The Corporate Education Reform Agenda

It is becoming increasingly clear that the future for working-class and poor youth in the United States is bleak. Three years into the most severe economic and social crisis of the capitalist system since the Great Depression, the unemployment rate for teenagers 16-19 years old is 26 percent. A recent study by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies points out that the employment-population ratio – the ratio of the number of people employed to the total working-age population – which is a broader measure of labor market health than the unemployment rate, has fallen by about 20 percentage points over the past decade to 25.6 percent for teenagers. This is a record low in the post-World War II period.

The picture is even worse when looking at the situation for poor black and Latino youth. The employment-population ratio for African Americans ages 16 to 19 was 14.4 percent in July. Since middle-class youth will still go to college and will one way or another find jobs, albeit perhaps jobs that pay less than the ones they would have expected to get in the past, the picture is not as grim for them. But a whole generation of poor youth now essentially has no experience of paid employment. This is truly a lost generation.

Why begin a discussion of the state of education with unemployment statistics? This is the right place to start because most people would agree that a key aim of education should be to prepare young people for a better life than their parents had. The corporate elite that dominates our society also looks at education in relation to the future, but from the more narrow perspective of training the next generation of workers.

What conclusions have the corporate elite and their servants in the political establishment and the media drawn about the next generation? The U.S. is facing a bleak future of mass structural unemployment where even those with a job will see their wages and working conditions degraded. Most job growth will be in low-wage, relatively low-skill employment sectors. Of course there remains a need for a technical/scientific elite if the U.S. is to compete with its capitalist rivals. But despite all the previous talk of the growth of “high end” jobs in a globalized economy, the dominant reality will be the opposite. The situation will, of course, be even worse in black, Latino and immigrant communities.

In that context, the goal of the elite is to tailor education to the type of workforce that corporate America will need in the future while making education itself a field for profitable enterprise. They will continue to seek out the most talented working-class youth. But for the rest the purpose of education remains as always to instill obedience, acceptance of capitalist ideology and “basic skills competence.” There is, in fact, a need to decrease the expectations of young people, especially working-class youth. Higher expectations that are consistently unmet are very dangerous for any social order. This is the key starting point for the assault on the public education system that we see today and which is carried on under the guise of “reforming” education.

In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, major promoters of education reform, funded a study by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce called Tough Choices or Tough Times. This study spelled out the endgame for “reform,” including replacing public schools with “contract schools,” akin to the much-hyped charter schools; eliminating nearly all the powers of local school boards; eliminating teacher pensions and slashing health benefits; and forcing all tenth graders to take a high school exit examination based on twelfth grade skills and ending the education of those who failed. This would mean expelling millions of students from school at age 16.

This is an open admission that providing a rounded education to working-class and poor youth in this country is simply not a priority for the ruling class.

The Origins of Education Reform

The public education system in the U.S. has a very contradictory character. Historically, for example, it has served the interests of the ruling class well by “Americanizing” millions upon millions of immigrants and integrating them into the workforce, which turned the U.S. into the most powerful economy on earth.

But the public education system is by no means simply the result of the farsightedness of the capitalists. It is also the result of the struggle of workers, women and black people to expand the access to and quality of that education. The popular myth of education as a leveler and a road to advancement for the masses has a grain of truth, but the deeper truth is that what is progressive about public education, like every other gain for working people in our society, was the result of struggle.

The corporate-inspired “education reform” movement can be traced back to the publication of the Nation at Risk report in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education appointed by Ronald Reagan. The report claimed that American education was falling behind the rest of the world. The recommendations of Nation at Risk may not have been that extreme by today’s standards. That’s not the point. Corporate America seized on the report. “Something has to be done” about “failing schools,” the more radical the measure the better, became the mantra of the next period.

We need to be clear from the start: Socialists are in no way defenders of the status quo in public education. As has been documented by writers like Jonathan Kozol, the quality of education received by public school students in poor, inner-city communities, especially poor black and Latino communities, is vastly lower than that received by upper-middle-class public school students in the suburbs.

At their worst, some public schools in the inner cities have more the character of minimum security prison camps than genuine schools, complete with metal detectors and squads of “safety officers” roaming the halls. Yet even these schools, or at least some of the classrooms in them, can seem like havens compared to the reality of the streets around them.

As Kozol demonstrates, a key reason for this is that public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes. This leads to a massive disparity in the resources put into schools depending on the affluence of the community. In fact, the property tax rates levied for schools are often higher in poor communities but lead to fewer funds because of the lower total value of property in these areas.

But the vastly unequal funding of education based on class and race is of no interest to the education reformers. Instead they actually exaggerated the overall dysfunctionality of the system to make it seem like schools in general were chaotic places where little or no learning took place. Exaggerating the situation and creating the public perception of deep crisis helped to justify their assault on public education as a whole while ignoring the deep inequalities in the system.

