This article, which we reprint from the quarterly journal of the US Trotskyist group The Spark (Class Struggle #68 - Nov-Dec 2010), describes the crisis in the US "public" school system. Unlike here, "public" actually means what it says: state-funded, non-fee-paying schools! And in particular, the article looks at the way in which so-called "charter schools" are being pushed by the Obama regime as a "cure-all", especially in the poor inner city districts.
Since British education ministers and their expensive hangers-on have been tramping an increasingly worn path across the Atlantic, in order to borrow all kinds of ideas from the US system - under successive Tory and Labour governments - it should be a source of some anxiety to them that things are not going too well "over there".
But apparently not! The "charter schools" of the US were first the model for Blair's "academies" and now they are supposed to serve as models for the Con Dem's "free schools" initiative. The Swedish model is more likely to be quoted by the "Dems" however, as it is probably considered more palatable to their electorate.
What are these "free schools"? They are supposed to be the ultimate in parental choice: to quote from Gove's official statement, they "will be academies, free from local authority control...able to set their own pay and conditions for staff", they will not have to follow the National Curriculum, and they will be able to follow their own schooling timetables.
Unlike Swedish "free schools", but like "charter" schools in the US they will be "not for profit" organisations and fully state-funded (which does not mean they cannot find additional funding, but they will not be obliged to do so.) That said, one of the Swedish companies involved in a chain of "for profit" free schools in Sweden has set up 2 academies in the past year in Britain and is looking to expand further. One would imagine it is not out of charity but in the expectation of some kind of return.
Free schools, says Gove, can be set up by "any suitable proposer where there is evidence of parental demand such as a petition or declaration from interested parents".
The list of "suitable proposers" includes charities, academy sponsors, universities, independent schools, community and faith groups, teachers, parents and businesses... They can be small or big - but should preferably be small. Toby Young a journalist who often writes for the Guardian and other parents are setting up the "West London Free School" for just 120 children. As to where the schools can be sited, well that is also controversial, since the usual planning permission is due to be waived and "schools" could occupy old shops, houses, garages, etc., even perhaps a garden shed?
Gove's press notice of the free school initiative quoted liberally from the pro-charter school movement, using studies which have been found to be questionable, in order to claim that they are superior to the traditional public schools in the US.
To provide a set-up fund for these schools he has diverted the money inended to upgrade classroom technology (the Harnessing Technology Fund) worth £50m. The job of administering the first "free schools" due to open in September 2011, has been given to the "New Schools Network" NSN) which has been given a grant of £500,000. This NSN brings together right-wing academics and well known figures who have been involved in setting up independent schools and in particular from the ARK ("Absolute Return for Kids") organisation - which came into being under Labour's academy programme and which has both an unpleasant, elitist and competitive approach to its selection of teachers and staff, (it trains "leaders", not "teachers"!) as well as to education itself. ARK has backers from hedge funds and private equity groups. As will be seen below, the Americans aptly call them "vulture philanthropists"!
Gove repeats almost exactly what the protagonists of the charter schools say about "the importance of great teaching" - but shows what hot air this is in the article he wrote in January this year as a response to the OECD's Pisa League tables which rank countries according to the performance of their pupils. Britain has fallen from 4th to 16th place in science, from 7th to 25th for literacy and from 8th to 28th for maths in the last 10 years.
Gove claims his White Papers "The importance of teaching" and "The case for change" incorporating the "free schools idea" and the go-ahead for all schools to become independent academies (not just failing schools, as under Labour) will improve the situation.
Whether he really believes it not is another matter, of course: "And 2011 will see a change in the programme, with more than 400 academies now open.... These schools exemplify many of the virtues which are enjoyed by schools in the best-performing education systems. The greater the amount of autonomy at school level, with principals free to vary curricula, staffing and internal organisation, the greater the potential for all-round improvement and the greater the opportunity for the system to move from good to great."
