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Indybay Feature

Restructuring Inner-City Schools for the Global Marketplace

by Reggie Dylan / Revolution (revolution.sfbureau [at] gmail.com)
Locke High School in Watts made national news last May when a fight broke out on campus between hundreds of Black and Latino students. The melee was reported in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and in Time Magazine. The Los Angeles Times treated it as though an alarm had been sounded—a radical solution to the problems at Locke and similar inner-city schools was urgently needed.
In many ways Locke High School concentrates the utterly failed education system that “serves” the oppressed people in the urban cores of this country. In 2005 only 332 Locke students graduated from a class that, as ninth-graders, had 1,318. Only 143 students qualified for admission to the University of California and Cal State University systems. In March, 2005 a 15-year-old girl died after being shot in front of the school.

Even before the fight at Locke became national news, the L.A. school district had signed a contract agreeing to turn complete control of Locke over to a private charter school organization known as Green Dot Public Schools. (A charter school is a public school run by a private business or organization.) This isn’t the first charter school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). And it’s not the first of Green Dot’s charter schools in L.A.; they already operate twelve small charter schools. But this is the first time that any charter operation has been given sole responsibility for providing the public education that high school students receive in a section of a major urban ghetto.

This high-profile experiment in privatization is being looked to by the powers-that-be as a potential model for a radical transformation of the public education system in the most oppressed communities of the proletariat, especially Blacks and Latinos, not only throughout L.A., but nationwide. The Los Angeles Times wrote in a recent editorial, “[I]f it succeeds, Green Dot will have created a blueprint for public schools.”1

And a lot of people at Locke—parents, the teachers and administrators who stayed on, many students, and people all over—are hoping that Green Dot will actually be the model for “closing the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers” that the sales pitch of the charter school movement promises.

Green Dot aims to produce a small number of students from inner city schools who will help fill the need for “knowledge workers” in this society—people who work with information, such as engineers, analysts, marketers, etc. And for those who do make it into the “knowledge worker” strata, to serve as a political and ideological force to shore up this system of exploitation and inequality—including by providing a basis to claim that “anyone” can make it in this system; a cruel lie when in fact, for millions and millions of youth in the inner cities, their so-called “opportunities” are the streets and a likely early death, prison, or the military.
Savage Inequalities

The conditions of the inner city schools today perfectly reflect the conditions of the inner cities.

Beginning after World War 2, and in intensifying levels by the early 1980s, the inner cities of the U.S. lost more stable and better paying factory jobs as the imperialists dramatically restructured the U.S. economy to take advantage of investment opportunities internationally. Those in power consciously chose to respond to these changes with policies that dramatically increased the polarization between the suburbs and these devastated urban cores. As a result the inner cities became more and more characterized by high concentrations of non-whites, rising unemployment, shit-jobs for those who could find work, and massive imprisonment.

The collapse and breakup of the Soviet empire in the early ’90s did not produce the “peace dividend” for social services and education that some hoped for—indeed it removed more barriers to globalization. In the ’90s, capitalism moved jobs out of the inner cities even more dramatically, leaving vast urban wastelands devoid of jobs, social services, or decent schools.

There has been conscious policy, as well as the workings of the system, behind the systematic decay of the inner-city public schools, just as there has been with the devastation of the inner cities overall. Jonathan Kozol has argued passionately and eloquently in a series of books against the conscious under-funding of inner city schools compared to those of the middle class, suburban secondary schools, and the savage consequences for the quality of education and the lives of the young people. Severe overcrowding; dilapidated school buildings; a shortage of books and supplies to aid learning; and teacher salaries too low for schools to either attract good teachers or do without substitute teachers in the schools of the urban districts—in sharp contrast to the well-funded and predominately white suburban schools.

In his 2005 book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Kozol reports finding on his recent visit to schools across the country that the proportion of Black students attending majority white schools was lower than any year since 1968. And the largest public school systems in the country have been all but abandoned by whites. This at the very time that the Supreme Court has accelerated this polarization by repeatedly stamping out attempts to use any form of affirmative action to even incrementally reverse this trajectory.

