… didn’t happen. But reading the hyperbolic post-Vergara cheering from Michelle Rhee and others, one would think he did, with vigor.
Here is my reply to San Jose Mercury News editorial “Vergara decision quantifies the harm done by inadequate teachers” the home paper of Silicon Valley billionaire David Welsh who financed the case. I posted mine in their comments, and invite you to engage in dialogue as well.
“We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.” – Martin Luther King. Jr.
Despite the excellent, heart-rendering spin, the Vergaga suit is not civil rights. It’s not Brown v. the Board of Education.
Can one imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. walking arm in arm with billionaires against middle-class teachers rights?
Talk about theatre of the absurd.
King would be marching against the great inequality in CA, which is #1 in poverty and has the most billionaires. Nowhere is this inequality greater than in Welch’s own backyard of the Bay Area (and Silicon Valley in particular).
Poverty is the real civil rights injustice visited on children – not due process for teachers.
Type “Vergara” into any search engine – as I was repeatedly this morning – and you’re likely not to find what I was looking for. Instead, you’ll find supermodel and actress Sofia Vergara – best known for her role in the sitcom Modern Family. An immigrant, and before she was famous, a single-mother in her early twenties, “Vergara is certainly the embodiment of [the] American dream,” notes one magazine – famed not just for her beauty, but her talent and determination to overcome hardship.
Another Los Angeles based Vergara – Beatriz – is who I was actually looking for. And her story, too, is about the American Dream; while this story will be on the cover of newspapers and is already trending on Twitter, it’s not a pretty. There is no glitter, no glamour, no red carpets – rather, it’s about pink slips and broken dreams.
Beatriz Vergara (along with the other student plaintiffs) filed and won a lawsuit against the State of California and the California Teachers Association claiming that teacher tenure and other protections (around dismissal and seniority) are unconstitutional. Invoking the seminal Brown Vs. The Board of Education case, Judge Rolf Treu of the Los Angeles Superior Court released a decision June 10, finding that California students – especially in poor and minority schools – are deprived of their right to an equal education, and thus, an equal opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Indeed, according to Politico, Treu “adopt [ed] the language and legal framework of the civil rights movement” delivering his verdict as part of the long march to justice.
Just how did dismantling worker rights become part of Civil Rights? How did teachers – those like my wife and myself, who have devoted their lives to working with children and adults in public schools – become their greatest enemy?
The answer, in part, has to do with the other Vergara – Sophia. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, let’s go back to the late 1990s, when Diane Ravitch, a distinguished professor of education history and reformed “reformer” who blew the whistle on the corporate takeover of public education in her best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, worked at the Manhattan Institute, a New York based conservative think tank. They were having difficulty selling the public on vouchers, and realized that their policies needed to be reframed. Because “vouchers” didn’t have popular support, they decided to throw their weight behind charter schools, “because they achieved almost the same result as vouchers–a transfer of government dollars from government to private control.” But changing from “vouchers” to “charters”, by itself, wasn’t enough. Nobody really knew about charters, then, nor could they personally relate to the sterile economic theories and language which informed their philosophies.
And therein, a new strategy was born – co-opting progressive language to sell privatized education policies to the public.
“There was explicit discussion about the importance of presenting the charter idea as a way to save poor minority children. In a city and state that was consistently liberal, that was a smart strategy,” Ravitch recalled in an email. Conservative think-think American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess has noticed these strategies used throughout the country, observing that “the case for school choice was thus not argued in terms of efficiency or deregulation, but instead presented as a moral imperative — an obligation to give poor, black inner-city parents the kinds of educational choices taken for granted by suburban home owners.” Indeed, the heart-wrenching propaganda documentary Waiting for Superman relies on this “social justice” narrative, while selling the audience on charters, and against unions, and teacher tenure. Today, co-opting liberal language, values and morals appealing to “social justice,” “civil rights,” and “equality” has become standard. Ravitch, herself a life-long Democrat who become such a reformer, lured in by similar promises, concludes: “In retrospect, it seems strange that so many liberals bought an idea that emanated from conservative think tanks and conservative thinkers.”
