Corporatism, Education, Teachers — May 22, 2013

The demonization of teachers & the destruction of our public school system is a public scandal & embarrassment


This MUST stop

NOTE: In the essay below, when I have used the phrase “public schools”, I am talking about what are generally known as “traditional” public schools. Technically speaking, charter schools are also public schools, distinct from private schools, as Maria has pointed out in the comments. My main issue with charter schools is with for-profit charter schools. However, as Patti has pointed out in the comments, even non-profit charters can be an issue if they draw excessive amounts of students from traditional public schools, making it impossible for them to “compete”, particularly if they are allowed to cherry-pick the best students and not take students with any sort of educational issue including special needs students. Check out the comments section for what I see as some very interesting conversations.

The story of 22-year Cody Bailey being installed as president of a for-profit charter school in Michigan (posts are HERE and HERE) has rekindled my outrage about the demonization of teachers and the systematic kneecapping and dismantling of our public school system here in Michigan. Operating under the guise of “education reform”, corporatists like Cody Bailey, the Mackinac Center, and the DeVos family are engaging in an unsubtle effort to convert our nation’s schools into profit centers for corporate “education” businesses. Their approach has three primary components.

First, they demonize teachers asking for fair wages and benefits for their work as greedy parasites sucking on the jugular vein of our government. Rather than seeing them as the gifts and assets that they are, these anti-union corporatists see our educators as “costs”; costs to be minimized for the sake of profit. In order for them to complete the transfer of our tax monies going to public schools into their corporate coffers, they first need to make sure they have no competition for teachers to turn to, competition that pays better and offers better benefits. Today’s hearing on House Bill 4625 is just another piece of that concerted effort to lower public school teacher compensation. The legislation aims to eliminate nearly all criteria for increased pay for teachers except for their students’ test scores.

Teachers are not “costs”. Teachers are as valuable to our society as doctors and police officers and fire fighters. They don’t just babysit our kids all day. They prepare them to be successful in their lives, not just in test taking.

When tragedy strikes schools, our teachers are there to protect our children. We saw this in vivid detail in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. This week, when a massive F5 tornado hit Oklahoma, the stories of teachers literally saving lives have made headlines:

The tornado that devastated this Oklahoma City suburb of 56,000 people destroyed Plaza Towers and also slammed Briarwood Elementary, where all the children appear to have survived. Students and parents recounted stories Tuesday of brave teachers who sheltered their pupils, in some cases by herding them into a closet and a restroom amid the fear and panic.

After the tornado alarm went off, students at Plaza Towers scrambled into the halls. But the halls — some of which were within the view of windows — did not appear safe enough.

Sixth-grader Antonio Clark said a teacher took him and as many other youngsters as possible and shoved them into the three-stall boys’ bathroom.

“We were all piled in on each other,” the 12-year-old said. Another teacher wrapped her arms around two students and held Antonio’s hand. {…}

At Briarwood Elementary, the students also went into the halls. But a third-grade teacher didn’t think it looked safe, so she herded some of the children into a closet, said David Wheeler, one of the fathers who tried to rush to the school after the tornado hit.

The teacher shielded Wheeler’s 8-year-old son, Gabriel, with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the school roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it literally sucked glasses off kids’ faces, Wheeler said.

“She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down,” Wheeler said.

One teacher, Suzanne Harley, ended up impaled with the leg of a school desk driven straight through her right calf.

Teachers in some areas make sure kids have enough to eat and that children living with abuse or neglect are protected. Everyone has heard stories of teachers spending their own money to provide school supplies to their classrooms; nearly every teacher I know has done this or is doing it now. Here in Michigan, the Michigan Education Association went into action with its union members pooling their resources and sending $13,000 in school supplies to Benton Harbor schools where kids were going without essential items like pens, pencils, paper and other supplies.

To characterize these everyday heroes and assets to society as costs and to paint them as greedy for wanting a fair wage is offensive and an outrage and should anger anyone who hears it.

The second component of the corporatist effort to dismantle public schools is to suggest that they “need to compete” in order to be excellent. I’ve written about this before:

This is a seductive argument and I can understand why it appeals to conservatives and maybe even some non-conservatives. The capitalistic model is a strong part of our American culture.

I personally don’t agree with this. I personally believe that the public school systems are US, not some independent group that must be forced to be better. If we wish our school systems to be better, it is incumbent on US to make them better. They are run by school boards elected by the public. Our children go there. They are in our communities. They are as American as a city council, a village board or any other public entity. Our schools embody the principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

It goes beyond this, though. The same crew that demands excellence through competition is working around the clock to make sure our public schools cannot compete. The elimination of $1 billion in school funding over the past two years ensures that our schools will struggle and probably fail to be “competitive”. And, while they use every outlet they can to tell us that charter schools are the solution to education problems, we know that it’s simply not the case that charter schools are in any way superior to private schools. Their beloved test scores show that.

