THE BLOG
06/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Reforming Education Means Destroying Communities

On April 10, representatives of communities around the country will converge in D.C. to demand the firing of Arne Duncan and the reversal of the Obama administration's policies on public education. There is an unbroken line of bipartisan continuity, grassroots activists for public education say, between the education policies of Republican George Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. Even before Bush Secretary of Education Rod Paige declared teachers unions to be "terrorists," organized educators were targets in the crusade for corporate-friendly school reform.

Activists claim that the Obama administration's current "Race To The Top" awards federal education dollars to states based largely on how many public schools they disband and privatize, and how many public school teachers they fire. This wholesale dismantlement of public education and the scattering of public school workforces will have profound consequences well beyond education for inner city communities.

Most urban public school teachers actually live in and near the communities where they teach.  The majority are women, often minority women, who have struggled for years to attain advanced degrees and additional certifications.  They take part in frequent high-level instruction to hone and enhance their skills.  Even when they are not the heads of their households, they are pillars of their own families and communities, the most active members in local churches and neighborhood civic organizations of all kinds. They are well-paid enough to make mortgage payments and send their own children to college.

What happens to inner-city communities when hundreds of thousands of highly educated, superbly qualified community residents, mostly women, lose their retirement and medical benefits, find their pay cut in half, or lose their jobs altogether?  Many, in their forties and fifties won't find new employment easily or at all, and those that do will be paid less, often much less.  

Some won't be able to pay those mortgages any more. Those that find new jobs will have to travel far afield, where their distant employment won't contribute to the building of social capital that enriched the lives of their communities as their former work as public school teachers once did.  Commuting to distant jobs will mean less free time to take part in the activities of churches and local organizations that constitute the social fabric and civic life of neighborhoods.  "Every ten minutes of commuting," according to sociologist Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, "reduces all forms of social capital by 10 percent."

The current wave of what's called "school reform" is replacing these well-paid and experienced teachers, again overwhelmingly women and minorities, with a younger, whiter, less well-paid workforce with few ties to the communities where schools are located.  In Chicago hundreds of former teachers have filed a civil rights suit against former Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan and his successor for racial discrimination.

No Child Left Behind, and How We Got Here. 

A powerful slice of corporate America has aimed at the privatization of public education for more than a generation.  In the 70s and 80s the Bradley and Walton Family Foundations, among others, created and sustained the "charter schools movement" out of whole cloth. This "movement" was largely sustained by corporate philanthropy until the passage, with famously bipartisan support, of No Child Left Behind in 2001.  NCLB mandated the national adoption of high-stakes testing in public schools, despite mountains of evidence that such tests were routinely biased.  

NCLB required administrators to publicly brand schools with low test scores as "failing", and divert revenue from those schools to privately owned and operated charter schools and service providers, creating a booming industry of charter schools, service providers, lobbyists and the like.

There was a time and place when "school reform" meant empowering parents  to collaborate with teachers in those local schools to evaluate teacher performance and improve the quality of learning and instruction.  In the 1980s, Chicago's mayor Harold Washington acceded to the demands of the grassroots neighborhood forces that elected him, and had state and city authorities enact a radically democratic kind of school reform.  Locally elected councils of parents and rank and file teachers at each public schools were given veto power over principals' contract and over a significant chunk of budgets at their local school.  The results were uneven at first, but where genuine local participation happened, educational quality seemed to improve.   

Many professional school administrators didn't like this kind of democratic school reform, as it encroached on what had been their exclusive turf.  But by empowered parents speaking with authority on public education were a giant obstacle on the road to school privatization, the corporate-friendly version of school reform.

But just as Chicago led the nation in adopting democratic school reform, Chicago had to come up with its antidote.  For a city ruled 43 of the last 55 years by somebody named Richard Daley, this proved to be no problem.  The city never did have a citywide elected school board, and in the 1990s, it placed total and direct control of its schools in the hands of the mayor, who quickly purged it of teachers and community representatives.  

Chicago's school superintendent, an educator, was replaced by a "CEO," an accountant out of the mayor's office named Paul Vallas, and school reform from the bottom up was replaced by "reform" from the top down.  Vallas went on to be the hatchet man in similar anti-democratic school re-organizations in Philadelphia and post-Katrina New Orleans, where he used the disaster to summarily fire that city's entire school workforce and go to an almost exclusively charter school system.  This is where his successor in Chicago, Arne Duncan was coming from when he pronounced Katrina as the best thing that could have happened to education in New Orleans.  

As CEO of Chicago's public schools Arne Duncan simply disbanded whole schools on often on short notice, firing all their teachers and handing their facilities over to favored private operators.  It was a policy that went national with the election of Chicagoan Barack Obama to the White House.

Why Target Teachers and Their Communities?

From the viewpoint of school privatizers, targeting teachers makes good sense.  Public payrolls, along with medical and retirement benefits are a big part of public school budgets.  If those wages can't be cut, and those benefits avoided, there will be no profit for private charter school operators and contractors.  And let's face it, no private employer wants a large force of well-paid workers in possession of the institutional knowledge to run the place without him, and intimately connected with the local citizenry who have some claim of authority over the enterprise because it operates with public funds.  

For inner-city communities with child poverty and unemployment already at levels not seen since the Great Depression, this is the worst possible news.  There have always been poor neighborhoods.
But economically disadvantaged communities in relatively egalitarian societies, recent scholarship indicates, don't suffer from the rates of child abuse and abandonment, crime, mental illness, drug abuse, and large scale imprisonment as communities of poor people in societies like the U.S., where the gulf between rich and poor is the largest in the industrialized world.  Lower wages, more unemployment, more poverty in unequal societies means more crime, more drug abuse, more mental illness -- more of every imaginable negative social indicator.

Firing tens or hundreds of thousands of inner-city teachers is bound to have dire long term consequences for the stability and viability of the communities where they used to work.