Written by Aldous Reno
A good education is the foundation of a just and democratic society. But for the working class people of our society, the promise of a decent education has never been fulfilled, with kids of color receiving the least resources and facing the greatest systemic barriers; the worst facilities and curriculum, the least supported teachers, and ignored poverty and violence. The transfer of education’s power into the hands of corporations and the 1% has been happening for decades, and today as billionaire lobbyist DeVos is made Secretary of Education, the monster of privatization raises its fist for the killing blow to the education of students and the livelihoods of teachers alike. The time is now to plant (and for many teacher and student activists, replant) our feet in the vision of transforming our education system into one that gives all people a future worth fighting for!
Education workers and students at all levels are facing unprecedented attacks. Teachers are facing right-to-work laws that would destroy our right to act collectively as workers and to advocate collectively for the needs of our students. Already poor schools are facing complete defunding by Trump’s corporate cabinet, translating to their closure and replacement by private school ventures meant to deepen the pockets of the already-rich. Secretary Betsy DeVos does not agree with holding private Christian schools equally accountable to public schools, and increasingly foundations (the gloved hand of corporate billionaires like Charles Mott and Bill Gates) generate income for 501(c)3 companies seeking to make a buck off “educational services” like testing, analysis, policy creation, and running schools like fast-food franchises. Increasingly, educators are not thoroughly trained teachers but contracted workers struggling to deal with poverty-wages, no healthcare, burnout, and little job security.
Meanwhile outside of the classroom, parents and students are facing the overwhelming barriers of poverty, racism, increased violence from xenophobia and queer-phobia, fascism, and destruction of their families from deportations and ongoing war abroad. Any hope of providing free, high quality education for all starts with considering these aspects of students’ lives. To wage this battle for our young people’s future, we must come together as education workers, students, and parents!
The Origins of Privatization
The first schools in the United States were part of churches, with the intention to provide literacy to a limited population of mostly European descended men so they could engage with the bureaucracy of the state, including the process of voting and policymaking. Black people and women were excluded, with these fundamental rights to an education only being granted with great struggle on behalf of the people over the course of more than two centuries1. In 1954, under the immense pressure of mass civil disobedience (marches, sit-ins, civil campaigns, and at times rioting), the Supreme Court declared that racially segregated institutions were inherently unequal.
Yet any teacher or student from a poor community of color knows that this promise has not been fulfilled when they see as many students dropping out as graduating in poor neighborhoods, many students killed by violence, or graduating students struggling to enter a workforce of poor quality jobs. Privatization is part of the regime that has instated de facto segregation today. This larger economic regime implemented by the Reagan administration is neoliberalism, a capitalist economic policy primarily characterized by deregulation of corporations, and the infiltration of private companies into public sector institutions. The starkest movements of neoliberalism under Reagan were the privatization of low-income housing projects (Section VIII) and healthcare facilities through so-called public-private partnerships.2
Education’s transformation into a similar machine began in the 80s with the emergence of products to test, analyze, and standardize different aspects of education. In 2008, billionaire capitalists Bill and Melinda Gates (Foundation) began their contributions of more than $230million to the development of Common Core Curriculum, the standards that now impact whether or not schools receive funding.3 The policies that supported privatization were Bush’s No Child Left Behind (2001), which made federal funding available only to those schools who performed well on standardized tests, and created the opportunity to criminalize the teachers in low performing schools. Obama’s version of this policy, Race to the Top (2009), worked even more aggressively to integrate private sector interests into public education. Race to the Top (R2T) funding is distributed on a merit system where schools are scored on a number of factors: their use of standardized curriculum and testing, their demonization of teacher performance (used to justify staffing overhauls in schools), and the expansion of charter schools, the primary vector of privatizing school facilities.
The privatization movement is often called “educational reform” by its champions, and its champions are exclusively of the ruling class. The language of reform and innovation in schools is perhaps the only discernable trend from the newly instated DeVos’s statements, and by this she means both charterization and the replacement of teachers with technology.4 The DeVos empire was built from the profits of Amway, a household products company. Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire founder of facebook, is another adamant destroyer of public education and teachers unions, donating $100million to Newark charter schools, with 50% of that money going to policies that would fire the teachers of underperforming students.5 Bill and Melinda Gates and Charles Mott (Flint, MI based automobile tycoon) funded the development of Common Core Standards, and of course there’s both Presidents Obama and Bush who spearheaded privatization laws.
