Review: Whose Education? Whose Control?

— Marian Swerdlow

The Prize:
Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?
By Dale Russakoff
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 272 pages, $27 hardback, $15.95 paper.
Common Core Dilemma
Who Owns Our Schools?
By Mercedes Schneider
Teachers College Press, 2015, 240 pages, $68 hardback, $29.95 paper.

IN THE PRIZE: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools? journalist Dale Russakoff takes a close look at Newark, New Jersey schools. In Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools? teacher and blogger Mercedes Schneider has a national prospective.

The similar questions in their subtitles have great resonance because until the relatively recent campaigns of vilification against public schools and their teachers, most of our society held a deeply felt consensus about who ought to own, who should be in control of our schools: we, the people.

Each author’s story shows the reality of how public schools and education are increasingly run by a small number of immensely wealthy and powerful individuals, foundations, and political leaders who ally with them. This is being done in the name of “education reform.” Furthermore, both books show the leaders of teachers’ unions aiding this power grab.

Dale Russakoff’s The Prize covers the years 2009 through 2014, in Newark. The small New Jersey city had suffered deindustrialization and white flight.

According to Russakoff, students in Newark’s 75 schools are 95% Black and Latino, and 44% live below the poverty line. The Newark school district had been taken over by the State of New Jersey, and is effectively under the control of Governor Chris Christie, a Republican.

In Russakoff’s account, the city’s Black Democratic mayor Cory Booker initiated an education reform project for Newark. Booker had recently been elected as an urban reformer. However, his new policies generally favored big business rather than the poor population of Newark.

Booker enlists Christie, and Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. Eventually, other “philanthropist” individuals and foundations are recruited, including Bill Gates.

Their stated goal is improving education and preparation for college and career. Their method is to close schools they designated as “failing,” replacing them with charter schools. They also destroyed teachers’ right to due process, and made standardized testing the focus of instruction by rewarding or punishing teachers based on student test scores.

Russakoff depicts the reformers as sincere, albeit arrogant, but shows how their policies created many lucrative opportunities for companies that run charters. They sell many products such as tests and test-related curricula, programs that analyze test data, and teacher training services.

Russakoff presents their top-down approach as a crucial error that led the people of Newark to perceive their plans as a conspiracy by white outsiders. She repeatedly makes the point that Newarkers were already inclined to such suspicions. In her account, the reformers’ imperious style confirmed these suspicions.

Parents and other members of the community were not allowed any input into the changes imposed on their schools. Instead, there was a public relations campaign called, in a double-speak worthy of Orwell, “community engagement.”

Bradley Tusk, a consultant with ties to similar “ed reform” efforts in New York City and Washington, D.C., was paid $2 million to run this campaign. Neither he, nor any of the others who worked on this campaign, came from or lived in Newark.

This continued to be the modus operandi of Newark school reform: well-connected outsiders, mainly white, made huge fees and called the shots. The plan was put together by a consulting group founded by New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. The consultants made a thousand dollars a day or more. Meanwhile, mayor Booker funneled tens of thousands of dollars of wealthy donors’ gifts to his personal aides and advisors.

But the plans were kept secret from Newark’s citizens, until an expose ran in the Newark Star Ledger in February 2011.

Struggle and Betrayal

The shock that the governor and mayor were secretly planning radical changes to Newark schools led to a popular revolt. For years afterwards, parents and community allies disrupted public meetings, and marched and demonstrated in the streets to stop the plan. Russakoff portrays this as fallout from the way the “reformers” imposed their plan. She fails to fully appreciate that there were deeper, more substantive reasons for popular opposition.

The people of Newark understood that their schools needed improvement. But they also knew well that such secret plans, created by powerful forces that they could not hold accountable, would not make the improvements their students needed. They correctly saw this as a grab of community power and resources. As the plan rolled out, they resisted the closing of neighborhood schools, the firing of support staff and displacement of teachers. These were no answers to the challenges students faced.

Despite popular resistance, Cami Anderson, another white outsider, was brought aboard as Schools Superintendent in May 2011. Anderson carried on with the same playbook. She gave generous contracts to consultants and to companies owned by friends and former colleagues.

Newark teachers, like other Newarkers, were betrayed by their leaders. The national American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and the president of the Newark local, sided with the “reformers.” They helped to negotiate, and persuade teachers to approve, a contract that among other givebacks reduced tenure protections and forced teachers to work extra hours for a small annual “stipend.”

In November 2012, teachers passed this contract, mainly thanks to the sorely needed back pay it provided. But in the next election, a new union caucus, allied with the community, won control of the local’s executive board.

New Jersey State Education Com­mission­er Cerf and Newark Schools Super­intendent Anderson plowed ahead with an agenda to privatize Newark schools by proliferating charters. In December 2013, Anderson announced “One Newark,” a plan that closed more than 20 public schools within months.

Families would be forced to choose among remaining public schools or charters, with the final decision about where each student would be enrolled up to the city. Students could be sent out of their neighborhoods. Siblings could be enrolled in different schools.

