Stop the War Metaphors when Talking About Education Policy: Have You no Shame?

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”  And thus began an era in which a culture of shame was attributed to America’s public education system.  I don’t know about my fellow public school supporters, but I am quite frankly tired of the use of war metaphors by critics of public schools.  We are talking about children after all.

Lee Fang’s article, “Venture Capitalists Are Poised to ‘Disrupt’ Everything About the Education Market,” published by The Nation on September 25, 2014, illustrates how pervasive this use of violent war metaphors has become (http://www.thenation.com/article/181762/venture-capitalists-are-poised-disrupt-everything-about-education-market#).  Fang cites Michael Moe and a document produced by his investment firm, GSV Capital, entitled “American Revolution 2.0” which serves the dual purposes of providing a manifesto for education reform and a blueprint for how venture capitalists can make a lot of money in the educational sector.  According to Fang:

“The revolution GSV goes on to describe is a battle to control the fate of America’s K-12 education system. Noting that this money is still controlled by public entities, or what’s referred in the document as “the old model,” the GSV paper calls for reformers to join the “education battlefield.” (A colorful diagram depicts “unions” and “status quo” forces equipped with muskets across businesses and other “change agents” equipped with a fighter jet and a howitzer.) The GSV manifesto declares, “we believe the opportunity to build numerous multi-billion dollar education enterprises is finally real.”

Further examination of GSV’s 300+ page document (http://gsvadvisors.com/wordpress/wp-content/themes/gsvadvisors/American%20Revolution%202.0.pdf) is alarming.  Children are not referred to merely as students — they are “knowledge troops.”  GSV provides a “budget battle” detailing the expected market growth and profit through 2018 for every aspect of the education marketplace from pre-k education to charter schools and e-learning to test prep and counseling.  Other sections in GSV’s manifesto bear war inspired titles such as “Shock and Awe,” “Modern Weaponry,” “Time to Fight,” and “Weapons of Mass Education – Investment Themes.”

As Fang adeptly points out in the subtitle of his article, “Venture capitalists and for-profit firms are salivating over the exploding $788.7 billion market in K-12 education.”  And apparently, they have no shame when declaring a war on public education.  In their “Strategic Battle Plan,” they openly call for the elimination of local school boards and employ all the rhetoric of free market advocates.

And what about those “knowledge troops” — or children as I prefer to call them?  What is their role in this supposed war/revolution?  Should kindergarteners be issued combat fatigues on their day of school to complete the war metaphor?  Or, as is increasingly evident, are they collateral damage, suffering from battle fatigue and post traumatic stress disorder as the result of wave after wave of high stakes standardized tests being being launched at them?  If children are, indeed, as envisioned by corporate reformers and venture capitalists, the troops in this war on public education, then I have to ask, who protects the children from the ravages of war?

The use of violent metaphors has been a consistent theme for corporate and free market reformers.  In 1971, conservative libertarian economist and political theorist Murray Rothbard invoked the war metaphor in his attack on America’s public school system with his book “Education: Free and Compulsory” when he proclaimed on the cover, “We are Ready — How about You?  SCHOOLS AT WAR!”  In 2008, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress, wrote an article entitled, “First, Kill all the School Boards” for The Atlantic.  At the 1995 National Governors Association meeting, corporate superstar Lou Gerstner (of RJR Nabisco and IBM fame) called for complete revolution in education policy, stating, “The only way this will happen … is if we push through a fundamental, bone-jarring, full-fledged, 100 percent revolution that discards the old and replaces it with a totally new performance-driven system.”  One year later, at a gathering of governors and corporate CEOs at the IBM Palisades NY headquarters, the organization Achieve, Inc. was formed — the organization that would bring us the Common Core State Standards.  And the bone-jarring revolution continues.  But whose bones are getting jarred in the end?  The federal Department of Education?  No — its still going strong.  The venture capitalists and corporate CEOs?  No, they’re getting richer by the minute.  The bone-jarring revolution, however, is leaving a lot of children bewildered and frustrated along with the teachers who spend their days with them.  And let’s not forget the parents who are trying to make sense of it all.

Thank you, Lee Fang, for reminding us that there is a price on the head of every child in America.  We’re not giving up, however.  I urge all Americans to call for unilateral disarmament in the war on public schools.  Of course, there is really nothing unilateral about it.  The reality is that there are no “knowledge troops” — just children.  They have no war machines to lay down.  They just want to pick up their books and learn.

I eagerly await the publication of my book by Palgrave Macmillan in January entitled, “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.”  I believe it will further expand the discourse among citizens and scholars interested in taking back their public schools.  Knowledge is power — and I’m not talking about the KIPP Knowledge is Power Program — and power in the form of knowledge is not violent.

Bill Gates and the “Boogeymen” of Free Market Systemic Education Reform

By Thomas J. Fiala

In an attempt to explain, by a fellow traveler who also supports America’s important public school system, how the CCSS came to be, blogger Peter Greene (http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/posted the following:

“When David Coleman and Gene Wilhoit (summer 2008) decided they wanted to standardize American education, they did not come up with a plan to sell such a program on its education merits. They called on Bill Gates to use his money and power to convince state governments to legislate systemic changes to education.

Let’s remember that philanthropist Bill Gates (who had already reaped the benefits of free market capitalism) was not new to the free market feeding ground of systemic public education reform in 2008. He had been increasingly funneling millions of dollars for systemic reform since at least 2001-02. In 2005, he gave the keynote speech at the National Governor’s Association Summit. He gave millions to the original 2001 American Diploma Project and supported the projects 2004 report “Ready or Not” that has been heralded as a forerunner to the CCSS. Very importantly, in July 2008 this project trotted out the report “Out of Many One” that added more detail and clarity to the eventual creation of the CCSS. We do not know specifically what was discussed during the Coleman, Wilhoit, Gates meeting in 2008. However, it seems logical that the report “Out of Many, an extension of the 2004 ADP report “Ready or Not,” was something that was included in the meeting that was used to convince Gates to infuse even more money into systemic education reform. Clearly, Coleman and Wilhoit had a plan in hand when they met with Gates in the summer 2008 meeting. However, it is clear that Gates was already on board the systemic education reform express.

We need to be careful with making Gates the wellspring of the CCSS. Gates is a really big fish that financially helped facilitate the creation of the standards. The story of the origins of the CCSS, however, is even scarier than simply looking at the insidious and manipulative hand of the Gates Foundation – and that’s scary enough! Gates, however, is merely one of the corporate voices that echoes throughout the path to the Common Core and currently is by far the biggest voice. Our country’s total allegiance to free market ideology and to the supremacy of the corporate vigilantes has resulted in a strange conglomeration of free market policy makers devoted to school choice initiatives, philanthropist organizations lending credence to free market ideologues, and venture capitalists poised to make a buck on charter schools, high stakes testing, the infusion of expensive technology as a central focus in school curriculums, and a vast number of “opportunities” created by RTTT and other education policies over the years.

What is most frightening to me as a supporter of America’s locally controlled public schools, is that Gates and a whole raft of other corporate and governmental players were involved in an alternate universe of education reform that was a reflection corporate and governmental mutualism. This relationship was able to carve a path to the CCSS even while NCLB – the “official” reauthorization of the ESEA – was holding the attention of those of us in education trying to deal with the ramifications of NCLB. This, and much more, will be made clear in Deb’s new book, “Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.”

We supporters of locally controlled public schools cannot allow these free market types to destroy one America’s most important institutions! Peter Greene’s voice is important in the struggle.  We are fellow travelers.  I am merely adding to his and other voices in our collective attempt to take back our public schools.