The Goals of “Reform”

Education reform, as currently promoted by a large section of the political establishment, is a thoroughly neo-liberal, corporate-backed project. The key players are the Gates Foundation (Microsoft), the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (Eli Broad made his fortune in construction and insurance). Education reform also creates some strange bedfellows, like the national tour in late 2009 by the right-wing Republican Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Al Sharpton to promote charter schools.

The goals of the education deformers which are overlapping include:

  1. Opening up education to private investment. According to U.S. Census data, over $800 billion is spent on education, public and private, at all levels, in the U.S. each year. Especially in the current downturn of the capitalist system, corporate interests are determined to pry open public education and get their hands on more of these billions. Examples of companies that already make big money out of public education are the publishers of text books, the companies producing test material, the growing number of for-profit charter school operators, and the private professional development and consulting services which have proliferated.
  2. Downsizing and restructuring what is left of education after this privatization drive, in line with the changing needs of capitalism. In the medium term the reformers are looking to significantly reduce the cost of public education as part of scaling back the public sector in general. The outcome will be an even more unequal system where poor and working-class kids get the cheap, low-quality education while the rich kids still get private schools.
  3. Making teachers scapegoats for the problems in education and society. This is not a new theme but it has accelerated dramatically during the current economic crisis as the elite try every trick they can think of to deflect anger from the bankers and their politician accomplices in both major political parties.
  4. Turning public education into a marketplace where parents and students are “consumers” with choices as opposed to citizens with rights. As a consumer if you don’t like the product you chose, you switch to a different one but you have no say or control over the products themselves. By killing the neighborhood school rooted in a community you remove any pretence of democratic participation or oversight of this key public service.
  5. Smashing or substantially diminishing the power of the teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). This is part of a wider assault on the public sector and on public sector workers which is gathering force here and internationally. The AFT and the NEA are not, by historical standards, particularly militant unions but their combined membership of four million makes public education one of the best organized employment sectors in the country. They represent an objective obstacle to the ruling class’s agenda at this juncture. And, as a by-product, taking these organizations down would be a massive blow to an already weakened labor movement.

All of this goes to show that, from the point of view of the corporate elite, the stakes in the drive to dismantle public education are very high. They are determined to see this through. History and recent experience demonstrate that they will be ruthless in pursuing their goal.

Rhetoric vs. Reality

The new wave of corporate-inspired “education reformers” have dominated the national debate since the days of the Reagan administration, through the Clinton administration and both Bush administrations and, now, under Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan. It has certainly been a bipartisan affair. The high point of their success in reshaping education up until recently was the adoption of No Child Left Behind in 2001.

But this also means that we now have over two decades of experience by which to judge their claims, despite the reformers’ pretense that they are forever fighting an uphill battle against “entrenched bureaucracies.”

They claimed that they would raise the standard of American education by comparison with other countries. Even using their own narrow measures, this has not happened.

A second claim was that they would narrow or eliminate the “racial gap” between the performance of white and black students on standardized tests. In reality, as Jonathan Kozol argues in his book Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, the gap declined significantly as schools became more integrated between 1965 and 1990. The most concentrated gains for black students in math and reading, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, came between the mid-‘70s and mid-‘80s.

Since then, American schools have been steadily re-segregated. As of 2006, the proportion of black students who attended integrated schools had dropped to its lowest level since 1968. During the 1990s, the racial gap began to widen again, and while there has been some narrowing in the last decade it is miniscule compared to the gains made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The position is most clearly illustrated by statistics for black 17-year-olds. In reading their scores rose 27 points between 1971 and 2008. Twenty-one of these points were gained between 1980 and 1984. Even this cursory glance shows that the education deformers who have increasingly dominated policy over the past 20 years have accomplished next to nothing on what they define as a core goal. Only a move back toward voluntary integration measures – which polls show would have wide public support – combined with real equitable funding for education could begin to seriously close the racial gap.

Finally, as things stand today, far from it being the case that ever-wider sections of the population are achieving the high-quality college education apparently necessary for access to decent jobs, the outcomes in education are increasingly unequal. It is true that far more young people go to a “higher” education institution compared to a generation ago, but the rapidly increasing cost means many never finish, and the top colleges have fewer and fewer students from working-class and poor communities attending. Furthermore, we see the proliferation of low-quality, for-profit “colleges.” Is all this any surprise when the U.S., over the past 30 years, has experienced a massive growth in inequality and a decline in social mobility? The increasing inequality in education outcomes is simply a reflection of this ever-growing social divide.

Education reform, therefore, is a failure on its own terms, but in truth it has been a giant con job. Many people were taken in by the claims, but the goal was never really to improve the education of the vast majority. The first step on the road to building a movement for real progressive reform of education is to expose the anti-working-class and anti-democratic nature of the corporate education reform drive that has far from run its course.