Convention Discussion: The crisis in education and the fight to save it


This article is part of the discussion leading up to the Communist Party USA’s 29th National Convention May 21-23, 2010. takes no responsibility for the opinions expressed in this article or other articles in the pre-convention discussion. All contributions must meet the guidelines for discussion. To read other contributions to this discussion, visit the site of the Pre-Convention Discussion period.

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Since the 1980’s teachers and their unions have been under unprecedented attack by the forces out to destroy public education. Their goal is to turn it into private enterprise, reap the hundreds of billions being spend, and in the process, destroy the education unions . Today teachers, unions, parents, students are being hammered. They are against the ropes and have not articulated a winning strategy to counter the threat. That is not to say that across the country a fierce fight back has not been taking place. On the contrary, the record shows successful efforts to counter the offensive. Florida is one clear example how a united struggle of teachers, parents and community have beat back draconian proposals which would have decimated public education in that state.

Leading the right wing charge are the large foundations such as GATES, WALTON, and BROAD which are driving the national education agenda. Corporations and privateers have targeted public education, as well/ These anti-union forces see this as an opportune time to destroy unions and wipe out union contracts. State and local governments have slashed school funding, demanded lay-offs, and closed thousands upon thousands of so called low performing schools and opened charters in their place. The drive has been to privatize the schools (including custodial and cafeteria services), take over the running of them and putting hundreds of billions of dollars into the pockets of privateers and corporations. Corporate interests such as McGraw Hill and others have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars by pushing their textbooks and materials into the schools. Interestingly, the major foundations have produced little. The Annenberg Foundation’s $500 million dollar effort to spur school reform beginning in 1993 generated few results. Likewise, between 2000 and 2008 the GATES FOUNDATION committed nearly $2 billion to create small high schools (usually by breaking up large schools, closing them and opening several small schools in their place) only to admit in 2009 that the effort did not work. This is meant as an attack on small schools but rather a reminder of the role the “reformers” have played in this regard. Foundations while promoting accountability are themselves accountable to no one.


The democratic forces have been put at a severe disadvantage. This is mainly because they have failed to see the full scale attack on education and dealt with the crisis piecemeal-that is how the crisis impacted on their state, municipality, or district. This is where the party has a key role to play. The push for school vouchers has been bypassed by the frenzy for charter schools. This does not mean the voucher proponents have abandoned this approach. Just look at New Jersey where the right wing governor, Christie, has placed a leading advocate of vouchers to head up education in that state. The charter movement remains the major threat-anti-union and anti-democratic. Some say Al Shanker was the original proponent of charter schools. They credit him with calling for publicly funded institutions given flexibility to innovate in order to reach students who didn’t perform well in regular public schools. They say his proposals also called for a strong union role in these charters. There is a saying, “Beware what you wish for.” Charters have been consciously and methodically placed in nationally oppressed communities. They do, in fact, attract large numbers of low-income and nationally oppressed parents and students. But charters are a dagger at the heart of public schools. Have they been the panacea for a failing education system? Today Diane Ravitch is getting a great deal of press. That is a good thing because in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education” she debunks many of the myths of the school “reform” movement. She states that charter schools recruit fewer special education students and English Language Learners than regular regular public schools. In a major test opposing lifting the cap on charters in NY State the New York local and state affiliate along with the NAACP made precisely the same point. The state agreed to keep its current cap until regular public schools had a level playing field. In fact, a 2008 study of Washington, DC charter schools came to the same conclusion. In the San Francisco area, low performing students disproportionately drop out of some of highest performing charter, such as the KIPP schools, which have a 60% attrition rate. Of course, public schools are than required to take in these same students. A 2009 national study out of Stanford University-funded by charter school supporters like the WALTON and DELL foundations- found that by a two to one margin, charters actually fared worse than comparable public schools.


It has proven disastrous for public education. It never provided the funding necessary, yet with its outrageous call for standards based on standardized tests, led to the closing of thousands of schools nationwide. That strategy was meant to shame and humiliate low performing schools and demonize the teaching staff and administration at those schools. It provided the basis of labeling the teachers as bad teachers and justifying closing public schools, often putting charters in their place. States lowered their standards and made false claims of progress. All we have to do is look at Central Falls, Rhode Island where the decision was made to shut that school and fire the entire staff.


The movement today is to blame the teachers for school failure. Around the country the push is to slasfh school funding, close schools, and tie tenure and pay to student performance (called accountability). Teacher layoffs and budget cuts have reached crisis proportions.

Let’s look at some glaring examples of this attack. In Florida the right wing secured legislation that would end teacher job security; increase student testing; tie teacher pay to student test scores, and other draconian proposals. Only an overwhelming response from teachers and their unions, parents, students and community groups forced Governor Crist to veto that legislation. He specifically pointed to the response he received as the main factor in his veto. Florida is looking to vacate its own legislation mandating class size limits.

In Kansas, the proposed plan is to close 40% of its school buildings.

In Philadelphia, under the mantel of Imagine 2014 the plan is to close 35 schools and providing bare bones resources.

Detroit has closed over 40 schools.

In New York City, the mayor and chancellor have led the charge to demonize teachers, close schools (over 100 in six years) and put charters in their place. This week they secured the support of two legislators to sponsor a bill to end seniority in the event of layoffs. It just so happens that the mayor has threatened 8,500 teacher layoffs in the face of massive budget cuts.

