Thursday, March 3, 2016

New Orleans Schools: Test Lab for War on Public Education

Disaster for Poor, Black and Working People – “Opportunity” for Capitalists

New Orleans Schools: Test Lab
for War on Public Education

By Mark Lance

Survivors seek refuge on the roof of Martin Luther King Jr. school following Hurricane Katrina. MLK was the only one of five schools in impoverished black Lower Ninth Ward to be rebuilt. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images) 
“I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”

–Education Secretary Arne Duncan in the Washington Post, 30 January 2010
With 100 mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Louisiana on August 29, 2005. As the storm passed over the city, floodwaters breached the city’s levees and 80% of New Orleans was submerged. Nearly 2,000 died, the victims disproportionately black and old. People drowned in their attics. Bloated bodies floated in the streets. The heavily black 7th, 8th and 9th wards were especially hard hit. 400,000 people were displaced, almost three-quarters of them African Americans. More than 80% of the schools were inundated, 100 out of a total 128 schools severely damaged or destroyed.

On the tenth anniversary of Katrina, politicians and “education reform” advocates are hailing the supposedly miraculous transformation of New Orleans schools due to the introduction of semi-privatized “charter schools.” President Barack Obama declared that “we’ve transformed education” in New Orleans, proclaiming the city a “laboratory for urban innovation across the board” and a “model for the nation.” Former president George Bush, who launched the charterization of NOLA schools, called New Orleans a “beacon for school reform.” Earlier, Education Week (29 May 2014) called it “a breathtaking makeover of an urban school system.”

A look at the record tells a very different story.

Concerned educators from New Orleans, and serious education researchers and advocates of public education around the country, have underscored how the “turnaround” story is based on manipulated statistics. Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana public school teacher and publisher of the education blog deutsch29 (August 5), summed up her dissection of the stats: “New Orleans’ post-Katrina state-takeover experiment does not produce miracles.” Another Louisiana educator, Michael Deshotels, said that the purported success story was a “great big fraud.” Historian Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog, “No Miracle in New Orleans” (11 June 2012).

Beyond lying with statistics, the more fundamental point is that education is where race and class intersect, that by far the biggest factor determining test scores (and the condition of the schools) is poverty, segregation and socio-economic status. As Charles Gardner and others such as Jonathan Kozol (Savage Inequalities) have pointed out, perhaps the best predictor of test results is the student’s zip code.  The “strategy” of the education “reformers” to produce their bogus New Orleans miracle was brutally simple: push out black and poor people and close their schools.

At bottom, the hosannas for school “reform” in the Crescent City are not about improving public education, but the opposite. New Orleans has been used as a test lab for “transforming” the school system to serve the interests of capital. The winners are the privatizers – the numerous vendors, charter school operators and investors who are making a killing by milking the education budget, plus the billionaire “reformers” who are pushing to remake the system in order to supply the labor force needs of corporations. The losers are the students, teachers and working people, and all those who see quality public schools as a democratic right for all.

But by examining and drawing the lessons of what happened in New Orleans, we can prepare to better fight the “bipartisan” onslaught against teachers, their unions and students. It’s all part of the one-sided “war on workers” being waged by virtually the entire ruling class, from Wall Street to the White House and even Hollywood, which is now regularly churning out “Bad Teacher” movies.

Statistical Flimflam Behind the Wrecking Ball
More than 80% of New Orleans schools were inundated. 100 out of 128 schools were severely damaged or destroyed. For the capitalist enemies of public education, this tragedy was an opportunity.

For the people of New Orleans, particularly those who couldn’t escape the city, the storm was an unimaginable catastrophe. For the enemies of public edu­cation, Hurricane Katrina was a godsend. The grotesque, if candid, remark by Arne Duncan, Obama’s education chief, was no off-the-cuff hyperbole. Rather, it is straight from the playbook of the original “Chicago Boy” economist, Milton Friedman, author of the “shock treatment” employed by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who butchered 30,000 people after seizing power in 1973. Friedman wrote in the Wall Street Journal (5 December 2005) that:
“Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.”
Friedman proposed introducing competition via a permanent voucher system “to encourage private enterprise to provide schooling.”

