The Schools To War Collision: Whither the Resistance?

by Rich Gibson and E. Wayne Ross

March 2008



One year ago, February 2007, we wrote in Counterpunch ( that there is a schools-to-war pipeline which connects the three main things happening in education today: the regulation of what people know and how they come to know it through a regimented curricula, the noosing of that process through racist and anti-working class standardized exams, and the militarization of education. These processes are embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act, which despite considerable opposition, remains a bi-partisan project supported by Kennedy’s and Bush’s alike and, with minor revisions, will probably be renewed soon.

We focused on high-stakes exams as a key choke point in schools, now the centripetal organizing point of daily life in de-industrialized US society. We urged direct action, test boycotts coupled with off-campus freedom schooling, as a means to not merely resist but to offer students a vision of what real education might address, especially the key issues of human life that are illegal in most schools now: love and aesthetics as a form of mutuality and sensual pleasure distinct from fear and exploitation, work and the reality of class struggle, rational knowledge, and freedom which, we know, cannot be practiced in most schools.

Some reformers objected to our thesis, urging that we address only the education side of this crisis, that we set aside a critique of capital, war, and imperialism. Some made that case for tactical reasons, others because they truly believed that school reform can be conducted without social and economic strife via lobbying and elections.

We responded, with Hegel, that “the truth is in the whole,” that to take one process apart from another would only recreate inequality, ignorance, and misery in new ways. Today, we witness proof to our thesis rising from reality. The connection of capital, war, and economic crises appears in schools as the penalties set up by the NCLB for test scores are about to collide with massive school cutbacks. The cuts will intensify the sorting of school to war that we warned about last year. At base, youths who arrived in school with no inheritance will be driven, by the economy, by NCLB, by high stakes exams, and by the social milieu, to the military or to meaningless jobs.

Other honest reformers criticized the call for test boycotts on the grounds that, in our reactionary climate, such actions could lend support to those, like Bill Gates, who want to privatize public education. While sympathizing with this view, it remains that there is no single public education system in the US and never has been. What is, and is historically, are perhaps five or six segregated systems, ranging from pre-prison, to pre-Wal-Mart, to pre-craft-worker, to pre-social worker, to pre-lawyer and doctor. Then there is an elite private system where the rich go to school as in Mitt Romney’s lovely alma mater, Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where rolling hills, a carefully kept landscape, swimming pools that appear to be small lakes, hockey rinks, an art colony and museum, an observatory, set up the view of those who, unthinkingly perhaps, are schooled to glaze at a globe and think, “this is ours, let us set about seeing how we make it work,” quite distinct from the employee mentality, “tell me what to do and I will do it,” imposed by most NCLB schooling.

The fully segregated public school system is funded by a regressive tax system, again demonstrating the partisan role of capitalist government. Why would those who hold key sectors of power want to abandon a deal where some elements of the working class are paid, not to jail, but mis-educate, the others? It is true that entrepreneurs like Gates, Eli Broad, and others, steer toward privatization and profit from it. It is equally true that the market is already deeply embedded in public schools, from textbooks to busses to students encouraged to see themselves as customers. Greater profits, and social control, will be won from that old system which has powerful interests, from the education unions to the Chambers of Commerce, behind it. Even so, war-produced economic crises now pound on the school door.

Governor Swarzenegger in California has already implemented a summons to slash the school budget by 10 percent. K-12 educators and professors alike received layoff notices on March 4th. School workers are already pointing at one another, choosing who should go first. This is only the beginning, as the economic debacle will grow worse, not better, as the wars continue and the related inflationary rise comes home.

How fast the economy collapses would require a crystal ball, but it is clear that:

  • The failed $3 trillion wars will not end, but expand (the best the US will get in Afghanistan is a draw, which itself is unlikely—300,000 Soviet troops retreated in disgrace, fighting an enemy that threw rocks at tanks, and in Iraq, the US strategic and tactical incompetence, is there for every other imperial military to see and makes wider war likely);
  • The related hike in the cost of oil, as of today the highest ever;
  • The national, home mortgage, global currency, and personal debt wreckage that could easily lead to bank collapses;
  • The dramatic rise in transportation and food costs (wheat, corn, meat, cheese, etc).

All this adds up to a very, very serious problem—the whirlwind that Chalmers Johnson has suggested in Nemesis could bring fascism to the US.

The lifelong anti-communist Johnson, though, can see nearly no hope. He equates imperialism with hubris and militarism. Rejecting Marx, he doesn’t come upon the imperialists’ relentless drive for raw materials, markets, social control, and cheap labor. Hence, despite his incredibly incisive analysis, he often concludes with this action plan:  “move to Vancouver.” If imperialism is just narcissism and bad people, then there is no way to foresee the likelihood for resistance.

It is possible that fascism could emerge in the US and around much of the world as a mass popular movement that could sustain for some time until those same people came to realize that fascism only deepens, cannot solve, existing problems. If the emergence of popular fascism is in fact merely pending, then only those willing to easily offer themselves to the Patriot Act will do much public writing about what to do.