In Washington, DC there has been a tentative contract with the teachers’ union. Superintendent Michelle Rhee, the darling of the right wing, appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. It depicted her wielding a broom to dramatize her pledge to sweep away recalcitrant teachers and the tenure system. The DC contract would base teacher hiring assignments and whether a teacher is going to be fired on actual classroom performance. It would establish a “voluntary” merit pay system and end seniority. And what if a school closed? Teachers could apply for new jobs at other schools. If no one hires them they would have three options; a $25,000 buyout, early retirement for those with 20 years, or 1 year administrative assignment and then dismissal. Why spend so much time on a specific contract-because it clearly shows the direction of contract talks across the country. A formula for disaster! Unfortunately , standing beside Michelle Rhee was AFT President Randi Weingarten. Her role has become very harmful, to say the least. Two months ago she said that she was willing to look at teacher tenure and make it easier to fire bad teachers

A New York Times article, dated April 21, 2010 points to the threat of teacher layoffs (With Revenue Cut, Schools are Warning of Huge Layoffs). To quote that article: “North Carolina expects to cut 600 of the district’s 9,400 teachers. Districts in California have given pink slips to 22,000 teachers. Illinois authorities are predicting 17,000 job cuts..” “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan estimated that state budget cuts imperiled 100,000 to 300,000 public school jobs. He said the country with education catastrophe.”


This competition has been another disaster for public education. As you know only two states won monies-Delaware and Tennessee. Race to the Top calls for lifting any caps on charter schools and linking teacher pay to standardized tests. The real danger to this policy is that states in desperate need of funding have enacted policies that are harmful to public education. Unfortunately union locals have agreed to some really bad agreements to be eligible for funds. The pronouncement by President Obama, in front of a U.S. Chamber of Commerce meeting, supporting the firings at Central Falls, RI has harmed him immeasurably with teachers throughout the nation. This is especially painful since teacher unions played such an important role in his election.

Duncan has used the economic crisis to demand that municipalities agree to his pro-business, anti-union, anti-democratic policies in order to be eligible. Many states experiencing huge unemployment rates, plant closings and job losses such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Michigan, and California, to name a few, were ineligible for Race to the Top monies because they refused to acquiesce to the demands placed on them to qualify.


The attack on public education is occurring in higher education in every state of the nation. State universities are facing massive cuts and tuition increases. Community colleges which were once the entranceway to higher education for poor and working class students, are turning away students in massive numbers. Scholarships which were once available to our youth are no longer available and where they are they have been greater reduced.


It is no surprise that the general crisis is sharpest in the racially and nationally oppressed communities.  

The crisis in education is no exception. It is true now as it was in 1954 when Brown vs. Board of Education was decided that schools are, in the main, segregated. Schools in nationally oppressed communities are hit the hardest by this crisis. Schools are woefully underfunded. The impact on immigrant students is dramatic as bilingual programs have been slashed and attacked by right wing forces. The achievement gap for black and Latino students have not been closed under the eight years of the Bush administration. The rhetoric of accountability, privatization, and standardization now dominates both major political parties. They inherently fail to recognize that the best predictor of low academic performance is poverty Closing schools has a profound effect in disrupting communities and offers nothing by the way of improving them. The private sector only serves to undermine public education. Currently, there are approximately 5,000 charter schools nationwide. They serve about 3% of the nation’s students. Our fight must be to make every public school a quality school.


Progressives tend to focus on the nature of the crisis and what needs to be done. But the current trend to meet NCLB benchmarks do a disservice to the nations students. At the same time a great disservice is being done to the nations teaching force. The teaching profession has become anything but that. Instead of viewing teaching as an intellectual endeavor, educators are teaching for the tests (various high stakes tests). In New York City, the mayor and chancellor have actually proposed standardized tests for children from kindergarten to second grade. Teachers and students are no longer asked to think critically. On the contrary, teachers are forced to have students master the skill of test taking. We need assessments that can gauge students’ understanding. We need real assessments that will guide educators to help students master their deficiencies. We must fight for a curriculum that is rich in diversity, that teaches our responsibility to one another and society and to guarantee a democratic, just society for future generations.


Parents, communities, teacher unions have a rich and varied history of struggle to preserve and enrich public education. They are continuing to do so today. The right wing is making a full scale attack on public schools. It would appear they are winning the battle. Teachers and their unions are on the defensive. The push towards privatization has progressive forces and parents of public school students temporarily reeling. But there is a growing fight back. Budget cuts, closing schools, corporate run charters, merit pay schemes, privatization, the attack on seniority, the attack on benefits, tying teacher tenure to student performance are similar attacks in every district and state.

The broad coalition of parents, communities, teachers, and unions have the ability to turn this crisis around. There needs to be a fight to make every public school a quality school. The peoples forces need to demand full funding for schools. The demand must be made for updated modern facilities, reduced class sizes, adequate supplies, adequate support services, an end to teacher layoffs. The demands must call for taxing the rich, ending wasteful military spending and redirecting it to social programs. We must address the issue of our segregated school system. We must demand that our schools be fixed and not closed.

Finally, along with our communities our teacher unions must address why schools are failing. Unions must take the lead in being proactive. They cannot just respond to each threat to the public schools and to their members. They must engage and work with parents and communities to make this happen. It is only the coalition of the broadest forces that can save public education.

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