But if Gove was following his own advice he would be emulating the best performing education system in Europe - that of Finland, where the system is extremely egalitarian, addressing poverty first and foremost and equalising the funding per pupil even between the few private schools and state schools! It is pupil centred, with minimal testing and exams, hours spent at school are among the shortest in the OECD and teachers might stay with the same group of pupils for two to three years or even more. It is a highly regulated, centralised system with a national curriculum and all its teachers are unionised and have recognised collective bargaining rights!
No, the "freedom" which the government is talking about is the freedom to have cheap, non-unionised teachers who work infinite hours, and are supposedly incentivised by being offered bonuses for "good results".
Behind his rhetoric is little more than the drive to cut direct public expenditure on education in the same way that all other state social provision is under pressure of the knife. And all the more so since the onset of the current financial crisis.
However even this "cut" is a sleight of hand - since the real, long term objective is to divert to the private sector, a reliable source of income from the public purse. Of course private companies already (notoriously) provide school meals, IT support, buildings management, maintenance and so on (usually under PFI deals) and have been making a lot of money out of it. So why not extend this to teaching?
This is what "parental choice" and its vehicle, the voucher system, is all about: the money is meant to follow the child, wherever his or her parents send them.
While the state loses its economies of scale by the setting up of lots of small unregulated schools (which all qualify for public subsidy), many more exploitable possibilities for the private sector are created - whether it be via provision of services to the multiplying schools or by taking over the education functions themselves. That is, of course if the whole idea actually takes off. Because so far only 10% of schools have taken up the offer of converting themselves into academies and Gove had only had around 25 applications for "free schools" by January this year (although apparently there have been 300 "expressions of interest") including 7 from religious groups, to set up faith-based tuition...
Of course these free schools are a gimmick. But they are also a Trojan horse for further privatisation and commercialisation in education. And while they take Labour's academies one step further, they take education several more steps backwards.
The following account of charter schools shows just how much worse things could get, if Gove is allowed to have his way.
Public schooling in the United States is under attack; and that attack is being reinforced by some of the biggest actors in the propaganda machine.
In late September, a documentary on the US school system entitled Waiting for "Superman" was released to great fanfare - much more fanfare than any documentary usually receives. It was covered in all the major news outlets, and its director and "cast" received star treatment on not one, but two Oprah episodes and several NBC news programs.
Waiting for "Superman", Oprah, the New York Times and NBC are all telling the same story: that the nation's public schools are in a crisis, that they are failing the children - and that it is the fault of the schools themselves, the teachers and the teachers' unions, which protect bad teachers with an impregnable tenure system that makes it impossible to remove them.
These shills [tradesmens' sidekicks] are all calling for the same set of "reforms": to increase the number of charter schools and to hand more and more public money and scarce resources over to them; to dismantle teachers' unions and union contracts; to get rid of rigorous teacher certification in urban school districts, while simultaneously, and paradoxically, instituting greater so-called "accountability" requirements on those teachers.
In this they are joined by President Barack Obama and his Education Department chief, Arne Duncan, who have made these requirements the centerpiece of their "Race to the Top" and its disbursement of discretionary funds. And they are receiving support from state legislatures and city school boards across the country, which are passing Race-to-the-Top-approved legislation and policies carrying them out.
Working class schools cheated of funds
All of these critics have one thing right: there is a crisis in the public schools. And it can be seen in some stark statistics: twenty-three per cent of the US adult population is functionally illiterate. Over 30 per cent of all students who enter high school never finish, not even counting all those who never make it into high school. And of those who finish and go on to community colleges, nearly half need to take remedial courses to get them up to where they should have been when they left high school!
It's a catastrophe at a time when basic education is necessary simply to function in society. But the catastrophe is not distributed equally across the board. It resides primarily within working class and poor school districts, a reflection of a class system that systematically produces a funding inequality between the public schools serving the well-to-do layers of society and those serving the working-class and poor layers. This unequal funding has created a huge chasm between the quality of schools serving these different layers.
Public schools in the United States are organised and largely funded at the local level; overwhelmingly, their primary funding comes from local property taxes, which can, of course, vary widely depending on the property values within a particular locality. Cities and towns with a high rate of poverty have much lower property values than wealthy and middle-class suburbs, ensuring that the school districts in wealthy areas will always have much more money to spend on their students than those in poorer areas - no matter how highly residents of the poorer districts may tax themselves (and they regularly do vote to tax themselves at a much higher rate than do the residents of wealthy areas).
