It has been a long time by blogging standards since I have added a new post. In many ways, I was undergoing a crisis over the direction this blog should take. I resolved this crisis by deciding to start another serial, this time on the importance of Occupying the Board of Education. It was inspired by Occupy Wall Street’s commandeering of Dennis Walcott’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting this past Tuesday. Like everything else OWS does, it brought home the cruelty and indifference of the people we look to for leadership. As a teacher, I feel I have a duty to lay bare the importance of Occupying the Board of Education. Below is the start of that effort:
Fascism exalts the private over the public. For fascism to take hold, government and corporations must conspire to privatize public services. The United States military, the prison system and huge chunks of our infrastructure have already been privatized. Public schools are next. Public school teachers naturally support Occupy Wall Street, whose one clear demand continues to be to roll back this emerging fascism. Occupying the Department of Education involves exposing the ways in which the New York City school system is already fascistic.
In “The Origins of Totalitarianism” the great Jewish thinker, Hannah Arendt, explained that totalitarian regimes operate by constantly changing the rules. What was policy one day was completely illegal the next. Those that thought of themselves as loyal party players suddenly found themselves outside of the law. The regime constantly weeded out undesirables in this way. People would become mistrustful of each other. The goal was to make collective action on the part of the people impossible. A citizenry atomized into its component parts was easier to control. Atomizing the collective has been a goal of the DOE’s totalitarian ruler, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, from the start. In Year I of the Bloomberg Regime, he replaced the publicly elected Board of Education with a Department of Education whose officers were appointed by, and answerable to, him. The rationale for doing so is familiar enough to students of atomization schemes in other public institutions: the old system was an unresponsive bureaucracy; the new system embodied corporate efficiency. Of course, it is this corporate efficiency that allows the Mayor to constantly manipulate policy in an attempt to destroy any collective action at all, including those two great bastions of collectivism: large high schools and the United Federation of Teachers.
Mayor Bloomberg decreed that all schools get an annual letter grade. Those that consistently receive failing grades are “reorganized”. It is impossible for the schools to know what it takes to receive a passing grade, since the rubrics change every year. Schools that pass one year fail the next, despite no appreciable change in standardized test scores, attendance or violent incidents. It is clear that a school’s grade does not depend on its performance. Instead, the undesirables who are the targets of this ever-changing standard are the large schools. A large school has thousands of students, several dozens to hundreds of teachers and a small cadre of administrators to run it all. The large public school is probably the last rampart of collective community-building anywhere in the country. Large schools can successfully resist mandates for “reform” from outsiders. They can accommodate reform in a way that does not threaten their existence or radically change their culture. But Bloomberg’s DOE is not a reforming force. It is a radical force that seeks complete privatization and atomization of the school system.
“Reorganization” in the DOE means taking the large building in which the large school was housed and requiring 4 or 5 smaller schools to operate in different parts of that building. Chances are that at least one of those schools will be a charter school that has much greater freedom to choose who they will educate. The other schools are still subject to the arbitrary letter grades of the DOE, which largely determines which types of students each school attracts from the surrounding community. The radical “reformers” call this giving parents “choice”. This is the language of consumerism. This is the language of a radical movement to turn the collective action of citizens into the isolated choices of consumers. Instead of the community pooling their resources and sharing space, schools now atomize the members of the community into smaller portions that compete for space and jealously guard the resources they have. What used to be a civics exercise in community-building has become a soulless microcosm of the war of all against all that resembles a “free market”. It is incredible that such a blatant violation of “separate is not equal” has been allowed to develop, causing the NAACP to bring lawsuits against charter schools that exist alongside public schools.
None of these atomizing tactics would have been possible without the evisceration of that other bulwark of collective action: the United Federation of Teachers. If the public school system symbolizes the last great rampart of community-building in America, the teacher’ unions symbolize one of the last great ramparts of worker solidarity. But just because the UFT still exists does not mean it has withstood the same atomizing that is destroying public schools. The Teaching Fellows and Teach for America programs brought in hired mercenary teachers who promised to stay in the system no more than three to five years. Some have stayed on past their bids, most have not. Due to the closed-shop rule (one of the few scraps left to the UFT), all of these new teachers had to join the union. Their arrangements ensured that the union would not be able to count on future generations of dedicated teachers to keep up the fight for better working conditions. Most of the younger members would be off to their real careers on Wall Street, the bar or the theatre well before they could talk of retirement. In this way, the DOE scooped out the heart and soul of the UFT. The union began overly representing retirees and other entrenched interests disproportionately over their members on the front lines. This helps explain why the last contract negotiated under Randi Weingarten was so willing to bargain away working conditions while jealously guarding pensions.
When you place those unprotected teachers in smaller schools, you get the fascism we have now. Chopping down large schools greatly increases the need for principals, “middle management” as Mayor Bloomberg has called them and “commissars” as the Soviets used to call them. Greater principal-to-teacher ratios mean greater supervision of the teachers. Principals are required to have no more than three years of teaching experience, ensuring they will have very little empathy with teachers the longer they remain principals. Instead, their empathy lies with themselves and getting their schools to outdo other schools on the yearly report card. The small size of the schools combined with the most recent UFT contract gives principals greater control over teachers and what teachers should do to get better grades for the schools’ report cards. It is a system where principals are incentivized to abuse their powers. They are not encouraged to think of themselves as leaders accountable to the communities they serve. Instead, they are told they are managers implementing the policies of the hierarchy. The communities must serve them. Teachers must work longer hours and focus on test prep. Those that protest are disappeared by the principals’ powers to drum up fake charges and initiate frivolous hearings to terminate teacher licenses. Students must produce higher test grades. Those that do not produce face being creatively expelled in charter schools or sacrificed to the psychological/pharmaceutical complex by being labeled as “disabled” in public schools. Parents are not meant to play any role at all. Instead, they are directed to lodge their concerns with impotent parent coordinators or the somnambulant Panel for Educational Policy. It is a system designed to make the community irrelevant by privatizing and atomizing it.
All of the fascism in the DOE is tending towards the ultimate goal of privatization. Mayor Bloomberg and corporate reformers like Bill Gates form the fascistic nexus responsible for the destruction of our public schools. Theirs is a privatization more insidious than any that has come before. It is not simply a movement to destroy schools. It is a movement to destroy the classroom. As school buildings and teachers’ unions become more atomized, Bill Gates sees a future where the classroom itself will become atomized as well. 30 kids in a classroom will be replaced by individual students sitting in front of computers. Of course, all the computers will be made by Microsoft, as will all of the programs that “teach”. It will be the final frontier of privatization. It will be the ultimate atomizing of the population into individuals. This is what the Common Core Standards adopted by most states, including New York, represent. On top of being a giant government hand-out to Bill Gates, it will allow Bill Gates to remake the nation in his own image by giving him direct control over the rearing of every young brain in the country.
But that is a matter for the next installment…