As I ponder what the next phase of resistance to corporate education reform will or should be, I again turn to the insights of P. L. Thomas. I am reminded that one of the hallmarks of the corporate reform agenda is the destruction of local governance over school districts. In 2008, Gates’ forerunner as corporate reformer, Lou Gerstner, issued a clarion call for the elimination of local school boards and Matt Miller published an article for The Atlantic entitled “First, Kill All the School Boards: A modest proposal to fix the schools.” Indeed, the success of corporate reformers has been predicated on the notion that centralized governance over public schools is essential. In spite of a national campaign to portray all public schools as failures — a campaign that began in earnest during the Reagan years — Americans tend to be happy and supportive of the local public schools their children attend. Prior to the Reagan administration, federal education policies were situated within the understanding that local school governance was essential because local communities knew best how to meet the needs of the children their schools served. Federal policies were seen as a way to enforce civil rights laws and oversee funding to provide equity for underserved and marginalized populations in communities with inadequate local tax bases to support education. In the decades since the Reagan era, however, as free market ideology swept the land, the education sector was overtaken with corporate reformers who embarked on a feeding frenzy to capture any and all funds available to be harvested through systemic education reform initiatives. And funds ensuing from federal and state policies are easier to harvest than funds ensuing from local policies.
Thus, the thoughts of P. L. Thomas resonated with me as he discussed the Gandhian notion of non-cooperation. Thomas writes:
The goal of non-cooperation must include seeking ways in which to shift the priorities of the locus of power:
- First, the central locus of power in education is the student, situated in her/his home and community.
- Next in importance is the locus of power afforded the teacher in her/his unique classrooms.
- These must then merge for a locus of power generated within the community of the school.
- Finally, the locus of power in this school-based community must radiate outward.
Currently, the locus of power in education policy is at the federal level as the Duncan/Obama administration wields the levers of power over state departments of education. This is the crux of the dissention among those who are resisting corporate education reform. Defeating federal intrusion into issues of curriculum (strictly forbidden by federal law) is no easy task, however, given the acquiescence of federal policy makers to corporate think tanks and well-financed corporate lobby groups. This didn’t begin with the Obama administration. The current administration has merely brought us the fruition of a decades-long campaign to privatize our nation’s public school system.
How can we defeat the corporate machine? I would suggest that the next phase of resistance requires an emphasis on reestablishing the locus of control in our local public school districts that serve the needs of children and parents within communities. We are, according to Thomas, currently in phase 2 of resistance to corporate education reform. We are loudly proclaiming the failures of free market corporate-driven centralized education policies and we are being heard by some and, particularly, ourselves. But, while the Phi Delta Kappan poll found that most Americans are happy with their local schools, only a little more than one-third of Americans had ever heard of the Common Core. What does this mean for the corporate reform resistance movement? Clearly, we should be heartened that, in spite of the cacophony of declarations that they entire public school system is a failure, the majority of the American public is not buying the public relations campaign by corporate reformers. They believe their schools are fine.
Indeed, even some of the authors of A Nation at Risk, the document that is largely responsible for lighting the match that started our nation on its current path to the destruction of public schools, understood that the problems they cited with public schools were generally associated with inner city schools serving large numbers of students living in impoverished communities. What should have resulted from the National Commission on Excellence in Education was not an incendiary document declaring the entire education system as a failure, but a document that highlighted the excellent education the majority of students in America were receiving (the Blue Ribbon award program was ironically begun by the same administration to recognize these excellent schools). And the document should have served as the the impetus for fully funding War on Poverty initiatives to further infuse troubled inner city communities and schools with the resources they so desperately needed. Instead, the commission chose to ignore the realities of the lives of many students and the teachers who worked with them every day. They chose to ignore the systemic problems, like poverty and racism, our country had valiantly fought to overcome in the decades leading up to the Reagan administration. Rather, they were pleased with the celebrity they enjoyed as a result of the hyperbolic and misleading report they wrote and presented to the president and nation in 1983. As a result, our public schools have been immersed in a perpetual cycle of systemic and federally driven education reform initiatives, informed and driven in large part by corporate profit-motivated free market devotees.
The key, therefore, to resisting corporate education reform is reclaiming the rightful duty of local school districts to govern their community’s public schools. And the strength of our public schools is the communities they serve. Therefore, if we really understand the connection between socio-economic status and educational achievement then we will truly understand the next phase in the resistance movement. Education reform begins with social reform and social reform begins with communities. Public schools serve an important function for a community. They feel the pain when factories are closed and the economy suffers. They thrive when jobs that pay a living wage become available to citizens and the economy surges. In spite of everything else, schools are a source of pride for many, many communities across the U.S. Families flock to watch football under the “Friday Night Lights,” gather together for concerts and plays, collect “box tops” to purchase supplies, proudly attend high school graduations (and sometimes preschool and kindergarten graduations) and some parents attend school board meetings to make their voices heard. Parents and students anxiously await report cards and parent-teacher conferences and look forward to field trips and class parties. Public schools are so much more than generators of capital — financial or in the form of standardized test scores.
So, while we’re engaged in phase 2 of the resistance and making dissenting voices heard, actions that must continue, we must embrace our local public schools and fight for their right to survive under the governance of local school boards. Each person in the corporate education reform resistance movement lives, teaches, and/or learns in a community and, as Thomas rightfully points out, this is where change begins — first by empowering the student, then by empowering the teacher in the classroom and the community of the school. Finally, as locus of power is embraced within the school community, power can be generated outward. I would argue, too, that the power of the community will likewise embrace the power of the school as a place of hope and change in the lives of children.