Schools Should Serve Humans, Not “The Economy”

Bernie Sanders’s education policies are the most progressive of any 2020 candidate. But his platform must reject the pro-business language of “competitiveness” to truly transform the education system.

Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally on July 18, 2015 in Phoenix, AZ. Charlie Leight / Getty

It’s no stretch to say that Bernie Sanders’s platform is by far “the most progressive” and equitable public education agenda we’ve seen from any nationally known politician, including all the other Democrats vying for their party’s presidential nomination.

Sanders’s agenda stands out for its repudiation of the bipartisan neoliberal agenda, advanced by successive Republican and Democratic administrations since George W. Bush. It contains a comprehensive list of elements needed to create a system of quality public education: halting funding to for-profit charter schools; supporting desegregation measures; imposing a moratorium on new charter schools and regulating those that exist; equalizing and increasing federal funding for schools, including scrutinizing the use of the property tax (which reinforces segregation of schools by race and class); making school meals free and universal; investing in community schools and after-school and summer programs; and supporting increased special education funding.

With a nod to a key demand in the teacher walkouts and strikes in what is known as the #RedForEd movement, Sanders now has a plan, as did Kamala Harris (who beat him to the finish line on this issue), for increasing teacher salaries (and wooing teachers unions, perhaps?).

While Sanders hasn’t supported the movement for reparations, his decision to name his education platform the “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education” signals its intent to address this country’s failure to address systemic racism: what researcher Gloria Ladson Billings has called the “education debt” to African Americans, the historic, economic, social, political, and moral imperatives to correct the legacy of slavery.

With these policies Sanders has broken with the legislation adopted by Democrats and the GOP in the past thirty years. However, the platform accepts, indeed frames the proposals, with the same economic rationale for school reform that has been at the heart of the neoliberal project:

Today, in a highly competitive global economy, if we are going to have the kind of standard of living that the people of this country deserve, we need to have the best educated workforce . . . The world has changed, the global economy has changed, technology has changed, and education has changed.

Much of what ails public education has emerged from the assumption, unchallenged by labor and liberals, and repeated in Sanders’s program, that education can make the nation more competitive globally.

Perhaps the most harmful result of this notion has been imposition of standardized tests to measure and control what students learn and teachers teach. The measure of whether a nation has a “world-class” school system are high-stakes tests and spurious international comparisons that rank individual students, schools, school districts, and national school systems against one another. The ostensible rationale for this competition is to create a highly skilled workforce that will attract capital investment.

In fact, what drives economic inequality is capitalism’s race to the bottom and corporations’ search for the most docile governments and labor forces. Schools are not and cannot be “the one true path out of poverty” as Arne Duncan, secretary of education under Barack Obama, insisted, and as Ronald Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” report demanded.

The Democrats have been paralyzed, unable to put forward a new agenda for public schools, because their premise that education can solve poverty and the reforms based on that premise have so clearly failed to improve schools — or the economy. We need drastically altered economic policies to end poverty and reverse inequality, as Sanders explains so well in his economic program. Yet in his education platform, Sanders has accepted the very rationale that led the Democrats and liberals to embrace the corporate reform of education.

Public education has to be uncoupled from the premise that schools can create jobs and that simply improving education will somehow ensure a good job for everyone. As Choosing Equality noted decades ago, schools cannot destroy the “tyranny” of the labor market, but they can “democratize the competition” for jobs that pay well. We need to commit to giving everyone a crack at existing jobs, paying off the “education debt,” while we fight for economic policies that reverse the erosion of working conditions and the rise of the precariat.

Our agenda for education also needs to focus on creating caring school environments that support the development of our children’s full human potential. Schooling’s role in a democracy is also to teach the next generation to be critical thinkers, fully developed human beings, engaged citizens who defend democracy.

Ironically, the notion of “education for democracy,” which animated the creation of the first teachers unions and of mass public education, is absent from the platform of Bernie Sanders, whose campaigns for the presidency have educated and inspired millions of people to the promise of democracy.

The policies in his economic platform contradict the rationale that the billionaires have successfully imposed on education. It’s time to demand education for human liberation, not profit.