Neoliberalism, Privatization, and the Crisis of Education

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(Original article: Harry Targ, Diary of a Heartland Radical, Nov. 14, 2015)

Introduction

In August, 2015 12 parents in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago launched a 34 day hunger strike to protest the closing of a neighborhood high school. Their demands, along with its reopening, included the establishment of a green jobs oriented curriculum that would train young people for the needs of the 21st century.

In Seattle, Washington in September, 2015 teachers went on strike to demand fair wages and working conditions in their new contract.

In the summer, 2014 again in Chicago, the teachers union went on strike to push back against school closings, stagnant teacher wages, and closed-door policymaking to consciously limit the influence of parents in the community. This strike had the support of teachers, parents, and children.

During the spring, 2015, parents all around the state of Indiana were keeping their children home during school days as a mark of their resistance to painful, frustrating, ill-conceived, and misused batteries of tests that state/federal policymakers were imposing on young people.

These are just a few examples of rising anger at the threat to the tradition of public schooling, big corporate efforts to privatize schools for profit, the denial of communities of parents any influence over educational policy, and campaigns to destroy teachers unions. A key component of the struggle to save our schools has been to defend the rights of all children to quality education not limited by race, class, gender, or ethnicity.

The neoliberal design

In the 1970s powerful economic and political elites began a sustained campaign to shift more of the wealth of society from the many to the few. A new policy agenda, sometimes called neoliberalism or austerity, was initiated that called for a variety of attacks on government policies that had been instituted over the prior thirty years.

In general, the neoliberal policies called for downsizing government (except for the military), cutting public services and programs to provide for the human needs of the population, deregulating banks and corporations, and privatizing public institutions. Roads, libraries, parks, prisons, and particularly schools were being shifted from public ownership and control to private corporations, mostly to make a profit. While these policies have encountered public opposition and have not been fully implemented, they have dramatically affected the quality of our public life and our communities.

The Threat to Public Schools

Since the dawn of the twentieth century the anchor of most communities in the United States, has been its public schools. Schools help raise, nourish, mentor, and educate the youth of America. Parents, as best they can, participate in supporting school systems and provide input on school policy. Teachers and school administrators sacrifice time and energy to stimulate the talents of young people. And teachers through educational associations and trade unions organize to protect their rights in the workplace, always mindful of the number one priority; serving the children and the community.

Beginning in the 1970s, various special interest groups, many well-funded, began to advocate for the privatization of education. Looking at aggregate data showing some failing school performance, they argued that private corporations, charter schools, could educate children better. They blamed the lack of marketplace competition for waste of taxpayer dollars for poor performance. The arguments ignored the fact that failing schools were schools underfunded by state legislatures and were often in communities where resources were scarce because of inequalities of wealth and income. Most often under-performing schools were underfunded schools: underfunded because of racism and patterns of segregation.

 The neoliberal answer was to shift public funds, formerly from public schools, to private corporate charter schools. Along with the creation of charter schools, voucher systems were established by state legislatures and school districts allowing parents to place their children in any school they could find; often difficult to access and sometimes far from the child’s neighborhood. The introduction of charter schools and vouchers began the process of shifting resources from public education to private schools. 

Shifting resources from the public to the private sector served to destroy adequately performing public schools and weakened nearby communities.

The data on the shift from public schools to charters is shocking. For example in Detroit between 2005 and 2013 public school enrollment declined by 63% and charter school enrollments rose by 53%; in Gary the decline in public schools was 47% and the rise in charter school enrollment rose by 197%;  and in Indianapolis the decline in public school enrollments totaled 27% and the rise in charter schools was 287%. 

This historic transfer of public funds for education to privatization would often be sped up by local crises. The biggest crisis in an American community in decades occurred in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck that city in August, 2005. In its aftermath 100,000 citizens were forced to leave the city because their homes were demolished. Over 100 public schools were destroyed in the disaster. Subsequently virtually all those schools were replaced with charter schools, run by private corporations for a profit, devoid of teachers’ organizations and parental participation in the revitalization of educational institutions. Commenting on the New Orleans experience Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to the educational system of New Orleans. 

The human tragedy of Katrina was also a metaphor for what was to follow all across the nation: powerful forces swept away vibrant publicly controlled and accountable educational institutions, replacing them with new profit-driven, non-transparent, non-union, corporate schools that did not serve the needs and desires of the remaining members of the community. Public education is being uprooted, transformed, and destroyed all across the United States.  

To facilitate the privatization of schools cities everywhere have begun to close public schools. Detroit, New York, and Chicago have closed over 100 schools per city in recent years. Several cities have closed at least 25 schools in recent years. In Philadelphia, municipal funds for a prison came from the closure of 50 schools. The impacts of school closings is reflected in the essay “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” produced by the Journey for Justice Alliance: “Closing a school is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a community; it strikes at the very core of community culture, history, and identity and…produces far-reaching repercussions that negatively affect every aspect of community life.” 

(Future essays will discuss the impacts of the crisis of public education and rising movement responses. This essay is informed by ongoing discussions in the Education Committee of Indiana Moral Mondays).

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