Public Education: What Are We Up Against?
Over the last two years corporations have launched a strategy to reorganize the American government. Together with their political allies they have bailed out giant banks with trillions in taxpayer’s money and lowered taxes on corporations and rich individuals, forcing destitution and cuts to the services the public desperately needs.
Some of the worst cuts have been in public education. Schools and colleges have lost billions of dollars, employees have been laid off, and students have faced huge new fees. Rather than proposing ways to protect these public resources, corporate forces have launched unprecedented efforts to transform public education into commercial property through privatization and corporatization.
On March 4, 2010, recognizing the primary importance of public education as the means to secure a decent future, nearly a million people in over 30 states and 13 countries marched to demand that public education be guaranteed as a public right. The upcoming school year will see corporate attacks on public education expand in all directions. The public response has now been developing for two years. How much further will it go? When will it begin to pass from the defensive to the offensive? What are we up against?
When Wisconsin’s Governor, Scott Walker, recently proposed cutting teacher pensions and eliminating bargaining rights for public workers, working people in that state mobilized and occupied the state capitol for nearly a month. Teachers, students and parents, from K-12 to higher education, played leading roles in the protest.
Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder, went even further with a law giving him unlimited power to appoint an Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) – which could be a corporation – that can take control of any government entity in the state, voiding any contract unilaterally and making any cuts in services and employment. The day the bill became law, the EFM of Detroit public schools, Robert Bobb, laid off some 5500 Detroit teachers.
The relation between the Wisconsin and Michigan events is key. The AFL-CIO in Wisconsin immediately conceded to Walker’s demands to cut wages and pensions, but drew the line at the elimination of collective bargaining and union dues check-off.
The Michigan law, as well as similar attacks in other states, reveals that the real game plan goes much further than the withdrawal of economic labor rights. In every state, the goal is to wage a political attack against the very right of people to determine the role and function of government itself. The EFM law sets the precedent to abolish the political right of the public to control their government.
The capitalist class is today implementing a completely new approach. While the movement is fighting on a state-by-state or city-by-city basis, the capitalist class is operating with coordinated national strategies. Though not monolithic, from pushing school vouchers to funding for-profit higher education, these all are designed to reconfigure society to serve corporations in today’s world.
Why public education? Why now?
Throughout U.S. history, the capitalist class has always attempted to configure public education to support the labor market. Public education was an essential subsidy to capitalism during the industrial era where production was driven by the assembly line. Public education guaranteed that workers had the basic skills necessary for skilled and semi-skilled industrial jobs. Thus, education was one of the key components of the social contract between industrial capital and industrial workers. Later, other elements of this social infrastructure were pensions and health care, provided as a condition of work.
The public, on the other hand, has always fought to expand and improve the quality of public schools. From fighting against child labor in the era of the robber barons to fighting for integrated schools after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, working people have consistently sought to expand their power over their schools.
Public schools, from K-12 through public universities, are still the largest section of the government that is directly under public control. Local school boards and university regents are either elected by the public or appointed to carry out the public mandate. Capitalism created that system for the good of industrial capitalism, but claimed it was for the good of the people. Now, they’re destroying it for the good of post-industrial capitalism, while claiming the same thing.
Entitlements such as public education, Social Security, and the public ownership of schools are now considered impediments to profit. NAFTA, which came into effect in 1994, declared that public education is a service (not a right) that can be bought and sold as an investment. The privatization of public education is already a trillion-dollar-a-year industry.
Seventeen years ago, corporate think tanks were investigating how to reorganize the workforce to adjust to the impact of electronic, job-replacing technology. In its September 19, 1994 issue Fortune Magazine ran an article called “The End of The Job”, stating, “As a way of organizing work, it (the job) is a social artifact that has outlived its usefulness. Its demise confronts everyone with unfamiliar risks – and rich opportunities.”
The article continued, “The conditions that created jobs 200 years ago – mass production and the large organization – are disappearing. Technology enables us to automate the production line, where all those job holders used to do their repetitive tasks … . Big firms, where most of the good jobs used to be, are unbundling activities and farming them out to little firms, which have created or taken over profitable niches. Public services are starting to be privatized, and the government bureaucracy, the ultimate bastion of job security, is being thinned.”
Under capitalism, electronic production replaces huge numbers of jobs. For those who still work, it demands a completely contingent labor market, where jobs are offered on a limited, “just-in-time” basis.
The corporate agenda is to configure government to control wageless production in a jobless economy. Government at every level is being reorganized to get rid of its responsibility to support public education and to turn this power over to corporations. This direction was clearly described in the paper “Tough Choices or Tough Times”, a Report of the New Commission on Skills of the American Workforce, from the National Center on Education and the Economy. Financed largely by Bill Gates, the report calls for ending public schools and replacing them with “contract schools.” These are charter schools on steroids, in which private corporations would make all the choices about education. Local school boards would be reduced to signing contracts.
The United States has one of the most decentralized governments of any industrial country. As a result, a large part of the old social contract was administered through state governments, rather than federally. Like the neoliberal “adjustments” currently imposed by the World Bank and the IMF on entire countries, the attacks on state governments are pre-eminently political attacks on the role of government itself. In order to maximize profit in a time of world historical crisis, capitalism must alter the role of government and the State.
The Promise of Public Education
For the first time in human history, electronic technology has the potential to provide everyone with high quality education. But, this is impossible if education is organized on a commercial, for-profit basis to support corporate profits.
Corporations cannot transcend the contradiction, for example, that it takes more human labor to teach children with special needs or language needs. Making a profit demands curtailing these unprofitable forms of public education.
Published online by the Charter for Public Education Network, “The Charter for Public Education”, developed by the British Columbia Teachers, in consultation with the community in public hearings across the province in 2002-2003, beautifully states what public education should be:
“As a community we promise to prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build. We promise a public education system which provides learners with knowledge and wisdom, protects and nurtures their natural joy of learning, encourages them to become persons of character, strength and integrity, infuses them with hope and with spirit, and guides them to resolute and thoughtful action.”
This vision has been reaffirmed by the rising movement across America to demand that public education is established as a public right for all. This is a political struggle and must be recognized as one. It cannot be achieved by tinkering with incremental compromise in the face of an all-out political assault on public education.
The Year Ahead
In the past workers could rely on small incremental economic improvements in life through compromise. Now, compromise can yield nothing. For 70 years, the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party have told the working class that it is possible to negotiate a way out of this crisis, that we simply have to compromise with Capital and everything will work out fine. This keeps the movement on the defensive.
The struggle must pass from the defensive to become a political struggle to take the offensive against a system that is itself the central problem. Fundamentally, that is what we are up against! Either corporations will control society or the public will control the corporations.
In the face of a decade of organized attacks to privatize the public schools, parents across the country demand, “We want our schools!” For two years, hundreds of thousands of people have protested to demand that public education must be free and that corporations should be taxed to make this possible. These are political demands: they must define the direction of the fight. They concretely raise the question of which class has the power to determine the future of society. We must point to the vast wealth being hijacked by corporate capital and direct the movement to demand that their government use it for the benefit of all of society. Everything begins with attempts to protect public schools, but the “art of politics” is to raise political demands in the midst of actual struggles.
The only way any fundamental change is possible is to take the political offensive and mobilize the political force to end the dictatorship of corporations and billionaires.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011