Because of the panic material crises bring, there is no discussion of why essential public services were deemed matters of “public trust” by our parents and grandparents, who believed things like fire and police protection, the military, and schools were so important that everyone should be responsible for them. But lately in the USA, it’s more like, “No, let’s start saving money now.” Let tomorrow deal with any negative consequences to our democratic republic.
You can see what has been happening all over. In LA county, privatizied libraries are popping up–ignoring the democratizing and acculturating qualities of these old American institutions (hello, Ben Franklin, don’t look now); in our federal congress, legislation to privatize social security are popular; numerous states have privatized their prisons; in our military, over half the operatives in theaters of war–Afghanistan and Iraq–are working not for Uncle Sam but some private security or services firm; and in Chicago, Mayor Daley decided in 2009 that for a big short-term cash payment, selling our parking concession was a good idea for the next hundred years.
Chicago, in whose public high schools I did my student teaching, is a good place to dwell when considering Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, which I finally got to see yesterday. That’s because the film is an exquisitely-timed propaganda instrument for advancing the privatization of public charter schools. Though the film’s message resonates with a cash-poor and desperate public, it does not make sense. Very simply, the Superman charter school experience in Chicago does not show that they offer any better learning for less. In Chicago, experience shows that this “Superman” is dealing with Kryptonite-laden problems.
POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT: The film follows four impossibly cute kids–three of color–through the excruciating process of trying to escape their failing public schools. Their single and poor parents are admirable in their struggles for their offspring. But their foe–national teachers unions like the NEA and AFT– is evil and unassailable. The only solution to the problem of these good young Americans? The “Superman” they are waiting for, who will save them from a future of failure? Why it’s charter schools, like KIPP Academies, or a**-kicking teacher-union destroying public school change-agents like DC’s Michelle Rhee.
The last scenes, where the emotional payoffs are, show the devastating defeat handed the three kids of color. (Interestingly, the white kid, from suburban LA and having two parents, wins her lottery.) The little colored kids are all shown as impotent losers of the educational lotto, and by the logic of the film, are thus condemned to be a “failure factory” loser. According to Gail Collins of the New York Times, “By the time you leave the theater you are so sad and angry you just want to find something to burn down.”
I found myself saddened by the kids’ plight, and angry too, but not at all public schools, which is what Oprah, Obama, Bill Gates, the Tea Partiers, and Guggenheim seem to want the audience to feel. I felt more angry at my fellow Americans, who in their financial straights seem ready to believe that civil services, that have done a fine job overall for as long as they have been alive, are the place they should take out their frustrated outrage. In their rage and feeling of loss, pro-charter Americans are targeting the wrong culprit, and raising up the wrong champion. The evidence shows that charter schools are not Superman.
Let’s use the Chicago schools example, since the US Secretary of Education is essentially pushing its “turnaround” model on a national scale now. The facts show that private corporations running “turned-around” schools (some of which are “non-profit”) are doing no better, and generally worse than what we have now. This article shows how one “exemplary charter” had mediocre improvement–after five years. Furthermore, the zealots for privatization ignore that the best schools in the city (as measured as these things are) are not charters but Chicago Public Schools. And where charter schools spring up, union teachers are cut out of the deal, salaries are lower, and employees lose job security and pension benefits, important stabilizing conditions for maximum performance.
In fact, it may be that the charter school “movement” is an orchestrated take-over of the public resource by the industrial-educational complex. The “turnaround model” and Race to the Top (RTTP), according to a recent Huffington Poster, can be seen as a systematic way to bribe and bully real people–students and teachers–instead of helping them grow and develop as they fulfill state promises of a “free, high-quality public education.” This is how Criticallthinker1974 describes the game-plan of the turn-around model:
It’s a pretty sinister picture, and yet following the rules of the capitalistic game, perfectly logical for even “non-profit” corporations to behave in such a way.
But let us not, for a moment, cynically assume from the Chicago example that the charter schools movement is intended to “takeover” America’s public schools. Let us suppose that the critics of America’s public schools really want our children to be as the best-prepared on the planet for our global future. What, then, are our global competitors doing to make their schools reputedly the best on the planet?
If we were to call the bluff of the “reformers” who want America’s schools to be number one again (yes, that’s you President Obama), we’d take a good look at Finland, the number one schooling country, according to Superman. But if we looked for Superman up there, we’d search in vain. In Finland (as this article in the Columbia Journalism Review points out), there are no private charters. It is an entirely public system. In fact, those excellent Finnish schools are the result of a rather (dare I say it?) socialized public educational policy that includes treating and paying teachers like professionals, not relying on standardized testing to regularly measure learning, and making sure that kids are nurtured and cared for from the time a mother becomes pregnant–in other words, the Finns invest in the health of their society, the youth of which public schools serve. But although they provide a real model of success for reaching the under-served kids, Superman does no more than show Finnish schools above the USA on its chart and blame bad union-protected teachers for the gap–more evidence of the superficiality of Guggenheim’s argument.
At the risk of sounding like a socialist, I would claim that some social services–like fire, police, education, the military, and OK, I’ll add in health care–are too important to privatize. I believe that removing ourselves, the public, from these important social functions only leads to lower quality services, a degradation of democratic republicanism, and more “victims” like the kids in Guggenheim’s film. No one wants to hear this message, but it is the flipside of the freedom coin. The Superman our schools are waiting for is–ourselves.