Friedman’s acolytes in Louisiana wasted no time in exploiting their “opportunity” to remake the city, starting with the people. “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,” crowed Republican congressman Richard H. Baker from Baton Rouge. “We couldn’t do it but God did” (New York Times 6 June 2006). An atypical quote from a Republican yahoo? Then how about Times columnist and National Public Radio stalwart David Brooks:
“If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.”

–“Katrina’s Silver Lining,” New York Times (8 September 2005.)

Survivors of Katrina in St. Bernard public housing protest
over their exclusion from replacement housing after their
minimally damaged homes were torn down.

(Photo: Bay View [San Francisco])
The same people”? Brooks was longing to disappear New Orleans’ black and poor. He got his wish. More than 175,000 black  residents left New Orleans in the year after the storm. As many as 100,000 never returned.

Journalist Naomi Klein cited New Orleans as Exhibit A in her book on The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007). She began her narrative by observing:
“In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.”

While national leaders cheered, in New Orleans, charter schools “are seen by many African-American parents as a way of reversing the gains of the civil rights movement,” Klein noted. She also linked the New Orleans “remake” to the U.S. occupation of Iraq two years earlier, where Bush’s “shock and awe” bombing was followed by “mass privatization [of previously nationalized oil wells], complete free trade, a 15 percent flat tax, a dramatically downsized government.”

The formula: catastrophe for the masses equals opportunity for the capitalists. But the “solution” Klein puts forward, “people’s reconstruction efforts,” is hardly radical but a liberal diversion to avoid the need to take on the rule of capital.

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) got rid of 7,000 school employees, including all the teachers, by putting them on “disaster leave” without pay. Many were homeless, most of them black, and all of them represented by the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTO), at the time the largest union local in the south. The firings were made permanent in March 2006.

New Orleans school authorities showed their
“appreciation” of teachers by firing 7,000 school
employees. Above: library at G.W. Carver
 High School.
(Photo: Times-Picayune)
Today in New Orleans, 49% of the schools’ teachers are African American, down from 71% in 2005. Turnover has nearly doubled since Katrina with many of the new teachers coming from programs such as Teach for America (TFA) and lacking a long-term commit­ment either to teaching or to the city’s residents. According to a study by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, more than half of all teachers have five or fewer years of experience while the percentage of cer­tified teachers fell from 79% to 56% since 2003. 

The Recovery School District (RSD) was created in that year to run a handful of failing New Orleans schools. After Katrina, the Louisiana state legislature gave the RSD control of four-fifths of the city’s schools. The RSD then closed or chartered every school it re-opened. Seventeen better-performing schools stayed in OPSB, thereby creating a two-tier system. As of September 2014, all of the schools in the RSD were publically funded but privately run charters making it the first all-charter school district in the U.S.

Supporters of school “reform” (charters schools, union busting and high stakes testing) cite statistics that allegedly confirm the turnaround of New Orleans’ schools. Most point to an article, “Good News for New Orleans” by Douglas Harris of the Education Research Alliance (Education Next, Fall 2015). Harris claims that in 2012, 63% of children in New Orleans elementary and middle schools were pro­ficient on state tests as compared to 37% in 2005 and attributes those gains to charter school reforms. Allegedly, graduation and college entry rates likewise increased.

But Mercedes Schneider reported on her deutsch29 blog that the state’s own statistics tell a far different story. “New Orleans Recovery School District ranked 70th out of 73 districts in the state. Its ACT scores are virtually unchanged over the last three years. The RSD ACT scores are far below the state average” (Louisiana’s 2015 District ACT Composite Scores, Deutsch29, 5 August 2015). As for the reported improved numbers of college-eligible students, the RSD’s scores are still below the cutoff for a tuition waiver at Louisiana State University. Statistics don’t lie but statisticians do.