On average, across the United States, high-spending school districts spend three times as much per student as do low-spending school districts. Even in states that have made a pretense at equalising funding, large disparities remain - because the states themselves give unequal amounts to different districts. For example, in Michigan, the state's 2009 share of per-pupil funding varied widely, from $12,443 in the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills to just over $7000, the minimum, in working-class and rural districts. And this unequal state funding is added to the already unequal local funding.
Disparity of funding has a direct impact on the quality of education offered in each school district. Wealthy districts have everything they could possibly want, including state-of-the-art science laboratory-classrooms, computer labs and libraries, not to mention theatres and recording studios, while many poorer districts can barely keep century-old buildings standing. Wealthy districts pay their teachers much more, on average, than poorer districts do. The current average for US teachers is $41,000 (£25,666); in the wealthiest district of Maryland, Montgomery County, the average teacher pay was $67,000 (£41,942), that is, more than 60% higher. In addition, wealthy districts can hire more teachers, offering a much lower student-to-teacher ratio than poorer districts do.
This inequality in teacher payment and working conditions often means a huge disparity in the qualifications of teachers hired. To be hired in the wealthier districts, a teacher needs a fair amount of teaching experience and a master's degree from a highly respected teaching school; while in New York City, for example, nearly half the teachers lack even a teaching degree, not to mention any training in the subject they are teaching. Very often, in urban schools, students' math and science classes might be "taught" by a series of substitute teachers, with no regular teacher for an entire year. Needless to say, these students will have learned practically nothing in those classes that year.
So, yes, there is a deep problem in the public schools, first of all because the children of the rich are always given a better education, with greater amounts of resources, than the children of the working class, especially its poorest layers.
The mouthpieces pushing "school reform" pretend that money doesn't matter. Well, the wealthy, whose children go to the best schools, know that's not true. It's why their schools are given so much more money.
It's frankly obvious what the solution to problems of unequal schooling would be. Anyone truly seeking to build a system aimed at giving every single child the best possible education would first equalise funding, so that all districts received the same large funding that the wealthy ones do.
That would be only the beginning, though. Children born into poverty begin their schooling already well behind those born into privilege, who, exposed to culture and literature by their parents, usually already know how to read and do basic maths when they enter school. This was exactly the problem that the "Head Start" early childhood education programs were created to address - to attempt to shrink the disadvantage poorer students have even before they enter the schools - by teaching young children, in very small groups with one-on-one attention, how to read. Studies showed that Head Start did indeed have a significant effect on shrinking the performance gap for the early grades. But starting in the 1980s, funding for Head Start, as well as many other social programs, has been progressively cut. And it's not the same Head Start, since more and more local programs are run by private interests and church organisations, simply as day care centres, instead of by professional educators.
Anyone seeking to give all children a quality education would be pushing to flood the poor and working class districts with resources - to give the schools for children of the working class, especially its poorest layers, MORE funding than wealthy schools.
Government and wealthy organise to privatise
But just the opposite has been happening: for the past 20 years, in response to a growing economic crisis, the gap has been growing wider, as public money has been drained from working class public schools as well as other institutions; as governments at all levels have given more and more money to the wealthy and corporations to build up their profits in a stagnant economy.
The first prong of that hand-over has been through a series of changes to the laws aimed at giving education money to private enterprise: to privatise the public schools or to simply close them, diverting more and more money from public education into private hands.
In 1996, Lehman Brothers (the now-defunct bank) organised a conference to discuss investment possibilities in public education. It had just issued a report in which it declared, "The education industry may replace health care in 1996 as THE focus industry". Mary Tanner, a managing director of Lehman Brothers at the time, declared, "Education today, like health care 20 years ago, is a vast, highly localized industry ripe for change. The emergence of HMOs and hospital management companies created enormous opportunities for investors. We believe the same pattern will occur in education". Several more investors' conferences were organised by the banks within the same year, all for the same purpose.
