NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This week in one of my courses I will be lecturing on how the radical right as it was understood in the 1960s and 1970s gained great influence in U.S. politics and mass media, becoming for some the "new normal." I will be dealing with the Reagan and Bush policies; individuals like James Watt, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann; policies like detaxing the rich; deregulating banking and Wall Street; trying to privatize everything from prisons to Social Security to the Post Office.
I hadn't planned to deal much with such issues as school vouchers until I read of a rally earlier this week in Trenton, the state capital, by groups with such names as "We Can Do Better New Jersey" and "Excellent Education for Everyone. The rally's promo said that 1,000 attended. A "Jersey Proud Tour" has been launched, visiting charter schools and parochial schools in urban areas. Universities are being visited by salesmen for taxpayer-funded privatization. And the whole thing is being sold as a way to help low-income and minority students (politicians representing such groups were also present).
The legislation that the rally was supporting is something called the Opportunity Scholarship Act, to provide "scholarships" for low-income students to go to private schools or out-of-district schools.
What is really going on here? Do former officials of the Bush administration and other right-wing Republican-connected people who lead these groups have any interest in educating working class and minority students? If they did, why would they have spent a decade forcing a kind of assembly line speedup on the schools in the form of test scores unrelated for the most part to serious education, "merit pay" policies relating teacher pay to those scores, and so called "charter schools" most of which function as quasi-private nonunion schools.
In New Jersey, our far-right Gov. Chris Christie has declared war on teachers' unions, attempting to force communities into salary and property tax restrictions, along with pension and health benefit reductions. These have led teachers that I know in the public school system to retire early and students that I know with excellent qualifications to be frustrated in their attempts to get full-time teaching jobs. In such a context, who can take such proposals seriously? They are a bit like email informing us that we will get a fortune if we just send in money and information to some website abroad.
U.S. public schools have substantial problems, and voucher systems along with charter schools can only make them worse for the majority. Vouchers in effect take money out of the public school districts which need them and provide incentives for individuals to send their children to private schools.
Since public vouchers can in no way cover the cost of most such schools, they in effect give large publicly funded discounts to upper-middle and upper-income groups, who can use such vouchers to defer the costs of the private school education that they are presently giving to their children anyway.
At the state and/or federal level, this means the transfer of education funds from low-income to upper-income families, from public schools to private schools. It is in the tradition of the Reagan and later Bush policies which sharply reduced spending for programs to benefit low-income communities while sharply cutting income taxes at the high end and provided other subsidies which benefited upper-income communities. As for taxpayer funds for parochial schools, the U.S. Constitution and the principle of separation of church and state are of course involved - a point that seems lost on those conservatives who point to the Constitution when it suits them.
But what about these scholarships? Without underestimating the problems that really exist in low-income urban and minority communities, this reminds me a bit of the British and French colonial policy in Africa and Asia - that is, taking a small number of selected students from the colonized population and giving them educational benefits in London and Paris while the great majority were denied access to public education, except in missionary parochial schools. Those policies often boomeranged in that the individuals who received such education went home and became leaders of anti-colonial movements. But the poor neighborhoods of Newark, Camden, New Brunswick, etc. and their counterparts throughout the country are integral parts of the United States.
Taking the best students out of those communities while in effect reducing funding for the great majority in community public schools only deprives these communities more and deepens the economic and also geographical divisions between the urban poor and new middle strata in minority communities, since if U.S. history is any judge, few will return to those communities.
For teachers' unions, such policies, like all policies of privatization, are aimed at undermining those unions, and reducing the overhead that unionized public employees represent in terms of job and seniority protection, health benefits and pension benefits.
There are real problems with urban public education. They can be solved by changing the funding formulas for public education which is currently based on regressive local property taxes. They can be solved by national jobs programs to renovate broken-down urban schools and build new schools in working class neighborhoods. They can be solved by respecting teachers and their unions and giving more power to teachers to work collectively to improve teaching and student achievement, by creatively developing teacher-student relationships where working class students are not afraid to learn and teachers are not afraid to teach.
Most of the reactionaries who sit in the bleachers and cheer for vouchers and charter schools don't understand that teaching is both an art and an interactive dialectical relationship between teacher and students. The smarter reactionaries realize that what they are fighting for is a system in which good and underpaid teachers will teach affluent students in publicly supported private schools, with token representation from low-income and minority communities, while general public education continues to decay.
With all their rhetoric about educational "excellence" and "choice," their policies can only further undermine U.S. public education - which we should remember was from its development in the 19th century the first mass public education system in the world and a system where the U.S., unlike with many other areas of social policy, led the world for more than a century.
Vouchers have no place in American public education. Charter schools, even though President Obama has endorsed them, I would say are a step backward for American public education. Hopefully, we will soon come to see them for what they are - destructive policies of the Reagan-Bush era which can only harm the great majority of teachers, students, and students' families by creating greater inequality in education in the interest of upper-income groups.
Photo: People's World