In Milton Friedman’s 2005 letter to the Wall Street Journal, he refers to students as “consumers.” Not surprisingly, those pushing a “portfolio management model” of education resort to the same kind of subterfuges that a typical corporation does to improve its “bottom line.” An Education Re­search Alliance report (March 2015) admitted that in many New Orleans schools, “leaders used a number of strategies in response to com­pe­tition …which include ‘glossification,’ or marketing existing school offerings,” and “‘cream­ing’ and ‘cropping,’ actively selecting or excluding particular types of stu­dents.” One technique for courting more affluent families was an invite-only open house.

It’s clear which students are in demand. So who’s out? Special education students were pushed from school to school. Non-English speaking students complained that their civil rights were being violated. Parents felt elbowed aside by out-of-town “experts.” And always, the discipline – like silent lunch for kindergarteners. “Expulsions were out of control,” admitted a former RSD official. “The traditional schools were dumping grounds” (U.S. News & World Report, 18 August 2015). For example, the George Washington Carver High School in the Lower Ninth Ward was given by the RSD to Collegiate Academies, a charter network notorious for its heavy-handed discipline. In the 2012-13 school year, the Collegiate Academies had an average suspension rate of over 62%.

This practice is by no means peculiar to New Orleans, of course. In my own class (New York City adult education), one of my students has a daughter in a private charter. “They’re like soldiers,” the mother said. “She can’t wave to me when I see her at school. She has no friends, because the kids are not allowed to talk to their classmates.” Her daughter is in the third grade.

One way for a school to elevate its performance numbers is to simply make dropouts disappear. Every student leaving a Louisiana public school receives an exit code. Since out-of-state transfers can’t easily be checked, assigning an Exit Code 10 (“Transferred Out of State”) to a student who dropped out would not affect a school’s graduation rate. In a state audit of a random sampling of exit codes for the class of 2013, every single New Orleans record lacked verification.

In another ploy, some school principals decided not to advertise open spaces and chose to forgo additional funds rather than accept “troublesome” students. In the words of one principal, “The enrollment game is the game in town. It’s how we get our funding” (“The Uncounted,” International Business Times, 28 August 2015). Under community pressure and after a ruling by Louisiana courts on a suit by the Southern Poverty Law Center that New Orleans schools were violating special-education students’ civil rights, the RSD has made some changes, but the incentive remains.
When students are “consumers,” and education is a commodity, the goal is to get lots of customers into the store. But make sure they’re the ones you want. As another school leader succinctly put it: “Every kid is money.”

Winners and Losers: Who Profits from Charter Schools?

New Orleans schools were in terrible shape prior to the hurricane. A June 2007 study by the UTNO, state and national teachers union reported, “Before Katrina, well-credentialed veteran teachers already were in short supply in the city’s schools.” Test scores were among the worst in the country. In the last state achievement tests before the storm, three-quarters of 8th graders couldn’t demonstrate basic skills in English and language arts, while 70% were below basic in math (The Atlantic, January-February 2007). The OPSB was $450 million in debt, bureaucratic infighting and corruption among school board members and administrators were rampant. There were so many investigations being conducted that the FBI opened an office in the district.

From a pre-Katrina baseline it shouldn’t be too hard to demonstrate “progress.” When the storm hit, there were 65,000 students in the New Orleans public school system. Today there are 45,000. By losing tens of thousands of its poorest and least well-served students, the average score of those that remained is bound to improve. As one New Orleans parent wrote to the blog Education Talk New Orleans (September 1):
“10 years ago the state took all of those “bad” schools and promised to do a better job. They never re-opened many of the schools, so automatically by virtue of doing nothing but keeping some schools closed, the RSD can take credit for having fewer failing schools. The state then closed 26 RSD New Orleans schools displacing nearly 5000 students in a 6 years time period. That will certainly get you fewer failing schools. THAT’S PROGRESS! The LDOE even closed 7 of the new charters schools it opened post-Katrina, dis­placing 1700 of those 5000 students. That is certainly a way to make your charter school performance look better than it actually is.”
“People ask me if things are better 10 years after Katrina,” a special education and parent leader in New Orleans said. “I say ‘better for whom?’” For the top performing students in the OPSB schools, maybe things are better. But for special education students, or tens of thousands minority kids from poor families traumatized by Katrina? Not so much.