In much the same way that vouchers and charters have been sold via civil rights language, so too was Vergara v. California argued in court and marketed to the public as a moral imperative, with a solidly social justice lexicon, composing a compelling narrative which is attractive to liberals, while at the same time, appealing to economic conservatives who have long worked to abolish teacher tenure.
Like Sofia Vergara, the Beatriz Vergara case has massive cross-over appeal – and, the most powerful PR team money can buy. Indeed, Vergara is a significant milestone in the corporate reform effort, one that demonstrates that the multi-million dollar marketing campaign to rebrand privatization of public education as part of a larger civil rights movement has worked.
It’s no longer funny when Mitt Romney, or another plutocrat, snidely claims “education is the civil rights issue of our generation,” and blames unions and poor teachers for creating inequality (which he did, right after calling half of America lazy). No, today it’s now common sense to blame teachers for inequality in our schools – and, if Vergara is upheld, a matter of law.
Beyond carrying the burden for the very real inequality in our schools, teachers have now been legally pit in opposition to students and parents – this is the most concerning outcome of Vergara. Corporate reformers – StudentsFirst, most notably – have worked hard (and successfully) to convince the public that teachers and students are at odds – that the rights and interests of teachers are fundamentally in conflict with those they serve. Vergara legitimizes this false division between teachers and the community, straining critical relationships needed to support children – especially in those communities facing the worst learning (and living) conditions.
More broadly, Vergara situates teachers outside of the fight for social justice – indeed, it describes us as barriers to equaility, on par with racial segregation. Yes, yes, I know the verdict is focused on “grossly negligent teachers,” whom I too don’t want teaching my students, nor my two-year old son, who will attend public school. But with the rise of high-stakes standardized testing, the poor quality of evaluation based on that testing, the increasing top-down management styles that dismiss teacher opinion, the constant drum of the “failing schools,” and the generally hostile attitude towards public workers, it’s not hard to feel that we’re all targeted – that any of us could be a “bad teacher.”
In the 1990s, it was just conservative think tanks on the edges of the debate that would invoke the bad teacher boogeyman – now, the Executive Branch of a “liberal” administration agrees: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hailed the verdict a victory, employing the same civil rights framing he has used in selling President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. In other words, Vergara doesn’t just represent the point of view of billionaire businessmen, conservative scholars, nor an isolated, “activist judge” – it now reflects the perspective of my Department of Education, and the President himself, who now believe that “bad teachers” are the root of our educational challenges, rather than the wide-spread poverty and systemic racism which the original civil rights leaders fought against, and which still exist today.
As angry and frightened as teachers are of more scapegoating, we must refuse to be cast as villains in a very well produced fictional drama staged by the elites, one that distracts us from looking at the very real causes of inequality of opportunity, of broken dreams, and lost chances. The Vergara verdict must push teachers to make stars of themselves, by reclaiming their role as public servants working on behalf of social justice, working on behalf of students, working on behalf of communities and the country for the public good, working towards civil rights, and better opportunities for all students – or, it will signal the concluding act in public education, and a shot at the American Dream for all students.
[i] This interview with Ravitch was published in my two-year study of corporate media coverage on education reform. Further citations can be found there, as well. Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.
This School is a Musical Masterpiece: The “Four Rs” to Reclaim Public Education from Corporate Colonialism
This is Karran Harper Royal, a real parent of a teenager in the New Orleans public school system, whom I interviewed for the second part of the Disaster Capitalism Curriculum (with graphic journalist Dan Archer for Truthout), about the “New Orleans Miracle,” as its been dubbed by corporate education reformers who believe Hurricane Katrina, which killed nearly 2,000, and displaced 400,000, was “The best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans” (And yes, that’s a real quote from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan). In 2012, amidst the polarized presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, New Orleans was solid ground: they both argued that the free-market, privatized model that Royal has seen replace the public school system represents a model for the country. For Royal, a prominent, nationally recognized public education activist, the “New Orleans Miracle,” also represents a model for American education – a bankrupt one, a well-funded “fairy tale” that purports to be about empowering kids, but is really about unleashing the market to dismantle the “government monopoly on education.”
