Subverting Big Money’s Attack on Public Education

By Deborah Meier

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Deborah Meier at SOS March, Washington, DC  August 2011

Sixty years ago, I was active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) as well as the democratic socialist movement, and I subbed in Chicago public K-8 schools two days a week. Spending those days in the schools raised some doubts in my mind about both the civil rights and socialist agenda. It was clear that the average urban student was being trained to be “dumb,” thoughtless (in the literal sense) and accepting of what couldn’t be changed. Could we achieve the kind of democracy we dreamed of with such a “dumbed-down” public?

Teaching kindergarten restored my faith. Working in a mostly all-black school was the most exciting experience of my life—intellectually, socially, and emotionally. The kids did have fine vocabularies, were constantly making sense of the world, had profound questions, and were quick learners when engaged. They weren’t “dumb,” but they had good reason to follow their parents’ advice to be obedient and keep quiet in school. With the impetus of the civil rights movement and movements for school change, though, it seemed as if schools could encourage that liveliness of heart and mind and tenacious imagination that I witnessed during the next decade.

 

Teaching became my lifelong occupation, and along the way I found parents and teachers who became colleagues in subverting the boredom that we inflicted on active young children for six hours a day. At the same time, I became an expert on the design of standardized tests and discovered that these tests were amazingly sensitive to what differentiated the “culture” and language of those on the margins of society from those in the center. Somehow, those on the margins always gave the “wrong” answers. It turned out, though, that the “wrong” answers were often right if your context was different, and for a while, it seemed as if the inherent unfairness of standardized tests could be rectified.

 

By the late eighties, I was part of a political educational network called the Coalition of Essential Schools that included a thousand other schools that offered elite-style education (that is, critical thinking) to the non-elites. The tests that so injured low-income and minority children were crumbling under academic attacks on their reliability and validity. Despite the increasingly conservative/reactionary politics around us, I thought we were going to win. Foolish me. While I wasn’t paying attention, another “movement” of wealthy and powerful people and foundations had plotted out a different path and had done so in the name of civil rights, of “no child left behind.” They didn’t plan to change the schools that middle-class children attended, which for the most part are working just fine.


Instead, they set out to dehumanize the schools of the poor so that they could be operated more cheaply, contain children for a longer time, pacify the parents, and make a profit. At the same time, not surprisingly, they could destroy teacher unions. School vouchers, which would have opened the way for many for-profit schools, had been the opening salvo in the war against public schools, but when they were defeated, their supporters developed a new agenda.

 
They wanted data to prove that public schools weren’t working, and if you ignored the fact that test scores correlated almost perfectly with family income and that public education is funded by property taxes so that richer districts have more money, test data surely did. There were enormous gaps between the scores of schools in poor districts and schools in middle-class and upper-middle-class districts.

 

The answer would be charter schools, and many erstwhile allies would be taken in by the promise. The language was compatible with what we had been doing: small schools, parental choice, self-government. But the reality was different, as legislation opened the door to private entrepreneurs and chain-store schools that are the educational equivalents of Walmart. Controlled by private boards, they are paid for by taxpayer funds.

 

Although they represent about 6% of all public schools, charters affect a much larger percent of the schools that house the poor, who now make up 51% of all students in public schools in the country. In the District of Columbia, for instance, 39% of public school students attend charter schools. These schools promote a kind of education aimed to appeal to desperate parents, not to those who have real choices. They’re called “no excuses” schools and remind me of the Chicago schools of 1962. In fact, Chicago schools are well on their way to being privatized and returned to the rote education of the fifties and early sixties, for they were then and are now intended for low-income minority children. Buoyed by the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, corporate reformers took over the New Orleans schools and have turned them into an all-charter system. Meanwhile, neighborhood schools in the most vulnerable communities are closed and their teachers, disproportionately teachers of color, are let go, while parents scramble for other safe or even semi-safe havens.

 

It’s a crisis, and it won’t be won by teacher revolts or even by coalitions of teachers and parents. What our schools need is a renewed civil rights movement and a Democratic Party not beholden to the vast money-making machine on which so many politicians in both parties depend. Meanwhile, one hopes to slow it down.

 

There are signs of new energy on the left. While some bemoan Occupy’s “failure,” in fact it introduced a radical concept into our everyday language—the talk of 99% vs. 1%. That’s a big step in consciousness raising. And then, although black men and women have been subjected to police violence for a century, we witnessed a groundswell of reaction to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. On a similar scale there is a growing backlash against the testing regime in many unexpected places—led by “ordinary” parents.


Schools alone cannot fight the forces of big money, but they demand our attention and our activism if democracy is to survive.

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Deborah Meier has been a member of various socialist movements—SYL, ISL, DSOC, and DSA to name a few—and has been active for the last 50 years in public education as a teacher, parent, and activist.

 

This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 77 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

July 06, 2017
· 16 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz, schwartzjoem@gmail.com.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

July 09, 2017
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You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

Running for the National Political Committee

July 11, 2017
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Join this call to hear a presentation and ask questions about the role, duties and time commitment of a member of DSA's National Political Committee. In the meantime, check out the information already on our website about the NPC.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 11 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.