The companies producing test and test prep materials are doing fine. How about charter school executives? Now we’re talking. Kathy Riedlinger, CEO at the Lusher Charter School in New Orleans pulled down $316,306 in 2012. Micky Landry, the top exec of Choice Foundation, got 258 K. (Times Picayune, 9 January 2015). Education bosses in the Big Apple do even better that their counter­parts in the Big Easy. David Lenn at KIPP made $395,350 (New York Daily News 27 October 2013). Eva Moskowitz at the Success Academy Charter chalked up $475,244 in 2012. Before he stepped down as CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada, featured in the pro-charter film Waiting for Superman, made a cool half million – over $512,000 in salary, expense account and pension in 2010, plus various fees and other perks.

Who else is making money from charter schools? The business TV channel CNBC (15 August 2012) posed a question, “are charter schools a wise addition to your investment portfolio?” to David Brain, President and CEO of Entertainment Properties Trust. It’s worth quoting Mr. Brain’s response at length.
DB: “Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a high-demand product. There’s 400,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools, the industry’s growing about 12-14% a year. So it’s a high-growth, very stable, recession-resistant business. It’s a public payer, the state is the payer on this category, and if you do business with states with solid treasuries then it’s a very solid business….
Anchor: David there has been somewhat of a backlash to charter schools in some areas given their use of public money, as you noted. Any risk to the growth of charter schools generally?
DB: I don’t—there’s not a lost of risk, there’s probably risk to everything but the fact is this has bipartisan support. It’s part of the Republican platform and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration, has been very high on it throughout their work in public education. So we have both political parties are solidly behind it....
Anchor: You’ve invested in retail centers, ski parks, you’ve got charter schools, you’ve got movie theaters. If you could buy one thing right now, David, one type of asset in real estate, what would it be? 
DB: Well, probably the charter school business. We said it’s our highest growth and most appealing sector right now of the portfolio. It’s the most high in demand, it’s the most recession-resistant. And a great opportunity set with 500 schools starting every year. It’s a two and a half billion dollar opportunity set annually.”
–CNBC, 15 August 2012
Now you know why they call it the “portfolio management model” for education! In this model, the David Brains win, while you, everyone like you and public education generally lose.

Capitalist Education “Reform”:  Hedge Funds, Cash Flow and National Security

The problems of the New Orleans schools can’t be separated from the problems of the city. Child poverty in New Orleans is at 39%, unchanged since the storm. Economic inequality has increased. For black households, median household income is 42% of whites’. An article from the National Journal (20 October 2014) paints a picture of post-Katrina New Orleans:
“But away from the French Quarter, New Orleans is not the same place it once was. The famously African-American city has gotten whiter and more Hispanic. Townhouses have popped up where housing projects once stood, pushing poor, black residents to the suburbs to find cheaper rent – or to homeless camps under the city’s highways.
“Outside grocery stores and apartments, immigration agents frequently detain and fingerprint Central American workers who settled in New Orleans after cleaning up the mess Katrina left behind. Latinos now outnumber the city’s established community of Vietnamese refugees, who are keeping the Louisiana shrimping industry afloat after a double hit from Katrina and the BP oil spill. Then there’s the influx of the so-called white ‘YURPS’ (Young, Urban, Recovery Professionals.”
For the rulers of America, post-Katrina New Orleans is a model of the “creative destruction” of capitalism, in the famous phrase of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, precursor of Milton Friedman’s “Chicago School.” Kristen McQueary, a member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board recently wrote that, “I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago – an unpredictable haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops. That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak” (Chicago Tribune, 13 August 2015). Faced with an uproar, like Duncan, McQueary later tried to “clarify” her despicable remarks. 

