The crisis in public education: Causes and the way forward


The winning of universal publicly funded education is one of our nation's great achievements. Public education has provided a road out of poverty for millions of workers and their children. It has also created a literate working class with the tools to organize to end exploitation and build a system that puts people before profits.

Now public education is under attack. Severe budget cuts resulting in cuts in programs, teaching and other personnel and material resources have become the norm in recent years. The attack is disguised with progressive sounding phrases such as "improving failing schools" and overcoming the "achievement gap." But this current wave of "reform" threatens to dismantle our schools for the greater profit of finance capital and to the detriment of our children and our nation. This is the Hidden agenda of the so-called reform movement.

The crisis of education is taking place within the larger crisis of capitalism. This larger crisis is characterized by global economic stagnation, the increasing power of finance capital, and the growing monopolization, or centralization of capital, here and abroad. Capitalism's inherent drive to constantly increase its profits and ramp up the rate of exploitation has led to an assault on public institutions as monopoly finance capital tries to bend the public sector to its profit generating goals, undermining our democracy and our quality of life in the process.

We in the US spend $500 billion a year on education at the federal, state and local levels. While teachers, parents and students look at our schools and too often see under funded, understaffed and struggling institutions, finance capital sees profits to be made. This privatization and corruption of our public institutions has a sharp racist edge with the most severe blows aimed at working class communities, especially communities of color.

Education: Historic Arena of Struggle:

Universal education was not easily won in our country. The first free compulsory education was won by unions as part of labor's fight to end child labor. Newly freed African Americans struggled to win the first public schools in the South during Reconstruction. Education continues to have a special place in the American narrative and continues to be a cornerstone of democratic thought. Our proud achievement is now in danger because capitalists no longer see a need to educate millions through a free public education system.

In fact, the benefits of public education have never been equitably distributed in our country. Reliance on local funding sources, primarily property taxes, has meant that wealthier, more affluent communities provide better equipped and staffed schools. Having said this, we should hasten to add that many schools in working class or poor communities, now branded as "failing", have historically provided a stable and essential institution in those communities.

In any case, the attack has intensified recently. For the past 40 years public schools have had to deal with the brutal effects of the structural crisis of capitalism on families and children, which have devastated once thriving neighborhoods and undermined their schools. The percentage of children living under the poverty level has nearly doubled from 14.4 in 1973 to 22 in 2010, with 38 percent of African American children and 35 percent of Latino children living in poverty. There is a well established correlation between income level and educational success. Schools are being overwhelmed as poverty (and near poverty) grows across the country. The agenda of the corporate elite during this time, from Nixon to Reagan to the Bushes was to increase military spending, cut or privatize government services and slash taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Schools are facing ever more difficult challenges and teachers are trying to help students with greater needs in more crowded classrooms with few resources.

Throughout our history teachers and parents and their organizations have fought to democratize education and to meet the real educational and human needs of children. Teachers and their unions have been historically the most vocal and effective advocates for children and quality schooling. Communists and their allies gave important leadership in building the early teacher union movement during the first half of the last century. Teachers and their allies in the community and the larger political arena acting in support of quality education have been able to blunt the worst that capitalism had in store for children. In short, teachers have worked for children, the system has not. It is in this light that we can understand why the so-called "reform" movement has targeted teachers and their unions with such a relentless propaganda offensive, along with an all out assault on union rights in state after state.

Sources of the Education "Reform Movement":

A new characteristic of the right-wing assault on public institutions, including school systems, is the use of foundations, funded by tax-free dollars from modern day robber barons, which use their billions to shape public policy directly without input from those most affected by their desired changes. By doing and "end run" around government and elected officials these foundations fund programs that service their ends, frequently by seducing cash-starved school boards with grant money to do their bidding. This has been labeled "venture philanthropy" or "philantro-capitalism".

