The Liberal Education Reform Revolt

Are liberals finally ready to oppose neoliberal education reform?

(Katrina Ohstrom / Jacobin)

An eloquent call to “reclaim the conversation” challenges leading liberal educators to repudiate their involvement in what’s being called “corporate school reform.” We finally see liberal activists opposing the bipartisan education project that has subjected school and teachers to “free market” policies. Liberals are starting to contest privatization, testing, and attacks on teacher unions, rather than accepting neoliberal assumptions and policies taken wholesale from right-wing think tanks and functions.

Since last fall’s Chicago teachers strike, we’ve seen an acceleration of critique in traditionally liberal media about school reform — from Teach for America to charter schools and Michelle Rhee. There’s even been a whiff of real reporting in the New York Times on the common core curriculum. Why did liberals urge teachers unions to back down on contractual issues that protect kids and miss what the unions should have been doing, like mobilizing their members?

And why do liberals who expose what’s wrong with standardized testing, as John Merrow has, continue to propagandize for charter schools, ignoring compelling research about the educational devastation in New Orleans because of “charterization”?

To be fair, liberals have not been alone in their confusion about policies cloaked in the rhetoric used by the civil rights movement about equalizing educational opportunity. The pace of change in education has been breathtaking, schools and teachers battered by the speed and force of mandates. The most profound changes in education were made more enticing with the carrot of increased funding. Cash-strapped school districts and states couldn’t turn down extra money they received as a quid pro quo for adopting the stranglehold of testing and privatization required by “No Child Left Behind” and, more recently, “Race to the Top.”  Still, for way too long, liberals assumed that schools could be “fixed” without tackling social and economic inequality

Liberals couldn’t see this big picture, partly because as Bhaskar Sunkara writes, “American liberalism is ineffective and analytically inadequate.” But why?  One reason is that they want to be non-ideological and practical, and without principles to guide them, they are pulled in the political direction exerting the most influence. David Steiner, currently Hunter College Dean and a former Commissioner of Education in New York State and Director of Arts Education at the National Endowment for the Arts, illustrates how liberals persuade themselves to support neoliberal policies. It’s essential, he argues, “to be non-aligned [ideologically]” and look at “policy recommendations, policy as executed based on its merits and not on whether it’s the darling child of the left or the right . . .”

When power relations are skewed, however, the “merits” are generally found in the right-hand column if one’s principles don’t configure the analysis. Steiner argues that teacher education should take up important questions like how often to make eye-contact with students and omit issues that are irrelevant for teaching, like schooling’s role in a democracy. Teaching about social justice is objectionable to Steiner because it challenges the status quo.

Confusion about whether they even have an ideology has allowed US liberals to evade confronting the choice between “profits and people,” the contradiction embedded in capitalism at the heart of “free market” reforms.  Liberals accepted making public schools  compete with charters. They permitted outsourcing test creation and grading, teachers’ evaluation ,  professional development, as well as hiring to transnational corporations that  are virtually unregulated.  Many liberals persuaded themselves that corporations could make profits in the previously non-profit sector of education without hurting kids. But when is there ever enough money left over in school for profit?  When do you not need the money for children?

Take liberal confusion over charter schools. Advocating charter schools to boost academic outcomes for poor, minority kids presumes that we can provide equal educational opportunity and simultaneously maintain a status quo of segregated housing and schooling. If you are unwilling to wage the unpopular fight for residential and school integration and equalized (and adequate) school funding, charter schools can seem a “good enough” compromise. The controversy over charter schools is symptomatic of liberalism’s unwillingness to face racism’s embeddedness in almost every aspect of education. The claim of leaving “no child behind” had a powerful resonance in part because educational inequality persisted in the twenty-first century. To deny that reality, as do many liberals who have awakened to the dangers of “corporate school reform” (led by feisty born-again liberal Diane Ravitch), is to assume that schooling of white, middle-class parents and children was not previously that much different from what poor and working class children of color experienced. It was — and is.

The impact of the education counter-revolution, which has all but destroyed the gains in education made by progressive social movements in the Sixties and Seventies, has been most harmful to the children reforms were purportedly designed to help: poor children of color and children with special needs. Cornell West is on-target when he names the “shameful silence” of progressives on Obama and school reform, though he gives the Black Caucus too much of a pass when he excuses their “protective disposition” for a black president viciously attacked by the Right.

When white liberals advocate for schools to which they would never send their own children, as Ian Frazier does in his puff piece on a Harlem charter school (skewered so well by blogger “EduShyster”), what’s causing their inconsistency? Racism yes, and also more than a whisper of elitism, which can’t be disentangled from social class.

Many liberals assume they will be unable to win others to their way of thinking. In contrast to the Right, liberals lack confidence in the power of their ideas so they rely on electing politicians, Democrats and sometimes Republicans, who will carry out their ideals, perhaps in stealth. Because of their ideological confusion, liberals can’t imagine alternative social and political arrangements, so when their political friends betray them, they tend to either deny the reality or excuse it as inevitable and look for the new shining hope.

In regard to school reform, most liberals have accepted the “left-wing of the possible” (Michael Harrington’s seductive phrase). But this strategy led them to err about what may be the major moral and political issue of the day. Harrington refused to repudiate the War in Vietnam with enough vigor when he should have.  Liberals supported reforms that have almost destroyed public education. Like Harrington, they failed see options other than those created by the powerful.  In contrast, Daniel Singer, who wrote for the Nation, began his analysis with reference to what is needed. In “Whose Millennium: Theirs or ours?” he argues for policies not on the horizon, noting that freedoms are unattainable “only if present political and social arrangements are considered normative and immutable.”

We have so much evidence that school reforms being carried out by Democrats and Republicans aim to benefit the rich and powerful, that we can no longer excuse liberals who don’t “get’ what’s happening. School closings devastate communities and are often driven by developers who want to gentrify neighborhoods (the critical fact lost in a confused story in the Atlantic website about the real estate “mess” created by not having enough developers who will take over the closed schools). While standardized testing scandals are being exposed, Atlanta schools teachers and administrators, mostly black, are being indicted and jailed, Michelle Rhee, also implicated in a test scandal, is criticized mainly because she has more Republicans than Democrats donating to her front group “Students First.”

At this point, the notion that liberals who don’t “get” the big picture have good intentions is itself a form of denial. The best way to educate liberals is to stand up for principles of social justice and equality, as the recently re-elected reformers who lead the Chicago Teachers Union are doing. We need to fight smart and hard for what we believe in and let the liberals follow — or not.