ability to seek out ways to make a buck, and less oversight and accountability, scandals will bloom? We've already seen them: the out-sized CEO salaries, the bouncing out more experienced (and consequently, more expensive) teachers, the dubious pedagogical methods, and worst of all, dropping from their rolls children who are challenging to educate, children who need too many services (and are therefore, harmful to the bottom line), or whose test scores aren't rising fast enough.

Less oversight and more ways to chase a profit. This very approach led to disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan, disaster in the selling of home mortgages, and consequently, disaster for the entire national economy. But we are supposed to believe it will do wonders for education.

Lastly, these wars are always draped in heroic cloth. Iraq was a war to stop weapons of mass destruction, and then it was a war to stop a dictator, and then it was supposed to bring democracy. The war in Afghanistan, we were told, was designed to liberate women from the Taliban. The inconvenient truth (to borrow a phrase) is that the people of Iraq want the kind of democracy where they get to control their own natural resources, and independent women's organizations in Afghanistan seem to think that the United States military is making their lives worse.

For the education "reformers," Superman's cape is not enough. So we see the privatizers dressing themselves in the robes of the Civil Rights Movement. Theirs is a heroic struggle against unions and for racial justice, to hear them tell it.

But here, too, the facts are inconvenient. First, several actual civil rights organizations have spoken out against privatization and competitive education schemes precisely because they tend to exacerbate inequality, not solve it. And secondly, the leading lights of the historic Civil Rights Movement understood that achieving racial justice was bound up with achieving economic justice. That's why they linked their struggle with the fight for unionization. Dr. King himself once argued that real justice would require redistributing billions of dollars to abolish poverty altogether. "You can't talk about ending slums," he once said, "without first saying profit must be taken out of the slums."

If you get past all the hype, the war on education is motivated by the same imperative driving the wars abroad. Whether it's a humble village in Afghanistan, or my classroom in Harlem, the entire world is to be re-shaped in the interest of power and profit. The same heady mixture of arrogance, ignorance, and corruption follows suit.

I don't think it's a stretch to link these issues. On April 4, 1967, Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam. Many of his friends advised him that the war had nothing to do with civil rights. King disagreed. He felt compelled to make the connections between, in his words, "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism."

"On the one hand," he said, "we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but... [t]rue compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

And King left the audience that night with a warning, which, unfortunately, more than 40 years later, still resonates: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Brian Jones will speak on "Rescuing Public Education" at the next meeting of the Three Parks Independent Democrats in NYC: 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 10.