The largest of these are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The goals of the Broad Foundation, for example, are to privatize public education, bust teacher unions, and deprofessionalize teaching. Towards this end it runs a school superintendent training institute where its ideological goals are instilled. It then subsidizes school districts that hire these superintendents to run them. The Foundation uses the rhetoric of closing "the achievement gap" to appeal to African American and Latino parents who are justly concerned about their children's education in school systems that have perpetuated inequality for decades. Signs that a school system has been taken over by Broad Foundation policies are:

Schools in your district are suddenly closed.... Repetition of the phrases ‘the achievement gap' and ‘closing the achievement gap' in district documents and public statements....Sudden increase in the number of paid outside consultants. Increase in the number of public schools turned into privately run charters.... Weak math text adopted....Possibly weak language arts too....The district leadership declares that the single most significant problem in the district is suddenly teachers! ....Excessive amounts of testing introduced and imposed on your kids....Your school board starts to show signs of Stockholm Syndrome. They vote in lock step with the Superintendent.... Grants appear from the Broad and Gates Foundations in support of the Superintendent, and his/her ‘Strategic Plan.' The Gates Foundation gives your district grants for technical things...and/or teacher "Effectiveness' or studies on charter schools. (Seattle Educator, April 2009, quoted in Foster, Monthly Review, July-August 2011)

The Walton Foundation's goals are to "create, sustain and promote alternatives to public education. Their agenda is choice, competition and privatization." (Ravitch: The Death and Life of the Great American School System) The Gates Foundation, besides working hand in glove with the Broad Foundation, also spends hundreds of billions of dollars supporting educational advocacy groups, so-called "astro-turf" (as opposed to grass roots) organizations, whose goals are breaking unions, privatization and charter schools. For example, it was Gates money that was behind the drive to end seniority in layoff decisions (LIFO or last in first out) in New York City schools. Ending LIFO would allow principals to layoff any teacher based on test scores or any other criteria and then hire whomever they choose. Both the Gates and Dell Foundations support technological solutions to the education "crisis". They are the driving force behind the "data driven classroom," where computers would be used to classify teachers according to their students' test scores on a day-to-day basis at the whim of administrators or outside managers. These foundations aim to de-professionalize teaching and to replace human beings as teachers with various forms of inherently less effective technology.

Prominent public officials have been active in this effort. Both Arne Duncan (US Secretary of Education and formerly head of Chicago's schools where many of these reforms have been tried) and Lawrence Summers (formerly President of Harvard, chief economist for the World Bank, Secretary of the Treasury, and advocate while in government for the deregulation of derivatives contracts, leading to the financial crisis) sit on the board of the Broad Foundation. The Gates Foundation funded Duncan's "reform" of the Chicago school system. In summary, some who have run the education system are aligned with corporate interests that stand to profit from the dismantling of public schools.

The Nature of the Education "Reforms":

The overall goal of the "reform" movement is to take tax monies out of the public sector and transfer it into private hands. In general, these "reforms" are characterized by the application of various business models to schools. There are several main thrusts to this orchestrated drive.

One thrust of the education "reform" movement is the restructuring of the management of schools. As workers across the economy have less and less control over their labor, as labor becomes increasingly specialized and globalized, as the division of labor becomes increasingly minute and isolated, managers have gained greater control over the labor process. This finds a parallel development in schools where newly instituted top-down, managerial control strives to wrest decision making and autonomy from teachers. Similarly, parents and their organizations are ignored in the public policy decision making process regarding schools. Boards of Education are disbanded for new mayoral rubber stamp bodies, and teachers' unions are ignored, sidestepped and attacked at every opportunity. Superintendents' micro-managing of teacher's classroom instruction, scripted lessons and prescribed pedagogies are all part of this de-professionalization of the teaching profession and dovetail with the blaming of teachers for all our educational ills.

In New York City and elsewhere the restructuring of the management of the school system has been virtually constant under the bizarre belief that our educational problems can be solved by some "magic bullet" or by more and more authoritarian, top-down directives. Increasingly superintendents are able to close schools and fire their administrations at will. The "reformers" argue that such "accountability" will force principals to force teachers to shape up, or be fired, using test scores as a cudgel to do so. Eleven years of mayoral control in New York City has proven that this is not the case. Though more and more schools are closed, and more and more principals summarily fired, every year, there has been no big improvement. The slight steady, increase in test scores began before mayoral control, again showing that teachers work, the system doesn't.

