Struggle for Public Education Hinges on New Ideas
Millions of families are counting on education to provide a way out of the devastation and poverty as the old industrial economy crumbles. They had been told that hard work in the factories guaranteed the American Dream – a promise broken when corporate capital turned to robotic production all over the globe. Today we’re promised that if students study hard they will one day earn enough to rescue their families from economic disaster. Instead, many graduates find themselves with too much debt, too little pay, and temporary jobs or no job at all.
It’s not that people aren’t fighting to defend the promise of education, nor haven’t won any victories. Parents saved many schools. At great personal risk undocumented students mobilized and forced President Obama to allow some of them to work, after deporting more people than any president in history. And teachers launched strikes at all levels, from Chicago’s schools to California’s universities. Yet everywhere each concession won by a struggle was quickly followed by further attacks on public education, such as budget cuts and private companies taking over testing, charter schools, and online learning. What is the movement lacking?
Our biggest problem is not a lack of schooling, or jobs, or even the budget cuts. Our main problem is that as the technological revolution forces the old industrial society to change, most working class people hope to somehow “fight back” and return to the mythical good old days, while the corporations “fight forward” into a new hi-tech global capitalism that sacrifices our future for theirs. They have shredded the old industrial jobs and cut funding from the education of working class children and youth whom they no longer need in jobs now done by robots.
Their strategy for reorganizing society is carried out through both political parties and by groups like the Bill Gates’ Foundation and the Koch brothers’ think tanks. They convince school and college leaders to cut teacher and staff wages, while handing millions of dollars over to online learning companies and banks. Certainly a new society is inevitable due to the new technology and online tools – the question is which class it will serve. But we cannot get to the critical question of society’s future if we focus only on defending public education by fighting back city-by-city, state-by-state, or neighborhood-by-neighborhood.
Discrimination Divides and Disunites Struggle
America’s terrible history of discrimination, separating people along color lines, has contributed greatly to this scattered, disunited way of thinking. Past segregation and current government policies have resulted in the poorest people of color being packed together into “projects” and “ghettos,” usually located near the biggest, dirtiest factories. As those factories closed, unemployment and poverty increased the most in nearby neighborhoods, leading to the perception that most unemployed people and recipients of welfare were people of color.
The struggle to defend education constantly faces this same confusion, because segregated housing also produced segregated schools. As companies left these areas many residents did too, so local schools lost both students and per-student funding. When Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Chicago began closing schools in old industrial neighborhoods, it often seemed like a struggle about African Americans or Latinos alone, instead of what it really was: the leading edge of resistance to attacks on the class as a whole.
The Rust Belt not only suffered devastation. It is also producing new leaders striving to overcome the old disunity. For example, when new leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) were elected in 2010, they insisted that only by uniting with embattled parents could teachers hope to win public support, when their contract struggle came up the next year. Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to close over one hundred schools, starting with some in majority African American communities, CTU’s leaders gathered teachers from all over the city to fight for those schools first.
New Leaders and New Tactics Arise
By turning towards the most threatened communities, CTU convinced thousands of Chicagoans to turn toward them when they went out on strike in September 2012. Then, instead of just fighting against school district officials and the mayor, the union also began naming the leading local capitalists who were behind the city’s economic restructuring. The mayor was forced to concede raises and limit his attempt to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. By mobilizing thousands of teachers and parents against the city’s elite, the strike had not just tapped people’s desperation about their economic crisis, it had helped them see a bit more clearly their friends and their enemies. This was taken a step further in the battle against school closings after the strike. Threats to close as many as 300 schools were followed by multiple hearings, at which the community was unanimous against closing. Nevertheless the enemy revealed itself as Chicago Public Schools callously shuttered forty-nine schools. From the industrial ashes of the Rust Belt a new phoenix of teachers struggle had risen, and school unions in other cities began planning how to broaden their fights, too.
Still, the tactic of educators and communities facing off against local capitalists is not by itself a strategy for class political independence. That requires not only fighting against the vision of the corporate capitalist class, but developing a new vision of what kind of society to fight for, so technology serves humanity and not the other way around. But Chicago-style tactics can give thousands of people anywhere practical experience in the power they can exercise by coming together, the basis for revolutionaries to promote broader and deeper analysis and debate about classes in capitalist society, and the possibility of creating a new kind of cooperative, communist society.
Every struggle holds opportunities for analysis and debate about the ideas that serve opposing classes, the hinges upon which the struggle will either swing open to greater political independence, or swing shut and lock the fighters within the corporations’ vision of the future. The task of the revolutionaries in the movement is to explain these “hinge ideas.” For example, many college faculty leaders oppose the shift to more online courses because it costs jobs, while students working excessive hours to pay tuition and living costs must often use online courses to learn on weekends or in the middle of the night. Neither group can solve their problem because corporate capitalists have directed politicians nationwide to limit tax funding for both financial aid and faculty hiring. Both college faculty and students are fighting capitalism, though this is not yet clearly obvious to many fighters.
Politicians and administrators, who have granted some limited concessions to the various struggles in public education, have assured the movement’s mass of activists these are the first steps back toward the good old days of better funding, when the economic crisis ultimately gets resolved. The Democratic Party has proven especially effective at bringing in minority politicians who rose from poverty, to assure Blacks, immigrants, and poor people that the economy is getting under control. But their pep talks can’t hide the fact that the temporary stabilizing of the Great Recession was bought by greatly expanding the debt of school systems, universities, cities and states, and that student loans now exceed America’s total credit card debt. This raises the risk that another collapse will have an especially bad impact on students and education systems.
Greater Power to Federal Government
The top level capitalists have attempted to prepare for the next crisis by shifting more power over K-12 schools and higher education to the federal level of government, even though most of the funding is run by state legislatures and local governments and districts. For K-12, Congress re-directed Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act from the 1960’s by introducing No Child Left Behind and other “reforms.” These reforms steered millions into purchasing of iPads and other technology from for-profit companies. In 1998, the Clinton Administration allowed for-profit universities to use federal financial aid and reduced restrictions on their use of online courses. Just two years later online higher education companies had the highest rate of profit of any stocks on Wall Street!
These actions are drawing the mass of education activists out from their local battlefield and step-by-step towards the national arena. Every time Congress fails to budget enough for financial aid, students are faced with the need for a stronger national movement. Every time the federal Department of Education forces a new requirement for accrediting schools, or for using tests sold by corporations, the corporate agenda gets the force of law, and the movement must take another step towards resistance on a national level.
This is not just developing among forces defending K-12 education – new approaches are emerging in the struggle to defend higher education, too. Links are developing between student activists in different university systems, cities, and states. Faculty activists have become alarmed by government officials’ support for privatization and for-profit online companies, and have launched national discussions on the future of higher education. And the most farsighted fighters from both K-12 and higher education in the U.S. have begun meeting with their class brothers and sisters from Mexico and Canada, as will happen in Chicago next May.
Eventually a stage of political maturity can develop, in which a national movement confronts corporate capital and insists that the national government act to safeguard the funding and quality of public education across the land. Just as the Civil Rights Movement eventually got voting rights for minority citizens nationalized, the call will be for nationalization of education – but on a deeper level than anything seen in the 1960’s, because this movement for nationalization will be part of pushing corporate capital completely out of government.
Revolutionaries don’t stand off to the side pontificating about the ideas they wish people cared about – they deal with the movement’s actual problems, introducing the hinge ideas that break the leaders free from political dependence on the corporations’ limited vision for society. As capital ravages the lives of the members of the working class their development as leaders will greatly depend on committed, conscious revolutionaries playing their role.
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