What’s behind the attack on teachers and public education?

by Peter Brogan

September 14, 2012

Editor’s Introduction: On September 9, 2012, a day before the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike, Peter Brogan gave a talk in Chicago on the political and economic reasons underlying the attacks on public education and teachers in the United States. The following is an edited transcription of his talk.

Some of the question I want to address today include: Why is Rahm Emanuel attacking the Chicago Teachers Union? Why is it so important for Emanuel and his supporters to break the CTU at this moment? Why are attacks on teachers and their unions at the center of both the Democratic and Republican Party’s political agenda? Why are both parties in such staunch agreement on the “education reform” agenda, which is fundamentally about dismantling the institution of public education, replacing it with a hybrid, largely privatized and corporate form? Why is the attack on public education so fundamental, not just for the right wing, but actually for the broader ruling class, in this country and globally?

Hence the fieldwork that I’ve been doing in Chicago is part of a comparative study of Chicago and New York that looks at transformations in urban space and capitalism, and is really trying to understand the problem of why the dismantling of public education and the creation of a privatized, corporatized education is really central to the larger transformations in the global political economy.

CTU members march through Chicago’s center city on the first day of the strike

Part of the answer is understanding that political and economic elites, from former Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Commercial Club of Chicago to current Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Oregon-based Stand for Children, are fighting to produce the city in a particular way. This has been outlined in numerous planning documents from different city administrations, some of which have been drafted by the Commercial Club and have at the center an urban development strategy based on revitalizing the downtown core and prioritizing the financial, real estate and tourist sectors of the economy while at the same time demolishing public housing and schools in order to gentrify historically African American and Latino working class neighborhoods. These transformations are deeply related to the larger structural crisis of capitalism. The background to this is the crisis of profitability that comes to a head in the early 1970s, and the ushering in a period of capitalist regulation known as neoliberalism, marked by savage attacks on unions, workers and working class living standards. Reconstructing the built environment of the city has been absolutely central to all of these changes. This is one attempt to deal with the structural crisis of capitalism at this critical juncture. And destroying unions, and teachers’ unions in particular, have been key to that attempt.

A Global Attack

For the past twenty or thirty years, teachers have been under attack. From 1988 on, it’s been framed at the federal level as a “crisis of national security” but has also been at the heart of what has been understood as an “urban crisis.” I believe that just as this attack on teacher unions is so central for the ruling class, at the same time teachers and public education are a vital sector for socialist transformation. And recognizing this, we need to see that organizing amongst education workers is not just like organizing other workers in either the public or private sectors, because I think there is a tendency on the labor left to see it as just another economistic fight. I think a major value of what the CTU under the leadership of CORE is doing is showing us a different way to think about the struggle amongst teachers and in public education, which takes both a class perspective and an antiracisit perspective. If we have any hope of pushing back the neoliberal attack on public education, on teachers and on unions, we actually need to frame it as a much broader struggle for social justice, not just wages, benefits and so on (though that is important for the life of schools and society).

The wider restructuring began in the Global South, starting with General Pinochet in Chile, in South Africa, and other countries from the 1970’s on. But I want to focus on how it has materialized on the ground here in Chicago. For the past seventeen years, at least since 1995 with the reforms under Daley and the creation of mayoral control of the Board of Education, we see this layering of “innovative” neoliberal policy in the city on top of an earlier set of genuinely democratic principles of innovation in how the school system was governed (e.g. more community direction of the schools through Local School Councils), which has really undermined any democratic notion of public control of the schools. These changes have been driven by two chief things: capitalist accumulation and the desire to expand into the public education sector, but also white supremacy and the restructuring of state power to manage poor Black and Brown people in the city in a manner that most benefits the political and economic power structure of “global Chicago.” This is a fundamental dimension of the larger structural crisis of capitalism: how do you deal with a kind of surplus humanity? It’s not just keeping wages down anymore but it is actually something that is a real political problem for the ruling class. So I think the destruction of public housing, and public schools even more so, has been key to that.

As an arena of economic investment and capital accumulation the global market for educational services is tremendous! Two and a half trillion dollars globally as of last year, and in the U.S. it’s close to $600 billion that they’re looking to get their hands on. This is why what have been called “venture philanthropists”, most prominently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation and the Walton Foundation have been the chief financial backers of the “school choice,” so-called “education reform” movement. Education needs to be recognized as a vital arena for economic development and capitalist accumulation. The World Bank has been saying, at least since 1997, that there are no good jobs being created around the world. They’re mostly low-wage service sector jobs.

So if that’s the case, they say, why are governments around the world spending the bulk of money in education on professional, well educated teachers? Most money spent on education, especially in the U.S., goes to pay teachers, which is a good thing because they’re the most important facet of the system. But there’s also that recognition that the labor market globally, and in the U.S. particularly, has been restructured in such a way around this kind of service sector, with very little manufacturing work, especially in a global city like Chicago which is really based on a service/knowledge sector economy. There is going to be a need to create educational opportunities for some folks to actually rise into those knowledge creative industries, but by and large most people are being trained for shitty service-sector employment. That kind of larger economic imperative beyond making more and more money in the education industry and creating those kinds of business opportunities is one of the central drivers of the attacks on teachers.

