School Reformers Gain Momentum Fighting Corporate Influence

A growing movement in education resists the trend toward privatization.

Photo Credit: Eric Crama via

When Brian Jones took the microphone at the Taking Back Our Schools rally this weekend at New York City Hall, he told the crowd of hundreds an unfamiliar story with a familiar ending.

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It was the story of Barbara Rose Johns, who, “in her segregated high school in Virginia, decided that the conditions were unworkable,” Jones told attendees. “She talked to her fellow students and organized them to have a student strike in 1951.” After her strike won support from the NAACP, Johns’ integration suit became part of Brown v. Board of Education, the historic schools desegregation case, whose 60th anniversary was marked this past Saturday.

“We like to think of Brown as the inspiration for activism,” Jones told the crowd, “but it was also the result of activism. Things don’t just happen—we make them happen.”

Jones, a PhD student at CUNY and lieutenant governor hopeful for the Green Party, joined over a dozen other speakers for the City Hall event. Convened by the 44-organization-strong Save Our Schools coalition, the rally aimed to energize a growing movement in education to resist the influence of corporate education reform.

“We have a huge range of political interests,” says rally organizer David Greene, “but all have one thing in common: to stop privatization.” The rally’s date was chosen to honor the historic desegregation case -- whose lessons have arguably lost out to the free-market reforms of the political zeitgeist -- while its location, New York, has become the school segregation capital of the nation.

That’s according to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, whose recentreport, “Brown at 60,” details the decline of integration efforts in the last several decades and the resurgence of segregation, especially where “school choice” models carry the day. The authors conclude that “the country has turned away from the goal of Brown and accepted deepening polarization and inequality in our schools.”

Part of this failure to uphold Brown’s promise stems from those who have driven school policy for the last several decades. “The focus of this rally is corporate influence,” says Rosalie Friend, rally organizer and retired education professor. “Business interests have succeeded in modifying school policies based on principles that don’t have a lot to do with learning.”

She sees private actors capturing public education on several fronts: Curriculum geared toward standardized tests and outsourced to big publishers, governance seized from the electorate by mayors in dozens of urban districts, district schools turned over to charter management, and financial titans digging into educational markets worth$4 trillion globally.

Within this tidal shift, a resistance movement is growing. Speaker Monty Neill of FairTest, a group that opposes high-stakes testing, called New York “the center of the resistance to high stakes testing.” This springover 30,000 New York parents opted their children out of standardized assessments. “In the 25 years I’ve been doing this,” said Neill, “I finally see a real movement.”

The rally’s attendees, who enjoyed a drubbing of New York governor Andrew Cuomo and education secretary Arne Duncan, can take heart in recent political developments. Educational progressives Bill de Blasio andRas Baraka recently won mayoralties in New York and Newark, respectively, in part by repudiating the free-market policies of the predecessors.

Teachers unions from Massachusetts toL.A. this year have elected presidents in the mold of Chicago’s progressive leadership, whose 2012 strike inaugurated a new, more pugnacious brand of unionism.

“Everywhere there’s a discussion about ‘will we join?’” says Jones. “It’s very similar to the historic civil rights movement, where a group of people does something and everyone else is on pins and needles, like, is this gonna be it?”

It’s a sentiment shared by many others. “One of our slogans,” says Greene, “is ‘education is a civil right.’”

Reclaiming “Civil Rights”

It may be one of the great ironies of education politics in the 21st century that Greene’s words would fit just as comfortably at a GOP fundraiser as they do at a protest at City Hall. Earlier this month Republican congressman Eric Cantor, author of some trulyghoulish austerity policies, visited a charter school in the Bronx to talk up school choice. “Educational opportunity,” heinformed the kids, “is the civil rights issue of our time.”

His posturing is nothing new. The free-market forces that the Save Our Schools coalition opposes have been appropriating the language of civil rights for decades. In fact, neoliberal reforms became ascendant only as their promulgators began to claim social justice rhetoric as their own.

In 1955, free market ideologue Milton Friedmandreamed up a way to unbridle schools from governmental regulation: school vouchers, coupons for parents to spend on the schools of their choice. Market fundamentalists took note, but desegregation, not deregulation, was the order of the day.

Vouchers got a boost after a Reagan-backed commission published “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, which warned “our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation” was being overtaken by better-educated nations. Using the language of “empowerment,” Reagan repeatedly pushed for school vouchers. His legislative efforts failed, but the spark for school reform was lit.

In 1989 Wisconsin lawmakers, led by black Democrats, passed the nation’s first modern voucher program in Milwaukee, an earnest attempt to expand opportunities for mostly African American students in woefully underfunded schools. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation immediatelyco-opted the effort, trumpeting its emancipatory potential to minority voters rightfully dismayed with the state of their public schools. Choice proponents even flew the bill’s Democratic sponsor, Polly Williams, to Washington to be feted. (She’s since renounced vouchers.)