This management model is driven by a pro-business ideology. It is argued that schools are like small businesses run by entrepreneurs (principals) who must force their workers to work harder to turn out a better product (student test scores) for less money. This is why class size is not a mandated bargaining issue. Increasing class size is the educational equivalent of speed up. This dog-eat-dog approach to education, one of the most human of enterprises, is counter productive. Treating children like widgets, having kindergarten classes of 30 plus students and 2nd grade classes of 35 plus students, for instance, is not progress. Taking away recess and blocks in kindergarten, social studies (content) and art in upper grades is inhuman. Testing is not education. This approach to education turns children off to learning, and turns adults off to educating.

Vouchers, charter schools, and schools run by private managers are part of this application of business models to public education. They threaten to exacerbate the two-tier inequitable educational system in America. The rich still send their kids to the "best" schools. Other parents are forced to scramble to find a school for their children or see them relegated to the most under funded schools that are allowed to languish by a system that encourages them to fail opening the way for privately-run for profit or charter schools to take their place. Paid for by our tax dollars, charter schools are forced into existing public schools and get preferential treatment in terms of gym, yard, library, computers, basic maintenance, and other facilities, while the host public school and its students are allowed to languish. Charter schools can be seen as the educational equivalent of WalMart. They may be owned and operated by millionaires, giving life to the propaganda that they are locally-run experiments in education reform.

It is perfectly understandable that parents strive to get their children into the best schools possible. But since President George Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Law the leaders of the charter school movement are too often taking advantage of this legitimate goal to drive their own agenda, setting up a privately run parallel school system rather than make every school a quality school.

Charter schools rob Peter to pay Paul. They are doing nothing but rearranging the existing inequalities in the public school systems in our country. Some of the parents may feel they are winning for their child with a new charter school, but many parents are losing out, too. Indeed, many of the proponents of charter schools are the same people who were responsible for, and indifferent to, the inequalities of our education system previously. Many of their leaders are being paid two and three times as much as a principal in a regular public school, and our tax dollars are paying their salaries. Many charter schools are supported by tax-deductible foundation monies. These endowments are then invested in hedge funds, the same organizations that are funding, via tax advantaged donations, these foundations. Again, the result is anti-public education and anti-union and ultimately, anti-child. This is occurring despite the fact that more and more studies show that charter or publicly funded private schools are doing no better than public schools on average, and often horribly worse, since they are removed from public control.

The intense emphasis on test scores has additional negative results for education. Entire school districts, have been rocked by scandal as principals and superintendents submitted doctored scores to keep their jobs, just as Fortune 500 companies cook the books to manipulate their stock prices. In such an environment, scripted, timed lessons bought from large publishing houses are replacing the judgment and expertise of individual teachers. These publishing houses are the same ones that make $100s of millions on the tests themselves. Some like Macmillan and Co. had close ties to the Bush Administration and testing and curricular materials not from Macmillan were considered to be out of compliance with No Child Left Behind by the US Department of Education.

Teachers and their unions are being targeted for several reasons. Just as every airline crash is due to "pilot error," so too the problems of education are blamed exclusively on the workers. Management is held blameless. The fact that these attacks come often from the very people who were, or still are, responsible for huge school systems for years is telling: Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and Eva Moskowitz have all become rich as professional critics of the education system that they were once or are currently responsible for. This anti-teacher rhetoric is self-serving and extremely profitable as Rupert Murdoch or other billionaires fund their anti-public education efforts.

Teacher unions also play a key role in the labor movement in the United States. The attack on teachers and their unions is part of the all out assault on the working class in America. Teachers are among the most broadly organized sector of the workforce, with teachers unions or other teacher organizations active in virtually every community in the country. The anti-teacher rhetoric is driven by a largely unspoken agenda that has nothing to do with improving education, but everything to do with cutting taxes on the rich, breaking unions and pauperizing workers and their children.

The dismantling of public education and the assault on teachers and their unions are part of the offensive to disempower and marginalize the vast majority of the American people. Attacks on social security, Medicare and Medicaid, Obamacare, and on public education, are all part of an offensive to rob workers, their children, and their allies of the knowledge and organization they need to struggle for progress and a secure life in our country. This dovetails exactly with the theft and the transfer of $100s of billions from public treasuries to the private coffers.

