Private interests vs. school reform: It’s time to fight

Posted: May 04, 2012

LAST WEEK, the Philadelphia School District announced plans to completely overhaul itself and close more than 40 public schools next year. By closing the schools, for what it describes as considerable financial, academic, and safety concerns, the district claims that it will be able to restructure in ways that are more effective and efficient.

While not surprising, given our city’s consistent bungling of education reform over the past two decades, this move was nonetheless disturbing for many reasons.

It’s difficult to imagine how the district can justify such a sweeping change without consulting parents, teachers, community groups, leaders or outside educational experts. While none of these parties truly matters within the current age of educational entrepreneurialism, the fact that the district didn’t even pretend to care is an index of the city’s growing indifference to anything or anyone that doesn’t generate profit.

Also, given the absence of a permanent superintendent, this move seems hasty and completely unrelated to legitimate academic concerns.

But, of course, the dismantling of public education in Philadelphia has nothing to do with academic achievement. It has to do with satisfying the motives of corporate profiteers and shameless politicians. These proposed school closings are a clear pathway to delivering nearly half our city’s students to the charter-school movement, which has become the latest and most popular shell game in education.

Let me be clear: I am not dissing charter schools out of hand. There are, in fact, many effective and successful charter schools around the city and the country. At their best, charter schools are laboratories of innovation whose insights can be brought back to traditional public schools for the good of everyone.

In the current moment, however, charter schools have become sites of economic exploitation and political opportunism. Corporate honchos are taking advantage of the New Markets Tax Credit, which gives federal tax breaks for new charter-school construction. Once the buildings are constructed, they’re rented out to public-school districts at exorbitant rates. For teachers, charter schools signal the end of intellectual freedom, collective bargaining, workers’ rights and stable careers. Like prisons, charter schools have become a cottage industry whose raison d’être is economic rather than educational.

But all this is fair game within the current educational environment, which thrives on the neoliberal belief that the private market is better than the public good. As a result, high-stakes test scores and profit ledgers have become more important than quality teaching and learning.

And, just in case you were wondering, this isn’t a partisan beef. President Obama, who has offered only tepid critiques of the horrific No Child Left Behind act and who is largely responsible for the highly destructive Race to the Top program, has consistently bought into the market-based logic of educational reform. The NAACP and National Urban League, which have shown renewed energy in the battle for social equality, have been silent on the issue of the school closings. Unlike nearly every other issue in our country, the dismantling of public education in one of the nation’s largest cities has not been an agenda item for anyone on any side of the aisle.

By closing 40 schools, nearly all of which service poor black and poor brown students, the district has effectively sold our children to the highest bidder. Now, the only remaining question is what we’re going do about it.

My solution? Organize. Resist. Fight. Otherwise, the private interest will continue to defeat the public good. And there’s nothing good about that for our children. n

Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University and host of “Our World With Black Enterprise,” which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays on TV-One. Contact him at MLH@marclamonthill.com

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