Small Schools, Democracy, and Capitalist Education

by Rich Gibson

Emeritus Professor, San Diego State University

Substance News February 2008

On Tuesday, January 29th, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave her annual “State of the State,” speech in the capital building in Lansing. What could a governor possibly say in the collapse that is Michigan’s economy, in the midst of deepening inequality, sharp segregation and rising racism in cities big and small, from Benton Harbor to Detroit? How to explain the fact that the once beautiful forests of Michigan are now pockmarked with prisons and casinos, the only industries left as one sector of the working class is offered the chance to rob or jail the greater sector?

What to say of the, “partners in production,” the executives of the Big Three (rather, two and shrinking), and the United Auto Workers union, that united front which, on one hand, took profits and poured the dough into finance capital—and some liquor companies—rather than invest in new factories, leading to the collapse of car sales and, on the other hand, the UAW bosses who made concession after concession, promising concessions would save jobs—when, like blood to sharks, they only made the owners want more–and finally gave away health benefits, pensions, and set up a two tier wage system; betraying the workers, the workers grandparents who fought and died for those wages and working conditions, and their children, who will never get them.

What to say when her Democratic compatriot, the Mayor of Detroit (ruined Detroit has been run by Democrats for 30 plus years), stands revealed of having an affair with his chief of staff who was forced to resign, of having lied about that affair in sworn court testimony, and when the tacky little affair turns out to be central in the illegal firings of three top cops who were investigating, not merely wanton exploitative sexuality and corruption in the Mayors office but a possible murder link–all that leading to a $9 million dollar city-funded settlement with the cops, and secret deals about more to come in sealed documents–and the Mayor in hiding?

What to say when Ms Granholm clearly wants out of town and a job with the Clintons.

What can a governor of such a state say? Well, how about, “Wanna play Three-card Monte?”

Such is what Ms Granholm said. The governor spotlighted education in her speech, promising to use the “Chicago Model of Small Schools,” a $300 million dollar project targeting 100 Michigan schools that are, presumably, suffering from being too big.

Unspoken is the seven year takeover of Detroit’s public schools by the state, overturning any pretense of voting rights in the African American city, a money-grab that did virtually nothing to improve education in the city, but did allow developers and builders to loot the school budget with no-bid contracts, in many cases building new schools that now must be shut down by the district: declining enrollment as students flock out of the city’s segregated, wrecked, schools and into schools, as in nearby Oak Park, that have no open libraries.

Unspoken is the state’s Big Test, the MEAP, which drives all of schooling, promoting loyalty and obedience, the ethics of slaves. The MEAP is the most widely ridiculed of state exams. Written by fourth-tier bureaucrats, administered for years, not by the education department, but the Treasury Department, scored by Standard and Poors, the MEAP stands easily exposed as an economic weapon, not a tool for enlightenment.

Only high schools would be eligible for the Small Schools scam, high schools that are, under the No Child Left Behind Act, failing. 291 of 1,149 Michigan high schools fit the bill, about one in four. Some record. The schools would divvy up the money over a period of three to five years with $2 million available for direct use, another $8 million for construction. Those priorities, inverted on the three-card game board, are clear enough. But who shall pay? Well, the kids will, as the money comes from borrowing against bonds to be paid out in the future. The state, where the tax structure targets working people who no longer have work, a significant shift from the progressive days that taxed inheritances, corporate profits, and interest earnings, is broke.

The governor said, “The focus will be on discipline, one to one relationships, and real world relevance,” the real world meaning teaming with industries to feed future employees. What industries, exactly, will remain in Michigan, other than schools themselves, crumbling health care, gambling, and jails, remains at issue.

While the Governor said she used Chicago as a model for the small schools proposal, she did not say exactly which small schools she had in mind. Perhaps it is the shipwrecked militarized Orr High School, a ROTC school and recipient of Bill Gates dollars that had to close because the kids were too tough, or, to the west, another of the small schools models, Lincoln High in San Diego which opened in Fall, 2007, completely rebuilt, but with no books, and about two-thirds of the teaching force. Teachers and administrators at Orr will lose their jobs. Ms Granholm’s office did not return calls asking for the dates and locations of her visits.

The small schools proposal has the somewhat qualified support of the executives of the American Federation of Teachers, mis-representing school workers in Detroit by actively doing all they can to sabotage on the job and community action, clinging to their segregated member-dues base, and the Michigan Education Association which represents nearly the entire remainder of the state, and letting an injury to Detroit educators merely go before an injury to all the state’s teachers.

Many people are skeptical about the small schools offer. Bill, an Oak Park Michigan teacher whose school now is now terribly overcrowded, by a factor of two with kids fleeing Detroit, “if they cut our school in quarters, no matter; classes will still be at forty and more—we count on absenteeism–and having four closed libraries rather than one is no improvement.”

School administrators quoted in the January 29th Saginaw News are dubious, pointing out that small schools do not translate to small classes, without a doubling of funding, that they only create new, often unneeded staff jobs and facility requirements: secretaries, copy machines, and competing administrators.

But, like an Three Card Monte dealer, Ms Granholm presses on before she has to high-tail it, using shills like the boss of the AFT who say the union can live with the plan, with a few modifications. Small schools, however, typically shatter collective bargaining agreements and seniority systems, something the AFT can live with as long as check-off remains.

