Obama regime targets education for massive cuts

March 4th marked the start of renewed protests against education reform took place in California and across the US. The same day in Milwaukee, protesters were pepper sprayed and 15 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students were arrested at a protest sponsored by new “Students for a Democratic Society”. This is the first protest movement to spring up since the election of Barack Obama as President. Students at the University of California have been hit with a 32% increase in tuition. Some 5200, Los Angeles Unified School District employees are facing layoffs, as are over 900 public school teachers in San Francisco. This pattern of layoffs, school closings, fee and tuition hikes have been occurring across the country. Kansas City, Missouri Schools recently voted to shut down 28 of its 61 public schools, cutting 700 jobs. The Obama administration publically hailed the summary termination of 74 teachers and 19 other staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island in an anti-worker move that rivals the crushing of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, under the Reagan administration. Obama has shown his true colors once again, predictably so as the record of Obama and his Democratic Party’s record regarding public schools could not have been clearer. To understand the policy of the current regime in its context one would do well to take a hard look at education “reform” in the city of Chicago.

Chicago, like Milwaukee, during the last few decades has been subjected to the education reform geared at doing one primary thing, cutting costs. All the nonsense they talk of US public school students being substandard and deficient are staple lies of those who would dismantle the public schools in the US. If one takes a look at student performance in the US by economic income brackets, as opposed to “race” or “ethnicity”, one will notice the verifiable fact that US public school students do equally well as those in the same income brackets in the rest of the “developed” world. The actual statistical differences in educational measurements between the wealthy nations are marginal. The real differences in performance measurements stem from the fact that the bourgeoisie gives working class children poor just enough education to be suitably exploitable.

Obama’s own children attend the best private schools in the country, the Chicago Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. His children get tutors for every subject they need tutoring in. They are fed healthy breakfasts and lunches and have a large number of staff members to attend to their educational needs. His children, the children of his fellow capitalists, have most likely never even been inside a public school.

No Children Left Behind in the Race to the Top

Over the years the US Federal government has cut its funding for education down to an insultingly small amount. Now local bureaucrats line up bending over backwards in hopes of receiving $4.3 billion worth of Obama’s “Race To The Top” funding for their ailing schools. This promise of funding comes with severe strings attached and is largely an illusion designed to get educational administrators on board with their cost cutting measures with the promise of funds most states will never see. Obama has also announced that he intends to revamp and continue the Bush era “No Child Left Behind” bill. After all why educate a workforce for whom one has no use?

Those outside of the US, who must deal with the austerity measures of “their own” national bourgeoisie, might not be aware of the some of the peculiarities of American public schools and their financing. So what is really ailing public schools in the US? It is nothing less than forty years of systemic poverty and lack of funding. It is made worse by a 19th Century system of taxation that locally pays for schools with a “property tax” on individuals that manages to exempt the wealthy and codify massive inequalities from one district to another, even from one school to another. As the seventies and eighties drew to a close the Federal share of dollars going to pay for social services collapsed. What took up the slack were the state and municipal governments who were able to continue the bare necessity social spending that the regime in Washington wanted nothing to do with, resulting in increases in property taxes and further declines in funding. As the States and municipalities in them ran up huge insoluble deficits the Bush administration policy response was to force the bankruptcy and thus force austerity on them. One problem with the traditional liberal slogan of “Tax the Rich” as a solution to this crisis is that “the rich”, that is to say the capitalist class specifically, created this system of taxation so they wouldn’t have to pay for things like public schools.

The reform of public education in the US is proceeding with the active assistance of the leaders of the American Federation of Teachers, whose leadership supports the Obama administration austerity program and has even gone so far as to help craft new contracts with their members, forcing them to accept drastic concessions in pay and working conditions.

In Educational Administration schools future school administrators learn to come out with “school mission” statements and other meaningless hokum. Often earning three figure salaries while holding those making 20,000 to 40,000 a year “accountable” for the state of public schools.

US public schools perform very well in areas where there are jobs and there is income, where spending per pupil stands at an average from $15,000 to $20,000 a year. For the poorest schools there is yet another added financial burden. Some 7.66 million children in US public schools qualify for free or reduced price lunches. This in itself represents a heavy drain on funding for the poorest school districts. Not surprisingly, public schools perform badly in poor economically depressed areas of the country. This pattern is borne out in charter schools as well. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study out of Stanford University, demonstrating there is little difference between the performance of traditional public schools and charter schools. Further the study notes that a segment of charter schools perform extremely poorly. As of 2009 there were 4700 Charter School in the US with some 1.4 million students. Education, despoiling public funds to make a profit off of public education is a growth industry with hundreds of new charter schools being set up every year. (1)

The goal of this “school reform” like Obama’s health care “reform” is cost cutting. It modus operandi is this, shut down a public school or a public school district. Take control of the schools away from elected school boards, and placing them in the loving hands of a Mayor or a Governor, or an appointed “Education Czar”. Next they reopen the same public schools under a new name and with inexperienced staff who are paid less than their counterparts in traditional public schools. These schools often are segregated by race. Troubled or special needs students can be pushed into public schools where they wont force down the results of the mandatory tests on which funding for charter schools depends. This in turn forces down test scores in the public schools who get punished by school closing and layoffs as a reward for their labor - because they didn’t make the test scores.

