As the new school year gets started, a new phase in the attack on public education is underway. The current corporatist battle cry is for so-called “parent trigger laws”. These laws stipulate that if 51% of parents in a given school district sign a petition—pulling the trigger—the district can fire the staff, turn the school over to a charter operator, or close the school altogether.
The current momentum behind parent trigger laws exposes several strategies that corporate reformers use to push their agenda of restructuring public education to their benefit.
The first strategy behind these laws, as well as the broader corporate reform agenda, is to push an ideological agenda. In September, the movie Won’t Back Down will be coming to a theater near you. Based roughly on events at the first school to invoke a trigger law, this movie trades in many of the most common—and most inaccurate—myths about what’s wrong with public schools. As education activist Sabrina Stevens recently argued, the movie frames the crisis in public education in terms of apathetic, incompetent teachers who simply clock in and out for a day’s work, while ignoring crises in funding, resources and broader social conditions in which schools exist.
The bias of this film should come as no surprise, as Leonie Haimson of Parents Across America noted the movie was produced by Anschutz Film Group—the outfit backed by oil and gas tycoon Phillip Anschutz which was responsible for Waiting for Superman. This group, in partnership with Walmart, sponsored “Teachers Rock,” a star-studded promotional concert on CBS which featured clips from Won’t Back Down. In this situation, we see how mainstream media and major corporations collaborate to directly shape the dominant ideas in society about school reform.
The corporate reformers have declared teachers and their unions as public enemy number one in order to push their agenda.
The second strategy involves funding “astroturf” organizations that feign a grassroots base, but are really corporate interest groups (ex. Crossroads GPS). The first “parent trigger” laws were passed in California, partly due to advocacy by the Los Angeles based group, Parent Revolution. Despite the misleading name, there was nothing grassroots about this group. As Parents Across America noted in their “fact sheet” about parent trigger laws, Parent Revolution operates with a $1 million annual budget drawn from a number of corporate foundations; among these foundations, some major donors include the Walton Foundation (of Walmart), the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation. When not bankrolling groups like Parent Revolution, these foundations donate generously to lobbying operations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Council of State Governments (CSG). In their exposé in Truthout on these and other lobbying groups, Sarah Blaskey and Steve Horn documented the critical role that ALEC and CSG have played in pushing trigger laws and other anti-union measures in state houses across the country.
The third strategy is for these ideologues to utilize both political parties to push the corporate agenda. Sadly, this is all too easy to implement, since both Democrats and Republicans are squarely behind the corporate-driven reforms. This is true in a general sense, insofar as the Obama administration has not only maintained Bush-era policies, but in fact has doubled-down on them. As teacher and union activist Gillian Russom described, the $4.35 billion in funding from Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy was made available only to those states that expanded charter school growth and tied teacher evaluations to student test scores. This bipartisan consensus on corporate driven school reforms exists at the state level as well: in the same “fact sheet” from Parents Across America cited earlier, the group noted that it was Democratic state senator Gloria Romero in California who introduced the legislation that became the first parent trigger law.
Strategies for advocating parent trigger laws have been so effective because corporate reformers have honed them over the many years which they have been pushing their broader agenda. This broader agenda consists primarily of charter school expansion and direct attacks on teachers’ unions.
Taking Over Entire Cities
Charters schools emerged in the early 1990s, and since have grown to enroll over 1.6 million children nationwide. Whatever their original intent, the current function of charter schools is abundantly clear: 1) to restructure the school system so as to put it in private, often for-profit hands; 2) to make the teachers and other staff in them work harder and longer for less—and usually without a union; and 3) to accelerate the rationing of quality education and the segregation of students who receive it.
For example: Two cities in Michigan, Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, recently became the first in the US to turn their entire school system over to charter operators; both of these cities are run by Emergency Managers—unelected administrators installed by the Republican governor with the authority to override locally elected public officials and labor contracts. In both cities, the residents are overwhelmingly African American and lower income. The charter operators awarded contracts to run the school districts of these cities are for-profit companies. In Muskegon Heights, officials hired Mosaica Education—despite the fact that its six other Michigan schools averaged at the 13th percentile in terms of student performance on state standardized tests, according to the 2011 state rankings.
