In the name of American exceptionalism, the institutions that have actually made us exceptional are under attack. The irony is heartbreaking.
Education reform is one major battleground and the terms of engagement have been largely distorted. "Reformers" would have you believe that the movement is about children and opportunity. It is not about children or opportunity. School reform is part of an ideological campaign to fracture the very nature of our democratic republic.
Opponents of reform often claim, with some real justification, that education reformers intend to privatize schools, thereby opening an estimated $4.4 trillion global market to entrepreneurs. I don't believe that is the primary aim of those behind the reform movement, even if it is a collateral effect. There are certainly profiteers who stand to make a buck. Pearson alone, for example, siphons more than $1 billion from the system. Charter management organizations and technology companies are lined up at the trough in droves, but they are the beneficiaries of reform, not the architects.
I needn't document the prime movers. In a recent post, Alan Singer accurately portrayed the real money behind reform. Mercedes Schneider's book, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who's Who in the Implosion of American Public Education, provides even more detailed exposition of characters behind reform. A small group of very wealthy Americans and their sycophants fund nearly all charter and school choice advocacy: Gates, Broad, Walton, Paulson, Loeb and other billionaires, many of them hedge fund managers. I don't believe that these plutocrats press for school choice to make a buck. They are already unimaginably wealthy. They press for school choice as part of a much larger ideological movement.
But, despite the documentation provided by Singer, Schneider, Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody and others, charter and school choice propaganda has persuaded millions of Americans that reform is about helping children.
In recent weeks, ads produced by Families for Excellent Schools have been running constantly on network and cable television. The ads show a white boy attending a hypothetical "good school." He is cheerfully described as college bound. The next frames picture a boy of color who supposedly attends a "failing school" and will have no such opportunity. The ad then declares that 500,000 NYC children desperately need "new" schools and that Mayor Bill de Blasio stands in the way. If only the elected government official would stop obstructing progress, the unelected, self-appointed, masters of the universe would provide those wondrous new schools and lift a generation of youngsters out of poverty and despair! Families for Excellent Schools claims to be a "grassroots" movement. Not at all. It is a coalition of intertwined moneyed-interests that have duped a few "families" to front for them. The "families" in Families for Excellent Schools couldn't buy an ad in the school newspaper, much less produce fancy HD videos and buy $3.6 million of airtime.
And, of course, the wealthy interests behind education reform oppose nearly all of the things that would help the poor children they portray with unctuous sentimentality. They oppose minimum wage legislation, environmental regulation, corporate reform, progressive taxation and many other social justice initiatives that might actually ameliorate the desperation in America's neglected neighborhoods.
I don't write to make the case that charter schools are horrid and public schools are wonderful. The evidence is certainly mixed, although claims that "reform" is a broad success are nonsense. From a psychological and neurobiological perspective, most charters and public schools are bad and getting worse, although "no excuses" charter schools certainly lead the race to the bottom. The paradigm that requires "proof of efficacy by test scores" is nearly guaranteed to drive lousy education in public, private and charter schools. I also don't mean to indict those who work in charter schools. I have no right to question the intentions of teachers who work grueling hours to serve the interests of children, no matter how much I deplore the politics or question the pedagogy.
But it's really not about education. We are in the midst of a war for the future of America and don't even see it. There are no drones, no nuclear threats (except in Congress!) and no "boots on the ground." The war is being waged by an odd coalition of forces: very wealthy corporations and individuals who embrace a free market ideology; Tea Party zealots who don't want anyone to tell them what to do; and politicians whose pockets are lined with cash from plutocrats who make them feel important. Can you imagine, for example, that the Koch brothers actually admire the somewhat dim and unappealing former candidate Scott Walker?
Since St. Reagan identified government as the problem, not the solution, the erosion of the republic has accelerated. Even the most modest efforts to fortify the commonweal have been resisted. Take so-called Obamacare. This half-hearted legislation has been successfully characterized as nearly Stalinesque by the political right, despite actually being a minor tweak to a largely private and highly profitable system of health care.
Thank goodness for historic commitment to public education. Can you imagine if education had evolved as a private patchwork of providers and funders -- like the health care system -- and we now sought to insure universal access for all? Congress would shut down the government before countenancing a national network of publicly funded schools. Perish the thought!
Public education is the universal health care we've never seen, and education reform is the persistent effort to repeal it. It deeply frustrates conservative ideologues that public education took hold in the 18th and 19th century before they had a chance to filibuster the various legislative initiatives that created educational justice for all Americans.
The past few decades have seen a well-documented acceleration of the wealth divide. The prosperous have prospered and everyone else -- not so much. Government is nearly paralyzed, from small towns to the nation's Capitol. Our nation's motto has evolved from E Pluribus Unum to, "Look out for yourself. Don't let the government take your money, your guns, your religion or your children."
America was founded on the idea of a balance between liberty and justice. Without liberty there can be no justice. But without justice there can be no liberty for all.
We are already out of balance, and education reform is further tipping the scales toward injustice.