Profit was already being made off the schools. Schools already were forced to purchase services and supplies in the marketplace, from private janitorial companies, vending machine and textbook companies, all of which made (and continue to make) large amounts of money. By the time of the Lehman conference, twenty-five per cent of all public school expenditures already were going to private enterprise.
But starting in the mid-1990s, private investors set their sights on something much bigger: the schools themselves. They looked at the education of the country's children, and they saw dollar signs. Major investors - like Lehman Brothers, JPMorgan, and Fidelity Investments - expressed interest, and they started working to make this happen. Politicians were only too happy to oblige.
In 1994, during the Clinton administration, Congress had already passed the "Improving America's Schools Act", which had provided the pretext for privatisation in the form of charter schools - schools that get public money, but are not run by and not accountable to the boards of education that fund them.
Congress followed up in 1997 with the "Charter School Expansion Act",which boosted funding for charter schools and even used blackmail by directing extra funds to those states that encouraged charter schools. It began a wholesale push for the privatisation of the poor and working class public school districts.
States moved quickly to authorise charter schools: at the beginning of the 1996-97 school year, 23 states had already passed some form of charter school authorization. Three years later, that number had jumped to 34.
Despite all this prodding, by the year 2000 there were only 1,000 charter schools in the entire country, attended by only 250,000 children out of a school age population of 64 million. The first reaction from parents where the charter schools were pushed was less than enthusiastic. In Detroit, for example, one of the first places charters were pushed strongly, some parents pulled their children out of public schools and enrolled them in charters - only to move their children right back when they discovered the charters were in chaos.
Foundations jump in
The charter school "movement" needed some help to get going. And they found it, in the guise of "philanthropic" foundations. Since the year 2000, several large foundations headed by some very wealthy people have put their focus on reorganising public schools and creating charter schools. They moved to use their money in several ways: to provide propaganda for charter schools; to flood a few charters with enough money to serve as models; and to give money to public school districts, as a lure to set up charter schools.
The most important of these foundations were the Walton Family Foundation, established by Sam Walton, the Walmart founder; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
It's hard to imagine that these three tycoons had the welfare of children at heart when they entered the education arena. Walmart, after all, is notorious for paying its workers minimum wage and telling them to get health care - for themselves and their children - from Medicaid. Bill Gates largely hires contract workers here in the US, not to mention making his billions off starvation wages abroad. And Eli Broad made his millions in real estate, broadening out into life insurance and other financial wheeling and dealing before selling his business to AIG in 1999.
No, they're not in this for the children. They went into it with the goal of freeing up billions of dollars of public education funding to be handed over in subsidies, tax breaks and outright gifts to the big corporations.
As one commentator puts it, "What is happening in large urban districts today has been carefully orchestrated by vulture philanthropists".
And what vultures! All of them have been pushing hard for charter schools, and what they call teacher accountability and merit pay, which amounts to getting rid of teachers' unions, slashing wages, and being able to fire teachers at will.
To influence urban school districts at the local level, Eli Broad created the Broad Superintendent Training Academy. This Training Academy has trained business people - not educators - to become superintendents, principals and school board members in urban school districts across the country. Since 2002, about 130 "Fellows" have graduated from the Broad Academy and have found positions in 33 US cities in 25 states and the District of Columbia. (Michelle Rhee, the former DC Chancellor and current star of the movie "Waiting for 'Superman'" is not a Broad Fellow, but is a good friend of Broad's, talking to him on a regular basis).
In 2009, Broad told an audience in New York City, "We don't know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance." Broad brags openly that education itself is not important. The bottom line is.. the bottom line.
The federal government has worked closely with the foundations. Under George W Bush in 2001, the "No Child Left Behind" Act stepped up the attacks on the public schools and increased pressure for privatisation. It established a mechanism for forcing the creation of more charter schools. Among other things, it demanded that every school receiving federal money demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" in student test scores - or money would be taken away. (This "progress" had nothing to do with real education or real student achievement, but was based solely on very narrow tests in maths and reading.)