Lower Ninth Ward under water, 30 August 2005, the day after Hurricane Katrina struck. The Lower Ninth has never been rebuilt and still looks much like it did right after the waters receded, except for the empty lots.  (Photo: AP)
But like former NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s statement that he longed to “blow up” the New York school system, such overly frank statements express the real animosity of the capitalist ruling class toward public schools, teachers and teachers unions in particular. The nationwide, bipartisan attack on public education is not the result of misguided educational policy. It is the strategy of politicians, business leaders and their think tanks who want education run like any other capitalist enterprise: privatize the schools, break the unions, evaluate teachers and schools solely through standardized, high stakes testing. For what purpose?

There are various interests at work. For one, there are the hedge fund operators, who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in charter schools. You may have wondered why these Wall Street speculators are so interested in education. One of them, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV of Eagle Capital Management, let the cat out of the bag in an interview for a New York Times (6 December 2009) Dealbook article on “Scholarly Investments”: “The schools are ‘exactly the kind of investment people in our industry spend our days trying to stumble on,’ Mr. Curry said, ‘with incredible cash flow, even if in this case we don’t ourselves get any of it’.” 

Hmm. No money for the money men – like $0 in management fees on the huge investments in charters, 0% interest on the millions flowing through their coffers. You think?  And what was it that led to the collapse of a lot of hedge funds in the 2008 crash? Oh yes, insufficient/negative cash flow. This isn’t philanthropy, they are investing in this trillion-dollar education “industry” in part as insurance. The next time the market goes south, they may take a beating but with a steady stream of government funds they can avoid going under. 

Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice
Other capitalist forces have broader aims in mind. “National security,” for one: i.e., preparation for war and economic competition. In March 2012, a Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force, chaired jointly by former head of the NYC public schools Joel Klein and former U.S Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, made their case for school “reform”: “Human Capital will determine power in the current century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine America’s security,” the report states. “Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy.” 

Recommendations from the task force? “With the support of the federal government and industry partners, states should expand the Common Core State Standards, ensuring that students are mastering the skills and knowledge necessary to safeguard the country’s national security.” This fear is echoed by the Broad Foundation (assets: $2.1 billion) one of the Big Three (along with the Walton and Gates foundations) financial backers of school “reform.” The Broad Foundation worries that “Too many people are not qualified to join the military, in part because they lack adequate education.” 

For all these forces, New Orleans is key. Last October, Eli Broad hired the former state superintendant in Louisiana, Paul Pastorek, to lead the effort to privatize the schools of 50% of the children now attending public schools in Los Angeles. Then there’s Paul Vallas, former superintendant of the New Orleans RSD, who was previously CEO of the Chicago public schools where he was succeeded by none other than Arne Duncan. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is the former chief of staff to Barack Obama. It was Emanuel who famously said “never let a good crisis go to waste.” The ruling class took that to heart with Katrina. Republican Bush started the wrecking job, Democrat Obama is continuing it. It’s up to us – to the education workers, students, parents and working people – to stop them. 

The War on Teachers, Unions and Public Education

The perpetrators: Arne Duncan (left), Democrat Obama’s “education czar,” and Paul Vallas, then Louisiana Recovery School District chief, in October 2009. Both are former CEOs of Chicago schools, and point men for the capitalist war on teachers and public education. (Photo: Matthew Hinton/Times-Picayune)
Today, there are countless activists, writers and bloggers dedicated to resisting the takeover of public education by private forces. Their work is informative and often inspiring. Yet in almost all cases, while exposing the truth about school reform and its political, media and financial backers, there is little or nothing in the way of a strategy for fighting it. Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, an eloquent exposé on “the hoax of the privatization movement,” concludes with the feeble statement that “we must work together to improve our public schools.”

