Home » Opinion: Private money and public schools (Part II)
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Opinion: Private money and public schools (Part II)

(Continued from Part I)

The DFER and USCM vision of education reform prioritizes high-stakes standardized tests that set teachers on a path of drilling pupils in preparation throughout the school day and year. Schools with low test scores are at risk of takeover when student scores on standardized tests do not measure up. Here is a little-discussed fact: High-stakes testing is a thriving business. It involves so-called “learning companies” like Pearson, which owns the Financial Times and Penguin Books. Pearson profits from test materials for American education reform.

Mayor Johnson co-wrote an editorial with members of the black church: “If we truly believe that education is the civil rights issue of our time, we must step up to the plate and demand justice. And by encouraging legislatures to put measures in place that will empower parents and guarantee great teachers in the classroom, we have the ability to educate every child in our communities, regardless of ZIP code. In addition, we should utilize the Stand Up for Sacramento Schools and StudentsFirst websites as resources for learning more about how to advocate for education reforms in our communities”: http://www.theroot.com/views/black-church-and-schools-reform.

Hold on. The American civil rights movement of the 1960s did not receive or request donations from the corporate giants of the era. It was a grassroots movement of African-Americans. They led thousands and thousands of working-class people of all backgrounds, who at great personal risk to their lives and limbs, struggled mightily to overthrow racial segregation, or Jim Crow. Perhaps the most respected leader of that era, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., became a fierce critic of the U.S. role of aggression in the Vietnam War (i.e., bombing the countryside with Monsanto Co.’s Agent Orange), and linked such militarism to materialism and racism stateside. Crucially, the end of the Civil Rights (and later Black Power) movement ushered in a corporate attack on private-sector labor unions (more recently public employee unions), and New Deal (Social Security and Unemployment Insurance) and Great Society (Medicare and Medicaid) policies. It is worth noting that black workers (13.4 percent) were more likely to be union members than white workers (11.1 percent) were in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the overall rate of union membership for all American workers has declined from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 11.3 percent in 2012.

What propelled this recent U.S. history? In brief, it was the end of a postwar economic model. It stopped working for corporate America. From the viewpoint of its minority interests (boards of directors and major shareholders), something had to change. It did, via the political system, with support from Democrats and Republicans. That politics of elite-backed change ended a post-World War II trend of shared prosperity from economic growth, in which union collective bargaining agreements with employers also raised the pay of nonunion workers. Upward mobility via a union job became increasingly out of reach of the working majority. A symptom of this malady is the spread of low-wage jobs found at Walmart stores across the country. Meanwhile, the same corporation brands its philanthropy as a positive change agent for public school districts tasked with poor kids’ issues in and out of the classroom.

John Marsh is the author of “Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality” (Monthly Review Press, 2011). In it, he writes that the upper-class onslaught against labor unions has in part created a false idea that formal education alone can address poverty and inequality. It is noteworthy that inequality and poverty are the concrete conditions that corporate-funded school reform advocates hold up as proof of union teachers’ failures, past and present. Marsh surveys policies and theories, from colonial times to the present, and shares his personal experiences, to help us better grasp the concrete limits of making a formal education the, but not a, path to prosperity. He calls for more focus on jobs and public policy as exit paths from the misery that scarce income brings, officially, to about every sixth person in the U.S. Marsh picks up where “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” by Diane Ravitch (Basic Books, 2011), leaves off. Her focus is on school choice and standardized tests. An assistant education secretary of research in the first Bush administration, she backed both reform policies for public schools. Later, Ravitch reviewed the actual data and evidence on each policy. She discovered the failures of such policies to improve students’ education. That changed her views 180 degrees.

Mayor Johnson’s political rise occurred at the tail end of a major social class shift that has advanced class inequality in U.S. society. Consider this: As the nation’s gross domestic product tripled from 1970 to 2003, the “top 13,000 tax-paying households…saw (their) wages and salaries increase fifteen-fold,” author and economist Michael Perelman at California State University, Chico, writes in “The Confiscation of American Prosperity: From Right-Wing Extremism and Economic Ideology to the Next Great Depression” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Meanwhile, for the bottom 99 percent of Americans, average income remained near the same from 1970 ($36,008) to 2004 ($37,295), in real terms, that is, adjusted for inflation. The Walton Family sits atop these 13,000 households. The Waltons do not stop there; they use their billions of dollars to lead the charge to “reform” education.

What is the Walton Foundation’s motive for funding education reform? Is it to increase its market share and profits? Journalist Liza Featherstone suggests another motive. She is the author of “Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart” (Basic Books, 2004).

“The Walton Foundation has been contributing to education ‘reform’ causes for a long time,” Featherstone said. “As far as I can see, there are no important profit opportunities for Wal-Mart here; it is a lot easier to make money in retail. Rather, the Walton Foundation’s role in education has continued the commitment to right-wing libertarian ideas of Sam Walton—anti-union and anti-government.”

Michael D. Yates is an author, Monthly Review editor and labor economist. “School ‘reform’ is about making money for those who sell the tools of reform to the school districts,” Yates said “It is about funneling a work force to our corporations that is ‘fit’ to do the work, namely take orders, be disciplined and punctual, and not know much else. Reform is also about defeating unions and weakening working men and women both economically and politically. Walton beliefs might be sincere, but they are tied to accumulating capital and stomping on class struggle.”

How private money and public schools are playing out speaks volumes about politics and economics in Sacramento, Calif., and the U.S. In Mayor Kevin Johnson’s second term, his Stand Up for Sacramento Schools and staff official bounced around a reporter’s questions about Walton Family philanthropy like a basketball. However, public schools and private money are not a game of offense and defense, team schemes, rebounding and scoring stats.

Why should the public accept the mayor’s education nonprofit taking corporate dollars and keeping quiet on how that money is spent? Why does the mainstream media give him a pass on this issue?

Readers of The Sacramento Press can be the judges of that.

Editor’s note: Join The Sacramento Press on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at Chops Steakhouse to honor Journalism Open winners. Get tickets!

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