The Non-Profit Component
One strongly underestimated force in the privatization movement is the non-profit industrial complex, or the emergence of non-profit corporations as providers of tutoring, testing, enrichment, assessment, literacy ed, STEM ed, teachers aids, extracurricular instructors, and teachers themselves. Non-profits also enter into the education sector in the form of charter schools. While charters began as a way for school staff to have more control over teaching content and for increased community involvement, there’s few examples of charters being used this way today. Charter schools don’t have strong teachers unions, if they have any, and despite a huge body of research dedicated to the subject, very little evidence shows charters perform better than traditional schools. While charters can be public schools, they do not have to accept any student, and so their occasional outperformance of traditional schools is because they do not have to accept underperforming students, or they cherry-pick students who are most likely to succeed with the least support. Executives of charter schools make disproportionately enormous salaries6, and there are similar pay disparities between non-profit corporation managers/administrative staff and the contracted educators, who hold the same responsibilities of full time teachers but are often not paid above minimum wage.
These non-profit organizations are inherently pro-capitalist and pro-conservative. The primary funding mechanism of NPOs is through foundations, or funds donated by a tycoon or corporation to a social organization. Foundations have always been used to manipulate social movements in favor of the ruling class, with funding going primarily to social organizations doing educational or policy reform work. The scraping of cream from billionaire Henry J Ford’s foundation have been used to create anti-communist propaganda in the 1950s, to turn revolutionary oriented black civil rights activists into reformist black capitalists, and to assimilate indigenous resisters into their colonizer’s state7.
Foundations enter into the education sector through non-profit agencies, and their influence is almost exclusively on working class and immigrant communities. Black and brown children are the most likely to receive teaching and instruction from contracted workers through non-profits. These “highly underserved” schools are the prime target of Teach-For-America, Americorps, and similar service oriented non-profits, as well as from educational nonprofits that provide after-school instruction, tutoring, and assessment. These jobs are almost always on a contract basis, pay below a living wage, do not provide benefits, and do not offer any professional development beyond ‘experience’ to supplement a lack of training. The contracted education workers are often young people with strong political energy and a desire to see change in their communities through education, but like the radical black activists of the 1950s, our energy is intentionally diverted into an educational regime that is not meant for the liberation of working class children.
With the looming threat of right-to-work (anti-union) laws, these contracted laborers are increasingly a force that the ruling class will try to leverage against teachers unions. Union power can be disrupted by filling more educational positions with non-union contracted workers, and substitutes or contracted educators can be brought in as scabs to break teacher’s strikes. Additionally, charter and private schools are rarely unionized, or are allowed only in an unaffiliated union.
A Future Beyond This Machine
There is no better time to end this gross infiltration of profiteers into the education system, and to build an education system that is intended to provide all people with free, high quality education from early childhood through doctoral degrees, universally. This will require a unified front of education workers, students, and parents to build a collective base in our unions and our schools. Teachers and education workers must unite our struggle to be supported as workers and as providers of education to our students. Parents must be able to engage with their children’s school and have a say in their educational development. And of course students and youth, who have the most to gain from the transformation of this system, must be at the forefront of struggle for the betterment of education in this country today.
This is no better place to launch this struggle than from the Bay Area, where a history of radical activism is swelling with life: Upon the election of the racist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic President Trump, hundreds of students walked out of Oakland and Berkeley high schools to chant and protest in the streets. On the J20 Inauguration Day, the UCB J20 coalition and Labor Rising Against Trump coalition organized and participated in 31 teach-ins with students and community members (including 4 teach-ins on education), and a rally with student and faculty speakers attended by more than two thousand people. On January 21, the largest mass mobilizations against a president in US history occurred as women took to the streets to say hell no to the oppressive policies of the Trump regime, with a 200k strong contingent in Oakland and San Francisco. Thousands of people shut down airports nationwide, with one of the strongest mobilizations against the Muslim ban and the intention for the border wall at San Francisco International Airport. If nothing else, these events show that the Bay Area has a strong energy for political transformation, and that our combined strength is unstoppable against even the most repressive policies.
To concentrate this energy into a force that will kick the ruling class out of our education system, we must have a strong united front of teachers, education workers, parents, and students that acts in unity and solidarity to build power through independent, grassroots action! Teachers must fight to democratize our unions and take over the leadership to end the contract concessions implemented by both the Democratic and Republican parties, and we must be in solidarity with all education workers who struggle to form a union. Student and teachers must fight for more resources and call for an end to high-stakes testing and corporate measurement of our performance. Parents and teachers must fight for curriculum and the freedom to give our kids an education that represents our histories and cultures, and this includes the implementation of dual immersion programs in schools. We deserve free, high quality education for all.
Let’s organize and build it!
 School: The Story of American Public Education. Sarah Mondale. Beacon Press. 2002.
 Social Movements to New Federalism and Devolution. Hudson, Malo. Lecture, Feb 2 2015.
 The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence.