School & District Management Opinion

The People Shall ... Reinventing Schools as the Commons

By Deborah Meier — May 31, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

One more word about The New Jim Crow. Looking back, I wonder how many of my students had someone in their immediate family in prison or on parole or who was an ex-felon, without rights. Probably most. But it was never a topic of conversation. That’s the worst of it for me. Schools should be at least the one place where the great questions of life are on the table. And children have such questions as young and younger than 4—the ages I got to know best.

One has to remind oneself that there’s a good reason to have public schools despite their many unnecessary faults. (And thanks, Diane, for helping us define public vs. private.) I remember when some of my left-wing 60s colleagues called for abolishing public schools. Better no school than those we have, they said. I was influenced by the fact that I had three kids in those public schools and taught in one myself. No, worse is not better.

But there is a crisis facing the world and haunting America, so to speak. Like the prison crisis for black Americans, it’s rarely a topic of conversation but threatens to make most of us second-class citizens. Even third class. I’m speaking about an economy which is increasingly unable to promise a better future for most American and politics that seem less and less designed to respond to citizens. A society where we need more and more schooling to have a shot at the remaining, and ever decreasing, well-paid jobs.

The pundits say, over and over, that only a better-educated workforce will save us. People believe it. Actually, it’s a lie. Plain and simple. (Litmus test: If it were really true, we’d see massive support for free education all the way through college and beyond.)

Answer? The American “economy” is a tricky term, just as the word USA is when we talk about corporate wealth. Whose economy are we talking about? Follow the money is a slogan that democratic rules and policies should make untrue. As political life becomes accessible only for the rich (who make their money internationally), maybe public and private merge?

One of my favorite magazines, The American Prospect (which needs your financial aid immediately), has a piece that you must read entitled “The Hunger Games Economy” (June 6). Jeff Faux notes that for most of the past 30-plus years progress was dependent on more and more members of the family working and everyone borrowing while their real wages remained flat or declined. When it all came apart, some were well-prepared (ideologically, as well as organizationally). For others, it crept up slowly. At first, the low-paying jobs went overseas, and then the better-paying ones did, too. Then the higher wages of senior workers dried up as “seniority” lost its “appeal.”

“American” business—Is there such a thing?—found it easier to make money abroad rather than to “fix” things at home. Still, the “fix” at home seemed simple: eliminate obstacles to ever lower wages (e.g. emasculate unions) and cut back on government safety nets that cost too much in taxes. Even liberals seem to have at least half bought into it. (The difference between them is still sufficient for me to enthusiastically support Obama et al this fall.)

But in the long run, the faster we face reality, the better it will be—at least for my grandchildren! (Even if education were the solution, it would take a generation to raise the educational level of the adult!) The argument for education reform rests on deeply democratic, not necessarily good business, grounds. Critical thinking et al are better for democracy than for business. As it is, the fastest-growing sectors of our economy don’t call for more than a high school diploma, if that. And even highly skilled workers make less than they have since World War II. But facts are irrelevant if the money and organizational structure to defend them doesn’t reach the larger public.

Although, notes Faux, 79 percent (including 68 percent of Republicans) favor a Constitutional amendment to overturn the campaign-finance ruling in Citizens United (which favors money over people-power in politics), it’s unlikely to happen soon. So why is Faux still hopeful? Because he claims that solutions do exist and if we had been in a different political position in 2008, and had we followed a different economic recipe—we’d now be out of the woods and prepared to face long-term issues. Yet it’s never “too late” to change direction.

As schools become part-and-parcel of the “market” system, operated by business entrepreneurs with an eye on their own agenda, and whose kids go to school elsewhere, we’ve lost one of the last public spaces. Some are even calling for privatizing the Post Office (we’ve already partially privatized the military and prisons). Where do we gather to thrash out ideas, to hear each other’s silly or sane solutions, and experience each other as a potential force? The People Shall ...

This is not, of course, something so new—but it’s more brutally in-your-face than it used to be.

I remember, Diane, in 1967 telling kindergarteners in Harlem about the struggle for integration in Southern schools. I stopped and looked at the faces of my 5-year-olds. Every single one was black. What did they make of what I was saying? What do they think today?

Schools as the commons has rarely been a reality. But reinventing them as the “commons” is the right fight at the right moment in our history. Let’s not let it slip away under the hammer of billions of corporate dollars. I’m exhausted, Diane, even thinking about how hard it will be defeat their agenda.


P.S. Tomorrow (Friday, June 1) at 9 p.m. Nancy Paige Carlson and I will be talking about early childhood during a SOS (Save Our Schools) webinar. My first such experience.

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