In Part 1, I detailed why this moment in history is one filled with hope and promise. Now I turn to why it is a time of Challenge.
My family just finished a semester in Spanish schools. As I mentioned in Part 1, in Spain, teachers, students and many others across the country have been protesting school funding cuts on a weekly basis. This symbol can be found on t-shirts, signs, posters:
¨No to the cuts to schools and healthcare. No to the cuts to labor rights¨
When school let out, we took our family traveling across Spain and neighboring France (where my mother grew up from 1933-1939 as she escaped the Nazis). During the trip in France, we saw many signs about the French resistance to the Nazi occupation during WW II. My children asked about the resistance and I told them of Simone de Beauvoir’s writings published after the war. At the end of World War II, the French Resistance celebrated the end of the brutal Nazi occupation, but as the war lifted they awoke to a startlingly inhumane world. Slowly the details of the holocaust became apparent and movement activists (and the rest of the world) became conscious of the size and scale of the 12 million people murdered in concentration camps. They became aware of the details of human suffering after the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs in Japan on an entirely civilian population. They had to digest the vicious truths about Stalinism abusing the utopian communist dream. And in this nightmare they began to rebuild a devastated Europe. Despite the devastation, it was a time of hope because the Nazis were gone. Looking back today, we can see how Europe has rebuilt and we know that during the 1960s the movements blossomed in Europe as they did in the US with significant victories for women, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians.
Today, in the U.S., we are waking up to a different reality.
After seeing much progress in human rights from the 1950s to the early ‘80s, there have been a series of setbacks over the last 30 years. For a moment we felt a bit of hope with the election of Barack Obama, the country’s first community organizer and person of color to become president. Though we failed to see much change, we found a new inspiration with the Occupy movement—a symbol of the awakening in this country, and a similar “spring” or awakening throughout the world. We are waking up to on-line for-profit charter school companies grabbing thousands of dollars off every school child they can get their hands on [see Kids mean money at Education Week]. We witness corporations driving their oil pipelines through the center of the country and see “corporatism” destroying our environment and this drive for oil shift government dollars from schools to wars for oil in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and to huge military aid to the Egyptian military and other anti-democratic regimes throughout the Middle East. We are awakening to the reality that a U.S. president (and our democracy and economy and educational system) is not much more than a pawn in a game being ruled by profit-seeking lobbyists and the most self-focused of the super wealthy donors who cannot feel beyond their own limited world and self-interests.
As the French resistance awoke to a world of violence, we are waking up to corporate interests dominating most of our public spaces. We are waking up to the wealthiest capitalists like the Koch brothers and Bill Gates funding and mainstreaming ideas that replicate their vision of reality -- a vision that is anti-union and anti-working people. Like Microsoft’s attempts to dominate the software world, Gates seeks to see his (very limited) visions dominate the education world. We are waking up to an America with a huge tolerance for inequality. We are waking up to a form of capitalism that, like a disease, is taking over our electoral process with unlimited, anonymous donations and privatizing every inch of the public sector that they can get their hands on.
The scale of this “right-wing”, what some call “neoliberal,” attack is becoming clearer.
This is the most difficult time in public education’s history since before Brown v. Board of Education. Although the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools, today schools are highly segregated. Income inequality and school funding inequality are reaching an all-time high. Testing mania is at an all-time high. Teacher bashing in the U.S. is at an all-time high—oddly influenced by so-called corporate “reformers” because any business knows you can’t succeed by bashing your work force. The consistent derogatory talk of blaming teachers is making the field very unattractive for people enter. All of the highest performing countries know that the one of the major secrets to their success is making the field attractive to the most committed and the brightest.
The U.S. is slipping further and further behind the rest of the developed and developing world in terms of educational opportunities and outcomes.
The U.S. education system and the movement for public education is simultaneously the cutting edge of the right-wing attack on the public sector and the greatest potential for hope for working people and people of color. Students have always been at the forefront of social movements from the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) lunch counter sit-ins to Paris in the 60’s to Soweto in South Africa. The movement for public education has the opportunity to become the cutting edge of our future movements.
Read about that potential in Part 3, Where do we go from here: The State of Public Education, The State of Movements for Human Rights. In the meantime, please add your perspective on the challenges today and comment below.