For Public Schools, It's Been '1984' For Quite A While

Education was barely a blip on the screen in the presidential race—which is ironic, since the education divide determined the election.

In this post-truth age that’s done away with facts, George Orwell’s 1984 has soared to the top of the charts. But in the world of public education, it’s been 1984 for quite some time. And we didn’t even need the clumsy apparatus of a totalitarian dictatorship to bring it about. All we needed was some slick PR and smiley corporate faces and a media ready to spit back the buzzwords they’d been fed— failing public schools, no excuses, accountability, choice, access for every child, closing the achievement gap—repeating them so often that they passed for truth.

In Orwell’s dystopia, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The Ministry of Truth spawns lies and propaganda, the Ministry of Love supervises torture and brainwashing, and the Ministry of Peace promulgates war and atrocity. Turn the words on their heads, and you get a glimmer of the truth. And the Ministry of Education? There is no Ministry of Education. So now we have a Secretary of Education who’s a dedicated enemy of public education. Betsy DeVos has, for the past decade, used her fortune to privatize education in her home state, Michigan, where 80% of charters are for profit and beyond accountability, and student performance has plummeted.

But DeVos should come as no surprise: She is the culmination of the way things have long been headed. No Child Left Behind, signed into law in January 2002, brought to us by George W. Bush and the moneyed interests he represented, arrived in clouds of rhetoric about “access” and “civil rights.” It announced itself as “an act to close the achievement gap with accountability, choice, flexibility, so that no child is left behind.” But in fact it was never about access or leveling the playing field or even about “reform”: it was about opening up public education as a market, siphoning off tax dollars to charters and for-profit vendors, shifting public funds from a system that had public oversight and control to private interests. Education was a rich, untapped market with billions of federal dollars there for the taking. Schools, panicked at having their survival based on standardized test scores, invested heavily in testing technology. Multinational testing corporations, publishing companies, ed-tech ventures rushed in with their wares: software for administering tests, test preps, pre-tests, post-tests, tests scoring, lesson plans, teaching modules, assessment devices; entire new industries sprang into being.

Diane Ravitch, assistant Secretary of Education under GWB, was initially a proponent of NCLB, but recoiled in horror when she saw what it was doing, routing public funds into private profits, and realized this had been its purpose all along. She has told this story in The Death and Life of the Great American School System and Reign of Error ― so have Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux, and dozens of teacher bloggers exposed corporate reform. But their voices are not heard in mainstream media; most people I know are incredulous when I talk this way (even though most people I know are educators), so the story could do with some recap and update, now that DeVos’ appointment has drawn attention. This sellout has been going on for a long while. And it has been bipartisan.

A handful of billionaires and their foundations bankrolled and orchestrated a multibillion dollar PR campaign to convince people that public education is broken and private interests can do it better. The Big Three of educational philanthropy, as Joanne Barkan calls them, in a brilliant expose in Dissent –the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart)—poured billions into promoting charters, funding think tanks that produce a steady stream of papers purporting to be research that are actually propaganda, funding advocacy groups that purport to be grassroots but are actually corporate-sponsored, subsidizing writers and bloggers who push privatization. They have paid for “their own media outlets, and heavily subsidize others,” as Barkan shows, funding films like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down, suckering in so powerful a proponent as Oprah.

It’s been quite a feat, transforming teachers, who were once our friends and allies, to the enemy. A real sleight of hand, getting the public to trust those altruistic billionaires over those greedy, opportunistic teachers. Trust a billionaire to have the public’s interest at heart—that spin worked so well it landed us with Trump. But in the world of 1984, two plus two equals five: “Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by [the Party’s] philosophy.”

Put kids in front of computers, increase screen time, increase class size—and call it personalized. Depersonalized might be a better word —or perhaps pearsonalized, for Pearsons, the multibillion dollar transnational corporation that’s siphoned off untold billions of federal money. When teachers protested that students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend not to test well, having not had the benefit of tutors and test-prep programs, GWB said they were making “excuses,” showing “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Yet it’s painfully clear that using test scores to determine the survival of schools only further disadvantages the disadvantaged, so that far from leveling the playing field, it tilts it even more. “No excuses” became a mantra of corporate reformers, though it was itself an an excuse for shutting down public schools and moving in with charters, an excuse to ignore poverty and blame teachers for conditions that make teaching impossible—conditions assured by inequities that billionaire reformers have themselves brought about.

Promising to leave no child behind, corporate reform has produced higher drop-out rates for kids from black and Latino and low-income families. Purporting to close the achievement gap, high stakes testing has actually closed schools by the hundreds, especially schools in low-income and African-American neighborhoods. In Philadelphia, nearly 23 schools were closed in 2013, and nearly 4000 teachers and staff, counselors, playground aids, were laid off; 81 percent of those affected by closures were black, though black students made up only 58 percent of the district. In Chicago, Arne Duncan closed 44 schools during his time as mayor; a few years later, in May 2013, Rahm Emmanuel closed 49 more schools—and again, 88% who were affected were black, though they made up only 40% of the district population. And the same pattern was repeated in cities throughout the country, Detroit, Newark, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Atlanta, Oakland, Washington, New York, Oakland.

Rescue Plan, the Philadelphia closures were called by the republican governor of Pennsylvania, who’d slashed the education budget to make it happen. Renaissance, Arne Duncan called his closing of Chicago schools. Call it “rescue,” call it “renaissance,” call it anything, because money gives you the power to seize the language, along with the rest of the spoils, so words mean what you say. “Reform” is a word to conjure with, with a built-in capacity to stifle opposition: come out against reform and you incriminate yourself of being opposed to change, against improvement, against innovation, in favor of the horrible old status quo. And we haven’t even got to the Big Brother part about how on-line teaching and testing apparatuses enable information-gathering and collecting vast amounts of data on students.