The Wisconsin voucher fight demonstrated how civil rights rhetoric could bolster school choice policies. The Wall Street Journal compared the Milwaukee superintendent’s opposition of vouchers to Alabama governor George Wallace’s 1963 blockade of the schoolhouse door to prevent integration. Reagan education secretary William Bennett remarked in 1990 that school choice was “next great civil rights arena.”

Bennett was probably the first to make some version of the claim, since repeated by everyone from Barack Obama to Jeb Bush. “The best way to frame it,” said Republican strategist Ralph Reed of school choice in 1997, “is as a civil rights issue.”

Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, allowing private operators to receive public funding, freed from some staffing and operational regulations. By 2000 there would be 300,000 US students in for- and non-profit charter schools, a number that has grown to nearly 2 million today.

This is all despite what a recent scholarlyreview has confirmed: “a strong link” between the policies marketed by Democrats and Republicans alike as civil rights landmarks (school choice, charter schools, etc.) and “an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income.”

Then came the standardized tests.

In 2002 George W. Bush, againcasting education as the “civil rights issue of our time,” instituted No Child Left Behind, which united school choice with standards-based accountability, using test scores to determine which schools are closed (often to be replaced by charter schools) and which are spared. Seven years later President Obama added his Race to the Top program to the mix, which enticed states to tie standardized tests to teacher evaluations.

Since NCLB, tens of thousands of students, the overwhelming majority of them black and Latino, have seen their schools close. That hasn’t stopped Obama from intensifying the testing regime by shepherding in a tougher set of performance standards, the Common Core, on the logic that higher standards necessarily improve schools.

Secretary Duncan, casting the standards as a means of ensuring equity, went so far as to call the Common Core “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown vs Board of Education.”

But unlike Brown, whose roots grew out of community activism, it was gargantuan foundations, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation (of the Walmart empire) that begot the Common Core. Gates alone provided$150 million in funding. The testing industry, led by Pearson, has giddilypromoted the standards, which would streamline a diffuse curriculum market and cost states as much as$8 billion to implement.

“Everything that’s about the free-marketization of our schools—privatization, charter schools, choice—those mechanisms have been making the segregation worse,” Jones told the crowd.

It all raises the question: who pulls the levers of power in education these days? As rally organizer David Greene asks, “Who is going to control public schools? Is it going to be teachers, parents and communities—or the same corporate entities?”

Taking Back Our Schools

It’s the dramatic new testing policies that have most swelled the ranks of the Save Our Schools coalition. At the group’s inaugural march in front of the White House in 2011, “people were in an uproar about high-stakes testing,” says Greene. The rally drew thousands, including Matt Damon and Diane Ravitch (who missed this weekend’s rally for knee surgery). “This was before Common Core,” says Greene, “the shit that hit the fan.”

Many of those in attendance this year were brought to the movement through testing resistance. “The future of the school rests on the backs of eight-year-olds,” says Lauren Cohen, a Brooklyn fifth-grade teacher. Education authorities, she says, “create a narrative of failure so that we need Pearson.”

Cohen attended the rally with a few dozen other red-shirted members ofMORE, the upstart social-justice caucus of New York’s teachers union. She recalls being reprimanded by a principal simply for telling an anxious child “don’t worry” before a high-stakes test. “I came to see high-stakes testing as the linchpin, the mechanism for privatizers,” she says.

Authorities point to low test scores to justify closing schools or converting them to charters. When New York rolled out more difficult Common Core-aligned tests last year, scores dropped by about 30 points anddisparities between students of color and their white peers grew.

Among the ralliers, no words inspired more vitriol than Common Core. But testing is just one of the coalition’s many challenges ahead. When de Blasiohalted the expansion of three charter schools in the city, monied pro-charter interests unleashed over $5 million in abarrage of ads attacking the mayor. Shortly afterward, Cuomo and the state legislature passed what’s now considered the nation’s most charter-friendlyeducation law, mandating the city to fund private space for charters.

“The forces we’re going to need to muster we don’t yet have,” says Jones. “But we’re growing.” In his longshot bid for lieutenant governor, Jones hopes “to frame the ideas of this movement and inject them into the electoral arena.”

“What we’re doing right now is, literally, a civil rights struggle,” Jones told the crowd. If that’s the case, actually “Taking Back Our Schools” will rest, at least in part, on taking back the language of civil rights.

Ten-year-old Chicago school activist Asean Johnson, who may havesaved his school from closure last year with a fierydenunciation of Rahm Emanuel, ended the rally by appropriating some language of his own. “Remember,” he cried: “Always stand your ground.”

Owen Davis is a New York-based writer and former intern at The Nation magazine. He writes curriculum for the alternative children's magazine IndyKids. Davis blogs here and tweets @of_davis.