Thirty-six years after the Nation at Risk report commissioned by the Reagan administration –   which first rang the alarm about the “crisis” of public education – launched the corporate “education reform” drive, events have come full circle. Hundreds of thousands of teachers from West Virginia to Los Angeles have gone on strike in the past year, with massive support from parents and students. They have challenged the underfunding of education and the drive to privatize, particularly through the creation of ever more charter schools. The education revolt has won important victories and put the corporate “reformers” on the back foot. But while they are down, we should in no way conclude that these forces are decisively defeated.

In the 1980s, when Nation at Risk was published, the ruling class in the U.S. and internationally were in the process of trying to restore the profitability of their system after the recessionary 1970s marked the end of the post-war boom. This led to a series of “neoliberal” policies, among which were the drive to privatize large sections of the public sector especially in countries where railroads, utilities, and health care provision had been brought into public ownership after World War II. All sorts of manufactured “crisies” were created to justify privatization which became a bonanza for the worst sort of parasitic capitalists. 

It is important to look back and see how the “reformers” took the all-too-real problems facing public schools, especially in poor and segregated communities, and used them to build a case to dismantle public education brick by brick. Education reform was sold using the slogan of “choice.” It was claimed that choice – whether in the form of voucher programs that divert public funds to private schools or investing in charter schools – is in the best interest of students and parents. In reality these are tools of the ruling class for starving-out public education. A related goal was destroying local community schools where ordinary people could band together to fight for improvements and hold school leaders accountable. At every stage, the reformers sought to convince parents and students that they were consumers of an education “product” with “choices” as opposed to citizens with rights.

It is no coincidence that some of the biggest champions of the so-called “reform” movement are some of the richest families in America, including the Waltons (owners of Walmart), Eli Broad, and Bill and Melinda Gates. Nor is it a coincidence that these families are also sworn enemies of educators’ unions. Targeting the teachers’ unions was part of trying to push back the labor movement decisively. After the long retreat of the industrial unions in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the public sector remained as labor’s stronghold with the teacher unions being key. By pushing proposals to end tenure and for “merit pay” tied to testing, the reformers aimed to make it easier to fire teachers. There was a relentless campaign in the media to portray most teachers as greedy and incompetent.

A key moment in the education reform campaign was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 with strong bipartisan support. NCLB is a prime example of education reforms as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, adorned in lofty rhetoric about closing “racial achievement gaps” while tying a school’s federal funding to high stakes testing, one of the primary mechanisms that has further defunded the poorest schools and districts! If schools did not meet the “proficiency” standards, they were to be closed. This led to a wave of school closings around the country. Teaching became increasingly focused on “teaching to the test” as schools in working-class communities fought to avoid closure. In this way the quality of education was degraded. Arts and other programs not the focus of testing were slashed to the bone.

Never mentioned was addressing the massive funding disparity between schools in poor communities and those in wealthy suburbs. Public education in the U.S. is overwhelmingly funded by property taxes and this puts poor communities at a serious disadvantage. Despite all the evidence that segregation is a major contributor to the educational obstacles facing black and brown children, no proposals were brought forward to address this running sore. After a period of partial desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the civil rights movement, schools have become even more segregated over the past twenty years. But again, funding disparities and segregation were never raised by the reformers. In reality, education reform was never about helping children. It was about reinforcing the domination of the corporate elite. 

2008 Crash and the Obama Years

The 2007-’08 economic crash was followed by a massive wave of attacks on working people as the ruling class sought to make them pay for the crisis of their system. Millions lost their jobs and their homes and there were massive cuts to public programs, especially education, at state and local levels. While education spending has been growing in recent years, the U.S. is still a long way from returning to the levels of funding for public education that existed before the Great Recession. As we pointed out in the introduction to the 2018 edition of our pamphlet, Save our Schools: “Combined with mass layoffs of educators that were never reversed, rising student populations are stretching classrooms to their limit. As of now, it would require 400,000 new educator positions to return to 2008 staffing levels.”

This period also marked a major acceleration of the ruling class’ assault on public education. The school year 2007-’08 was one of two years in the past couple decades, along with 2003-’04, during which more than two thousand public schools were shut down! In 2009, Obama doubled down on the regime of privatization established by NCLB with the “Race to the Top,” holding federal funds hostage unless unions agreed to a teacher evaluation system tied to test scores with the widely acknowledged bunk science of “value-added modeling.”

Despite the role Obama played in education reform, his election as the first black president did raise expectations among many working-class people, especially people of color, and there were numerous examples across the country of community fight-back, uniting teachers, parents, and students against over testing, privatization, and especially school closures. Often these struggles went down to defeat but they reflected the increasing disillusionment with education reform. 

Initially, charters were quite popular as parents hoped they would give their children a better chance at a decent education. But then the realization set in that the quality of education in the charters was not necessarily better and that the vast majority of students were still in public schools that were literally being left to rot. 

These community struggles were an important proving ground for many teacher activists and union militants leading the struggles breaking out today. The Caucus Of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE), a rank-and-file caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) cut its teeth in the fight against school closures. In 2010, CORE won the leadership of the CTU and in 2012 led the historic Chicago teachers strike which popularized the slogan “our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”

By taking up a conscious approach to building grassroots support within local communities and making demands around wider issues as well as pay, the CTU made significant gains, eliminating merit pay from the contract, reducing the impact of test scores on teacher evaluations and securing an 18% raise. Unfortunately, “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel was able to force through another wave of demoralizing school closures a year later.

