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School Reformers Gain Momentum Fighting Corporate Influence

A growing movement in education resists the trend toward privatization.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Eric Crama via Shutterstock.com

 

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.

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 recent report, “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 spring over 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 and Ras 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 to L.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?”