REPORT CARD
The Privatized Mind

Throughout this fall I was constantly texting. Anytime I had a free moment, I’d whip out my cellphone, never satisfied until I’d made contact.

No, it was not an electronically charged love affair, but another affliction of contemporary middle age: public school fundraising. My son’s elementary school was competing for a “Power a Bright Future” grant for environmental education, from the Clorox Foundation. To win, his school needed to get the most votes, either online or by text. That meant voting every day. We were competing with schools all over the country.

There are many problems with this scenario. Clorox makes a toxic household product, one so closely associated with its brand that instead of “bleach” we say “Clorox.” For the company to gain eco-credibility by contributing to “sustainability” programs in our school seems like the crudest sort of greenwashing. (In fairness, Clorox is the parent company for some green product lines as well, and there’s controversy over just how environmentally damaging household bleach is, but it’s safe to say it is a product that Brooklyn’s greenest households eschew.) And whatever the specific crimes of Clorox, schools should be fostering critical thinking, not fawning gratitude toward powerful companies.

Beyond the odd bake sale or PTA party, capitalism doesn’t belong in our schools.

“Report Card” is not reproaching anyone for participating in schemes like “Power a Bright Future.” Schools are hammered by budget cuts, and of course parents do whatever we can to raise money for good programs. But it’s worth thinking about the values such activities encourage. We are constantly telegraphing the idea that good education is a scarce resource rather than a public good. Or perhaps it’s more like a flat screen TV pilfered from the wreckage in last summer’s riots in London—something we are lucky to get for free, but don’t deserve. Often, in its official literature, a high quality public school will remind parents that it provides a fabulous education with no tuition bill attached, a fact we are expected to receive as a kind of miracle.

This is what privatization looks like. Our public institutions, starved of funds, are desperately kissing up to corporate America. Worse, our expectations are privatized. We’re thinking of education as a prize—won by fierce competition or dumb luck—rather than a right.

The private money is everywhere. Our neighborhoods continue to be bombarded with charter schools that could not exist without the financial and corporate elites. Success Academy, the hedge fund-powered entity discussed in the last “Report Card” column, continues to expand like the pre-recession Starbucks, though parents and Occupy forces are still resisting Success Williamsburg. Achievement First, a charter chain known for excessive discipline, which operates in Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods, gets money from the Bank of America and Moody’s foundations, as well as Merck, Wyeth, and plenty of hedge funds. But the private sector even underwrites some of our neighborhood schools: Park Slope’s P.S. 321’s website thanks real estate giant Corcoran, calling it “our marquee sponsor.”

In return for such genuflection, capital is looting our schools. New York city and state are spending hundreds of millions enriching hucksters who peddle wrong-headed teacher evaluation schemes and unproven technology while our schools lack money for the basics (music, gym, substitute teachers). Somehow our school system can’t afford things that have been proven to reduce the achievement gap between rich and poor, like reducing class size, yet has plenty of money to waste on anything that enriches the technology sector—or former Department of Education officials.

While New York State still does not allow for-profit charter schools, the city is coming dangerously close, expanding its School of One program—now operating in one school in Chinatown—to four more schools. School of One is a name and concept eerily appropriate to our education zeitgeist, because privatization is not only a funding strategy; it is a pedagogy and an experience. The program has been touted as breathtakingly innovative—for allowing children to spend much of their day alone in front of a computer. The founder of the school, Joel Rose, is also the CEO of a firm formed last August solely to provide services to School of One in return for the rights to the technology and intellectual property. In the current edutech bubble, Rose will presumably make a fortune.

Public schooling should draw families into the public sphere and make us more engaged citizens. But the privatization of the system has quite the opposite effect. Parents act more like consumers than members of a community, simply switching schools when we are unhappy with our kids’ education, though an extensive body of research shows that this practice hurts our kids and their schools. We are like drivers sitting in traffic, constantly switching lanes to get ahead, and thus snarling the traffic even more.

Even our protesting takes a narrowly self-interested form. Teachers and other public school employees are leading radical protest efforts like Occupy DOE, which draw attention to the big picture: the need to defend the public goods of the 99% against the grotesque predations of the one percent. But most parents only join in when our own kids’ schools are directly affected—if Bloomberg wants to shut them down, or cram another venture capitalist experiment into the building. There’s lots of organizing and protest around such abuses. In fact, this work is gathering momentum. But once we lose those fights—as we usually do—most parents give up. There are amazing parent activists in this city, and their numbers are growing, but we have not yet figured out how to organize each other en masse to resist the disastrous policies that affect everyone’s schools: austerity, high-stakes testing, mayoral control, inequality, and of course, privatization. Let’s hope that’s about to change.

By joining such fights, we show our kids what principles look like, even if we don’t always live up to them. My kindergartner, Ivan, has attended many protests demanding better public education for all. He doesn’t always enjoy such events, and they bring out his contrarian streak: He claims Mike Bloomberg is his boyfriend, and he hopes the mayor will close all the schools so it will always be the weekend. Still, even though Ivan would much rather be elsewhere, the protests shape his worldview. When I told him we needed to send a text to Clorox to raise money for his school, he asked, “Why only my school?”

He’s right. The wave of recent protests—Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Cuomo, Occupy the DOE—is helping us teach our kids to care deeply for everyone. But privatization encourages positively Darwinian behavior.

In the midst of my frenzied texting affair with Clorox, I got a mass e-mail from my friend Meghan, imploring all her friends to vote for her son’s school in the Clorox competition. Her son, Atticus, is in first grade at the Neighborhood School, a progressive public school in the East Village similar to the one my son attends in Brooklyn.

For about a minute, I considered casting a vote for someone else’s school.

But I didn’t do it. I doubt that anyone did.

In the end, no schools in New York City won a “Power a Bright Future” grant. But the march to privatization continues. Perhaps it’s time to Occupy our own values. 

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