It seems as if the same battle is being fought in every aspect of American society. On one side are the forces of egalitarianism, economic opportunity and self-determination. On the other is a well-funded and entrenched elite bent on hijacking our media, our political process and our institutions for their selfish ends.
Sadly, the classrooms of this country haven't been spared.
Means And Ends
The Wall Street crowd wants us to think of education in terms of means -- which usually means finding ways to spend less -- rather than ends. But when it comes to education, the "ends" are our children. And the means we choose for them, either consciously or through indifference, reveal who we really are as a people.
Perhaps that's why a new "education declaration" has attracted signatories as diverse as author Dave Eggers; Prof. Robert Reich; education reformer Diane Ravitch; Larry Groce, host of NPR's Mountain Stage; economist Lawrence Mishel; Prof. Theda Skocpol; and a number of other prominent political, academic, cultural, religious, and educational leaders. (You can sign it too.)
A quick disclaimer: I'm affiliated with the Institute for America's Future, one of the sponsors of this initiative. I wasn't involved with its preparation, but I've wanted to write about primary and secondary education for a long time. I've held off, partly because the moral truths have been restated so many times that they've become cliches.
You know the cliches I mean: Nothing's more important than our children. Kids come first. It takes a village. "I believe the children are our future/teach them well and let them lead the way ..."
The Real Deficit.
When ideas become cliches, we stop listening. As soon as the song's over we go back to watching politicians boast about who'll do a better job reducing the deficit -- by which they mean the deficit in federal spending, not the deficit in educational resources for our children.
That's the real deficit, the one that matters, the one that will shape our future. Kids need those resources -- not just to learn their ABCs and their 1-2-3s, but to help them become fully realized human beings and full participants in society.
Did you know that, according to the most recent Census Bureau report, the amount we spend per child on education just dropped for the first time in nearly 40 years? "Teach them well and let them lead the way," indeed.
A conscience is a tricky thing. It's tough to live with yourself when you're shortchanging our kids and our future, no matter how many times you play that old song. What you need is an infusion of "free market" voodoo to convince you -- and others -- that depriving children of educational resources is for their own good.
- Pretend that "budgets" are the real crisis -- but never mention that corporations and the wealthy are paying less in taxes than ever before in modern history.
- Make scapegoats of innocent people to draw attention away from yourselves. For Social Security they've attacked "greedy geezers," but it's hard to come up with a catchy equivalent for kids. ("Insatiable imps"? "Avaricious anklebiters"?) So they vilify teachers instead.
- Sell a fantasy which says that the private sector can do more, with less money, than government can. (Never, never mention that private insurance provides far less healthcare than public insurance, at much higher cost. And don't bring up the mess privatization's made of prisons and other government services.)
- Find a name that doesn't use words like "money-making." How about "charter schools"?
- Describe yourselves as "reformers" -- rather than, say, "demolishers." That's why "entitlement reform" is used as a euphemism for cutting Social Security and Medicare. (Michelle Rhee even called her autobiography "Radical." Apparently "Shameless" was taken.)
- Employ the political and media elite's fascination with (and poor understanding of) numbers. Suggest that "standardized" and "data-driven" programs will solve everything -- without ever mentioning that the truly ideological decisions are made when you decide what it is you're measuring.
- Co-opt the elite media into supporting your artificial description of the problem, as well as your entirely self-serving solution.
- Use your money to co-opt politicians from both parties so you can present your agenda as "bipartisan" -- a word which means you can "buy" a few "partisans" from both sides.
It shouldn't be surprising that all these attacks share a common playbook. The money's coming from the same pockets, and for the same reasons: so they can keep their own taxes low -- and make money from the privatization schemes.