Hope, however, may lie in the fact that, on one hand, people will resist because they must resist in order to live and, on the other hand, that people will resist critically, addressing the whole of the problem, capital itself, propped up by thousands of forms of selfishness, and people will answer opportunism with a call for equality. Surely this critique can emanate from schools where ideas, presumably, still have a role.

The NCLB sanctions will kick in all over the nation with a vengeance next year, or even the end of this school year. Already schools are being closed in droves in wrecked cities like Detroit, teachers laid off by the hundreds. NCLB penalties would, if applied, deepen social inequality, crash test scores, increase drop-outs, feed the military, and, of course, mean the loss of school worker jobs. And, as we have seen, those who teach where parental income is low will get hit first, but everyone else will be next.

This does not have to happen.

Nor do we have to follow the likely union bureaucrat path of making some noise, then figuring out what concessions to make. The history of the last 30 years and more of whatever there is of a labor movement in the US demonstrates that concessions do not save jobs but, like feeding blood to sharks, concessions make bosses want more. Look at the remnant of the United Auto Workers union, which did nothing but make concessions as hundreds of thousands of auto workers lost their jobs. Now the UAW has agreed to a tiered wage system that would pay new workers one-third to one-half what more senior workers make. No concessions underpins the reality that an injury to one only precedes an injury to all and creates the solidarity that can keep personnel from savaging one another in a battle over who deserves a job most.

We should reject, angrily, maneuvers from, for example, the officials at the California Federation of Teachers/American Federation of Teachers that wants to impose more and more regressive taxes on poor and working people in order to pay for schooling. If there is any tax increase, it should be solely aimed at the rich, inherited wealth, large property holdings, corporate profits. If we follow the AFT's thinking, we will not only betray the people we need most, poor and working people, they will see us, correctly, as an opposition. We should not even consider some kind of balancing tax as suggested by other reformers, a sales tax and a tax on the rich. Working people are taxed unjustly already.

Why would AFT take such a position? Top officers of both school workers’ unions, the three million member National Education Association and the much smaller but more urban AFT, are mired in a philosophy they call, “New Unionism,” the unity of business, labor, and government in the national interest, what some will remember as company unionism. Leaders of both unions reject the reason that causes most people to join unions: the contradictory interests of workers and employers. The leadership philosophy creates top down efforts to, for example, support the empires’ wars (clearly against the rank and file interest) and to, importantly, reject any critique of capitalist democracy, thus pouring millions of dollars in member money and untold hours of volunteer time in the shell game of the electoral world that inveigles citizens to pick which evil they like best.

New Unionism, though, does not just arise from the mists. Top union officials are very well paid, the President of the NEA, Reg Weaver, earning more than $450,000, and a fine expense account. Whether Weaver is able to see the connection between his salary and his union’s (and AFT’s more so) work with the National Endowment for Democracy, a front for US imperialism all over the world, is unacknowledged.

The New Unionism view of rejecting any sense of class struggle, pervasive in US unionism, nearly wiped out any memory of activist labor history and, as bad, the ability to analyze power relations in communities, to find key choke points where resisters can have the greatest impact, and to develop sustainable strategies and tactics. There are very, very few union officials who have ever led a strike and fewer still that have led a strike that won.

Correspondingly, the official New Unionism cannot offer the mass of school workers the chance to be whole, honest, creative, and caring—qualities that induce people to the job initially, then are denied by the system—as New Unionism sets union leaders apart from the rank and file in a dishonest series of self-seeking decisions that reflect capital’s war of all on all; don’t challenge it. In many cases, it is not dedication to the collective good, but the chance to get out of the work place, to dress better and attend dubiously important meetings and be heard–and more pay—that creates New Unionist leaders.

Thousands of school workers will be spinning in the electoral circle in the coming months (AFT already endorsed Clinton), many working on the belief that the ballot box is the only way to stave off the inevitable because the powers of the system, and their local bosses, are overwhelming. That is a mistake.

The economic crisis and the failed military adventures alone demonstrate that elites are not so powerful, but very weak and vulnerable now. Nothing is inevitable about the future. If we stop thinking of the government, the economy, and the arms of that state as "ours," but rather "theirs", it sets up far more possibilities. They still have plenty of money. Oil profits remain higher than ever, for example. And this is still the richest country in the history of the world.

So how do education workers, the most unionized people in the US, get their money and, more importantly, build a movement in which we and our students can unleash our creativity and power in a collective way—a movement that can win not once, but again? By recognizing that educators are centripetally located in the place where most people in the US organize their lives today—49 million children are in schools, half of them draft eligible soon—and by taking control of the value we create. In schools, as in any real work place, we create value collectively and cannot win control of it alone. We cannot win anything sustainable without parents, without kids, or community people.

While we do work within a billion dollar market that influences every breath of school life, our product is not a Ford, but the hopes of children. We need to pass along real hope, not fictitious hope, meaning we need to help demonstrate in sophisticated ways that, for example, we are not all in this together in one united nation but, in fact, we are in the midst of a ruthless international war of the rich on the poor, and help students locate where they are in that spectrum. When we teach children NCLB’s standardized lies (as in, phonics works, fonics) using methods so obscure that children learn not to like to learn (the key achievement of capitalist education today), we demolish their futures and our own.