Charters offer choice, claim the corporate reformers, allowing parents to enroll their kids in a school of their choice—and what parent would be so uncaring as to leave their kid to a “government school”? Actually, since charters, unlike public schools, can choose which students to admit, they allow no choice for the kid who’s been turned away. Nor do they allow choice to the parents who would choose a neighborhood school for their kid. (And even with their ability to turn away students who might not test well, charters perform no better on national test scores than public schools that let in everyone.) When a public school is made into a charter, it’s removed from public oversight or electoral control: there goes community choice about school closures or educational policies. And teachers have no choice but to teach to the test, to prescripted modules geared to tests that can be computer-administered and computer scored.

For choice, read coercion, the stifling of choice for teachers, students, parents, communities. For accountability, read blame, blaming teachers for students’ failures, for poverty itself. Accountability is a word like reform, like standards, like pro-choice, for that matter, that defuses resistance: come out against it, you incriminate yourself—you must be afraid, have something to hide. And for accountability, read no accountability for anyone who counts, for the billionaires and foundations that inflict these ruinous policies on the rest.

Corporate reformers advocate flexibility, freedom from burdensome school boards—but what this really means is the freedom to fire faculty and staff, to strip teachers of job protections, deprive them of professionalism and the autonomy to teach as they best know how—and to disable their unions, for charters allow no unions. If corporate reformers had a shred of seriousness about improving education, they’d direct their billions to making smaller classes where teachers can have contact with students, rather than laying off teachers, staff, counselors, secretaries, nurses, librarians, playground monitors, gutting their human resources at a time when kids need human contact more than ever. They replace teachers with technology and call this innovation, innovation defined solely and self-interestedly as technology. Real innovation in a classroom comes from human beings working with human beings, from teachers engaged in the countless, minute-to minute adjustments that teaching requires, teachers adapting their styles and methods to the moment, as they can in small classes —this is what innovation looks like, what personalized education looks like. Teachers teaching, we call it.

And though most of us are in no mood to speak ill of Obama, if there was ever a lying happy face painted over a bleak social reality, “Race to the Top,” Obama’s name for his K-12 “reforms,” was it, since the real social mobility in this country has been downward, for quite some time. Obama simply took over educational policies from the Bush administration, with an added twist: he set states bidding for federal support, on condition that they agree to adopt the Common Core Standards (they hadn’t been written, but no matter; desperate for support, most states agreed). The Common Core, the brainchild of Bill Gates, was approved behind closed doors, beyond democratic process, without so much as a public hearing; standards, another of those words that defuses resistance— what teacher could come out against standards? Obama, elected in the hopes of change, made Duncan of the Chicago Renaissance his Secretary of Education, who bloviated about reform as “the civil rights issue of our day” and staffed his DOE with Gates foundation people and lead us directly to DeVos, who had the endorsement of the Gates foundation.

As the Commander says, in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that’s at the top of the charts, along with 1984, “better never means better for everyone.” The sell out of public education has been a bonanza for charters, testing companies, edtechs, investors, “consultants,” but not for students who still attend public schools—that is, 90% of all students— or for their parents, teachers, communities. Well, that’s the “free market” at work, say the corporate reformers. “Free” to those at the top who’ve been cut loose from regulation, collective bargaining, and taxation; for them, a real free for all to shape not only policy but the way the public thinks about policy, to perpetuate this massive hoax. “Freedom” like that can feel like slavery for the rest of us, when “choice” comes in the form of 40 brands of lipstick and gadgets that distract us from the degradation of our lives, while robbing us in the areas that count most, education, health care, the environment, the freedom to do work we care about, to hope for the future, to live free of illusion.

Orwell himself could hardly have conceived of a more thorough mind fuck. A billionaire snatch and grab passed off as a push for racial equality, the destruction of public education, the foundation of democracy, passed off as a civil rights issue. The confounding of language at its most basic level reduces us to a state of civic catatonia: we can’t think about these issues, let alone discuss them or act against them, when they’ve been so obfuscated, when words have been so twisted. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” says a character in 1984. As words fall away for Winston, the hapless protagonist of the novel, as his consciousness is narrowed to the vocabulary of Newspeak, he finds himself unable to think, remember, to “fix his mind on any one subject for more than a few minutes at a time.”

So, yes, ignorance is strength— not for the ignorant but for those who cultivate it, manipulate it.

Education was barely a blip on the screen in the presidential race—which is ironic, since the education divide determined the election. Pennsylvania and Michigan, two of the three states that swung the election, are states whose education systems had been decimated by “choice”. Now we have a president who “love[s] the poorly educated,” who makes up his own “facts,” who’s never been accountable to anyone and intends to keep it that way, who blathers about “choice” as a civil rights issue—as have the two presidents before him; only he, with DeVos, the least qualified Secretary of Education this country’s ever seen, will do what none has done before, what most voters don’t approve, legalize vouchers and route public funding into religious schools, thereby undermining another foundation of our democracy, the separation of church and state.

Betsy DeVos is the face of corporate reform, displaying in stark, unlovely form the processes that have been eating away at public education since the beginning of this century. The privatization of public schools has flown under the radar, but is now exposed for all to see. The resistance to her appointment was enormous, and it seemed, for a hopeful moment that one more honest republican might be found to vote against it; but no, her campaign contributions had been too lavish. So egregious is her appointment that it may help us finally call “reform” by its proper name, a corporate coup and a sell out of children, other peoples’ children, that is. For you can be sure that Gates, Duncan, Obama, DeVos, do not send their kids to the public schools their policies have trashed.

 

 

 

 

 

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