The year 2010 also saw Scott Walker elected as the governor of Wisconsin. Shortly after entering the governor’s mansion, Walker engaged in a fierce attack on public sector union rights. While ultimately the labor movement was unable to stop Walker’s attacks, it was high school students who walked out and educators who followed them, calling in sick en masse, that galvanized the mass movement in the streets that occupied the capitol building in Madison. 

Trump, JANUS, and the Reforging of the Strike Weapon

The 2018 revolt of educators emerged in spectacular fashion in the polarized era of Trump, but the tinder and fuel for this blaze were built up for years under Obama. Trump and big business have sought, yet again, to deal public sector unions a death blow, this time with the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision which makes the entire public sector “right to work.”

But starting in West Virginia last February, teachers occupying the state capitol showed that Janus does not have to be a death sentence. Defying union leaders’ calls to return to work, they stayed out until they won a 5% wage increase not just for themselves but for all public employees in the state. Their success was infectious and led to strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, North Carolina, and Washington State which also won real gains. Last fall, a large number of educators stood for public office, reflecting the desire to push the fight for education funding to a conclusion.

Teacher and parent activists across the country are finally reaping the reward for their long, hard struggle against corporate “education reform.” When teachers struck for six days in Los Angeles in January with daily rallies of 50,000 plus, made up of two-thirds parents, we saw graphically that this is not simply a series of teachers’ strikes but a wider revolt against decades of neoliberal attacks on working people and their communities. 

The task now is to build on these victories and decisively defeat the forces of corporate education reform by restoring all cuts to education and ending the drive to privatization. This requires a political struggle as well to tax the rich and centralize and equalize education funding, pointing towards a socialist society where people’s needs, including education, housing, and health care are given priority over profit.

The Way Forward

2018 witnessed a remarkable upsurge in labor struggle with teachers at the heart of it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that throughout 2018 over 485,000 workers took part in a work stoppage – more than have been involved in a single year than since 1986! Fully four-fifths of these were teachers.

Already in 2019, teachers in Los Angeles waged a magnificent six day strike which led to an important victory; teachers in Denver settled a three day strike for raises up to 11%; two separate strikes have been waged at charter school networks in Chicago over the past four months for reduced class sizes and full funding; and the heroic West Virginia teachers came out again for two days and successfully stopped a bill in the state legislature that included charter school programs and a school voucher system. As we report on page 3, teachers in Oakland California are now out on strike fighting for decent pay and an end to school closures and charterization.

Some of the key lessons of the struggles of the past year include the willingness of teachers to challenge or go around conservative “leaders” unwilling to take bold action. In West Virginia and Arizona, for example, teachers formed mass Facebook groups that helped lay the groundwork for strike action. But of course Facebook groups are not a substitute for real on the ground organizing. In West Virginia, it was critical that teachers held meetings in every building including all workers, not just teachers, to build the widest possible support for action. A new rank-and-file caucus, West Virginia United, has been established which is a key step toward giving the union the fighting leadership it deserves.

By contrast, in Los Angeles, the victory of the Union Power caucus in the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) elections in 2014 helped lay the basis for the victory the teachers and working class communities won in January. The new leadership has spent two years building support inside the union and within the community for a more decisive fight against privatization. A February article in Labor Notes explains the crucial role played by Contract Action Teams that were organized in every building made up of “union volunteers recruited at each school who took charge of involving educators and the local community in developing contract demands, communicating regularly with co-workers about their top issues, and mobilizing co-workers to participate in actions, such as regional rallies last spring.”

Without doubt, central to the victories won in the past twelve months has been focusing not just on wage demands but on the overall underfunding of public schools and the disastrous effect this has had on the education students receive. This has further strengthened the massive support for the teachers’ strikes from parents and students. In Oakland, the strike has turned into a general revolt against decades of gentrification; working people are fighting for the future of the city itself.

The teachers in Arizona and other places have raised bold demands for how education should be funded by increasing the taxes on big business. LA teachers were able to get the district to agree to jointly propose a statewide moratorium on further charters. Again and again, the demands of these strikes have taken on a more political character of necessity because they are posing a wider challenge to the corporate neo-liberal agenda that has been pushed relentlessly by both parties, even if the Democrats are now falling over themselves to “support” the teachers.

But we need to be clear that the forces behind corporate education reform will push back. To continue this struggle and win further victories will require being prepared to escalate actions, for example, with appeals for wider solidarity action by public sector workers and with further statewide teachers actions. As Socialist Alternative has raised, we also need the national teachers’ unions, as well as key figures on the left like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to call a national day of action demanding full funding of public education, reversal of all the cuts, and taxing the rich and big business to pay for it.

But the political challenge posed by the teachers’ revolt must also be carried forward. Teachers’ unions should stand independent candidates in local elections around a bold program that speaks to the needs of working people including ending privatization of education, single-payer health care, and rent control to stop out-of-control housing costs. This points toward a new party representing the interests of working people and all the oppressed. The momentum that has been achieved must not be lost. Bigger victories are possible if the spirit and determination shown by hundreds of thousands of education workers and parents are harnessed to a bold project for serious change. 

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