This marked the end of Newark’s schools as neighborhood institutions. Anderson also unleashed waves of closings, budget cuts and support staff layoffs.

Cory Booker left his Newark post to run successfully for U.S. Senate. His successor, Ras Baraka, was elected in May 2014, in part based on his opposition to the changes that had been imposed on the public schools. But since Newark schools remained state-controlled, the new mayor could not stop the reform regime.

By summer 2015, popular opposition to “One Newark” had reached such a peak, with students even walking out and teachers defying orders, that Anderson resigned. However, her replacement was the former State Commissioner Cerf.

Corporate Money Sets the Standards

Russakoff quotes the president of Newark’s powerless “advisory school board” as saying, “Almost all philanthropy is, by definition, undemocratic, its priorities set by wealthy donors and boards of trustees, who by extension can shape the direction of public policy in faraway communities.”

Russakoff shows how this happened in Newark. There, reformers justified themselves in the name of helping economically poor, mainly Black and Hispanic, students. In Common Core Dilemma, Mercedes Schneider documents how “philanthropists” are imposing “Common Core State Standards” (CCSS) nationwide, in the name of lifting U.S. schools to the top rank internationally.

Schneider carefully examines what motivates the reformers and dissects the relationships among private for-profit businesses, the “philanthropies” they fund, and the NGOs who set up the CCSS. She shows how all these actors benefit economically from the CCSS.

Unlike the other parts of the educational reform agenda, the CCSS is opposed by both the left and the right. The right distrusts the CCSS because they see Common Core as a power grab by “big government” at the federal level, and a usurpation of local and states’ rights. The left condemns the CCSS because its focus on constant, high-stakes testing oppresses children, de-professionalizes teachers, and narrows the scope of education.

Schneider proves that the CCSS were written by people employed by testing companies like American College Testing and College Board. By uncovering these origins, Schneider shows they were intended from the beginning to be assessment-driven. She delves into the institutional and business connections of those who set up and those who profit from the new business opportunities opened up by the imposition of CCSS, and dubs them the “edupeneurs.”

Schneider documents the key funding role played by Microsoft magnate Bill Gates in creating the CCSS. She quotes his interview with the American Enterprise Institute, in which he discusses the reason he poured such resources into creating uniform standards for all states: “You get more free market competition. Scale is good for free market competition.”

In fact, making the entire country one market for education products, such as tests, professional training, curriculum and statistical analysis programs, favors the largest corporations such as Microsoft. It disadvantages smaller companies that might have catered to a single state when each one created its own educational structures.

So CCSS is an economic power grab by the largest corporations. Schneider shows how multinational corporations like Pearson and McGraw Hill were written into the original Common Core Memorandum of Understanding. This gave them an inside track for marketing not only Common Core tests, but also curricula, materials for teacher “professional development,” and teacher evaluations. CCSS opened up a huge, immensely profitable, marketplace for the largest corporations.

Just as Bill Gates played a role in both Newark’s reforms and in the CCSS, so does national teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten. In both cases, Weingarten befriended and enabled the reformers and went against the interests and beliefs of teachers, parents and students.

While Russakoff tends to take reformers’ intentions at face value, Schneider lays bare the underlying economic interests. She finds that under Weingarten’s leadership, her national union AFT has accepted $11 million from Gates.

When this is juxtaposed against Wein­garten’s support for CCSS, it seems credible that this is a quid pro quo. Weingarten gave CCSS her endorsement and used her leadership of AFT to help create the illusion that U.S. teachers support it, too.

Education as Commodity

The Marxist view of capital is that it is compelled continually to bring new resources and new needs under its rule. Wherever they may bring a profit, it turns public resources into commodities. It makes needs and desires into demand for these commodities to realize profit.

Until the past 20 years, public education provided only limited arena for private profit. States, districts, schools and even individual teachers created assessments, curriculum and training materials. School system employees, from cafeteria chefs to the planners in the offices, were public employees. The decision-makers were mainly elected officials, accountable to voters.

Since the beginning of this century, increasingly resources used for education are being turned into commodities, sold for profit. Growing numbers of “public” schools are run by for-profit “charter” companies.

School support employment, such as cleaning and food services, is contracted out to private personnel companies. Teachers are “trained” and evaluated, students are taught and assessed, using curriculum, programs and instruments designed by private enterprises and sold to schools.

Much of this shift has taken place in the name of “educational reform.” The real decision-makers, as both Russakoff and Schneider demonstrate, are the businessmen who fund so-called “philanthropic” foundations, and richly compensated “consultants” who adopt and carry out the “education reform” agenda.

Communities, rank-and-file teachers, and even political leaders who oppose this agenda face an uphill battle. Education reform has many goals and results, including weakening unions, deskilling and de-professionalizing teachers, and wresting away popular control of education. These two recent books show how intimately involved private gain and profits are to the education reform project.

November-December 2016, ATC 185