If a school did not show "progress" for three years running, it would be forced to reorganise in one of several ways - including closing and reopening as a charter school, or hiring a private school management company to run it. Finally, all schools receiving federal funds were required to reach "100 per cent proficiency" by the year 2014 - or be shuttered and privatised.
The goals were so blatantly impossible that some districts, and even whole states, quickly found ways to "game" the system. For example, the state of Illinois lowered its definition for "proficiency" to a mere twenty percent result in its test - something a student could achieve just by guessing answers at random! (This is how the Chicago Public Schools, under Arne Duncan, demonstrated "progress.")
Barack Obama's "Race to the Top" continued Bush's policies and made them even more cutthroat, if that's possible. Arne Duncan, now Obama's Education Secretary, has filled his administration with people connected to both the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. (An Associated Press analysis said, "The real secretary of education, the joke goes, is Bill Gates").
If states wanted to compete for a piece of $4.3 billion (£2.6bn) in US Department of Education funding, they had to make an application showing they had opened themselves up to more charter schools, attacked teacher tenure and pegged teacher pay to student performance on standardised tests. If states didn't do these things, they were automatically disqualified from receiving the money. But states had to push through these changes even before they learned if they had been awarded any money, and many states learned they had received none of it even after making these changes - a very tiny carrot, combined with a very big stick.
As a result of all these constant attacks and cynical manipulations by governments and wealthy foundations, charter schools have been swallowing up significant chunks of some working class public school systems. By 2008, twelve school districts had at least 20 percent of their public school students enrolled in charter schools - meaning a significant part of their funding was also going to charter schools. Nearly a third of schools in Washington, D.C., Dayton, Ohio and Southfield, Michigan, are charters. In New Orleans, where officials had used the destruction of Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to remake the school district, over 55 percent of the schools became charters. According to the Detroit News, Detroit now has 79 charter schools enrolling 44,375 students - over half as many students as those currently enrolled in the public schools - and pulling in 336 million dollars in state money.
By 2010, over 1.4 million students were enrolled in over 4,600 charter schools across the country. It still is not a lot. But those schools are concentrated in working class districts. Faced with government requirements, wealthy districts have tended to opt out of the federal money - because they know how damaging the No-Child-Left-Behind and Race-to-the-Top requirements are, and how substandard most charter schools are. Besides, the wealthy districts can afford not to give in to blackmail.
Charter Schools: a disaster for children
If the charter schools were producing a better quality education for the students, as advertised, there might be something to discuss. In fact, education in the hardest-hit districts has gotten worse - and it could only get worse - in both public schools and the charter schools that replace them.
Despite the few model charter schools, set up with lots of foundation dollars, all adequately designed studies show that overall, charter schools achieve no better results, or WORSE results, than the neighborhood schools their students would be going to - even by the narrow standards that No Child Left Behind established: performance on standardised tests. The most comprehensive study to date, by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that only 17 per cent of charter schools provided superior results to those of the neighborhood public schools, while 37 per cent provided worse - which means that over twice as many charter schools were worse than better. Put another way, if parents were to pull their children out of a public school and enroll them in a charter school, they would be twice as likely to receive a worse education at the charter school than a better education!
Charter schools also drain resources. Every child who moves from a public school to a charter school takes the public funding with them - meaning a drain of resources from the public schools, and a greater difficulty for the remaining schools to maintain themselves, much less improve.
Charter schools also drain resources from education in the charters themselves. The decentralisation of charter schools means a lot of duplication - of curriculum creation, of payroll structure, of ordering of textbooks and other materials. All this duplication leads to a much higher administrative cost, which comes from that per-pupil public funding - meaning it's NOT used for the education of the students. The charter school structure is a drain of resources from everyone - even in the charter schools themselves, even the non-profit ones.
The jury is no longer out on charter schools. Aside from a few that get extra resources and serve as the showcases, they do no better than public schools, and often worse - much worse, sometimes - in educating students. If the goal of all these "reformers" in the government was truly to increase the quality of education for the country's children, they would immediately put a halt to the funding of charter schools, and pour those resources - and much more - back INTO the public schools they were stolen from.