The following are the percentages of Black and Latino students in the public schools of major U.S. cities: Chicago—87%; Washington DC—94%; St. Louis—82%; Philadelphia—78%; Los Angeles—84%; Detroit—95%; New York City—73%. And within these districts, segregation is often even more extreme, with white students mainly concentrated in a small number of wealthier neighborhood or magnet schools. And almost three-fourths of Black and Latino students attend schools that are predominantly minority. Greg Anrig wrote in Washington Monthly, “America’s urban school systems remain almost universally dysfunctional, primarily because the country as a whole is about as segregated by race and income as at any time since the civil rights revolution.”2

This is the ugly reality of the urban cores of this country, and the schools that serve them. It is producing a massive section of youth, seething with anger, who have been written off by this system, told “there’s nothing here for you,” and then shoved into the prisons at world record rates. It is an international embarrassment for this imperialist power claiming to be the model for the world, and it’s an outrage to sections of the middle class who are coming to know about it. And under certain conditions it can become extremely explosive, as was revealed by the ’92 L.A. rebellion. This is a critical concern of those driving the transformation and privatization of the school system.

Bringing Forward Models of “Reform”

The ruling class has approached this crisis in urban education not from the perspective of how to provide a good education for every child, but through a collection of changes that have made the situation worse. Two significant changes have been the widespread promotion of school vouchers, which undercut public schools and in many cases promote religious schools; and the No Child Left Behind Act that imposed rigid test-based standards for schools.

In 2001 Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed with support of the Democrats. Behind the empty rhetoric about achieving “high standards,” “world class education,” and “closing the achievement gap,” NCLB is just standardized testing—with severe punishments instead of help if test scores don’t improve. Schools not showing progress over time are first required to pay for private outside consultants. Continued lack of progress leads to being forced to totally contract out education to private enterprises. Schools in the middle class are not targeted because this only applies to schools with very low test scores.

The impact of NCLB is to essentially force teachers to get students’ grades up at all costs, because the school’s very existence is on the line. It has led to a shift towards teaching via a script designed with the goal of preparing students to take standardized tests—widely known as “teaching to the test.” Large numbers of weaker 9th graders are held back in some schools just to improve results on the all-important 10th grade tests. It has resulted in the elimination of art, music, foreign language study, even sports in many schools, and it has reduced the time spent teaching subjects that are not included in the tests. Thousands of schools, mainly in low-income areas, are targeted for closure due to failure to meet stringent federal standards. This is fueling the growth of charter school organizations and education management organizations (EMOs) that are training “education entrepreneurs” to be the managers of the privatized public schools that are coming.

NCLB was passed in a context of a decades-long process of undermining the legitimacy of public schools, the development and funding of alternative schools, and the creation of models for a new kind of privatized public school. Reagan’s education program was “bring God back into the classroom” and government-funded school voucher programs. School vouchers give government funds to parents who want to put their children in private, and in particular religious, schools—popular among the growing Christian fundamentalist forces at the time.

Vouchers have been controversial because they challenge the principle of the separation of church and state. After a favorable state supreme court ruling in 1998, Milwaukee’s voucher experiment was expanded from about 1,500 students attending less than two dozen secular schools, to more than 5,000 students spread among nearly 100 mostly parochial (religious) schools. Today roughly 20,000 Milwaukee students attend 122 voucher schools. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court settled the church/state question when it okayed Cleveland’s voucher program by defining public funding of religious schools as an expression of “choice.” There are also voucher programs in Florida, Colorado, and the District of Columbia. Vouchers are championed by McCain in his education program: “Public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses.”

Since the early 1990s one major trend in “reforming” education has been the growth of for-profit and non-profit charter organizations around the country. In 2004 there were 3,000 charter schools serving three quarters of a million students in 37 states and D.C. New York City just raised the number of charter schools by 18 to a total of 78, serving 24,000 students. One in every 18 public schools in NYC is now a charter school.

There are for-profit public charters like the well-known “Edison Schools” founded by John Chubb, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute. There is also a growing number of public military charter schools, which target poor, minority students, especially Black youth. They appeal to parents and students with the promise of a disciplined school environment along with training and preparation for careers in the military. And they are viewed by the Department of Defense, which helps fund them, as a pipeline for new recruits to the all-volunteer army.3

It is the non-profit public charter school operations that are now garnering the most widespread support from the public, and the ruling class, including forces grouped around Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama. A central selling point of charter operations is that they replace the education “bureaucracy” with a more streamlined, efficient management model based on business principles. Individual accountability is emphasized, with clear goals and results measured on a regular basis. That means school managers can be fired for poor performance by their students. And teachers can be as well, since charters do away with tenure. At a time when the government has been steadily taking funds away from education, their emphasis on accountability and cutting through red tape has the added appeal of promising that major transformations can be brought about without huge infusions of public funds.