What is needed now:

The education of our children is critical to our nation's future and to each individual's viability. Toward this end, funding of schools is too important to leave entirely to local municipalities. Of all the developed countries, we in the US rely the most heavily on local resources to fund our schools. Experience has shown that local funding has too often led to criminal inequalities in educational services. The American educational system is "broken" in large measure to the degree that it is unequal. A critical component of any program to "fix" education must focus on how to make educational opportunity equal from community to community across income groups and racial divisions. Students in affluent suburbs generally have much better educational experiences than students in poor inner city neighborhoods and rural areas. This inequality has little to do with the quality of the teachers. It has everything to do with the allocation of resources.

Strong leadership from the Federal Government will be necessary for this effort to succeed. Federal funding and national standards for schools coupled with local control of implementation is necessary to overcome the funding gap that has gutted too many of our nation's schools and which is at the heart of the educational crisis today. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, a victory of the Civil Rights Movement, set a powerful precedent for a federal role in supporting and advancing public education in our country. We must now build on this foundation.

Education is a right, not a privilege. Every child deserves a quality, well-rounded education that best serves his or her needs. This means that students with the most needs receive the most services, the opposite of what exists currently in our educational system. The needs of the child as a contributing member of society must be the determining factor in education, not the needs of corporate America. If each child is educated to his/her full potential, then the needs of society will also be met as each individual can become a contributing member.

Public education must be public. It must be funded by tax dollars. Education policy must be debated and decided upon democratically in the public sphere. Similarly, schools are important community organizations. They are there to service the community. It has been shown that schools that provide services to the entire community, not just its children, serve the children of those communities the best. These "community schools" provide health care, day care, adult education, adult job-training, family counseling, parenting classes, ESL classes for adults, basic education in Spanish for adults and other services. Such schools aim to improve all the conditions that influence a child's ability to learn, inside and outside of the school.

Human beings are social animals and education, the most human of our activities, is necessarily a social enterprise. This means that everyone involved in the education of children must also be taken care of. Overworked educators, counselors and social workers cannot do the job as they wish to do if they are overwhelmed with their teaching or case loads. We need technical support, libraries with librarians, counselors, reading specialists, social workers, dieticians, nurses and more in the schools. Schools have to be able to address the social, emotional and other needs of students that can get in the way of their learning. Schools need more adults, not fewer, working with children. This is counter to the trend toward greater "efficiency" in schools

Schools will only improve if they focus on more than reading and mathematics, the subjects of many state tests. Developing skills without thinking and creating, independent of content, guts education of its purpose and demotivates students. Social studies, science, foreign languages and vocational courses are essential to developing a well-rounded person. Different children learn in many different ways. Music, art, dance, creative writing, among others, must all be extensively taught for all children to learn, for all children to develop as fully rounded individuals. They also need computer labs, access to technology classes, video, and graphic design, shop and other career classes, after school programs and sports. Students need age-appropriate sex-education and health services. Children need many opportunities to learn, in the classroom and out. They learn best when they construct their own knowledge, their own understanding of their physical and social world, through projects, exploration and experiential learning. Educators in successful schools help students navigate that journey of self-discovery. When schooling is reduced to scripted lessons of objective knowledge, evaluated solely by tests, the goal of a real education cannot be achieved. Education is not simply about higher scores, but producing responsible, thinking citizens.

Schools work best when they are democratically run, when children, parents, teachers, school leaders, staff, and the larger community all have a role in running them, shaping the nature of the education of our children. Students need to be involved in the real world problems of running their schools, of determining educational policy, and of what services and programs should be offered. In such a school where students have a voice, student involvement in problem solving and running the school helps young people learn how to self-reflect, self-manage and to collaborate with others. This prepares them to become active and responsible citizens when they become adults. Of course, schools work best when all their constituents work together. This means that there is no perfect management "solution" to our educational problems. In short, management of our schools is a process and not a structure. No one individual knows better than the whole. Greater and greater concentration of power and autocratic rule of our schools and school systems is moving in precisely the wrong direction and offers false hope for educational progress

Children are not widgets to be produced ever more efficiently for ever greater profit. They are human beings and so have many different needs, emotional, social, physical, economic, and artistic as well as intellectual. Schools are necessary but not sufficient to meet the various needs of students. Young people need excellent schools, but they also need families, and communities. It does take a village to raise a child. Study after study has shown that the first five years of life are critical to a child's mental development, and later school success. To address educational inequalities, we must as a country support families. The forces of economic insecurity cause families to dissolve and too often take parents away from their children. The US has the longest work week and longest work year among the OECD countries. For the great majority of families, the only increase in real wages over the last 30 years is due to women entering the workforce en masse. In effect, children are too often left alone to raise themselves.

