There are millions of working class people who agree that public education, despite all its problems, is an historic gain that must be defended. But the fight to stop the “reform” agenda which could spell the end of public education as it has existed in the US inevitably raises the question of what kind of education system is actually needed. So while stating clearly what we are against, we also need to define what we are for.
In our opinion, providing a truly rounded education for working class youth, in fact for anybody, is not possible under capitalism. Of course, this is not to deny the enormously beneficial impact on young people of the hard work done by the hundreds of thousands of dedicated educators in this country. But at the same time the education system is inevitably deeply marked by the class and racial divisions of capitalist society. The needs of the market will always deform education despite resistance.
A socialist society would begin by rejecting the education through regimentation model that increasingly dominates US education and seek to develop the knowledge, talents and independence of young people through hands on exploration of the world. Critical thinking, debate and the scientific method would be valued above all. Students would spend far more time outside the classroom than they do today and school buildings would become centers for the ongoing education and cultural development of the whole community.
In the 19th century, Karl Marx argued for “polytechnical education”, linking schooling with the real world of production. He believed this could give real relevance to education and help overcome the division between those who “labored” and those who “thought”. This idea has nothing in common with the abomination of child labor. Rather, the purpose of education as Marx saw it was that “the partially developed individual, who is merely the bearer of one specialized social function, must be replaced by the totally developed individual.” We agree.
But despite the severe limitations to genuine progressive education reform under capitalism, this does not in any way mean that we should be passive. Defeating the education reform agenda is possible despite the powerful forces we are up against and would be a victory of enormous significance in rallying working class people to defend what they have and fight for a better future. It would raise people’s sights and for that reason alone we are passionately committed to winning this struggle. We therefore fight for every real progressive reform, no matter how limited, which could make our schools better while articulating the need for a socialist alternative to capitalism, for an economic system based on the needs of society rather than the profits of a few.
Here then are the key points of our education program:
No to budget cuts; no layoffs. Working people didn’t create this crisis; we shouldn’t pay for it. We need to build a mass movement not only to stop further cuts but to restore all the cuts already made to education and social services. The resources to accomplish this would be found by ending the incredibly wasteful wars and taxing the rich and Wall Street. To those who say that in hard times we must all sacrifice and learn to do “more with less” or that the money just isn’t there, we say that if the rich and corporate America were taxed even at the level they were 30 years ago, i.e. under Richard Nixon, most states would not be facing cutbacks.
Free, high quality education for all from pre-school through college. We need a significant expansion of the education workforce to dramatically reduce class size and create truly universal access to pre-kindergarten. All k-12 schools should have high quality art and music programs for all students every year. These steps would do infinitely more to improve the quality of education than all the “data-driven” nonsense peddled by the corporate “reformers”.
Fund education on an equal per capita basis, regardless of the community. End the funding of k-12 education through local property taxes. Contrary to the corporate education reform crowd, what ails education is first and foremost the vastly unequal resources that are invested in public schools in working class and especially poor communities as opposed to the public schools which serve the upper middle class (the truly rich generally don’t send their children to public schools).
End high stakes testing. We are not opposed to all forms of testing although in general there is far too much “standards based” testing going on in our schools. But what we completely oppose is the reduction of the whole school year to a couple of tests which are then used to decide whether teachers gets tenure; how much they get paid (merit pay); who gets fired as well as a school’s “performance” and whether the school is closed if the test scores show it to be “failing”.
End the attacks on teacher unions. Teachers and other public sector workers should have the right to strike. At the moment, public sector workers’ pensions and health benefits are being threatened. The argument is made that most private sector workers don’t have these “privileges”. We believe that all workers should have defined benefit pensions and we call for national publicly-funded single payer healthcare. Seniority is also under attack. Without seniority rights in layoffs and staff reductions, principals will fire educators they don’t like, including union activists. Without seniority, educators will not be able to defend their working conditions or advocate for their students’ rights.
Stop privatizing education; a moratorium on further charter schools. Open the charter school books to public scrutiny. This is public money. Bring the worst charter schools back under direct public control. Full union rights for all workers in charter schools.
For democratic control of schools by teachers, parents and students. No to “mayoral control” schemes. For principals elected by parents and staff.
For an authentic, progressive national curriculum with meaningful input from educators, parents and students that promotes critical thinking and debate and the application of the scientific method and a much wider interaction with the world outside school buildings.
Reverse the trend toward re-segregation of schools. The federal government and the states should support voluntary school desegregation plans. There should also be aggressive recruitment of minority educators so that students in all schools are taught by a truly diverse group of people.
Military recruiters out of the schools. In Chicago, the drive to militarize education went a step further under Arne Duncan with the creation of numerous “military academies” masquerading as public schools. Chicago now has more of these than any other city in the country. What an awful testimony to the vision of the future offered by capitalism for working class youth unless parents, teachers and students unite and fight back.