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El redespertar neoliberalismo y constitución 1980

Neoliberalism, Teacher Unionism, and the Future of Public Education

WITH OVERWHELMING SUPPORT from both Democrats and Republicans, the Bush administration rewrote the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 2001, drastically changing public education. One of the key initiatives of the Johnson-era "war on poverty," ESEA has been the main source of federal aid to schools serving children in poverty. Employing the rhetoric of "equity," the legislative package called "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB), has made federal aid dependent on schools' accepting new regulations on a host of school policies, from teacher qualifications, to instructional content and methods permissible for reading instruction, to the privatization of school services, like tutoring. However, the mandates that have received the most attention require testing in grades 3-8 and the reporting of disaggregated test scores for minority groups who have traditionally been "left behind" by schools, as well as by students identified as requiring special education. Schools that fail to deliver high test scores for all groups are publicly identified as failing and are subject to a host of punitive measures. Although there is much else in the package that affects all public schools that accept ESEA funds, testing and score reporting are NCLB's elements that are most hotly debated, in part because they affect ALL schools, everywhere, and not just those that are assumed to be "failing," (e.g. city schools with high concentrations of poor, minority children).

The rhetorical premise of NCLB is that the federal government will finally hold public schools throughout the nation accountable for their failure to educate poor and working class Hispanic and African American students. In this article I explain how NCLB's purported aim of increasing educational opportunity masks its key purpose: to create a privatized system of public education that has a narrow, vocationalized curriculum enforced through use of standardized tests. I analyze the origins of support for some of NCLB's key premises and explain why the most prominent liberal criticism of NCLB, the underfunding of its provisions, is dangerously misleading, for both strategic and ideological reasons. Finally, I suggest how we might develop a progressive program and movement for school improvement in the U.S., one connected to a revitalized teacher union and labor movement.

Reasons For NCLB's Bipartisan Backing
ONE ASPECT OF NCLB mostly ignored by its opponents is that it both perpetuates and significantly deepens policies begun under Bush senior and continued by the Democrats and Clinton. Yet, the origins of NCLB in educational reforms begun a decade earlier have been well documented. Writing in the Educational Researcher in November 1996, Gary Natriello noted that the bipartisan National Education Summit diverted attention away from many pressing problems in the US economy and its schools in a policy statement presenting high academic standards as a panacea. Describing the marketization of education in North Carolina in Anthropology and Education Quarterly in 2002, researchers identified intensified race and class stratification that resulted from policies implemented in the Clinton administration. Clinton pressed hard for Bush's National Goals 2000 and its emphasis on national standards enforced through standardized testing, and looked to his corporate allies for direction in setting education policy.

NCLB sharply divided the weakened traditional labor-liberal coalition that generally works together to win increases in school funding. The Council of Chief State School Officers, the Council of Great City Schools, and one teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which represents teachers in most cities, supported the rationale that holding schools to "high standards" enforced through yearly standardized tests, with severe penalties for poor performance would force schools to shape up. The National Education Association (NEA) led the opposition to NCLB, arguing that its punitive sanctions, the absence of significant new funding, and the testing mandates were dangerous and destructive to public schools. The NEA is much larger than the AFT, and though it frequently cooperates with organized labor, it is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. In its opposition to NCLB the NEA was joined by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), which represents some 14,000 superintendents and local administrators, major civil rights organizations including the NAACP, as well as most progressive advocacy groups.