Isn’t it ironic that “school reform” corporatists spend an enormous amount of energy eliminating wage competition but then tell us competition is the answer to a better education system?

The final component of their effort is to promote the concept that making a profit in education is something good, rather than something to be concerned about. Here on this site, a commenter under the absurd name of Francisco d’Anconia, a character from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged who venerates profit-taking, made the statement that “profit is not evil” as if to suggest that being against for-profit schools is an indictment against ALL profit-taking. It’s not and it’s a facetious argument. Making a profit on school supplies and, perhaps, some services is acceptable. Making a profit on the provision of education is not. Just like with healthcare, whenever a profit statement is on the line, choices will be made to enhance that profit and that means cutting corners. The corners that get cut are the healthcare of our citizens and the education of our children. There are some things that should not be driven by profit and these two things — education and healthcare — are at the top of that list.

Our public schools and the men and women who teach in them should be held in high esteem, not demonized and hobbled and dismantled. Despite the corporatist argument that this all about parental choice, the fact is that they are working toward the day when choosing a public school is no longer a choice. When that day comes, you’ll choose which profit center to send your child to be educated, just like you decide what store to buy a television from. With their profits, they’ll buy politicians, law makers and policy makers to ensure they have less and less oversight and, before long, our education system will be good for little else than producing little poorly-educated worker bees to work in the factories and stores and restaurants the corporatists own and run. Only the wealthy elite will be able to afford to give their children a quality education in private schools like the one Governor Snyder sends his kids to.

It’s time we stop this process dead in its tracks. We have two choices and the difference is stark. On one side you have the corporate-funded Republicans doing their part to tear down our public schools and the teachers who teach in them. On the other side you have Democrats who are fighting to preserve public schools and restore the funding that is so critical for making them successful.

In 2014, education will be on the ballot next to the name of every single candidate and a host of ballot proposals, as well.

In 2014, we will decide the fate of our education system in Michigan.

The fight starts today.

  • Maria

    No, I disagree with your conclusion, though not with the Mackinac crowd’s MO in trying to muscle in to what they see as easy pickings. Charters are public schools, also, and while there’s definitely the problem of the Venture Capitalists wandering in trying to make a buck in a business they are clueless about, and all the dysfunction that brings to schools and kids, it should be clear that you are talking about traditional public schools and charter public schools.

    • I’m talking about traditional public schools and FOR-PROFIT charter schools.

  • Maria

    The thing about Venture Capitalist is that they fail alot. They are big risk takers, and have a rep for coming into business they buy for investment purposes and basically screwing things up by micromanaging business they don’t know well, if at all. And thus, Richard McLellan and that Baird guy and David Behen get put on education public policy matters and the only person who doesn’t blink an eye is Rick Snyder. Kids cost money, and the CEO boardroom decision making mentality is a direct odds with nuturing children through the school experience.

  • Maria

    A for-profit charter is still a public school.

    • So?

      • Maria

        Well, it matters.

        • TeacherPatti

          No, it really doesn’t matter what they call themselves. They still cherry pick their students and don’t *have* to take any student in the district unlike traditional public schools. In other words, they can call themselves public despite the fact that they don’t accept everyone in the “public”.

          • TeacherPatti

            Sorry, that sounds awkward. I should have said the for profit or “public” charter school doesn’t matter when they both cherry pick their students….

          • This is an extremely important point. Cherry-picking of students creates a hugely unfair advantage for ALL charter schools making “competition” with them that much harder for traditional public schools.

          • Maria

            They aren’t allowed,at least by law, but they get away with cherry picking students. It’s a huge problem with the charter movement. They are supposed to take every kid that walks through the door, special ed included and offer and give FAPE.

          • TeacherPatti

            And I think that we should point out that charters do the same or worse than real publics *despite the fact that they can and do cherry pick”. (Read the Michigan Radio piece of Muskegon’s charters for more on this). At my real public school in SW Detroit (where I taught until last year), we had to take every student who walked in the door (including those who were suddenly removed from charters for not being a “good fit”, behavior problems, kids born addicted, kids who were homeless, etc) and we STILL made “adequate yearly progress”.

          • Maria

            It matters in that they are taking public school moneys and they are public schools, with a corporate board.

