The Coming Collisions: War, Stagflation, NCLB, and School Life

by Rich Gibson, Professor Emeritus San Diego State University

Printed in Substance News March 2008

In California, Governor Swarzenegger announced a budget cut of 10 percent across the board, a move which would hit California schools, routinely listed as already among the worst of the state systems, hard as 40 percent of the budget is education. The other big item: prisons, as California jails more people than any other state, that in a nation imprisoning 1 in every 100 citizens. Swarzenegger added that he hopes to be lead the nation in sanctioning schools failing under the No Child Left Behind Act, not surprisingly poor and rural districts with kids from many nationalities and language groups, that is, those whose birthrights proffered the least capital get hurt first and worst.

In Michigan, Governor Granholm  announced massive educational cuts promising to close an untold number of Detroit schools, a city that is now 90 percent black, devastated from 30 years of racist segregation and de-industrialization. Granholm claimed she would reconstitute many schools, making them “small,” largely on the Chicago model which, as Substance shows, failed. Granholm’s office has yet to respond with details of exactly which Chicago Small School she will use as a model.  Granholm has a double problem though. More than fifty Detroit schools already closed. Notably, a great majority of those schools, either built anew since the 1997 state takeover of DPS, or fully refurbished on state bond money, have been stripped bare of wiring, copper, plumbing, and heat systems. Those schools can never be reopened, big or small.

In New York City, with the backing of the American Federation of Teachers, the boss of the school system plans to link teacher pay to wages, benefits, and job placement.

In Florida, the Education Association complains that enormous cuts were made in 2007 but the legislature plans a further slashing of education funding. Floridians, like citizens of many states, were promised by liberal Governor “Walkin’” Lawton Chiles, and the FEA, in the early 90'a that  a state lottery would largely solve problems of school funding. The lottery, a regressive tax, or, unkindly, the idiot tax, was instituted but never funded education. Today, the FEA, the only teacher union that ever shut down an entire strike (1968), is poorly positioned to respond. Experienced leaders of the merged AFT and NEA affiliate from big counties, like Dade (Miami) and Broward (Fort Lauderdale), are in prison for, respectively, stealing union funds and child molestation. That, however, may actually be an opening as, in late February, Dade school workers voted to reject a contract that would have gutted their health benefit plan—a move the old leadership would have never allowed.

We witness a collision of forces that far too many reformers of all kinds, unionists to educationists, to anti-war groups, have failed to recognize are related. The system of capital, the empires’ wars, a regressive tax system, the regimentation of curricula, racist and anti working class high stakes exams, and the militarization of schooling, have plenty in common. Now this collision is coming into clear focus.

As the impact of the empire's wars comes home in the form of $100 a barrel gas, stagflation, and a massive debt crisis,  and school cutbacks, the sanctions set up by NCLB will ratchet up the consequences for school workers, kids, and communities. While it is common for politicians to hype coming school cutbacks in order to set the stage for even more regressive taxes (as the vehicle tax supported now by the California AFT), the cuts will come and it is reasonable to foresee the collision of booming class size (and the absence of books, supplies, aides, etc) and the NCLB's preposterous demands for rising test scores.

It is surely possible that government will turn a blind eye to the NCLB sanctions, or a selective eye, when it becomes clear that far too many schools are under the gun, including schools in wealthier areas, but it is equally possible that teachers will be targeted for layoff based on kids' test scores, simply by closing schools and churning the work force. And, as above, in New York City, the AFT already agreed to pay-for-test-scores plans.

The upshot of that over time will be a more divided, and less powerful, work force. Teachers in rich areas will do ok for a time,  teachers in poor areas will not. And, as the AFT and NEA both refuse to recognize that an injury to one only goes before and injury to all, school and government bosses will simply slice away until all teacher health benefits are evaporated. Simultaneously, again based on birthright, children will be sorted and piped into meaningless jobs or the military, with test scores as the scientific basis for what is, in fact, the inequity of inheritance.

What can be done? Surely it is now easy to see a connection between imperialist war and the blowback on the empire's workers, including its school workers who, for the most part, sold their consciences to NCLB and collaborated actively with the child abuse that NCLB is. The indifference of education workers to this maltreatment may be the result of the fear that pervades schooling today, a top-down process, it may be the result of two decades of consumerism producing an utterly selfish population, or it may be that production for profit separates people so thoroughly, and the degradation of the culture so complete, that educators have not noticed. Now is the time to notice.

And it is equally vital to see the role that the union leadership played in supporting the wars, and the NCLB. Perhaps now, as the effects of war and the regimentation of knowledge hit people's pocketbooks, action will be more possible.

However, no one can suggest that the union leadership, mired in the racism, hierarchy, and opportunism that structures the unions, is going to play a progressive role. The best thing the union leaders could do would be to initiate targeted, rolling, strikes during test season, and set up freedom schools to serve the kids who could actually learn something important in a freedom school. Or the unions could, in theory, rekindle the massive Mayday marches of three years ago on the logic that most of the marchers are going to be damaged, in every way, by the impact of NCLB.

That, of course, will not happen. The unions could demand that no administrator's salary exceed, say, the top teacher pay---and demand cuts accordingly. But they will not do that. Nor will the unions adopt a plan that their early founder, Dorothy Healey, described as "tax the rich, tax inheritance, tax profits." Late in life Healey said she did all she could but did not take class war seriously enough. Almost a hundred years later, we should learn from her. While there is dissent, indeed turmoil, in some education union locals, it remains that none of the unions are prepared, in any serious way, to meet the imminent crises. What to do?

One thing that can be done is to simply nullify the test scores by boycotting, opting out of the tests. Calcare in California and the Rouge Forum nation-wide are calling for those opt outs which are hardly premature, but long overdue. We have experience in opt outs in Michigan, Florida, and around the USA. One thing people can do to build awareness is to go to school board meetings, in groups, and speak openly in support of the legal and reasonable right to opt kids out of these tests. Walk away. As in the military, nearly nothing is being done to awols.

This, then, represents another collision, or interaction, too often unaddressed by those who seek social justice: the need to connect a thorough critical analysis of our social and economic system as it is, that is, capitalism, with a passionate way of bringing together people of varying views in a group where each can feel creative, actualized, whole, in order to set the future within the present.

Justice demands organization. Let us try to see one another, face to face, friend to friend, in Louisville, March 14 to 16, at the Rouge Forum Conference. (