Children need a safe and nurturing home. For schools to succeed, families must be supported. Full employment, a living wage, universal health care, paid maternity leave, affordable quality child care and early childhood programs, and economic security in old age are all necessary to remove the economic and time pressures from overworked and/or economically threatened families so that parents have the time and attention to support their young learners. Financial security is also critical to the nutritional wellbeing and physical and mental development of a child. Parents need further supports such as access to adult education in ESL, Spanish (or other languages of the family), job training, support for women, and after-school programs. In short, the educational crisis cannot be met by schools alone. Great schools populated by experienced educators are necessary, but not sufficient for the full development of each child. We must improve the conditions in which teachers teach and students learn rather than endlessly reorganize how schools systems are managed and controlled if we wish to fully address the educational needs of our children and our nation.

Despite all the attacks, public education continues to enjoy wide public support. There are encouraging signs that the right wing assault on public education is meeting a growing tide of resistance across the country. The widely supported strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is one example. The growing union/student/ community resistance to current attempts to privatize large sections of the Philadelphia School District is another. There are others. We welcome and support these developments and urge education activists, school workers, parents and other interested citizens to join in and help to build this effort.

We call for the following as a basic minimum program for our public schools:

  • Full and equitable funding for our nation's public schools, with additional funding for communities with the greatest needs, guaranteed by the federal government.
  • Class sizes, teacher/student ratios and adult/student ratios that allow students to get the attention and support they need.
  • A challenging, rich and wide ranging curriculum that encourages all students to reach their full potential.
  • A multicultural curriculum that exposes young people to the contributions that diverse peoples and groups, male and female, have made to building our country and the damage done by bigotry, racism and male chauvinism.
  • An educational system that aims to break down barriers of race, class and geography that have separated students and communities.
  • Fair treatment including the right to organize and bargain collectively, fair compensation and respect for teachers and all education workers charged with raising and educating our nation's youth.

Photo: Peoplesworld



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  • OK Louis, fair enough; we did mention Arne Duncan, Obama's man from Chicago and now U.S. Secretary of Education.

    Posted by Ben Sears, 08/13/2013 9:31am (11 years ago)

  • Typical. This article does not mention Obama's role in pushing school "reform".

    Posted by Louis Proyect, 08/11/2013 2:14pm (11 years ago)

  • Response to nano:
    You are right, I think, that the current administration's "race to the top" is so far missing the mark and failing to address the crisis in public education. But the attack started decades ago, actually with the "nation at risk" report during the Reagan years. "Race to the top" certainly does look too much like previous so-called programs, such as G.W.Bush's "no child left behind".

    The point is that the struggle to improve and secure public education is a long term proposition and must, in our opinion, become a real people's effort. Public education is so clearly an issue of crucial interest to the vast majority of the American people that we cannot count on one particular administration or state governor or school superintendent to fix it up. It will, of course, be a big step when the people do find a real and reliable ally on this issue in DC. We have to keep pushing.

    Ben, editor Political Affairs
    (regrets for the delayed response)

    Posted by Ben Sears, 08/07/2013 11:19am (11 years ago)

  • I read some educational blogs from time to time. And I have found the crisis reasons there - too much of talking, approaches, theories and bla-bla-bla.
    It's like teachers are paid for making up things they don't use.

    Posted by William Miller, 08/06/2013 4:49am (11 years ago)

  • You forgot Obama's "Race to the Top" program, which was the crucial program that made possible all of the negative points mentioned. In this program, federal money was only given to states that "out-competed" each other in destroying tenure, adopted corporate curriculum, opened charters, etc. This was the most important factor.

    Posted by nano, 07/19/2013 1:36am (11 years ago)

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