[OPINION] Who Will Own Our Schools?

By Lois Weiner, Brian Ford, Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price and Branden Rippey

New Jersey Governor Christie and his allies on the far-right, which now dominates education reform debates in both political parties, base their educational platform on three assumptions.

  1. We can have equal educational opportunity without doing anything about all the economic and social problems that affect children outside the school walls. All that counts is “teacher quality”
  2. Education should be treated like a business in which parents and students are customers and corporations compete for profits
  3. Teachers unions are the key barrier to improving schools

Based on research and experience – several decades of teaching between us – we see all three as false – and dangerous to our children, state, and nation.

Although we hear this mantra all the time from politicians, education is not the best way to address poverty. To deal with poverty we need to create good jobs. Most jobs being created in our country require about an 8th grade education and are in the poorly-paying service sector. Education can’t change that. What schools can do is give all kids an equal shot at the rapidly diminishing number of well-paying jobs. And please, no more failed “trickle down” policies! Research is solid that giving corporations and banks tax breaks to create or save jobs costs us more than we get.

Good schools and good teachers “count,” of course, just as good doctors do. Most people would agree that even wonderful doctors can’t do much for patients who must choose between spending money on medications or buying food. Even great doctors can’t halt onset of disease caused by environmental pollution, stresses of unemployment or homelessness. Teachers and teaching are no different. When teachers reach kids whose families are drowning in social and economic problems, we are like emergency room doctors. There’s no either/or here. We need to recruit, educate, and support good teachers AND tackle the social crises outside school walls that are undercut learning.

Should we treat our schools like businesses? There is never enough money left over in education (or any social service) for profit. We should put every penny directly into the schools. The wealthy, powerful people who are setting education policy through their contributions to political campaigns (follow the money in this race!) do not send their children to schools run like businesses. Their children attend schools with small classes and all the “extras” (like music, dance, after-school programs, recess) that many NJ school districts have been forced to cut because of funding or punitive regulations about test scores.

Schools are the cornerstone of a democratic society, but in a business what the boss says, goes. State control of Newark has disempowered residents of our largest city and demoralized teachers. The wealthy and powerful want to get rid of school boards, and state control of “failing” districts opens the door to loss of a precious right. Rather than state takeover, we need a drastically reformed system of funding schools, one that is equitable and provides for all children. No more tax breaks to millionaires and corporations. More money should come from the federal government, funding not tied to test results. Which candidates will say “no” to corporations and billionaires, like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and Mark Zuckerberg controlling what our children learn?

Finally, we hear constantly about powerful teachers unions blocking reforms. The unions have become the whipping boy because when they do what they should – we think not often enough – they stand in the way of schools being run like Walmarts. Professionals shouldn’t be treated like Walmart “associates” – in fact, no worker should. Unfortunately, both the NJEA and NJAFT have played the game rather than fighting for what’s right. They capitulated on every issue on which they should have mobilized: teacher evaluations, school funding, tenure, and the new curriculum being imposed, the Common Core. Union officials are disoriented and afraid – and show it. The time is long overdue for our unions to reach out to students, parents, and community in a real movement for quality schools that are run by and for the people they are supposed to serve.

What is most chilling about this bipartisan agenda, pushed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), of which Cory Booker is a prominent member, is that it replicates a plan for education that the World Bank demands in developing nations. We’re being sold goods that were tested – and failed – in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Is this a conspiracy? No, because conspiracies are, by definition, secret and this project is quite openly described in reports of banks, investment companies and the World Bank.

We don’t want the World Bank to impose these harmful policies anywhere – and we don’t want NJ politicians to impose them on us. Do you?

Lois Weiner (www.loisweiner.org) is professor of education at New Jersey City University and author of “The future of our schools: Teachers unions and social justice.”

Brian Ford teaches history in Montclair and is co-founder of NJTAG, New Jersey Teacher Activist Group (www.njtag.org) and a doctoral student at Montclair State University.

Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price is an experienced teacher of 12 years, a member of NJTAG and an organizer with The Institute of Democratic Education in America (IDEA).

Branden Rippey teaches history at Science Park High School and is Vice Chair of the Newark Education Workers Caucus (Newarkeducationworkerscaucus@gmail.com).

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