While Royal speaks with unrivaled passion, hard evidence, and personal connection to the community, her voice is largely marginalized. Royal’s experience is not an isolated one, as those who are closest to children – the parents, the teachers, and especially the children themselves – have the smallest voice in education reform debate, which has been colonized by the language, ideologies, and policies of outsiders – politicians, think-tankers, Wall Street funded non-profits, and CEOs who have no direct connection or personal interest in the communities they seek to mold in their image.
Previously, I’ve dubbed this phenomenon the Gates Paradox: the power of your voice in the education reform debate is proportional to the distance from the classroom multiplied by the amount of money you earn. Of course, each additional media outlet owned increases the influence by a factor of ten. Or, expressed in the native language of the refomers, the Gates Paradox is: VαDsv*$ [MSNBC/]10 = INFLUENCE]
Indeed, the corporate colonists control the education debate, imposing the terms and language of the discussion, as they largely control the medium in which the debate takes place: it doesn’t take a complex algorithm to demonstrate that corporate media favors corporate education policy, especially when the media channel is funded by the same billionaire also funding the education policy (as is the case with Gates and both NBC and PBS).
How does a parent like Royal fight against this corporate colonialism, which floods in her hometown of New Orleans, displacing local schools, dismantling local communities, and imposing foreign values and policies? How do we get Royal – and other real parents, children, and educators – heard over the “fairy tale” of reform?
How do we overcome the Gates Paradox?
By going back to basics: The Four Rs – Recognize, Resist, Reframe, and Reclaim.
RECOGNIZE: Education reform is trending right now in popular culture – and not towards a progressive, grassroots vision. While the agit-prop documentary Waiting for Superman started the pop culture assault on public schools, there is a cottage reform media industry devoted to putting out stories which support the reform vision of education, pumped out of the big screen, the TV, the radio, the newspaper, and underwritten by reform friendly billionaires like Gates, who have spent millions on messaging. This propaganda arm of the reform movement propagates stories like the “New Orleans Miracle,” that float about in the public consciousness, supporting these policies throughout the nation.
Less obviously and more perniciously, these reform “fairy tales” provide a language for discussing education that reinforces this worldview: phrases like “failing schools” and the “cradle to career pipeline” are normalized, and in doing so, unconsciously frame the issue for a reader or speaker, as I observe in my comic with graphic journalist Josh Neufeld “This School is Not a Pipe.” (for Truthout.org). Thus, the first step towards reclaiming public education is in seeing through the propaganda, in even recognizing the stories and language of reform.
RESIST: It’s not enough just to see that the propaganda of reform doesn’t fit the reality of schools that most children, parents, and educators experience. Indeed, I became passionate about advocating for public education upon seeing such an astonishing chasm between what the media said about my profession, and what I saw every day as a teacher in a community college. Thus, I began to call out these false stories – much like Royal has (and of course, Diane Ravitch), to expose both the “fairy tales” of reform and the drum-beat of public school failure.
But this is not enough: further, it’s important to resist not just the reform stories, but the reform language itself, which is drawn largely from the lexicon of the business world, and not education. Once starting a conversation around “failing schools,” the debate is already lost; this term implies an entire worldview, one suggesting that public schools themselves are solely responsible for the struggles they face, much like a failing business. Logically, the “failing school” should be shuttered – much like failing business, with old management and employees fired, and new ones installed to secure “success”. In this way, there is a clear, unwavering line from a single phrase to an entire ideology, and specific policies, such as school closures. Thus, we must not just avoid exposing the stories of the colonists, but their misleading language – which reinforces these stories, and favors the underlying corporate ideology.
REFRAME: For the first few years of writing about education, I primarily focused on these first two steps – on pointing out the astonishing flaws of the reform propaganda. But this, too, is not enough: indeed, reformers rightly point out that while many of us decry their agenda, we don’t as readily point to our own vision. I know that I’ve been guilty on this count – even as I’m working in my own college to develop new methods of teaching, and new programs to serve students. Thus, instead of just pointing out the flaws in the corporate agenda, we must fill in the gap – to share our own stories, and our own language, through traditional media channels, and moreso, through social media.