Doing school reform without doing social and economic reform in communities, as Jean Anyon has famously said, is, “like washing the air on one side of a screen door; it won’t work.” Given decades of experience, those who claim otherwise can be dismissed as hopelessly pudden-headed or flatly dishonest. Granholm’s shell game with the schools fits the latter.

But we need to fit Granholm’s promise into our broad context as well as our moment.

Following on the idea that school reform and social reform must be connected, we must also recognize that these are not so much public schools, but capitalist schools doing what capital requires for the most part: training future workers, serving to warehouse kids, doing some limited critical thinking education overwhelmed by ideological whipsawing (nationalism, for example), offering huge markets to textbook sellers, soda hustlers, architects, bus companies, operating as a employment system for the failing middle class, and setting up hope, real or false. Social uprising interconnect with loss of hope.

Teachers and other school workers whose jobs have more freedom than most working class people (and who still have health benefits) face a choice in the midst of our context, which is truly a crisis of capital, a falling de-industrialized jobless consumer economy and wars everywhere which, creating nothing of real value, create inflation. The choice: will we be missionaries for capitalism, or for its transformation? Centripetally located in the place where most people organize their daily lives now, school, and where one-half of the nearly fifty million kids in schools are draft eligible, what education workers do now matters more than ever.

To the specific instance, locate Granholm’s promise of small schooling as a significant, live-saver, reform, within her own political ambitions, and her need to get out of town before the rubes wake up. Consider the election.

As the election heats up, billionaire George Lucas (Star Wars) weighs in with a lead article in his Edutopia Magazine for February/March on billionaire Eli Broad’s Strong American Schools campaign, a $60 million plan to press candidates to highlight what Broad poses as a crisis in education in the USA.

Even "Edutopia," calls this election a "circus." But the analysis of capitalist democracy runs a bit thin when the Star Wars founder's mag makes the leap to promoting Eli Broad's sixty million dollar electoral campaign solutions for "public" schooling. It would be hard to find anyone more dedicated to the ruin of public education, to use schooling for social control rather than enlightenment, than billionaire Eli Broad as Susan Ohanian and Kathy Emery have demonstrated in great detail.

The election is less a circus and more a shell game in which the US capitalist democracy poses as "our" government, but is in fact an executive committee and armed weapon of the rich where they iron out their minor differences and then turn their guns on poor and working people everywhere.

In that process, the mass of people are offered options of which millionaire will oppress us best. We then get a chance to pulverize one another over second tier issues like abortion, immigration, or even an economy which is set up to be seen as "Ours" as well, when like the government, it is "Theirs." The overarching issue is capitalism and its attendants: exploitation, imperialist wars of the rich on the poor, racism, sexism, irrationalism, alienation, and opportunism.

Just as there is no democracy in the central point of most peoples' lives, any capitalist work place, there is going to be no vote on the question of capitalism itself, its truthful promises for perpetual war for example. On that, we get to vote on how war is conducted, not on the necessity of war---for oil, for cheap labor, markets, and social control.

And just as there is no vote on that, there will be no vote in individual schools to decide whether school workers and kids believe they have a stake in the three things that drive education today: (1) the regimentation of the curricula, (2) racist high stakes testing which tie the noose of the regulated curricula, and (3) militarization. Governor Granholm’s small schools will do nothing about that.

And bosses are unlikely to give educators the same deal the new superintendent of San Diego Schools got; a contract of over $250,000 with three $3.500 incentive bonuses attached--the bonuses tied to unstated goals that HE determines, a switch on the pay-for-test-scores phenomenon.

No one ever voted themselves out of what is really a Master/Slave relationship. The Masters will never adopt the ethics of the Slaves. What changes the multi-dimensional decay that hits every aspect of daily life, from the loss of health care to the many pension crises to schooling? Organization. Direct action. Struggles for control of work places. Sacrifice dedicated to overcoming opportunism (sacrificing the good of the many for the good of a few), and an ethic of equality.

The two education unions will spend tens of millions of dollars on the national and local elections. If the past is a guide, educators will be the largest organized group on the floor of the Democratic National Convention. But the union executives know this is a mere slight-of-hand, a diversion from the real struggles that educators could make in schools and communities, direct action battles for smaller classes, tax reform, books and libraries, and to get beyond capital. In the words of one director of organizing for the largest union in the nation, the National Education Association, “If voting mattered, they wouldn’t let us do it.”

Some of us with varying views will be working on keeping the flame of honest change lit. Drawing on a tour of the California that Susan Harman, organizer Bob Apter, and I did in the fall, we are initiating in Operation Opt Out, an effort to win parents, students, educators, and community people, to walk away from California's coming high stakes exams. Part of our task will be to overcome the fear that pervades schooling today, with empathy, solidarity, and calls for resistance.

Can we win? Who knows? Perhaps, as Kathy Emery has suggested, we are just, "getting ready to be ready," laying the ground work for resistance that will, of necessity, rise up in the future. Or, maybe, we are at a point where real change is ever more possible. The only way to find out is to make the struggle---which will at least demonstrate that we are what we do.

You are welcome to join us.