History does not often repeat itself. While the gap between the wealthy and the poor has widened to a degree not seen since the Gilded Age, the reasons for those gaps each arose out of their own peculiar circumstances. This means that it is tough for those who want to fight back against what is happening today to look for historical models. Instead, a totally new approach must be conceived.
Start first with President Obama’s payroll tax “holiday” from this past Friday. Even though it does not destroy Social Security, it shows the way to its destruction. Social Security has always been self-funded. The only problem it ever faced was that it worked too well, causing the federal government under mostly Republican administrations to raid its surpluses in order to pay for the bonehead policies of today, like tax cuts for the wealthy and imperialist war. This “holiday” will temporarily cut off the revenue stream to social security, necessitating that Congress approve the funds to make up the shortfall at a later date. This gives Congress the authority, if they so choose, to deny those funds. In essence, it sets a precedent of putting the continuation of Social Security in the hands of Congress. The supposed “firewalls” that protected the program are being chipped away.
The fact that a Democratic president oversaw such a plan is blasphemous. Social Security is one of the last bulwarks of the New Deal, put into place by a president who shaped Democratic values for generations to come. Now we have a Democratic president who has sold those values out every chance he has gotten. It is tough to see what new values he has put in their place aside from those of the Republican Party.
The public schools in New York got another taste of Obama’s values this past Thursday with the new teacher evaluation agreements. These agreements arose out of New York State’s application for Race to the Top funds, the school reform program instituted by President Obama. Despite Obama’s assurances that RTT is a break from the Republican No Child Left Behind Act, it is merely an acceleration of its standardized testing, charter school-opening vision. The closing of 23 public schools in New York City will surely give birth to more privately run charters. The new teacher evaluation system will give rise to a massive testing and rating regime handled by private corporations.
That has been the common theme of everything Obama has done as president. Whatever benefits the corporate is good. What is good for workers, including the working poor, is destroyed.
Part of the condition of New York receiving RTT funds was that it had to institute new teacher evaluations. As of Thursday’s agreement, those evaluations will be based 40% on the test scores of their students. Subjects and grades that do not currently have testing will need to have them, a boon to the testing companies. The ratings of each teacher will need to be calculated and compiled by outside companies, like Rupert Murdoch’s Pearson, which will surely turn educational statistics into a new boom industry. This is the real Obama stimulus package: sell off parts of the public sector in order to create new industries in the private sector.
Despite the fact that only 40% of teacher ratings will be based on test scores, a teacher will be rated ineffective overall if found deficient on that 40%. Two ineffective ratings will be grounds for termination. You read that correctly. Thanks to Obama, not only is Social Security on the road to extinction, but tenure for New York teachers has been effectively destroyed. Seeing as how New York usually serves as a template for the rest of the country, this will surely mean the destruction of tenure for teachers in other states as well. Obama did what Scott Walker in Wisconsin was trying to do for so long. All Walker needed was a Democratic president to help him.
But of course, Obama could not have done any of this alone. He faces an intractable Republican opposition that has veered so far to the right that Mussolini himself would be jealous. In New York, his RTT could have never destroyed tenure the way it has done without the active complicity of the teachers’ unions. It was Michael Mulgrew, head of the UFT, who lauded the new teacher evaluations as a great deal. What he got for his teachers in that deal remains a mystery. For teachers in New York City, he agreed to allow only 13% of teachers rated ineffective to have access to any sort of due process. Those lucky teachers will most likely be chosen by the union, allowing the Mulgrews of the world to destroy any teacher that challenges the hegemony of his Unity caucus over the UFT.
The Democratic Party and labor unions, institutions that were supposed to have the backs of workers through thick and thin, have put a giant knife through those backs instead.
There really is no precedent for any of this in American history. Those of us who wish to fight back cannot look to historical models to guide a current plan of action. At a fundamental level, the protestors at Occupy Wall Street sensed this. They were not all about marching in the streets like the radicals of the past. Instead, they built a community from scratch based upon open debate, enlightenment and sharing of resources. Their method was an opting out of the profit system. As the walls close in on the American workers all around us, opting out is becoming their only option.
For teachers, a national opt out movement against standardized testing is already afoot. In their book Tinkering Towards Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban sought to explain why so many education reforms of the past have failed. Their conclusion was that these reforms never had the support of classroom teachers. Even though laws were passed and policies were instituted meant to bring about reform, they went nowhere once they filtered down to the classroom level. Either they were impractical or so removed from reality that teachers had no choice but to opt out of them. This, I think, is the only hope of the new teacher evaluation regime being defeated.
The new regime promises to put all curricula and all ratings (students, teachers and schools) in the hands of private companies. Instead of ceding this type of power to the Murdochs of the world, what if teachers threw their bodies on the gears, so to speak, and said “No”? What if they refused to prep their children for standardized exams in favor of teaching kids how to think? What if they told their students and parents to stay home on test days? What if, instead of building the data factories that Obama has mandated, teachers turn their schools into the types of places of learning that they want to see? What if the testing companies had no answer sheets to scan and, therefore, no way to compile data on “effective” and “ineffective” teachers?
Something as bold as this cannot be done through the union. They will never allow teachers to organize communities to this end. Instead, teachers must work outside of the union. They must build their own apparatuses and institutions that allow a grassroots type of organizing. They must build a regime within a regime, one more in touch with the needs of students, teachers and even administrators, so that the union itself becomes irrelevant. Throughout the past 35 years, the Democratic Party and labor unions have been shaping circumstances that leave workers behind. The only solution is for workers, starting with teachers, to shape circumstances of their own in order to leave the people who have sold us out behind.