Corporations benefit from charter schools
Instead, the politicians and the pundits continue pushing full steam ahead with charters, and for an important reason.
The decentralisation associated with charter schools is exactly what makes this push so attractive to the foundations, and the corporations behind them. Instead of one single administration controlling the purse strings in large urban school districts, charter schools break up that control - opening those funds up to a massive slew of contractors selling services (maintenance, accounting, food service) formerly handled directly by the districts themselves. Not to mention the large textbook chains, which can now strike even more profitable deals with lots and lots of individual schools instead of dealing with centralised boards of education, which have the possibility to set certain limits on what they will pay. Moreover, with so many different schools, there is little possibility for financial accountability.
Finally, the push for charter schools opens the door for business to step in and make a buck off education directly, by running the schools. But in order for companies to make a good profit on top of the expenses involved in running the schools, they must keep costs down: which means to supply their students with as little as they can get away with, while paying fewer teachers less money to do more work - young teachers who get overwhelmed by the workload and leave after two years, never allowing any continuity to be established. And that's exactly what we see with most charter schools.
Not only that, but charter schools can be founded by almost anyone, which means that plenty of charter schools have been founded by outright scam artists hoping to turn a quick buck. The charter school laws have allowed all sorts of fly-by-night operations to set up "schools" in old warehouses or storefronts, and make millions in a very short period of time - and then close down in a year or two, leaving their students high and dry. Some of the "fly-by-nights" are very large companies: in 2004, the largest charter school company in California, the California Charter Academy, went bankrupt, closing 60 schools and leaving over 6,000 students without a school to attend, right at the beginning of the school year. But not before the founder of the company had gotten $100 million (£62.6m) from the state!
Attacking the teachers
It is no surprise to see this push for school privatisation during a period like this, when the response of government to the crisis has been to make cuts to all sorts of public programs. But the attack on education doesn't just stop with privatisation. The bourgeoisie and its politicians are also moving to reduce the amount of public money spent on education, to free it up for corporate bailouts and tax cuts.
Districts have already spent less and less on school buildings, allowing them to crumble around the students, and on other services within the buildings, getting rid of regular maintenance, janitorial, or nursing staff. What's left now are the teachers themselves, who make up the single largest part of the budget in any public school system.
The first attack on teachers over the last few decades was simply to reduce their numbers by closing schools, combining programs and laying off, pushing more students into fewer classrooms taught by fewer teachers. But today, the attack is on the entire profession itself.
Propaganda by the foundations, by politicians and pundits - and, yes, by Oprah and Waiting for "Superman" - pushes the idea that the problems in the public schools are all the fault of bad teachers.
They pretend that teachers are unaccountable because they have "tenure," which makes it impossible for administrators to remove them. The fact that this is a blatant lie doesn't stop the propagandists from repeating it. But "tenure" doesn't mean a job for life - it means the teacher has a right to due process before being removed. In fact, all attempts to remove teacher tenure have ended up being attempts to remove higher-paid, more experienced teachers for no reason at all, and to replace them with inexperienced, much lower-paid teachers. This is what the "accountability" pushed by the "vulture philanthropists" truly means.
Moreover, people like Broad and Gates push the ridiculous idea that teachers in struggling school districts don't need to be trained or have experience, and they call for doing away with training requirements for those school districts. Superintendents coming out of the "Broad Academy" pretend that anyone can teach, if they are just enthusiastic enough - which is nothing but a justification for paying little more than minimum wage to kids not even out of college. Replacing higher-paid, more experienced and better trained teachers with young teachers paid little better than minimum rate, who often will burn out and be replaced every few years by other new low-paid teachers - this is the way the vultures expect to slash education budgets still further, freeing up even more public money to hand to private enterprise.
Detroit: an image of the rest of the country's future
In urban school districts across the country, Trojan Horse administrators, trained by the Broad Foundation, go in (appointed by mayors and governors) and use extraordinary powers to destroy and dismantle the public schools, leaving more and more families with no choice but to send their children to charter schools. By the time these administrators leave the school districts, the damage has been done - public education is in shreds.
