Neo-Liberalism and the Attack on Public Education Internationally

In the early 1970s capitalism in the U.S. and internationally entered into a deep crisis marked by a narrowing field for profitable investment. Sharp recessions in the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s opened up the vista of a long period of economic stagnation and decline. In this situation the corporate elite and their servants in the political establishment turned to a new set of policies designed to restore profitability by viciously attacking the wages and conditions of working people as well as partially dismantling the state sector. These policies and the ideological justifications for them became known as neo-liberalism.

A major element of this neo-liberal offensive was privatization. This could mean returning whole industries to the private sector or privatizing certain functions of public services. Large sections of the economy, like finance, energy and the airlines in the U.S., were deregulated. There was also a generalized drive to reduce wages and benefits, thus increasing the share of new value going to profits. Since union contracts stood in the way, the whole neo-liberal era has been characterized by sharp attacks on unions internationally. All of this was justified on the basis that unfettered markets would deliver growth, more choice for consumers and a higher standard of living.

These policies did indeed restore corporate profits for a period. They also led to a whole series of other consequences: a drastic increase in the level of social inequality, a huge expansion in the role of the finance sector in the economy, the housing and other bubbles, and, ultimately, the bursting of all those bubbles in 2007-2008. We are now mired in the deepest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. However, despite the disastrous consequences of neo-liberalism, and notwithstanding a brief necessary turn to neo-Keynesian stimulus measures in 2008-2009, the corporate elite has not abandoned its attacks on the public sector. In fact, the current crisis is being seen as an opportunity to step up this attack under the guise of “debt reduction.”

The attack on public education in the U.S. is a prime example of neo-liberalism in action. But like other aspects of the neo-liberal agenda this is an international phenomenon. One academic who has traced this process is Lois Weiner. Along with Mary Compton, she edited The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and Their Unions: Stories for Resistance. In a recent article Weiner summarizes some of the key aspects of her research:

Known outside the United States as neoliberalism’s project in education, this package of ‘market-friendly’ reforms includes privatization of schools and services; charter schools, public-school closings, fragmentation of the school system’s administrative apparatus; budget cuts, high-stakes standardized testing and the destruction of the teacher unions as a significant player in education.

In developing countries, the architects of these reforms are quite explicit that they aim to make education produce workers who are minimally educated and will compete for jobs that require no more than a seventh or eighth grade education. This new educational system will better serve transnational corporations and their quest for increased profits. A small number of workers will require the ability to think and be the new leaders of finance, industry and technology. They’ll receive a high-quality education, in expensive private schools or in privately-run public schools — that is, charter schools.”

Of course, the drive for privatization and charter schools is not just going on in developing countries. In Britain, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is seeking to turn thousands of local-authority-run comprehensive schools – the equivalent of public schools in the U.S. – into “academies,” i.e., privately-run, publicly funded charters. As our sister organization, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, put it, the government intends to “turn the creeping part-privatization of education under Labour [the previous government] into a full-blown dismantling of a planned state education system.”

All the arguments familiar to Americans about giving people “choice” and “raising standards” have been trotted out by the government’s supporters. Geoffrey Canada, head of the Harlem Children Zone’s charter schools and a star of the “education reform” crowd in the U.S., even went to address the 2010 Conservative (Tory) Party conference on the need to get teachers’ unions out of the way.

Lessons from Across the Atlantic

In the past year in Britain, there has been a significant increase in comprehensive (public) school administrators applying to become (private) academies. They are lured by promises of more money in a time of huge budget cuts. The process lacks almost any community input. In some cases, schools have become academies without even the staff being aware of what was happening. Now many communities are becoming alarmed at the privatization drive. Campaigns uniting teachers, parents and students are springing up, like the Save Our Schools group in Coventry. Teachers there have taken strike action.

But, as in the U.S., the fight to defend public education is now necessarily part of a wider struggle to defend the public sector. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is seeking to raise the retirement age from 60 to 66, including for teachers, while also forcing public sector workers to make higher contributions into their pension and get a reduced benefit in the end. On top of this, there has been a pay freeze for the past two years. The unions estimate that workers lose 4 to 10 percent of their weekly income from the pay freeze and increased pension contributions alone. The Tories’ broader declared goal is to cut public sector employment by 25 percent by 2015. Meanwhile college students saw their fees triple!

These attacks led to a massive wave of youth strikes, school occupations, and marches on Parliament last winter. Under pressure, union leaders called a national demonstration on March 26, drawing a historic 750,000 workers and young people into London’s streets. Then at least 600,000 public sector workers struck on June 30 against the pension cuts. Unions are preparing for bigger industrial action in the fall. This is the beginning of a protracted struggle within which the fight to stop the neo-liberal drive to dismantle public education is a vital part. Similar struggles are posed not just in Britain and the U.S. but in many other countries.