“Public education is like producing a musical masterpiece,” Royal told me, in providing her own vision of an ideal public school system, one that would improve upon the privatized, two-tiered system that has taken over her hometown. “[You need to provide] each instrument with the right sheet music to get the best performance from that particular instrument. Each instrument is different and can not be standardized, but with the right music, each can reach its highest heights. When children are given the kind of educational support they need based on who they are, they can produce beautiful music,” she concludes, reframing schooling with a fresh metaphor, a new language, a new vocabulary of reform, one that highlights the inherent humanity and individuality of children, while still imagining a harmonious, yet diverse community.
Imagine: What kind of policies would our politicians produce if they imagined the classroom as a musical masterpiece rather than a business, or even worse, a pipeline? What kind of classroom experience would children have immersed in metaphors of music, rather than spreadsheets and oil?
RECLAIM: To reclaim the promise of public education, to develop policies that are more musical than monotonous, we must reclaim the conversation from the educational colonists. We must find ways to mitigate the Gates Paradox, to render this algorithm of inequity obsolete, to tell the stories of what we see, in the language that we use, and get the public to hear it.
This is easier blogged than done.
However, as I attend the Network for Public Education Conference March 1 and 2nd in Austin, TX, (along with Karran Harper Royal, Diane Ravitch, and many others) we will not just resist, but work proactively and collectively towards a more humane, democratic, truly public school system.
The music has just begun…
 See my essay at Truthout: “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42” for an extensive discussion on the technicalization of education – and its dissidents.
 For extensive evidence on reform propaganda see Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.
 For documentation, see my essay at The Daily Censored: “Ms. Reform: Education Reform as Starlet of NetFlix’s “House of Cards”
Were this website a newspaper vending machine, it would be cobwebbed, and dusty enough for a finger-tagged “Wash Me,” with the issues left inside yellowing – but not for lack of work behind the screen. Besides the usual preparations for teaching this semester, I’ve got a very exciting project deep in the “pipeline,” one I’ve been at work on for a few months, which should be completed and hot off the digital presses sooner than later. I’m also gearing up for the Network for Public Education’s 2014 Conference in Austin, TX, March 1st-2nd, at which I’m honored to be an invited speaker.
The Network for Public Education – founded by acclaimed education scholar Diane Ravitch, and veteran public school educator Anthony Cody – provides a much needed grassroots antidote to the corporate education reform steamroller, one that has paved over the needs of children, teachers, parents, and communities. NPE seeks to crack through the concrete, and cultivate a more authentic, organic, and robust public school system, a mission I’m proud to support.
“School ™ is not so bad now, like back when my grandparents were kids, when the schools were run by the government, which sounds completely like, Nazi, to have the government running the schools?”
So proclaims what sounds like a Twitter tirade by angry, futuristic teenage reincarnation of Milton Friedman. Rather, it is Titus, the wired teen protagonist M.T. Anderson’s prophetic 2002 Young Adult (YA) novel Feed, who lives in a world in which Friedman’s neo-liberal economic philosophies have been taken to their dystopian extreme: America’s environment is so spoiled by consumption that everyone must live in hermetically-sealed bubbles, in which the public commons have been so privatized, that even the clouds are trademarked. Titus – and most Americans – also live in a hermetically-sealed bubble of their mind, each plugged into the “feed” – a chip which connects his brain to a corporate controlled internet, which is constantly bombarding him with marketing, even in dreams.
While many have commented on how accurate the 11-year old Feed is in its predictions of social networking and mobile technology, its dire predictions on the corporatization of education are no less accurate – and certainly, no less frightening. Published in the same year as the No Child Left Behind was implemented, Feed takes Friedman’s anti-government belief on education to its logical conclusion: that of a corporate monopoly on our children’s minds.