The Detroit Public Schools started coming under this attack much earlier than most other school districts. In 1999, then-governor Engler and Michigan's state legislature forced through laws usurping the Detroit district from local control and handing it to the governor and Detroit's mayor to ruin. They appointed a new school board which then established the first large round of charter schools - and proved to be openly corrupt. This appointed school board ignited a firestorm of protests among the city's parents and community members, leading to a city-wide referendum to reestablish an elected school board in 2005.
This elected school board started to put the brakes on charter schools, going so far as to refuse a "gift" of $200m (£125m) from local "vulture philanthropist" Bob Thompson, who insisted the money go to building fifteen new charter schools in the city.
Almost immediately, the elected school board came under fire from Governor Jennifer Granholm and other officials, as well as the Skillman Foundation (another vulture philanthropy group) and business people like Dave Bing, who later went on to become Detroit's mayor.
At the beginning of 2009, Granholm again usurped local control of the district by appointing Robert Bobb, who happens to be a Broad Academy graduate, as the Emergency Financial Manager of the Detroit Public Schools. Not only did he graduate from the Broad Academy, but he receives over $140,000 (£87,000) from the Broad Foundation (and other foundations) on top of his $250,000 (£157,000) public salary, every year. (A judge just ruled that wasn't a conflict of interest. Not surprising, since Bobb and the judge both serve the same interests!)
Bobb was appointed supposedly to address a crippling DPS budget deficit, which stood at nearly $220m (£137m) at the time. Interestingly enough, though, the deficit has only ballooned under Bobb, to at least $332m. In addition, according to the Michigan Chronicle, Bobb obtained loans for the school system from the state of Michigan, totalling another $443m that aren't yet included in the official deficit.
He leveraged the whole school district with bonds a lot like those adjustable rate mortgages that got so many homeowners in trouble. It allowed him to claim at first that he'd shrunk the district's debt - but then the interest rates ballooned so much that this year ALL the money the district receives from the state will go to interest on the loans. (Thanks to these kinds of loans, the investment banks do not even have to take over the schools to make huge profits from them.)
That ballooning debt gives him an excuse to dismantle the district. He has closed dozens of schools each of the past two years, leaving some elementary students with no neighbourhood schools within a mile or more of their homes. This has forced thousands of parents to either drive their children long distances to public schools, or to send their kids to the only schools that remain close by - charter schools newly opened in their neighbourhoods, sometimes in the very buildings that used to house the public schools.
Closing neighbourhood schools is just the opposite of what you'd do if you wanted to improve the quality of the schools. Some of the neighbourhood schools Bobb closed had long served as linchpins of the whole surrounding community. (Miller School, closed by Bobb two years ago, still draws hundreds of alumni to its yearly reunions - who camp out AT the closed school.) To close the neighbourhood schools sets off the collapse of the public school system itself, not to mention the city and its neighbourhoods.
Bobb has laid off hundreds of teachers and other personnel in the district. He claims this is necessary because of declining enrollment, but if that were the only reason, many fewer schools would have been closed. It's easily seen by the fact that class size has gone UP this year, approaching an average of 40 students in a class. That can only ensure a worse education for the students, not a better one, and it can only force more parents, in their desperation, to seek other options - like charter schools. (If a better education were the goal, all schools would remain open with all teachers retained, lowering the teacher-student ratio!)
The district has also replaced longtime, experienced teachers with young people from "Teach For America", fresh out of college, who teach for two years for very little pay. They have no experience and no real training in the practicalities of how to teach or, often, even in the subjects they teach. These Teach for America "teachers" - tossed into the deep end without knowing how to swim - rotate in and out every two years. In other words, they leave right when a teacher is usually just starting to get the hang of things. Such constant changes ruin students' education, disrupting any continuity in the school from year to year. But it does let administrators pay less money for wages now, lowering the "necessary" amount available for the teaching staff in later years.
Once Bobb closed schools, he started to lease and then to sell the buildings directly to charter school companies.