NCLB's rhetoric and its provisions that require reporting disaggregated test scores are enormously seductive to parents and low-income communities whose children attend poorly funded, poorly functioning schools. Schools in predominately Hispanic and African American neighborhoods are often incapable of providing children with more than the rudiments of literacy and numeracy -- if that. Often these schools cannot recruit and retain sufficient numbers of teachers to staff classrooms. City and rural schools that enroll large concentrations of recent immigrants are frequently so underfunded and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of students they must educate that bathrooms and closets are pressed into use as classrooms. Even in better-funded school districts in which African American and Hispanic youth are a demographic minority, they are frequently tracked into classes that offer a diet of low-level materials and poor instruction, robbed of the opportunity to take college preparatory work. African American boys are placed into special education in numbers vastly disproportionate to their presence in the school population. Once students are labeled as having "special needs" they are rarely given the help they need to move into regular programs, although this is the presumed rationale for identifying their problem and grouping them together. For many years schools and school districts' test scores, graduation rates, and other statistical indicators commonly used to measure achievement, have been made public. However, in many states, New York for example, reports of test scores did not breakdown the achievement for different groups of children. A school would report the demographics of its student body and the overall passing rate on standardized tests, but it did not previously have to sort out, disaggregate, the data so that correlations between achievement and demographics could be made. For this reason, inequality of achievement was often masked. Given school practices and conditions that allow millions of minority children to be undereducated, NCLB's requirement for disaggregated test reports and its "get tough" stance to punish schools that fail to help minority youth pass standardized tests are attractive to many parents, most especially those who feel powerlessness to make institutions that are publicly funded serve their children adequately.

Note too that NCLB's passage follows on the failure of the civil rights movement's reforms to equalize educational opportunity. A full analysis of what occurred and why for the past thirty years of school reform would take me far beyond analysis of NCLB, but it is important to understand that NCLB's stated goal to "leave no child behind" would have far less popular resonance if schools presently served poor children of color reasonably well. NCLB's hijacking of the rhetoric of progressive educational reform would not be possible had progressive intentions to improve schooling been actualized, and so a brief explanation of what went wrong is needed. Essentially, a radical vision of improved schooling for all children was lost in a Faustian bargain negotiated by legislators and bureaucrats, one embodied in the legislation creating ESEA. Relatively small infusions of public funds were given to schools and targeted at specific students, those presumed to need extra help, based on their family income, or in the case of bilingual education, their native language. The funding's efficacy was measured by standardized tests, given at the beginning and end of each school year to students enrolled in classes that had materials and teachers paid for by ESEA monies. These "compensatory" programs ushered in the first widespread use of standardized test scores to measure teaching and learning, initiating their acceptance as valid measures of whether public funds on education were being well-spent. The "compensatory" model assumed that poor, minority children were not achieving because they - and their families -- were deficient. It ignored, indeed contradicted, evidence of racism's destructive and systemic influences on how children are taught and what they are expected to know, as well as the bureaucratic organization of schooling. Historically, public education in this country has coped with demands to equalize educational outcomes by blaming lack of achievement on students' individual problems, labeling their deficiencies, and then grouping them in separate programs that "meet their needs." Our present policies for classifying students as having various sorts of educational disabilities differ primarily in nomenclature from those developed at the turn of the nineteenth century, when working class students disinterested in school would be labeled "anemic" or "phlegmatic" and shunted into separate classes or schools.

NCLB definitively breaks this pattern by presuming that if children are not succeeding in school, responsibility rests with the school -- and not the children. But in so doing it destroys the structure and organization of a publicly-funded and presumably publicly-controlled system of education begun more than a century ago. NCLB closely resembles the blueprint developed in ultra-right wing think tanks to replace locally controlled school systems funded by the states with a collection of privatized services governed only by the market. What NCLB adds to the original "free market" framework is the demand for standardized curricula and testing, (which I explain at length later), and the Christian Right's press for "faith-based" interventions in public services. NCLB's "free market" underpinning pretends that schools can compensate for the array of savage economic and social problems that undercut children's school success, problems created and abetted by government policies. In this mad reasoning, public funding for low-cost housing is reduced or eliminated because the "market" is best at regulating housing costs and availability. When the market's failure to provide adequate housing is evident in soaring rates of homelessness, schools are told that children's homelessness and its attendant social and logistical problems are no excuse for homeless children's failing scores on standardized tests. If there is sufficient political furor because of the obvious inability of schools to cope with this new crisis, the government creates a discrete, token allocation for educational services for homeless children. Often the money can't be used well, or perhaps at all, because the amount provided is so small relative to the enormity of the problems the school must overcome to provide meaningful assistance. Just tracking the whereabouts of children who move from one shelter to another, let alone providing them with appropriate services, is beyond the capacity of most urban school systems, which must interact with a number of similarly bureaucratic, under-resourced, and dysfunctional agencies.