A public school can go from being awarded as a “Presidential School of Excellence” one year to being labeled by the same Washington administration as a troubled school the next year simply by having two students at a school fail to show up for one of these mandatory tests, thus dragging down the school average, despite the fact that student performance at these schools in all actuality probably hasn’t changed much from year to year at all.

The Great Chicago Public School Disaster and the Militarization of Public Schools

Chicago public schools have been turned over to private education corporations, but not just to these parasites who in the name of “private enterprise” compete to fleece tax dollars out of government coffers, but to Reserve Officer Training Corps programs run by the military. Today Chicago has about two dozen “public” schools with an ROTC presence that are nothing less that publically funded military academies. For High School students (grades 9-12) the Armed Services have JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), and a Middle School Cadet programs for grades 6-8 offering working class youths a fast track into the military machine. By comparison, according to the MilitaryFreeSchools.org website, founded by Los Angeles Unified School District teachers, Los Angeles has about 30 such programs with thousands of high school age children enrolled. In other English speaking countries such students might be called Cadets. There are approximately 3,000 such programs nationwide giving working class children a fast track into what was once called the “meat grinder” - that is the US Armed Forces.

An underperforming school, one that gets bad test scores, can see itself dissolved by an act of government against the wishes of the teachers, students and citizens of the school district in question. The teachers at such a school get summarily laid off and are forced to reapply to get their own jobs back, at the exact same school buildings, with lower pay and benefits. Forcing a new administrator on a school, new staff destroying any continuity in the education of the students making them even more inclined to fail. Thus with the proclamation of US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, in support of the mass firing of the entire teaching and support staff at Central Falls High School, in Rhode Island, the administration has fired the first shots in a major offensive against public school teachers.

The “Katrina-fication” of the Public Schools

In the eighties and nineties if you mentioned the words falling rates of profit, to someone who knew what you were talking about you would be told that such things never happen anymore and would never happen again. One might have been told that the labor theory of value had been definitively disproven for all ages. Today Obama, like FDR in the last economic depression, has no answer for the crisis that is an inherent part of capitalism, specifically a crisis originating in the tendency of falling rates of profit.

As in the recent devastation caused by the Hurricane that struck Haiti, the ruling class sees our misery as their “opportunity”. Privatizing public schools is just such an “opportunity”. To date, no teachers union in the country, not the American Federation of Teachers, or the National Education Association has mobilized a strike action against this attack. On the contrary, the union leaders themselves have helped the reformers engineer their austerity programs.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin has also undergone much “education reform”. The first big one was giving tax vouchers to private schools for taking public school students out of the public school system and placing them in the private schools. Milwaukee like Chicago has seen many charter school “academies” arise. Many charter schools generated tend to be fly by night operations often forming and dissolving in the space of a few years. A chartered school that fails can lose its “charter” very quickly.

There are exceptions that come in the form of flagship charter schools that attempt to cull the best students out of the public school system and receive special funding for the purpose of differentiating and degrading the public schools as a whole. These few exemplary schools are then are put forward as the future of education in order to further undermine support for public schools. Schools are being reorganized along much clear, often racially re-segregated, class lines.

Recently in Madison Wisconsin, one of the last remaining “independent” Teacher’s Unions, Madison Teachers Incorporated, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the local school district received its first exemplary flagship charter institution, Nuestro Mundo school, taught in Spanish to a majority white English speaking school population. This teachers union got its start in a militant strike back in 1976 that shut down the Madison Public School System and achieved union recognition in the process. By the 1980s these one time union militants turned the MTU into Madison Teacher’s Incorporated, reflecting an overall corporatist mindset despite the presence of more militant teachers in their ranks. The American Federation of Teachers has been aggressively attempting to swallow as many independent unions as they are able. This was a part of an overall offensive that has spanned decades. The national unions, like the AFT, have thus entered into the breach locally in attempt to stave off any local resistance to their plans for reform, which ordinarily would be strenuously opposed by area teachers.

Proponents of charter school expansion see the school district at the state capital, in Madison as an obstacle to doing to all Wisconsin public schools what was done to Milwaukee and Chicago public schools. Those who resist will be crushed and assimilated.

Teachers in the states of California, New York and Wisconsin have had some protections under their state laws in favor of seniority over “merit pay” and other things, which makes everyone working at or attending schools in those states particular targets of attack from the perspective of the Washington administration. While other states qualify for these funds they will be competing against each other to get them and thus the funding will most likely few public schools will ever see any of this funding.

Some of the earliest protests in the US against these education cuts, started in New York City. Further protests have occurred in NYC over the cuts in the Metropolitan Transit Authority that will cause students to pay more to get to school. Simply transporting public school students safely to school is a big issue. In Chicago, to for an example, dozens of students die each year just being trying to get to schools in hostile territory belonging to the various sets of rival gangs.

This movement in support of education could take on a positive aspect, uniting workers over an issue impacting their basic needs. Such a movement if it relies on legal “protest” and reformism, if it allows itself to be fooled by the unions and DP functionaries or their left fringe apologists, diverted into useless reformism it will exhaust itself and fail. The situation clearly calls for something more than just another “movement” subordinated to the ruling class, its parties and its unions.

One might be inclined to take a look at what is happening in Greece, where massive strikes against austerity triggered the derision and condescension of bourgeois media voices everywhere. The reason for such arrogant capitalist media driven hostility lies in their primal fears that workers might start to fight back - or that maybe it will spread.


[1] Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States. Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Stanford University, CA. 2009.