The struggle to save public schools from private, profit-making scams could well be lost. It will be lost–if it already hasn’t been lost–unless those groups with experience in organizing, resources for getting their message out, a history of lobbying, and a willingness to use the courts, grow some courage and take some risks. Yes, in this state, that means the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).
There is hope in the obviously planned decision by NJEA leaders to support the struggle against the Christie Administration’s “One Newark” plan that closes neighborhood public schools and “launches” many new charter schools.
NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer and Vice President Marie Blistan have spoken at rallies and committee hearings objecting to the plans of Cami Anderson, Christie’s $300,000-a-year agent in Newark. Some might argue this isn’t the NJEA’s fight. The statewide teachers union represents only a handful of Newark school employees—mostly nurses–while teachers and other classroom employees are represented by the rival AFT.
The NJEA, too, has promised a “course correction” in policy emphasis that would link what is happening in Newark and other New Jersey cities to the interests of suburban teachers who may not yet realize what is at stake if public education collapses under state control in Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Camden and other cities. The NJEA recognizes it must provide leadership in persuading its members the radical transformation of urban education under state control is not someone else’s problem.
This is how Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director, described the effort to me:
“One of the worst things Christie has done is to foment the belief that urban schools and their students are lost causes. We are putting millions of dollars into a campaign that implicitly proves him wrong. We are determined to push back against the privateers and corporate deformers, whose policies are destroying morale, stifling creativity, and making school miserable for children through their obsession with tying everything to data.”
Privatization isn’t simply an urban phenomenon. Nationally, public education spends between $600 billion and $650 billion annually. It’s where the money is, an enormous industry ripe for private profit-making. Profits are available through the growth of privately managed (but publicly-funded) charter schools, the increased use of technology—via companies like Christopher Cerf’s Amplify—and the replacement of experienced teachers with poorly paid and less trained amateurs provided by so-called “non-profit” private organizations like Teach for America (TFA) which gets a bonus for supplying inexperienced instructors to strapped public schools.
The key to successful corporate takeover is degrading the image of public education everywhere so that charters and other forms of privatized and selective education look better. A key to degrading that image is high-stakes testing that can be manipulated to show public schools are failing and well-paid teachers—with pensions included among their benefits—are at fault. All public employees looking forward to pensions have targets on their backs–now.
It was no mistake that US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a champion of privatization, contended many parents opposed Common Core curricular standards because “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — (realize) their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
That wasn’t simply an inept and racist comment. It revealed a mindset rife with contempt for the idea of public education as an essential component of an egalitarian society. Forget the history books, this country no longer embraces equality—certainly not in income and job opportunities.
Public education aims at a level playing field. Private education encourages competition—but the tendency toward exclusivity in public education was under control until the idea of charter schools combined public funding with private management and selection procedures. The level playing field has been bulldozed in places like Newark by sucking resources and students away from public schools and shifting it toward privatized charters.
The supporters of privatizers can point to the inevitable results of greed-based public policy—starved public schools, declining test scores, empty schools—and cite them as proof that traditional public schools have failed. They created the image of failure and now they are using it to make even more money.
Inequality isn’t only a matter of greed—it is essential to the creation of a society dominated by a small number of the rich and well-educated. Public education is toxic to such an idea
and so many among the small number of the rich and well-educated are out to destroy public education. They are helped by the well-paid wonks who believe everything is quantifiable—reducible to numbers—and, of course, numbers can then be used to prove anything.
A review of the new book by Simon Head—“Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans”– describes the relentless quantification of people as economic units—including service sector workers like, of all people, British university dons: “Head is rightly scornful of the application of computerized business systems to academic life in England where promotion now depends on academics fufilling Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) based on ‘Balanced Scorecards’ of ‘desired outputs.’” And, of course, those KPIs are used to reduce funding to UK universities.
Sound familiar? Can you say “SGOS”?
New Jersey is ahead of the rest of the nation because Christie, for political reasons, craftily combined the obsession with testing and the movement toward privatization with the politics of resentment—blaming teachers and other public employees for budget deficits, pension problems, and school failures. Few, certainly no main-stream media, recall that such problems were really caused by Republican tax-cutting, pension manipulation, and reductions in aid to schools and municipalities dating back to the 1990s.
I have blamed the NJEA for failing to stand up to the bully-in-chief in Trenton. I have blamed them for wishful thinking–that giving into bullies just emboldens them to behave even more outrageously. I have criticized them for condoning the charter giveaway in Camden and supporting the senate Cory Booker, a national champion of both charters and vouchers who is owned by people and organizations who have nothing in common with the people of Newark.
Wollmer and others in the NJEA tell me those days are over. The course correction is coming.
Wollmer told me, “We are taking on Chris Christie when he lies.” But it’s just not Christie. And it’s not just a matter of lies. The NJEA has to be brave enough to take on Democrats like George Norcross. It has to stand up to all those who would turn public education over to the highest bidder.
I hope it will. I hope so because, frankly, the struggle to save public education will be lost without the NJEA, without its members everywhere in the state.
Is the NJEA waking up? We’ll see.