I’m infuriated. I want to declare my allegiance to heros who have dedicated their lives to America’s public schools. My list includes Mrs. Zablocki, my 1st grade teacher in St. Petersburg, Florida; Mrs. Gerstner, my 3rd grade teacher in Ledyard, Connecticut; Mrs. Broadmoor, my 4th grade teacher in Staten Island, New York; and Mrs. Hill, my 7th grade English teacher in Savannah, Georgia. You see, my father was in the Coast Guard and we moved around quite a bit — so I experienced public school education in a number of states. My list also includes those on the front lines of efforts to reclaim the democratic institution of public schools like Diane Ravitch, Susan Ohanian, Mercedes Schneider, Peter Green, Anthony Cody, and so many others. My list also includes the millions of moms and dads who have supported their public schools over the years, the children served by public schools across our country, the teachers who are in the business of transforming the lives of their students, and the administrators and school board members who work diligently to meet the needs of the communities they serve.
TIME Magazine’s cover story, “Rotten Apples: It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher. Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That,” obviously panders to the One Percenters who position themselves as being the standard bearers of the free market that has rewarded them so richly and has allowed hedge fund managers to set the economic agenda for the rest of the country. This, however, is not a new phenomenon. Corporate superstars have been inserting themselves in federal education policy for decades. And leading the charge has been those involved in the tech industry. David Kearns, credited with saving Xerox in the 1980s, brought his corporate reform ideas to the education arena and the federal Department of Education during the H. W. Bush administration. Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, likewise became a powerful voice in education reform in the 1990s, hosting the 1996 Palisades Summit at the IBM headquarters, a meeting that brought governors (who he referred to as the CEOs of their states) together with prominent corporate CEOs to decide the fate of public schools in the U.S. This was the meeting that birthed Achieve, a free market reform agenda, and the CCSS. It was at this meeting that President Bill Clinton introduced the education policy world to Bill Gates, then embroiled in investigations into his dubious, monopolistic practices at Microsoft.
Teacher hate and a disdain for public schools is not new to the tech millionaires. In 1995, speaking at the National Governors Association, Lou Gerstner ironically began his speech by stating, “I’m here because of Willie Sutton. Willie robbed banks, the story goes, because he realized that’s where the money is. I’m here because this is where the power is — the power to reform — no, to revolutionize — the U.S. public school system.”* Almost two decades later, I think it’s safe to say that Gerstner’s first assertion has turned out to be more accurate. The corporate world was there at the table of education reform policy because, indeed, that’s where the money is. In 2008, Gerstner would reveal the corporate agenda for education reform, calling for “The abolishment of all local school districts except for 70 — one for each of the 50 states and one for each of the major cities and the establishment of a set of national standards for a core curriculum.”
There has been no secret conspiracy to privatize the American public school system. Corporate reformers have been quite bold in establishing their agenda. As I write in my upcoming book, The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy, “The steady drumbeat of corporate encroachment into the education arena was there the entire time. However, its cadence was so steady and natural that, like cicadas at sunset, the noise went almost unnoticed by too many Americans. The idea that the nation’s public school system was a failure had become an unquestioned zeitgeist by a burgeoning number of critics who jumped on board the anti-public school bandwagon. Those on the political right and the political left seized every opportunity to point to the need to systemically reform public education.”*
“There is a price on the head of every child in America. As the free market theories of Milton Friedman became the driving force behind public policy in the United States, beginning with the Reagan administration, public schools would inevitably become ensnared in the dragnet of entrepreneurs who envisioned public education as a burgeoning market.”*
The issue of teacher tenure is just the latest focus of corporate reformers intent on destroying public schools in America. Is teacher tenure protection really the problem? I began my education career as a public school teacher in Mississippi. There is no tenure protection in Mississippi and no real union presence to advocate for teachers. Mississippi, therefore, should be the exemplar for the power of eliminating tenure protection and allowing teachers to be fired more easily as a way to improve education and student achievement. The reality is, however, that Mississippi students have and continue to rank much lower on measures of student achievement than other students across the country. Apparently, teacher tenure laws are not the largest barrier to student achievement. Research has demonstrated time and again that poverty and other social factors contribute greatly to student achievement. So, it is no wonder that Mississippi, with some of the highest rates of poverty in the country, lags behind the rest of the country in rankings of student achievement.
Clearly when it comes to corporate led education reform, “America’s public school system has once again become a scapegoat for all that ails American society, while heralding all the ramifications of free market systemic education reform as the means of saving the United States from its supposed enemy – the public school system writ large.”* However, as the last short paragraph of my book proclaims, “For American citizens, if there is one thing to remember about public schools it is this: Public schools are not government schools, nor are they corporate free market schools. Public schools belong to the public. Public schools are citizen schools, and it is now up to citizens to reclaim what is theirs!”*
* Quoted texts are excerpted from my upcoming book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015).