I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pinpoint an exact moment when the fight to give all American children a good education became so intractably perverse, but the broader movement of neoliberal Democrats towards big business’ vision of American education was certainly one of the key shifts that made the struggle monumentally more difficult for the rest of us. From the edubusiness ties that the Clintons had during Bill Clinton’s presidency, to Joel Klein’s role implementing Michael Bloomberg’s education visions in New York City, to the media blitz of 2010 and the woman behind it, this wave of betrayals not only lent credence and a bipartisan sheen to some of the worst ideas that conservatives have ever put forth on education, but also made it nearly impossible to discuss all the reforms — both in the schools and outside of them — that will be necessary to truly improve education across America. The conception of schools as businesses is so pervasive across the country now that both Republicans and Democrats posit it as a proven fact, despite how this model has destroyed schools, decimated communities, and widened so many of the gaps between the haves and the have-nots of this country.
One of the most insidious tautologies put forth by the corporate schooling crowd is the idea that if a student fails to succeed in school, all of the blame should be ascribed to the student and their teachers. No sane person would ever deny that teachers play important roles in fostering the development of their students, but the pro-corporate forces in both major political parties often argue that good teachers can overcome even the most severe of student problems, difficulties that are far outside the scope or realm of most teachers’ skills or responsibilities. You often hear the repeated in the mantra “the most important thing for a young person is a good teacher,” or words to that effect. Never mind if the child is hungry, or homeless, or their parents are imprisoned; if the child can’t learn to multiply fractions by the end of sixth grade, that’s the teachers’ fault for not helping the student overcome their difficulties, and those teachers should be fired.
This principle of corporate education “reformers” being infallible even extends to the children being taught, which can be seen most clearly in the “no excuses” model adopted by so many charter schools, which basically turn the schools into low-budget military academies. Students’ lives are regimented to a degree that would make even some Catholic schools blush, and if something goes wrong for a student, it’s their fault. The teacher (who often comes from one of the “alternate” teaching training programs founded and funded by the pro-corporate set) is never wrong. The administration is never wrong. The student, just like the teachers at those other schools, is always to blame. (Unsurprisingly, these kinds of schools often pop up in areas with high minority populations, and contrary to the “school choice” rhetoric of some people, it’s often the case that a “no excuses” charter school is literally the only school available to many students.) While the level of authoritarianism bring displayed by the federal government right now may be unmatched in our time, anyone who was paying attention to the shifting of American schools over the past thirty years probably saw that this historical moment was bound to happen sooner or later, regardless of which political party held the balance of power in the capital.
Yesterday marked one month from the start of the new semester for me, and the number of new COVID-19 cases reported in this county shot up so high on that day that we have now more than doubled our total caseload in the past month. I’d be lying if I said that I feel comfortable just walking down to the gas station for milk at this point, much less going anywhere else. All across this country, parents of young children are facing a heartbreaking dilemma, because all the options they have for educating their children — sending them to schools that can’t be expected to reduce the possibility of virus transmission to acceptable levels (we couldn’t even get through the end of July — and what kind of soulless cretins make young children go back to school in July? — without a newly-opened school having to close after a positive COVID-19 test), staying home and losing more income so they can homeschool to the best of their ability, trying to find online options that deny children the socializing functions of a physical school (and are within parents’ budgets) — are horrible. Of all the ravages of this ongoing pandemic, this may be the most heartbreaking on a purely visceral level.
This is a failure of those in power, though. From the lack of a coherent federal response in nearly every aspect of the pandemic, to the heartlessness of big corporations insisting on the increasingly-fatal charge to go back to business-as-usual, we are experiencing widespread systemic failures that have shown how the underpinnings of our whole society, let alone our economy, aren’t sustainable in a situation like the one we’re facing right now. Other countries have not only shown how it’s possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 with just a little intelligence and planning, but the supports they’ve provided for their citizens during these last few months have proven that the secondary toll of the pandemic — job losses, income reductions, evictions and so on — can be minimized as well.
As we get closer to the traditional start of the school year here in America, more scorn is being heaped on teachers for either not wanting to teach in a physical school until the pandemic is under control, or for retiring to protect their own health. No one is denying the right of stressed-out parents to be angry at the impossible choices they’re going to be forced to make in the coming weeks, but teachers did not cause these problems, and teachers can’t be expected to solve them when the foundations on which their work is based — sane government, basic health awareness, the notion that some things matter more than money — have been steadily eroded by neoliberals of all stripes over the past thirty years. Since those neoliberals invested so much time and effort into their “blame teachers for everything” sloganeering, though, far too many people are finding it easy — if it hasn’t already become a reflex for them by now — to say that if only teachers were doing their jobs, and weren’t so selfish about things like not wanting to catch COVID-19 and die, everything would be so much better.
As much as we need to talk about November’s election, I fear that the real day of reckoning for this country won’t be on Election Day, but at some point later this summer when more and more schools would normally open. Some may open, only to close again weeks or even (as seen already in Indiana) hours later. Some will continue to operate online, creating severe problems for parents of children too young to be trusted alone at home all day. What is certain is that the pandemic won’t be under control by then, and case counts and death counts are only going to get worse, and all the people who were short-changed in their education are going to keep looking for the same old scapegoats offered by those in power. The people with all the power didn’t do anything wrong at all. They’re never wrong, and as long as they control the reins of American education, they’ll be able to raise everyone else up to believe that they’re never wrong. It will always be everyone else’s fault.