We need to recognize that a key purpose of capitalist schooling, as important as profits and perhaps more-so, is social control, and we need to hand elites all the civil strife that we can.

In pacified areas, people become instruments of their own oppression and indifferent to others. This is especially true in education where students in, for example, pay-for-performance programs, fashion an inner cop to go with the outer one and compete one against one, school against school, in what is truly a life and death battle for scores that measure their worth by their parents’ wallets. Things can go otherwise.

When the bosses say “Cutback,” we need to say “Fight back.” We can start by opting out of the exams which, after all, are educators building their own scaffolds. In most states, like California, parents and students have a legal right to go walk away from the exams. Teachers have a legal right to inform parents of that option, though the remarkable levels of fear in school, manufactured from the top down, lead many teachers to withhold that vital knowledge.

No concessions. None. Nothing. On the contrary, we want lower class size in all schools, books, supplies, free time, more pay, and better benefits. We are not going to engage in bargaining with a plan to give back to bosses, but to take right out of their pockets with a more just tax system aimed at inherited wealth, profits, corporate land. They need to be told that and settle in with the idea. Their alternative is turmoil. As 1968 France demonstrates, educators and students can spark widespread social change. We know that civil strife can put elites into retreat, force concessions from them. What are our possible methods beyond test opt-outs?

We should not be fooled in the current media theme park that is the national election in which we will get to choose which person, from the executive committee of the rich, will oppress us best. This is a structural crisis that goes beyond any chance that a "good person from the ruling class" is going to soften the hit. They will not. If anything, the billion-dollar election is being used to build nationalism and turn whatever there has been of democracy, reduced in every way to capitalist democracy, into a new religion, a hothouse for nationalism, ethnic separation, mysticism, and hollow demagoguery. The empty promises and absence of analysis from all candidates shows, once again, real weakness among elites who truly have nothing to offer people but endless wars, bad jobs, and an assault on reason itself.

In some communities like Arcata and San Diego, California, efforts by dedicated activists, many of them Vietnam Veterans, to counteract the invasion of military recruiters into schools have been signally successful. Militarization, however, is but one of the encroachments on school life. And the sucking pump from the economy to the military is powerful. Many “volunteers,” are in the military to get health benefits.

Correspondingly, test boycotts have gone on rather quietly in communities all over the US; rich communities, poor communities, middle class and rural communities as well. Some public boycotts, as in Michigan against the farcical MEAP exam, have been dramatically powerful. However, now the ante is raised, beyond the big tests the demand for a full gutting of the education system is at hand. The collision of the wars, NCLB, and the economy is quite real, coming with speed not projected a year ago.

In the face of massive layoffs, organized rank and file school workers can seize and shut down their schools. Seizing schools is built right into the history of the labor movement, has been done before, and is the best way to strike in education. It is hard to defend a strike perimeter around a high school or middle school. It is easy to go inside, remove the bosses, bring food, and settle in for a long stay, with supporters on the outside prepared to bring food. Bosses are reluctant to attack sit-downers as there is a lot of valuable stuff in schools.

Elementary teachers need to consider the possibility that they are potentially the most powerful people in the school work force. Not only do they set up kids' worldviews and attitudes, they provide the key baby-sitting role that makes school absolutely necessary for so many people. When schools are struck, the first pressure to end the strike comes from merchants around middle schools (who get looted) but the second group is parents of elementary students.

We need to prepare to offer parents that service, and real education as well, opening Freedom Schools in communities where educators can demonstrate that we can comprehend and change the world. In our own research, we have concrete evidence that teacher-organizers in difficult situations can reclaim kids from the damages of NCLB, restore curiosity and independent critique.

Such strikes are already happening in, for example, Puerto Rico, Oaxaca, Mexico, and Greece. They are not products of a dreamy imagination but of the resistance people must engage in order to survive. Our task is to connect reason to passion, passion to power, and power to a critique of what is, what we are doing, and what can be.

There is a real fight ahead. We need to know that and prepare. We do not have to be lambs among wolves. Test boycotts and job actions do not just materialize. Success must be rooted in making public sense of the daily life of schooling, close personal ties–and justice demands organization.

Upcoming are important mass meetings of radical and reform groups in education. The Rouge Forum ( meets in Louisville, KY March 14 to 16. The Chavez conference in Fresno follows on March 28-29. Calcare organizers leading the California test boycotts will be there.

Rich Gibson is organizer for the Rouge Forum and emeritus professor at San Diego State University ( He is the author of the “Torment and Demise of the United Auto Workers Union” now online at Cultural Logic ( and, with E. Wayne Ross, Neo-Liberalism and Education Reform (Hampton Press).

E. Wayne Ross ( is Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, co-founder of the Rouge Forum, and, with Sandra Mathison, co-editor of Battleground Schools (Greenwood Press, 2008).