As we wrote in “Three ‘R’s’: Ravitch, Research and Revolution” (Class Struggle Education Workers Newsletter No. 4, Summer-Fall 2014):
“Ravitch reveals the dangers of corporate ‘reform’ and privatization, but her responses are confined within the framework of capitalism and the acceptable discourse of the Democratic liberal brand of bourgeois politics. Therefore her proposals are doomed to failure, for this is not primarily a ‘conversation’ about what is effective education reform. It is a bruising battle over union-busting, privatization and class power.”
The “reformers” are not out to improve public schools, they want to gut public education, milk the education budget for profit, destroy teachers unions, regiment students and make the schools into skills training institutes. Educating students to critical thinking is the last thing they would want. The rampant standardized testing, endless test prep, linking teacher evals to student test scores are all part of a class war being waged by a united ruling class.

Public school students in New Orleans, their parents and teachers don’t just face a pro-charter mayor (Democrat Mitch Landrieu) and until recently a rabidly pro-reform governor, Republican Bobby Jindal. In her blog (November 22) Diane Ravitch hailed the election of John Edwards, a Democrat, as Jindal’s replacement: “Great News from Louisiana! New Governor!” Edwards may not be the kind of crazed teacher basher as his Republican predecessor, but he will just tone down the corporate reformers’ projects. He declares that it is “not true” that he wants to ban charters, that he won’t eliminate vouchers, that “I’m not about ending choice, I’m about informed choice,” etc. (Huffington Post, 30 November).

Sort of like NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, about whom we wrote: “Liberal Democrat NYC Mayoral Candidate Won’t End ‘Stop and Frisk,’ Charters or Privatization of Public Education,” even as many teacher activists and the United Federation of Teachers backed him. (See the October 2013 Class Struggle Education Workers leaflet, “Despite the Hype, de Blasio Will Be ‘Bloomberg Lite”.) As we predicted, so it has come to pass.

Advocates of public education are up against a national network of politicians from both parties, big business and education “reformers.” They are also op­posed by a cadre of journalists in the mainstream media, and think tanks funded by the billionaire philanthropists. To see their reach, check out the “supporters” of the Chalkbeat education news sites in New York and elsewhere which include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (as well as the Gates Family Foundation), the Ford Foundation and Walton Family Foundation. Or look at the Education Week web site funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Broad, Cooke, Ford, Gates and Walton foundations, among others.

New Orleans police state. White cops beat
64-year-old black retired teacher Robert Davis,
who lost his house in the Ninth Ward to
post-Katrina flooding, 8 October 2005.

(From AP-TV video)
And this juggernaut of ruling-class heavies isn’t just relying on its journalists for hire. The big guns of education “reform” have a whole state apparatus to enforce their will. At their beck and call is an actual army of police and National Guard (as well as private security guards) ready to bust strikes … and heads as ordered in case any student, parent or union gets out of line. Remember how the enforcers of “law and order” terrorized the desperate people they found in the streets after Katrina hit, how whites were “struggling to feed their families” while blacks were called “looters”? Just last August, an appeals court upheld a decision to overturn the conviction of the five New Orleans cops who shot six unarmed African Americans on the Danziger Bridge, killing two. The victims’ “crime”: they were trying to get food and water six days after the storm.

Here in New York, a teachers strike would have to take on the state’s notorious Taylor Law, which bans strikes by public workers. As for police in the schools, you need only to view the sickening videotape of the October 26 assault on a black, female student in a Columbia, South Carolina high school.

New Orleans SWAT team police arrest Lance Madison
after cops killed his brother on Danziger Bridge, 4 Sept.
2005. Murder conviction of killer cops was overturned
by appeals court.
(Photo: Alex Brandon/Times-Picayune)
A strategy to fight the enemies of public education begins with naming the enemy: capitalism. Every day teachers confront the all-sided oppression of this capitalist society. More than anything else, low academic achievement correlates with poverty. Children who are poor receive less medical care, and have worse nutrition, are more likely to be exposed to childhood diseases, violence, drugs and abuse. They are sick more often. Many arrive at school hungry. And homelessness! New studies by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness and the NYC Independent Budget office report that a staggering 8% of all NYC students are in temporary housing – that’s 83,000 – up from 1.1% in 2008. In impoverished African American and Latino school districts the figure is 15% or more homeless. You can’t talk about “fixing” public schools without taking this on.

