The criminalization of public education

Two stories grabbed headlines this week.

Those Atlanta school teachers who cheated on tests were sentenced to some pretty heavy prison terms.

By now we've forgotten that one altogether because our very own Barbara Byrd Bennett has gone on on paid leave while under federal investigation for a shocking new conflict of interest story a fishy deal we bloggers have all been writing about for two years but seems to be heretofore unknown by the mainstream Chicago newspapers and radio.

Separated as they are by several states and many years, it’s hard to see how they have anything to do with each other. But they do. And it’s important. To explain it I have to back up a few decades, so bear with me.

Corporate education reform came barreling on to the scene after the Reagan-era Chicken Little report, A Nation At Risk. We were told our students scored terribly on tests, our schools were failing, our teachers were lazy, our unions locked terrible teachers in place forever, and our nation would soon collapse if that perilous status quo wasn't destroyed. So lots and lots of things were done, and have been done for 30 years now.

The fixes that have been applied ever since that report have been drawn from the world of business, along with the language about schools and curriculum. We have CEOs running our school systems and investors who are waiting for returns on their investments. Literally. Those folks who loaned money for Rahm's outrageously titled "universal preschool" are now going to be watching the approximately 2,500 kids it will serve to see if their Kindergarten test scores demonstrate a good return. The highest dollar value per kid will be for not needing special ed.

One of the business theories corporate reformers love is "disruption." They seek to destroy in order to remake. One main target for this process is teacher's unions, the flamekeepers, in this narrative, of the status quo of failure. We all know about the lazy lazy union hogs that are our nation's teachers. We may not know a single such teacher, but we all know the story.

Disruption, breaking unions, establishing appointed boards of ed just like corporate boards in order to keep disagreements and disorder and different ideas from mucking up the works--these are all priorities of the corporate reformers. Privatizing is the next important step because after breaking down the status quo, it's important to put something in its place. I have written about who benefits from the privatizing of schools. You know the answer: the corporations who run the schools. The investment opportunities that benefit the privatizers are considered trusty, can't-fail, and highly profitable. The kids in these schools? They get an education extruded out of a machine, one that is never chosen by any of the corporate managers for their own children.

Common standards and common tests are another piece of the fix. To the corporate reformers the exciting thing about this is the mass-scale market that results from the national standards and tests. Rupert Murdoch, purveyor of edtech gadgets and products through Amplify, famously drooled over the $500B education market potential. Education giant and congressional lobbyist par excellence Pearson now controls almost all Common Core testing, plus test prep, plus curriculum to go with the tests. Apple has been making inroads in selling entire districts iPads, and how exciting that those districts will have to buy new ones in a year or so because the first set has been disrupted into obsolescence.

Corporate reformers have implemented a lot of change in American public education. But it's been a slow process really. Thirty years. Things aren't moving fast enough for these energetic profiteers.

So ed reformers have taken to the legal system to push their agenda, and now we see lawsuits such as Vergara and copycats being trotted all over the country by lifelong educator tv newscaster Campbell Brown.

But things are still not happening fast enough. There needs to be more disruption and less status quo.

So we get governors like Scott Walker and now our very own beloved shiny new Bruce Rauner, who hate unions with the heat of a thousand fiery suns and have pledged to break them by establishing "Right to Work" states. And we get mayors like our own newly reelected, and currently vacationing, sweater-clad humbler and softer Rahm who despite all the actual evidence to the contrary continues to spout nonsense about civil rights and choice and closing achievement gaps while shuttering functioning schools and advocating an educational model extruded out of a machine to which he does not subject his own kids. These dudes can really get things hopping for the corporate class. Well I mean they are the corporate class, so they make the decisions that profit them and their pals, and in the case of Rahm's pals on the board of ed I mean this quite literally.

Backing all of it up is the tin-eared, earnest-sounding corporate shill Arne Duncan, who loves choice, innovation, disruption, and privatization, and has taken to admitting without irony that there may be too much testing in a few school districts.

So to sum up: we have now, working in concert on the disruption of public education, some of the largest corporations in the world, the courts, and the political class including mayors, governors, Congress, and the Department of Education.

But it's taking too long. Schools have proven stubborn, teachers won't just go away, citizens want to elect their school boards, communities cling to their schools when they are threatened with closure and destruction, and now these crazy citizens are starting to say no to the testing regime.

Well there's a new approach in town and if you've stayed with me this long I'll get back to where I started. This one might finally work like the lucky charm the corporatists have been waiting for all these years, and finally bring the whole edifice crashing to its final satisfying collapse.

Now we can see public education criminalized before our eyes.

Those Atlanta teachers who changed standardized test scores in order not to fall below NCLB and RTTT funding threshholds? "The sickest thing that has ever happened in Atlanta," according to Judge Jerry Baxter, who handed down prison sentences above and beyond what even the prosecutors were asking. They were hauled off to prison straight from the court, and some of them will spend 7 years there.

Barbara Byrd Bennett, who secured a no-bid contract with her former company? Now "stepped down" and out of sight, now under an investigative cloud of ignominy. Nevermind that the entire board and the mayor approved it, moreover set up these things themselves, regularly. The CPS chief--who I am now reading everywhere is "good friends" with union head Karen Lewis--is taking the fall for it all.

Reader: I do not condone mass-scale cheating scandals. And I've been waiting for years for someone, anyone to be held accountable for the insane and disastrous decisions that come regularly out of CPS headquarters.

But I sense a new tone, a new fervor here.

Teachers, who have been bashed for decades for sins of omission such as being lazy lazy union hogs and somehow held accountable for poverty and social collapse, and public education that has been vilified for stifling children and denying them civil rights by passive neglect and mediocrity, are now being depicted differently.

Teachers and the institution of public education are now being pilloried for their sins of commission--crimes that lead to leg irons, orange jumpsuits, and jail time.

There can be nothing more welcome to the education corporatists and the profiteers than this spectre of criminalized public education. The more crime the better, and now maybe they'll be able to sweep the whole rubble pile out and privatize the entire country's education systems. I'd pretty much put money on that being Bruce Rauner's goal.

But then again, they just may overplay their hand. And the focus of the criminal crosshairs might shift a few millimeters off the teachers and catch sight of different folks. We may even see that here in Chicago. Maybe soon.

The corporatists need to know that we're not going to easily accept a new narrative of criminalization unless it is about them.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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