This week’s readings put forth two strikingly different visions for public schools.
In “How to fix our schools: A manifesto,” former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, former Washington, D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and other cohorts composed a document full of the language of the neoliberal reform movement. It is both grandiose and plainly neoliberal. The manifesto invokes the familiar and lofty refrain of “excellence must be our only criteria.” It preposterously chides schools for not properly balancing the classroom that has some students “reading on a fourth-grade level” while “others are ready for Tolstoy.” The solutions that it proposes restructure schools after a business model. “Personnel decisions based on performance,” “financial incentives” and “a better portfolio of schools choices” is the business-chic lingo that it suggests will bring about change. By their reasoning, schools based off the corporate world have the magic that makes things better for both the student stuck on fourth-grade chapter books and the bookworm yearning for Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
In stark contrast, at the end of Jack Gerson’s chapter “The Neoliberal Agenda and the Response of Teachers Unions,” Gerson places power for change in the hands of teachers unions inspired by a renewed spirit of communitarian activism. He urges teachers unions to organize “a coalition of labor, community, and environmental groups.” He suggests that demonstrations such as the 10,000 demonstrators who marched at Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza could be used as a model. Groups like the CORE caucus of the Chicago Teacher’s Union also could serve as a model of a group that understands the issues and resists corporate reform. This reminded me that Julie Cavanagh from P.S. 15 in Brooklyn had told us that she was impressed with Chicago teachers’ understanding of issues in education. Gerson would remodel teachers unions in a way that unites the great mass movements of the 1930s and the smaller, communitarian grassroots movements of today.
Of course, the reality is that teachers unions today, in the struggle between these two competing visions, capitulate to neoliberal reform. Leaders of the two big national teachers unions (the NEA and AFT) feel that they must do so to keep their seat at the table among the forces that control public education in this country. When you have a situation where cities place the authors of the manifesto like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee in charge of city schools, it is easy to be sympathetic with this view. Yet, this same grim reality also underscores the necessity of having a voice of forceful opposition. Teachers unions may be the last force left to tip the scales toward communitarian reform. Good reform will require bravery from unions. It will require leveraging the power of the people against the power of corporate wealth. The voice of teachers must sound out louder than corporate propaganda and distortion.