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The Naked Ideology of School Reform

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On September 10, 2012, standing in crisp morning air of a Chicago fall, thousands of public school teachers took to the picket line for the first time in 25 years. Spirits in the streets are high and the ceaseless honking from passing supporters suggests that the public is on the side of the teachers, for now. In the days, and perhaps weeks to come, Mayor Emanuel is likely to begin a bruising rope-a-dope strategy designed to turn the tide of public opinion against Chicago's teachers. However, beyond the narrow circumstances of this fight lie broader questions about how Americans perceive school reform in the 21st century.

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Mayor Emanuel's administration and so-called education reform groups (e.g. Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now Advocacy) have worked hard to frame the contract dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union as an epic battle between greedy teachers determined to sacrifice children's futures for personal financial gain and the selfless politicians -- led by the oh-so-earnest Rahm Emanuel -- fighting desperately to reform the schools solely for the benefit of "the children."

This framing is clever propaganda. First, it plays upon parents' desire for their children to have better opportunities than they themselves have had. It invokes the engrained notion, and reality, that education is the most assured means of social mobility in American society. Then, it stokes the resentment of parents -- many of whom who work at or below the poverty level -- against teachers who are comparatively well-paid and enjoy adequate benefits including health care, retirement plans, and summers off. It is understandable why Emanuel's administration would exploit such sentiment. Its policy aims are clear: eroding union power and reducing the education budget by replacing highly-paid, veteran teachers with low-paid, inexperienced replacements. But such propaganda is also symptomatic of a larger tendency in American political discourse to characterize increasingly dire, systemic failures as the moral failure of a select group of individuals.

Most recently, in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama placed the blame for America's lagging performance in education largely on teachers, parents, and students: "A government has a role in this [education]. But teachers must inspire. Principals must lead. Parents must instill a thirst for learning. And students you've got to do the work."

This rhetoric appears benign -- it even drew applause from the crowd. But lurking beneath these words are venomous implications: Obama implies that America's underperforming schools are the result of uninspiring teachers, ineffectual principals, thoughtless parents, and lazy students. Obama is not alone. From the left and the right, the vilification of teachers and parents is pervasive in American political discourse and has become the backbone of every attack on America's "failing schools." Such a characterization of education obscures the complexity of the problems facing teachers, parents, and students. It also precludes any examination of the material conditions of the communities in which struggling teachers teach, struggling students learn, and struggling families survive.

The vilification of teachers, students, and parents is a necessary component of an emerging ideology that seeks to impose the illusion of a free market onto the classroom. This ideology posits the classroom as an idealized space in which the student and teacher engage in an educational transaction. Like floor-traders at the Chicago Board of Exchange haggling over the price of a bushel of wheat, students and teachers make a trade. The student has a choice to buy or not buy the education offered by his or her teacher. The students choose to learn or not learn as determined by the teacher's ability to inspire, the principal's ability to lead, the parents' capacity to instill intellectual curiosity, and their own motivation to learn.

This emerging ideology obscures social reality behind harsh sanctions designed to reform schools by disciplining teachers, students, and parents. As Bernard Harcourt has rightly pointed out in The Illusion of Free Markets, a substantial apparatus of ideological padding and all manners of discipline are required to fabricate the perception of a "free market." Likewise, similar forces must be marshaled to produce the illusion that lazy teachers, parents, and students are the fundamental cause of underperforming schools. New and elaborate systems of discipline have been mobilized to maintain this fiction: teacher performance pay, No Child Left Behind legislation, and financial penalties for parents. These heavily promoted initiatives serve to exclude competing forms of thought, and they help extricate the classroom from the social reality in which it exists. The quality of any school is primarily determined by the social relationships arising from the material conditions of the communities in which it exists. However, politicians and school reform advocates rarely point to the existence of staggering economic and social inequality as determinative factors underlying substandard educational performance.

If this ideology does indeed mask social reality, who benefits from its promulgation?

Politicians benefit from such an ideology because placing blame for failing schools on the teachers, parents, and students means that they do not have to engage in the dirty, difficult, grinding work of actually governing. Governing is difficult: It costs a fortune, upsets constituencies and donors -- and when it works -- holds politicians accountable. It makes sense then that an increasing number of career politicians are eagerly abdicating their responsibility to govern by embracing the expedience of privatization.

In Chicago, Mayor Daley hastily sold the city's parking meters for some quick cash that has left the city and its citizens on the hook for millions. Mayor Emanuel shuttered public mental health facilities and sent the city's most vulnerable citizens into the world of for-profit mental health care with little more than a free bus pass. On a national level, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has proposed unraveling the social safety net by voucherizing Medicare and block-granting Medicaid.

Education is the latest of many services to be slowly farmed out to private corporations. Politicians portray privatization as a solution in itself. In actuality, privatization does little more than produce a new system of social relations, and consequently, a new set of problems. Privatization is nothing more than a 21st century bait-and-switch. Charter schools are not the panacea citizens have been promised.

Nonetheless, charter school corporations market themselves as the last best hope for educating America's children. Of course they do. Public education is becoming big business and the past two decades have seen an explosion in the number of charter schools. Out-of-state groups representing powerful charter school corporations have poured into Illinois. They have doubled down on a "blame-the-teachers" campaign in hopes of increasing market share amidst disputes between teachers and the Emanuel administration. They cloak this corporate self-interest in the rhetoric of "choice" and "children first." Since the first hints of a teachers' strike earlier this year, education reform groups have made robo-calls and flooded the airwaves with commercials that depict Chicago's teachers as unreasonable. Mayor Emanuel has championed their cause and echoed their rhetoric stating that his "goal is to give parents the ability to make a choice of where they want to send their kids." However, closing neighborhood public schools and forcing kids into dystopian lotteries to gain admittance to charter schools does not seem like much of a "choice" to many families.

Sadly, if Chicagoans fail to recognize the deeper systemic issues underlying their failing schools, the teachers' strike may play right into the hands of Rahm Emanuel who stands to profit politically and the charter school corporations which stand to profit financially from a carefully crafted ideology designed to discredit Chicago's experienced and hardworking teachers.