Occupy our schools

James Lytle, former Philadelphia School District administrator, on the ongoing drama:

Meanwhile the mayor, city council, the governor, and the state legislature dicker around possible tax increases which in total would make only a small dent in the district’s deficit.

Their collective actions and impending actions build from implicit and explicit assumptions of urban school “badness” promoted in local and national media – violent schools, poor academic achievement, disengaged families, badly managed organizations, ineffective teachers, over-paid administrators, test cheating, lack of accountability, etc. Conveniently, these constructions provide contrast with the ostensible advantages of charter schools and vouchers, setting up neo-liberal, privatize solutions.

The large and looming question behind the drive for charters in Philadelphia and nationally is ‘who will profit from this shift in school provision?’ Is Philadelphia the next domino in the New Orleans, Detroit, and Cleveland school district demolition movement? Why is it that Gates/Microsoft and Walton/Walmart are proponents of charters, portfolio management, and market-based approaches? Why is it that rich white folks are leading the conversation about what poor black and Latino kids need? Why is so much campaign money being used to support charter and voucher proponents? Where is the evidence that charter schools do a better job than traditional public schools? And what does Boston Consulting Group know about urban schooling that School District teachers and principals don’t?

These are all big questions, and there are no clear answers. But a reasonable notion would be to follow the money. The federal government is subsidizing charter expansion, as are major foundations. Charter schools offer the potential for low-risk, high gain returns; already 60% of charter students in the U.S. are at schools operated by for-profit corporations. And a number of national charter school management companies are working to meet demand – think McDonalds or Walmart as models for national systems of schools with predictable products and quality, low-cost, and standardized educational programs.

In another respect, the democratizing function of public schools is being superseded by consumer-driven, choice and market approaches that favor those who know how markets works. We are in the midst of a hostile takeover where the controlling party profits from capturing the assets of the acquired entity. But in this case it is a public enterprise that is being deconstructed and sold-off with no demonstrable benefit to the shareholders, the children and families and community whose fates are determined by the quality of their local public schools.

Are there plausible alternatives? Are there scenarios in which strong public schools survive and prosper?

We need to begin by agreeing that preserving schools which have been marginally effective and reify the demarcations of race and class is not be an adequate solution. Nor is tinkering with the pieces and parts of schools, or thrusting them into the market.

In my view the only meaningful option is to acknowledge that it is in our common interest to make equity and quality the cornerstones for educational reform. That can only happen if parents, students, and teachers band together to wrest control from the elites who are driving federal and state policy, and insist on schools they directly control. That in turn will require a social movement – Occupy Our Schools. – which has as its goal the reinvention of schooling as engaging, demanding, responsive, accessible, timely, future-oriented.

The Chicago teacher strike in September 2012 may be a bellwether for an Occupy movement because a coalition of teachers and parents backed down Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the city’s Business Roundtable in forcing a resolution that built from the best interests of kids.

Philadelphia is the next major test, and the prospects here are not encouraging.

2 thoughts on “Occupy our schools

  1. How are “privatize solutions” in any way “neo-liberal?” Is this how anyone else remembers what the “new-left” was all about? Was the “neo-liberal” solution to problems a call for greater profits? It seems to have been something very different than that. Maybe Lytle meant Neo-Capitalist.

  2. Neo-liberal is an economics term which essentially means laissez-faire.
    From the Wikipedia entry: “Neoliberalism seeks to transfer control of the economy from public to the private sector, under the belief that it will produce a more efficient government and improve the economic health of the nation.”

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