The executive director of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Bay Area Schools said recently: “Our focus on results is appealing to business leaders. So is our decentralized model that emphasizes autonomy, flexibility and innovation...” In return, the business community has been the biggest backers of charter schools: “The business community, both business leaders through their personal philanthropy and also corporate giving programs, have undoubtedly been a critical component of our fundraising success.”4

The Green Dot Model: Making a Bad Situation Worse

Green Dot Public Schools is among the many non-profit charters being championed and guided by some of the most influential and “far-sighted” of the business world, civic leaders and leaders of the education establishment, and people in the world of politics. Green Dot is headed by Steve Barr, an influential Democratic Party fundraiser and co-founder of Rock the Vote, which brought millions of young people into electoral politics and registered them to vote. The board of directors includes the Dean of the Loyola Marymount Graduate School of Education, and Susan Estrich, now a USC law professor and once head of Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign. Green Dot’s focus is on what they call “School Transformation” projects like the one at Locke. Their aim is to create a model, and with it broad public opinion, that will pressure school districts to adopt this model as their own.

Contributing an important element to this rush to privatization is Teach for America (TFA), a private, non-profit venture which for a number of years has been successfully recruiting graduates of Ivy League and other elite universities around the country for a two-year stint teaching in inner-city public and charter schools. A number of these students become inspired to pursue careers in teaching—but this is not TFA’s goal. Rather, TFA hopes after two years these young people will join the broadening base of experienced education managers, with the rest entering the professional world as informed supporters of these efforts. The KIPP Schools, based in San Francisco, were started by a pair of TFA graduates. And 250 TFA recruits are now in New Orleans, where—in the wake of the Katrina catastrophe—a massive experiment in charter school privatization is taking place.5

As a charter school that is completely replacing a public school, Green Dot is required to accept all the eligible students in the area that had been served by Locke. But that doesn’t mean they will have to keep them. There are many factors at work that are already driving students toward the door, with the repressive atmosphere being the main one.

School policies that push students out of school and into the criminal justice system have been called the “school to prison pipeline.” The ACLU opposes not only zero-tolerance policies that involve the police in minor school incidents, but also other school policies that do the same thing, “by excluding students from school through suspension, expulsion, discouragement and high stakes testing requirements.”6 Green Dot’s “School Transformation” project is already making it harder for struggling/borderline students at Locke to be able to stay there, while raising the stakes and consequences for those who can’t.

Green Dot requires all students to wear uniforms (as do most charters), a condition that has already sent some students to enroll at Jordan High, another high school in Watts. Those whose shirts are not properly tucked in are being sent to detention. Talking to a student, even your cousin, in a different on-site academy is forbidden. The much stricter tardy and attendance policy is also part of the weeding process. In fact, Green Dot is setting up an on-site continuation school for students cut from their academies. Students report that there are more security guards inside the school now packing weapons. They say the street outside the school is lined with cops the moment school ends, so no one is allowed to hang out with friends even after school. The school days are longer, and the school year as well. And all students will have not just the opportunity, but will be required to take a college track curriculum, which—given the education they have (not) received to that point—many may find impossible to do.

This is a “model” for a “no-nonsense” school system that has no qualms about tossing far greater numbers of students down the school to prison pipeline.

The principal financial backers of Green Dot and many other charter operations are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, started by Eli Broad, a real estate tycoon who is #42 in Forbes’ 2007 list of richest people in America. These two foundations have pumped more than $2 billion into charter school organizations around the country. And last year the Gates and Broad foundations created a $60 million fund to get their education program onto the agenda of the 2008 elections. The extent of the active involvement of figures like Gates and Broad in revamping public education is an expression of the overall concerns within the ruling class about the urgency of making these changes.