          • TeacherPatti

            ^This is true….

  • Maria

    Look, the thing is, I am much more pro traditional school than anti charter per se, but I am anti for-profit charters. Somewhere, between the overtesting and the moribund bureaucracy of the MDE and the EAA’s reported dysfunction, there’s a place were some restrictions should and can be loosened to provide better service to students in traditional schools, and upping regulation and oversight to charters as well enforcing oversight to traditional public schools. Letting in VC just makes a hard situation much harder, though. Really, when something goes wrong in a for profit charter, what are a parent’s recourses? The Better Business Bureau?

    • EDITED: I agree with you on most of this. I haven’t said I’m anti-charter school, in general. I do think that we need to be careful that they don’t take away so many students that traditional public schools can’t continue to exist.
      If I added the word “traditional” in front of “public school” on my essay, would that address your problems with it? It’s what I meant when I wrote it anyway : )

      There’s also the issue of cherry-picking students mentioned in another comment by Patti that I think needs to be addressed.

      • Maria

        Yes, thank you:) Clarifying that for-profits are public schools too, helps folks understand the basic dilemma and paradox of this model.

        • I have edited the post with a full explanation right at the beginning. Thanks for stimulating a thoughtful conversation.

  • Great piece, Chris. I see charter schools in Michigan, with the Snyder mob in charge, as a gateway move toward privatization. We have one up here now–it’s called an “Arts Academy” and the board all but admitted they were forced into it with a threat of underfunding unless they agreed. (Accept a charter school or lose more per-pupil funds. Guess which they chose?)

    I talked to two board members while this was being discussed and neither of them understood anything other than the loss of funding if they didn’t agree. They didn’t know what a charter school was and they didn’t care. They cared about the money and they felt they had no choice.

    This is how they work it, as with everything else about public education. The enemy has learned that if they starve, beat and neglect our school systems they’ll weaken enough to put up with anything.

    Demonizing the teachers’ unions is a masterful move, as well. That’s where the strength is–or was. If they can get enough citizens to despise teachers and their unions they’ve won without firing a shot. As much as I would like to keep thinking the people will wake up, I’m really not convinced. It takes some real disinterest not to see how valuable teachers and public education is to any society. You wouldn’t think we would have to fight this hard for what’s right..

    • Amen, sister. I absolutely agree with all of your points.

    • TeacherPatti

      Agreed, too. We have non union people hating on union people. They are saying, “I don’t have a pension and sick days, why should she?” instead of saying, “How can I get a pension and sick days like she has?” (answer: collectively bargain). We 99% are all “working class” whether we want to call ourselves that or not and the “right” has done a fabulous job of pitting us against each other. Next, it will be union vs. union as they pit us against the police/fire unions who aren’t subject to RTW. I don’t think people will wake up and vote out the Republicans because there is too much anger (“…why should she?”) and envy. It’s way easier to hate on me than to get off your ass and organize your workplace.

      I just started reading a book called “Triangle” about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and how that horrible event woke people up and swayed general opinions towards labor. Rich people even joined in the cause! I sincerely hope that it doesn’t take a similar tragedy to get us going again….

  • Bill Adamsky

    Great blog! Thanks for your work. One TINY critique of this piece, though: I do not believe it is safe to assume any longer that politicians with a “D” next to their names are any less guilty of pushing the corporate takeover of public education, and this includes our current POTUS. To paraphrase another commenter, this is not a right v. left issue, this is a right v. wrong issue.

    • In Michigan it’s the Republicans who are pushing this and the Democrats who are trying to stop them, plain and simple.
      But, on the whole, I do agree with you. Thanks for the kind words.

  • justme552

    I agree with your article, but the democrats are not that much better.

    The wealthy send their children to private schools. Middle class families run to the suburbs where there may be one or two high schools two or three middle schools and 5 or 6 elementary schools which can be managed in a reasonable way with community participation. This leaves the urban poor to send their children to under funded schools that no one really cares about, because we will always need people to fill menial jobs. Cities like NYC, Phila., Detroit, Chicago, LA, etc. have huge numbers of schools for which they are responsible. So the charter schools are a great way to cut back on the number of headaches. The test scores are not better, but the city school boards don’t have to worry about them.

  • Mat
  • djs210

    Education is NOT a consumer product. It is to have informed citizens who can read and make decisions for themselves. But these people think they can get control of the government by destroying public education. Our democracy will fail because of these corporatists.

  • calas500

    The business or corporate model of low-cost, cost-cutting to enlarge profits, and competition simply does not and should not apply to education. Human children are neither raw materials nor a product.