Social Struggles in the Global City

The second piece I want to say about what else is driving the attacks is the concept of the “Global City”. People like Rahm Emanuel here in Chicago and Mayor Mike Bloomberg in New York use the term “global city” all the time, but in a kind of boosterist way. “We’re gonna get the Olympics, we’re gonna bring NATO into town, to really show how cosmopolitan we are.” And that’s not the kind of meaning I’m trying to use when I say global city.

The transformation that have taken place with in the contemporary capitalist economy since the 1970’s means that some cities have been pushed to the center (Tokyo, London, LA, Chicago, New York) and others are on the margins. And Saskia Sassen and others have noted that you have cities that are financial nerve centers, power centers of global capitalism, in which you have the most vital and important financial markets but also where transnational corporations are located, making decisions and the like. Because of that, urban scholars have understood cities like Chicago and New York as places where experiments in the restructuring governance have occurred: pushing a corporate-private-entrepreneurial model in how we govern education, how we govern housing, injecting competitiveness into everything and standardizing everything. This raises the question that if on the one hand a global city like Chicago, as a nerve center of global capitalism, has such importance to the ruling class to restructure policies and so on, might it also have significance for a working class struggle?

Looking at the local newspapers here in Chicago over the course of the past few weeks it has been amazing to see such prominent coverage of the CTU and its negotiations with the city, with at least a dozen front page stories dealing with aspects of the fight between the two sides. Even The Wall Street Journal is saying that what is happening right now in Chicago is of historical, national significance. And they’re right. No other union in the country is pushing back and organizing like the CTU is doing right now. Even in a small way, if the CTU is able to push back against the advancing agenda of corporatizing and demolishing public schools, I bet it will have a huge effect nationally and globally against the project of neoliberalism in education. But more to the point, how a city is physically and socially built, what a city is for, whether we want a city for people or for profit will be the central issue in this struggle. You see that in a lot of materials being put out by the CTU: this isn’t just a fight over the school system itself, but what kind of city we want to live in, what kind of city we want to build. CTU has amazing researchers who have actually mapped out how foreclosures are related to gentrification patterns and the closing of the schools. They have an explicit, spatial-geographical way of understanding these radical changes.

The other piece I want to address is concerned with begins with the acknowledgement that teachers are the best organized, most highly unionized workers in the United States and globally. For example, there are five million workers organized between the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)! Teachers unions, organizationally, are this huge potential roadblock, not just in preventing the steamrolling of public education and privatizing the whole system, but actually in the global city where the contradictions of capitalism, inequality and racial oppression are most intense. In Chicago, you can really feel that if you explore the different neighborhoods across the city. For the neoliberal project, you have to destroy any potential opposition. I think the teachers’ unions themselves, even while the bulk of them are collaborative and business-oriented–the NEA and AFT at a national scale most especially–and don’t have any interest in doing what CTU has done in mobilizing their membership, much less building a broader struggle for social transformation, still pose a huge potential political opposition to a resurgent neoliberalism that has been rebounding since the Great Recession of 2008.

The Politics of Pedagogy

There are great economic imperatives to why the ruling class in U.S. and around the world is attacking teachers and trying to restructure public education, but there is this political piece, especially in large cities like New York and Chicago, that is crucially important for us to take note of if we are to help turn the tide against capitalist austerity. Attached to that (and as a revolutionary socialist left we don’t say this enough) is that teaching is ideological, cultural work. Schools in most capitalist formations have played a role in what Althusser called an ideological state apparatus, reproducing capitalist hegemonic social relations, dominant class values and so on, that’s true.

But if we turn to someone like Gramsci, he notes that schools have also served as sites for radical contestation of all those things! That possibility exists in a public system where it won’t exist in a private system. So while it’s true (and as Marxists and socialists we need to say this) schools do, in many instances, play very oppressive roles in reproducing inequitable relations of capitalism. There is nothing inevitable about the role they play or the kind of work that teachers do in them. But also, it is important to acknowledge that when schools are public they at least hold that hope of educating democratic, critical subjects. Historically, schooling in the United State has been a completely racialized, gendered, and geographically uneven process and project. So you look at the work of someone like Diane Ravitch who was a leading proponent of neoliberal education reform, and wrote books blasting leftists the very same critique I just raised above, and who has now become a powerfully articulate and popular critic of what’s happening now in education you will see that she has this notion that there was a “golden age” in America where you could get a great education. And she did. And some people did: if you were white, if you lived in a middle class neighborhood. But historically it has been very inequitable.

In terms of recognizing the real subversive role that teachers can play, to get a sense of the wider injustice of capitalism, to give students the tools to understand the world and also begin to engage in activity to contest it in the school and outside, that’s another political piece that we need to really discuss. As we engage in building a movement for education justice that more effectively pushes back against the destruction of public schooling, we need to not just defend public schools but begin with a deeper recognition of the deep problems within the system and to advance a more radical analysis and movement around what’s being taught and how we are organizing our schools and classrooms, so that we don’t fall into this trap of just defending liberal education as the “great leveler” of American meritocracy. That has played a huge ideological role in containing working class struggle, this idea that you just advance up the ladder through education. But even if we all have equitable access to education (which we need to fight for) it will still not change the underlying reality of capitalism. We need to be fighting for a critical education for freedom.

Peter Brogan is a PhD candidate in the Geography Department at York University in Toronto and a member of CUPE Local 3903, the union that represents teaching assistants, graduate/research assistants and contract faculty.