Angry parents and community members have increasingly turned out to school board meetings in protest (prompting several meetings to be cancelled or adjourned early). In the brief 18 months that Bobb has been in control of the schools, public opinion in Detroit has swung from strong support for what was seen as his no-nonsense, anti-corruption approach to a strong opposition to his attempts to close more and more schools. For many Detroit parents, the end of his tenure in February 2011 can't come soon enough.
In the face of this growing opposition, Bobb is resorting to outright extortion, using the debt he has created to prepare a "choice" of two horrendous plans for the district and the state.
Plan A asks the state to wipe out the district's debt - in exchange for having the state completely reorganise the district. Few concrete details have yet been revealed, but Bobb's office says Plan A will include: State take-over of the schools; eliminating all teacher certification requirements in the city (which will help the district turn teaching more into a low-wage job); increasing the number of charter schools in the city; setting up "cyber schools" making students stay home and "go to school" over the Internet - in other words, giving them no school at all.
Bobb says the only alternative is Plan B, which includes: Closing 100 more schools in the next three years; increasing class sizes to 31 students at K-3 levels, the years in which individual teacher attention is most needed; putting a whopping 62 students in each high school class; outsourcing the finance department - and all its money! - and other divisions; and eliminating student transportation completely.
Plan B, in other words, would completely destroy the district in the name of "balancing the budget." It is so ridiculous, it seems Plan B's only purpose must be to force people to accept Plan A - which amounts to something equally destructive, in a more hidden way.
Washington DC parents vote NO on "Superman's" hero
Parents in more urban school districts hit by these attacks are starting to react against them. Maybe the most important rejection came in Washington DC.
Michelle Rhee, appointed Chancellor by Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007, unilaterally closed numerous schools, fired over 400 teachers and principals, and brought in many charter schools. The recent Democratic mayoral primary there was seen as a referendum on Rhee and on Fenty's support of her. Fenty lost overwhelmingly to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray.
In particular, Fenty was overwhelmingly defeated in the largely black, working class districts - that is, the districts where children actually go to the public schools. Gray won 82% of the vote in two of those districts, for example. In Northwest Washington, on the other hand, where white, wealthy voters predominate and where most children go to private schools, Fenty won 76% of the vote. The anti-Fenty vote was clearly fuelled by the anger of parents in the public schools. Shortly after the election, Rhee announced she would step down.
In the face of this mounting opposition in cities across the country, Waiting for "Superman" opened, renewing the campaign against teachers and for charter schools. Rhee and Gates are made out to be heroes in the film, as are several heads of "showcase" charter schools. None of the problems with charter schools is mentioned in the film. The film's director, Davis Guggenheim, and all those supporting the film, including Obama and Duncan, have worked very hard to try to convince urban parents that everything they know - about the true problems with the schools, and about the failings of charters' supposed solutions - is wrong.
The fight for a wide-ranging, full education for all
Publicly funded education didn't exist in this country until there were movements that fought for it - movements of workers in the cities of the North in the late 1800s, and the Reconstruction movement of poor whites and freed slaves in the post-Civil War South. But if the wealthy and their allies in the government are successful today, in the working class districts we're heading toward a two-tier situation where those with the means will leave the public schools for private schools and the few better publicly-funded charters, while those without the means will be left behind in extremely underfunded, substandard public schools and poorly-run charter schools.
Capitalism - looking to drain money from the schools - is ready to abandon an important share of the children of the working class and the poor, abandon them to ignorance and futility, without even the pretense of an education.
The crisis of education is part and parcel of the crisis of capitalism itself. Today, capitalists have no interest in long-term investment in a productive economy, so they have no interest in even a minimal education for many working class children. It's criminal.
Even just on a human level, all children have a deep need for knowledge and culture, for a scientific understanding of the world. In a world freed of all forms of exploitation and oppression, a full education for all would be a basic priority - just like food, shelter and health care.
The capitalists have made it clear we won't have full education for all under their system. But in fighting for a society free of class exploitation, the working class can bring this into being - and so much more.