In Barack Obama’s speech on education he spoke to the dangers as he and others see them: “America faces few more urgent challenges than preparing our children to compete in a global economy…. In this economy, companies can plant their jobs wherever there’s an Internet connection and someone willing to do the work, meaning that children here in Dayton are growing up competing with children not only in Detroit or Chicago or Los Angeles, but in Beijing and Delhi as well.” At stake, he said, is “whether we as a nation will remain in the 21st century the kind of global economic leader we were in the 20th century… It’s not just that a world-class education is essential for workers to compete and win, it’s that an educated workforce is essential for America to compete and win.” (emphasis added)

“Tough Choices or Tough Times”

“The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce,” a panel made up of former Cabinet secretaries and governors in addition to federal and state education officials and business and civic leaders, issued a report in December 2006 titled “Tough Choices or Tough Times.” The report “warned that unless improvements are made in the nation’s public schools and colleges by 2021, a large number of jobs would be lost to countries including India and China, where workers are better educated and paid much less than their U.S. counterparts.”7 Within the last decade 1.5 billion people have joined the global labor force from India, China, and the former Soviet bloc. And there are now twice as many young professionals in low-wage countries as in high-wage countries, who will be a lot cheaper to employ than American workers for decades to come. Projections are that as many as 40 million jobs could be at some risk of being “offshored,” including jobs requiring some college, in the next 15 years.

The impact on the economy and employment won’t be the same for all workers. A report by the National Center on Education and the Economy entitled “America in the Global Economy” predicts a “shortage” of workers with an associate degree or higher, and a “surplus” of workers with the least schooling. It concludes that families headed by college and graduate degree holders are much more likely to be moving up the income distribution, while families headed by high school graduates or dropouts are more likely to be moving down the ladder. And the report says: “The American class structure is very dynamic… Nevertheless, we can say that the middle class is dispersing into two equal and opposing streams of upwardly mobile college-haves and downwardly mobile college-have-nots.”

The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce recommendations for changing public education were described by its chairman as “calling for a complete shake-up from top to bottom.” They include authorizing school districts to pay companies to run all their schools, organized along the lines of charter schools. They would be “highly entrepreneurial”—rewarding successfully run schools and firing those whose students don’t perform. The panel also called for all students to be required to take state board qualifying exams in the 10th grade that will be used to divide students into two groups. Those who do “well enough” could go directly to community colleges for a technical degree or a program leading to a four-year state college. Those who score even better would stay in secondary school two more years to prepare for four-year degree programs.

There is no mention of what would happen to those who don’t make it into one of these two groups. This is a formula for creating an apartheid system where the great majority of basic masses, particularly among the oppressed nationalities in the inner cities, would now be officially relegated to striving for vocational or community colleges at best, or discarded altogether. And it is perfectly consistent with the vision and direction of the public charter school movement, including Green Dot.

This is still a system with no future for the masses of poor and oppressed people in the urban cores of this country’s largest cities. Green Dot and this whole drive to radically transform the system of public education does not change that.

“They Made It, Why Couldn’t You?”

The rulers of this country believe they face a powerful compulsion, coming from the fundamental needs of this system, to raise the education level of the U.S. labor force as a whole. Not to enable everyone to become a “knowledge worker,” which they know is impossible, but in order to maintain this country’s competitiveness in the world economy as much as possible.

At the same time they confront the challenge of heading off potential upheaval in the face of a widening polarization between the masses at the bottom of this society and the rest of the population, which these changes cannot overcome. Eli Broad, a major capitalist funding Green Dot and many other charters, wrote that if they don’t make these changes, they “run the risk of creating an even larger gap between the middle class and the poor. This gap threatens our democracy, our society and the economic future of America.”8

The changes in public education that are on the way, we’re, told will “level the playing field,” with the implication that now if you fail, well, it’s your own fault. “We gave you a chance, but you didn’t take advantage of it.” But the hype that everyone will have the opportunity for a college-level career covers up the reality that in today’s capitalist-imperialist economy, 50% of the new jobs being created are in the minimum wage service sector. So what these changes are really going to contribute to is fostering a climate of public opinion that shifts the blame even more fully away from the workings of the capitalist-imperialist system onto the masses for their own “failure.”

And the small section of students who DO make it through the education gauntlet and into a college career will play a crucial role as models, ideological buffers that are proof the system works: “They made it, why couldn’t you?” This is going to create even sharper polarization within these oppressed communities, enabling politicians and police to marshal public opinion to justify writing off a whole section of youth. Green Dot is a “blueprint” for turning inner-city schools into fortified islands in the midst of an apartheid sea.

*****

Determination decides who makes it out of the ghetto—now there is a tired old cliché, at its worst, on every level. This is like looking at millions of people being put through a meatgrinder and instead of focusing on the fact that the great majority are chewed to pieces, concentrating instead on the few who slip through in one piece and then on top of it all, using this to say that “the meatgrinder works”!
-- Bob Avakian, “The City Game—And the City, No Game,” Bullets—From the Writings, Speeches, and Interviews of Bob Avakian, p. 165.
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