In Titus’ description of his “feed” – which is no utterly normal to him, beyond the point of question – we hear echoes of corporate reformers and technological utopians, who say our public, government run-school system is outdated, in need of “disruptive innovation” – or, to put it more plainly, corporate management and products. In Titus’ future America, the “feed” is the ultimate disruptive invention for education, putting online education, MOOCs, and teaching machines to shame:
People were really excited when they first came out with feeds. It was all da da da, this big educational thing, da da da, your child will have the advantage, encyclopedias at their fingertips, closer than their fingertips, etc. That’s one of the great things about the feed – that you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit.
While Titus may say that the feed makes everyone “supersmart,” he can’t read, he isn’t informed on any world events, and uses the feed primarily to m-chat (mind chat), watch TV programs, and most of all, to buy the latest things – things that, somehow, the corporate-run feed knows before he does – a marketing strategy we now call “predictive analytics”:
But the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. Everything we think and feel is taken in by the corporations, mainly by data ones like Feedlink and On Feed and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that’s keyed just to you…so all you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.
Again, sound familiar?
School ™ is perfectly designed for the “feed” – for the constant consumerism required of the hermetically-sealed corporate state he lives in. Indeed, School ™ is essential in training children for how to use to feed, to make sure its hardwired not just in their minds, but their spirits:
Now that School ™ is run by the corporations, it’s pretty brag because it teaches us how the world can be used, like mainly how to use our feeds… now we do stuff in classes about how to work technology and how to find bargains and what’s the best way to get a job and how to decorate our bedroom.
Ultimately, just as schools in a fascist nation are indoctrination sites, critical investments by the ruling class to ensure its continued rule, School ™ cultivates loyalty to corporate bubble in which Titus lives:
Also, it’s good because that way we know that the big corps are made up of real human beings, and not just jerks out for money, because taking care of children, they care about America’s future. It’s an investment in tomorrow (Emphasis added).
In shockingly accurate parallels to post-NCLB corporate media narratives, Titus sees the public school system as a “failure,” its bad teachers destroying the moral fiber of the youth, and his corporate masters as philanthropists, providing his salvation:
When no one was going to pay for the public schools anymore and they were all like filled with guns and drugs and English teachers who were really pimps and stuff, some of the big media congloms got together and gave all this money and bought the schools so all of them could have computers and pizza for lunch and stuff.
And while Titus might be swayed by free pizza, faux-philanthropy, and discounts for the Watts Riot inspired pants from Weatherbee and Crotch, he still knows something is wrong, something worse than pimp English teachers:
Of course, everyone is like, da da da, evil corporations, oh they’re so bad, we all say that, and we all know they control everything. I mean, it’s not great, because who knows what evil shit they’re up to. Everyone feels bad about that.
But for Titus, the corporate takeover has happened – generations ago. His life is “normal,” and beyond normal, it’s pleasant. Most of all, it’s the only way Titus knows how to live, as School ™, his parents, his friends – everyone, really – tell him the feed is all there is and should be:
But [corporations] are the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not. Plus, they keep like everyone in the world employed, so it’s not like we could do without them. And it’s really great to know everything about everything whenever we want, to have it just like, in our brain, just sitting there.
Titus’ tale, his resignation to the blind pleasures of consumerism on which he was raised and schooled, could be many of my students – heck, Titus probably was me at some point in time, or any of us who grew up in the hermetically-sealed suburbs of post-modern America Feed so poignantly reflects. Our public school system – while increasingly consumed by corporate America – still presents education as an economic service, part of the “cradle-to-career pipeline,” or worse yet, a consumable product, like a pair of Kent State inspired jackets from Weatherbee and Crotch.
Thankfully, though, Titus has hope, in the form of an unlikely flower growing in their dead world: Violet. And hopefully, she teaches Titus – and all of us, working and learning at School ™ – to “Resist the Feed. Buy an Oxcart.”
I’m honored that my latest essay for Truthout “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42” was quoted by Henry Giroux in his latest Public Intellectual installment for Truthout “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University.” Giroux’s essay, as usual, provides a grand tour of the socio-economic forces at work on public education, and the academics and artists resisting. Read it by clicking the above link.
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