While these are smaller districts, this restructuring is well underway in big cities, too. Philadelphia announced plans in May to close 64 schools and outsource another 25 to charter-run “achievement networks,” with the goal of 40% of children attending charters by 2017. Detroit’s plans are similar, but go further to create a three-tiered system of traditional public schools, charters, and schools administered by Lansing.
This charter school track record exposes the topsy-turvy world of corporate-driven reforms. In almost every instance, proponents shroud themselves in the language of civil rights: as Nicole Allen of The Atlantic reported, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described Waiting for Superman as a “Rosa parks moment,” while Brian Jones reported a Goldman Sachs banker as having declared charter schools “the civil rights struggle of my generation” in a piece in The Huffington Post. Not only is the notion of Wall Street fostering racial justice patently absurd, but the simple reality is that corporate reforms have been most devastating—not liberating—in communities of color across the US.
Teachers Unions as the Target
In addition to charter restructuring, the corporate reformers have declared teachers and their unions as public enemy number one in order to push their agenda. Beyond tying annual evaluation and pay raises more closely to student test scores, as per Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy, and using the threat of or actual charterization to break the union altogether, Ssuch attacks have ranged frominclude ending or curtailing tenure, (without which teachers can be fired without cause or any rights to due process). e (iIn New York City almost half of third-year teachers were denied tenure last year. ), and using the threat of or actual charterization to break the union altogether.
The collective impact of these assaults on teachers and their unions is to de-skill and destabilize the field in order to keep a revolving door of younger, less experienced, and cheaper teachers cycling through the classroom; this turnover saves money, but compromises educational quality. Despite their claims, corporate reformers are thus not particularly interested in a quality education for most youth, but rather a profitable one. A more precarious—that is, union-free and un-tenured—workforce is central to that project.
Turning the Tide In Chicago
Perhaps most striking about these corporate attacks is the speed at which they have unfolded. This has to do with a perfect storm of three circumstances: 1) A bipartisan consensus reducing opposition in “official” politics; 2) The 2008 economic crisis gave political cover to cut school funding and further the attack on teachers as greedy and overcompensated; and 3) Extremely weak teachers’ unions which adapt to the attacks—what American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten touts as “solutions-based unionism”—rather than fight them, all while subordinating union workplace struggle to electing Democrats.
As quickly as the attacks have come, the Chicago Teachers Union is demonstrating how our side can turn back the tide. After years of building alliances with parent and community groups, union activists have waged an effective campaign to challenge Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s assault on Chicago’s teachers.
As Lee Sustar and Nicole Colson have documented in ongoing coverage in the Socialist Worker, the union parlayed its initial focus on Emanuel’s demands to lengthen the school day for no extra pay to carrying out a school-by-school organizing strategy for organizing informational pickets, marches and rallies. In May, the union secured a strike vote in which some 90% of teachers voted to authorize a strike and later embarrassed Emanuel into agreeing to re-hire almost 500 art, music, foreign language and PE teachers to ensure not only a longer school day, but a better one.
While negotiations with the city are still underway, the union printed over 30,000 strike placards, —just in caseand in late August they filed a 10-day strike notice, with September 10th the potential start date for a strike. The slogans on the placards (as seen in pictures posted on education activist Mike Blonsky’s blog and the Facebook page for the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign) indicate the union’s strategy: “On strike for better schools,” “Fighting for the schools our children DESERVE,” and “Parents, teachers, students UNITED.”
These slogans reflect a fundamental basic idea that the interests of teachers, students and communities are not counter posed, but rather are one in the same. Fending off the corporate attack on public schools and the people in them thus requires a united effort that not only defends schools from the corporate agenda, but also that imagines and fights for the sort of schools that every child deserves.