No Public Education, No Democracy

I teach English at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, California. I love my school, my amazing colleagues, and the kids who enter my classroom each year. But I hate what is happening to public education.

From the national to the local level, our public schools -- and that means our students -- are under attack. This attack takes more than one form. The cuts to vital education services are horrifying enough, but they're only half the picture. The other half is the violation of our public trust by private interests.

It's not a pretty sight, but we must look squarely at the vultures of privatization that prey on the damage to our schools, from New York to New Orleans to Wisconsin to California. Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration, refers to the three big education funders, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton Family, as the Billionaire Boys Club in her excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Vultures and their corporations are poised to supply the artificial heart of learning to a wounded public school system they fully intend to finish off. But they won't succeed because our communities are going to fight for our beloved schools, we teachers are going to fight for our students, and our students are going to demand the education they deserve!

Education is a human right; it is not a humiliating race for basic funding, something the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan would do well to remember. Education is a right, and yet there is more segregation in our schools today than at any time since 1968, the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The corporate obsession with charter schools and high stakes tests has contributed mightily to this segregation while shamefully distracting us from the poverty and income inequality that go hand in hand with it.

I'm not going to lie down while corporations prey on our students. I don't want to see our nation's young people at the mercy of a Rupert Murdoch or a Michael Milken. Do you remember Michael Milken, former felon and Junk Bond King of the eighties? He is also co-founder of K-12 Inc., America's largest provider of online education for kindergarten through 12th grade.

An online school exists inside of a computer. Today, kids can conduct their entire social lives on a computer and get all their schooling done there, too. They never even have to leave the house. It's very compact, very efficient, but there is one missing link: the human link, the spacious beauty of the human bond.

Online or virtual schools typically have high withdrawal rates, and that's not surprising. It must be very tempting to drop out of a "school" when there is no teacher there in person to get to know you, to care, to see who you are and who you might one day become.

These online schools are marketed to English learners who need the exact opposite of isolation and benefit most from cooperative strategies in natural, not virtual, settings.

Or they are preposterously promoted as beneficial to low income students as though it were a good thing to get education at a discount, off the rack. As Diane Ravitch warns of the educational dystopia that is fast gaining on reality, "the poor will get computers and the rich will get computers and teachers."

The corporate predators also target struggling learners, kids with learning disabilities or emotional problems; in other words, the very kids who need human engagement and interaction the most. And make no mistake: all kids need it! One shudders to imagine children as young as 5 attending a virtual school. It's a 'brave new world.'

How can we allow Michael Milken, a man who wouldn't be allowed inside of a real classroom because of his felony conviction, to make a profit marketing his online curriculum to kindergartners?

Letting the business world gain control of our public schools has many sad consequences, but there is no question that it is making a few people very rich. Rupert Murdoch referred to the for-profit K-12 education industry as "a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed." We must keep Rupert Murdoch waiting desperately until the end of time.

And we can't forget the Walton Family. The Walton Family spent $157 million dollars on Ed Reform in 2010 alone and has spent $1 billion to date on pushing charter schools and busting teachers' unions. Do we really want the people behind Walmart to set the education agenda for America?

We hear so much these days about standards in education and holding teachers accountable to the standards. Ask yourself what the Walmart standard of education might be: a 'chain' school system force-feeding one standardized diet of junk learning to all those unique kids across the nation? Corporations are pushing the fast food of education, with budget cuts pumping up the size of classes to 40 plus students. How big can an online class get? Super size me.

In the current education climate it is not fashionable to examine the big picture, nor to ask too many questions about what students are learning and why we are teaching it to them. It's not recommended for the teacher and it's not prescribed for the student. Nevertheless, we teachers are not about to give up on critical thinking within or beyond the walls of the classroom.

Here is one critical piece of the big picture: The Walton Family owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of the whole U.S. while one in five kids here live in poverty.

Finland, the country whose scores in international test comparisons we've been holding up as a model, has high-performing schools in large part because they do things like provide food and free health-care for their students. They understand that a quality education emerges from a strong community and a humane society. Why can't we figure that out here in the wealthiest country in the world?

So if the Walton family really wants to improve education, maybe they should start supporting Single Payer Healthcare. Maybe they should launch a massive campaign to end child poverty. And no education reform effort would be complete without a major challenge to the corporate stranglehold on our system of government. Come to think of it, these so-called philanthropists might want to join the Occupy Movement! But we're talking about the owners of Walmart.

The 1% is hoping that if America continues to blame teachers for everything then they might forget to tax the millionaires. But we can't afford to forget the real scope of the problem. We can't forget that Occupy was a verb before it became a noun. Whatever your political identity, your party affiliation, your status in America today, please occupy your conscience. We need to vote to fund public education and other essential human services. We need to occupy our hearts, our minds, and our capacity for critical thinking. And we need to do more than rouse ourselves for intermittent election cycles: we can't go back to sleep.

People everywhere are waking up to the radical threat that corporations pose to our global economy, to our planet and to our very existence as a species. But first of all corporations are a threat to our democracy, to our self-determination. For without public education, there can be no democracy.

This is why we reject any authoritarian education mandated by an illegitimate corporate power. We must overthrow the plutocracy! We cannot afford to wait timidly for politicians powered by big money to give their lukewarm legislative blessings to our kids' fundamental human rights. We the people need to take to the streets to demand those rights, to demand the legislation that is just and fair in the wealthiest country in the world. We are the decision-makers and "we're the people - we go on." And I'm not just quoting The Grapes of Wrath because I'm an English teacher.

I would never have become a teacher if I didn't believe in the power of people to change the world, and especially the power of young people. Students, I know you can change the world! You can change the world! I believe in you.