To win, we need fighting unions. But the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association refuse to take the corporate ed “reformers” head-on. They both supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, who in turn installed Arne (“I Love Katrina”) Duncan as his education “czar.” What it will take to defeat the teacher union bashers and public education privatizers is hard class struggle. With a one-week strike in September, Seattle teachers won their first cost-of-living raise in six years and an end to use of students’ standardized tests to evaluate teachers, as well as a one-year ban on out-of-school suspensions, and smaller special edu­cation classes. They didn’t win a reduction in the welter of standardized testing and other demands, but they wouldn’t have won anything without a fight. And for the last several months, Detroit teachers have carried out a series of bold “sick-outs” protesting the abysmal conditions of the schools, including notably protesting during a visit by Barack Obama. 

Fighting back: United Teachers of New Orleans rally on National Day of Action for public education, 10 December 2013. (Photo: UTNO)
The war on public education is bi-partisan. It’s not just the Koch brothers and right-wing Republicans. It’s also Democrats from Obama on down, including New York governor and big-time Common Core proponent Andrew Cuomo. Attacking the Chicago Teachers Union was the centerpiece of Democrat Rahm Emanuel’s 2015 mayoral re-election bid. In 2012, “Mayor 1%” provoked a strike by the CTU by cancelling a union-negotiated raise and laying off more than 900, predominantly black, teachers. But when faced with a court order, the CTU leadership, led by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), shoved a sellout contract down the throats of the union’s House of Delegates which initially voted it down. 

Needed: class-struggle union leadership. Above:
Chicago Teachers Union demonstrates, June 2015.
In 2012, CTU tops raised such demands, then
dropped them in bargaining and after a hard-fought
strike ramm
ed through asellout contract after delegates
voted it down.

Still, teachers, in the crosshairs of the education “reformers,” have powerful allies starting with educators in every school district in the country. Teachers are by far the most highly organized section of the U.S. working class (union representation of teachers in New York State is 98.4%), which is why we are under attack. And we have allies: our students and their parents and above all, our brothers and sisters in organized labor. We teach their kids! Let them try to open a struck “reform” school in New Orleans if teachers are joined on the picket line by longshoremen from ILA Local 3000. What would happen in New York or Chicago or Philadelphia if Teamsters, transit workers and sanitation workers, as well as students and their parents, join the picket lines of the people who are with their kids every day in class?

Will this be easy? Certainly not. A class-struggle strategy requires a fight with the existing labor bureaucracy which embodies the opposite: class collaboration. On the eve of the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten was at the Democratic National Convention endorsing Barack Obama. Weingarten cited “common ground” with the politicians, local and national, who had declared war on her own union membership. Weingarten’s AFT has already endorsed Hillary Clinton (former board of directors member at Walmart and attorney to Eli Broad) for president in 2106. Weingarten is a perfect example of a “labor lieutenant of capitalism” who chains workers to their mortal enemies.

Class Struggle Education Workers puts forward a program to fight the privatizing education deformers down the line. Against the present mayoral dictatorship over schools in New York and many other large cities, we call for teacher-student-parent-worker control of the schools. We say forthrightly that it’s necessary to break the Democratic and Republican parties of capital, and we need to build a workers party to fight for a workers government, to lay the basis for the badly needed revolution in education. It’s not an easy path, but it’s the only road to quality public education for everyone, for education that serves not Wall Street but working people. Join the CSEW!

Mark Lance teaches math at the Continuing Education program at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. 

Class Struggle Education Workers (CSEW) is part of the fight for a revitalization and transformation of the labor movement into an instrument for the emancipation of the working class and the oppressed rather than, as it is at present, an instrument for the disciplining of labor in the interests of capital. See the CSEW program here.

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