NCLB draws on and encourages the powerful political mythology touted consistently in the media that schooling is the most effective way to overcome social inequality. This notion persists despite the overwhelming evidence that our educational system reproduces existing social relations a great deal more efficiently than it disrupts them. Again, a full discussion of this subject takes me too far from my focus on NCLB, but I suggest that a program to advance educational opportunity has to be understood as part of a larger project of attacking inequality with other social policies, including an end to de facto school segregation. To argue that schools have a limited capacity to ameliorate economic and social inequality is not to diminish the moral or political importance of the struggle to improve education. Any progressive movement deserving of the name will demand that public schools provide all students with an education that will allow them to be well-rounded, productive citizens, which includes the ability to compete for whatever well-paying jobs exist. Improving schools that serve poor and working class youth can make a difference in the lives of some children, and for that reason alone, progressive school reform deserves our attention. Moreover, struggling to improve schools for all children has a critical political significance because it demands that American society make good on its democratic ideals, its pledge of equality. While being clear that improved schooling is a moral and political imperative, we need to state its limitations as a policy vehicle for making the society more equitable. As the authors of Choosing Equality (Temple Univ. Press, 1986) note, education can challenge the tyranny of the labor market -- but not eliminate it. Especially as neoliberal policies tighten their grip on governments and capitalism's assault on the living conditions of working people intensifies, schooling becomes as an ever weaker lever for improving the economic well-being of individuals even while it remains a critical arena for political struggle.

The heart of any agenda for progressive social change, which includes improving education, must address what historian David Hogan terms "the silent compulsion of economic relations," the nexus of racial segregation in schools and housing, combined with dependence on local property taxes for school funding. Segregation in housing has become the pretext for abandoning the challenge of racially integrating schools, and school segregation has seriously weakened the forces challenging funding inequities. Some African American activists and researchers advocate dropping the demand for integrating schools, arguing that the society has turned its back on its commitments to educate African American children, who would be better served in segregated schools staffed by African American teachers. Although the despair that underlies desertion of the goal of integration is understandable, the hopelessness fuels an erroneous romanticization of segregated schooling and ignores the reality that racially segregated schools and school systems are more isolated politically for being racially segregated and, thus, more vulnerable in funding battles in state legislatures. The urgency of making segregated schools better is undeniable, but so is the necessity of mounting a political and legal challenge both to the de facto segregation of schools and the use of local property taxes for schooling. Activists who lived through the bussing battles of the 1970s, even those who have read about them, do not want to take up an issue that can incite vicious racism, but as racism underlies much of the opposition to funding schools serving poor, minority students adequately, it must be confronted. Unfortunately, even Ralph Nader's school reform plank (votenader.org), skirts this issue. While it observes that nationally school segregation has increased since the landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, the program does not call for desegregation but rather only for control of education to be left in the hands of the states with new investment in education. The federal government is identified as having a "critical supporting role" to ensure that all children, irrespective of family income or race are "provided with rich learning environments and equal educational opportunities." The platform rejects NCLB's focus on high frequency, high-stakes, standardized testing as detrimental to children's intellectual and psychological well-being, noting that it "is unfair to poorer children from devastating backgrounds." There is much that is important in the statement on school reform on the Nader/Camejo website, for instance its rejection of vouchers and corporate influences on curricula. Still, the absence of explicit attention to connections between racial segregation in schools and housing, and state dependence on local property taxes for school funding is disappointing. Without making the case that segregation, school funding, and school quality are inextricably connected to one another, the argument against NCLB advanced by progressives with few or no roots in minority communities is far less persuasive.

While NCLB's passage partly results from the Right's heightened political presence generally, its allure is also attributable to public confusion about defending a system of public education that seems to be unreformable. The tune played by both Democrats and Republicans that Americans must scale back their expectations about governmental responsibility for concerns now portrayed as individual and personal, like housing and health care, signals that American society cannot fulfill its promise of providing equal educational opportunity. And as Nader points out, NCLB's passage is also a dismaying indication of the degree of popular disorientation about the role of education in a democracy and the contradiction of having this essential civic function privatized.