The capitalist response to the coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the disregard that governments and business have for human life — specifically the lives of the working class. Our lives are treated as unimportant — health care workers are denied PPE by a system run entirely for profit; workers are forced to accept unsafe conditions and fired when they organize to make demands; and people of color make up a vastly disproportionate percentage of the deaths from the virus. Workers everywhere are repeatedly told that we need to “pull together” and “make sacrifices” while giant corporations with billionaire CEOs are exempt from these expectations.
The most recent target is public education, and the plan is an attack on the rights of working-class children and their parents. It will deprive kids of resources in the spaces where they get their meals, safely play with their friends, and get help from adults. In the increasingly isolating environment created and sustained by capitalism, poor and working-class children, vastly disproportionately children of color, will be denied the very basic right of all children to learn in a school.
At a press conference on Tuesday morning, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York State will be “collaborating” with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “to develop a blueprint to reimagine education in the new normal.” “One of the areas we can really learn from,” Cuomo said, “is education because the old model of our education system where everyone sits in a classroom is not going to work.” But with the “new normal” extending beyond the reopening of the economy, and with billionaire privatizers involved, this is a clear move toward a long-term ramp-up in online learning.
The Erosion of Education Funding
This comes on the heels of repeated announcements that public schools should brace themselves for massive budget cuts, the idea being that public education is a luxury that city and state governments just can’t afford. This echoes the practice of governments after the 2008 financial crisis. By 2015, 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008. Meanwhile, tuition-based private schools will remain available to the children of parents who can afford them.
Cuts to education always hit poor and working-class children the hardest, and Cuomo’s cuts to education reveal that more money will end up infused in wealthier districts — he concentrated the cuts on New York City, where the poverty rate is 5.3 percentage points higher than that of the rest of the state. Additionally, while people of color make up 30 percent of the New York State population, the city is 57 percent.
Congress’s budget relief package included several billion dollars for the highest poverty districts in the country. More than $716 million of the federal aid to New York State went into the city budget. Cuomo then cut that exact amount from the funding package for New York City’s schools, effectively erasing any federal aid they would have received and reabsorbing it into the rest of the state.
A Chalkbeat analysis by Drew Atchison of the American Institutes for Research concluded that “high-poverty districts are getting disproportionately impacted by the covid crisis.” Even with the inclusion of federal money, NYC will be receiving $200 less per student than the prepandemic budget proposal, while the wealthier Scarsdale area will be receiving only $15 less per student. Rochester city schools have one of the highest rates of child poverty in all of New York State, and it will be getting $230 less per student, while the wealthy Rochester suburb of Fairport will actually receive more. And this is just federal funding. In addition, since schools in New York are partly funded by local property taxes, public schools in wealthier areas will be receiving far more local funding than schools in poorer ones.
Distance Learning and the Drive for Profits
According to Cuomo, there’s a pretty easy fix for the budget situation he created — not all children actually need to be in a physical classroom. In the dystopian distance learning-based model, literally hundreds of students could receive instruction from a single teacher by sitting in front of a computer. It would acclimate kids to long periods of sitting still — great preparation for the capitalist job market. No, there would be no opportunity for any individualized instruction, personal attention, or even the ability to ask questions, but, says the state with a shrug, cuts have to be made.
The Gates Foundation and Cuomo’s “team effort” will try to answer such questions as this: “Given ongoing socially distancing rules, how can New York deploy classroom technology, like immersive cloud virtual classrooms learning, to re-create larger class or lecture hall environments in different locations?” These questions are being asked while the governor is trying to figure out how to reopen schools so that workers can go back to bringing in profits for business owners.
A local Syracuse publication points out that Cuomo “didn’t say buildings won’t reopen, but said the state is exploring the possibility that K-12 schools will utilize distancing [sic] learning in the future.”
There are certainly winners when education is cut. Giant tech corporations have seen skyrocketing stock values, and the profit outlook for the postcoronavirus period is overwhelmingly positive. The Washington Post reports that “while the global economy faces potential unemployment and contraction not seen since the Great Depression, the tech giants — and a handful of medium-size ones — are already benefiting from new consumer habits initiated during the lockdowns that analysts believe will turn into longer-term shifts in how people shop, work and entertain themselves.” This is already applicable to education.
The resulting plan? More money for tech giants, less education — in some cases no in-person education — for children except for those of wealthy parents.
Widening the Inequality
What makes the proposal to increase New York’s reliance on distance learning even more egregious is the shameful way that New York City handled the rollout of distance learning in the first place. Some $369 million was poured from the city budget into the pockets of Apple and corporate ISPs, as hundreds of thousands of iPads — keyboardless devices that are completely inadequate for research, writing, or the other skills needed for distance learning — were purchased from the corporation just as it was beginning to fear a loss of profits during the pandemic.
Gothamist and Chalkbeat report that “five weeks after New York City moved to remote learning, 19,000 students who requested devices still don’t have them.” Only about 75 percent of the devices purchased from Apple had even been distributed, and estimates say there are thousands of students in the city who haven’t even been able to request devices, while some were likely led to believe that the limit was one device per family based on the setup of the DOE’s application form, which starts by asking for the parent name and then has space for the name of only one child. High school students without access to a computer or who have to share one with siblings continue to attempt to type essays on their smartphones.
A New Lease on Power for the Wealthy Philanthropists
The backlash from those who have seen the Gates Foundation’s previous efforts to privatize education was predictably quick. The Alliance for Quality Education said, “This collaboration raises a red flag and real questions about what shape our ‘reimagined’ public schools will take post-pandemic, and whether they will be recognizable as public schools at all.” And a letter from New York State Allies for Public Education, Class Size Matters and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy sent a letter to Cuomo and state education officials, saying “The education of our children has been repeatedly put at risk by [the Gates Foundation’s] non-evidence based ‘solutions,’ which were implemented without parent input and despite significant public opposition.”
Indeed, this is a renewal of the Gates Foundation’s efforts to gut public education, which it has been attempting for over a decade, even though it continues to fail at actually improving kids’ education.
In June 2018, the RAND Corporation published a review of a seven-year Gates Foundation program. According to the review, the initiative to “improve teacher effectiveness” had focused entirely on fixing the public education system through a series of “carrot and stick” tactics used on teachers, from instituting merit-based pay to teacher dismissals. And the measure of the teacher’s “effectiveness”? Mainly extensive observations with the stated target of “identifying weaknesses” and a barrage of standardized tests for students. The RAND report summary stated that “overall . . . the initiative did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation, particularly for LIM [low-income minority] students,” and “student achievement, access to effective teaching, and dropout rates were not dramatically better.” Jay Greene, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas, said, “[The Gates Foundation initiative] appears to have generally done more harm than good.”
But the ever-confident billionaires were not to be deterred. In February, a statement by Melinda Gates acknowledged the foundation’s inability to improve education but insisted, “The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater.”
The RAND report revealed the Gates Foundation’s destructive effects on education. But in the era of the shock doctrine, this new opportunity offered by Cuomo — which will likely be a prelude to other states following suit as education is cut everywhere — is clearly making the Gates Foundation and other wealthy philanthropists salivate to get back in the game.
A Thinly Veiled Attack on Unions
This is not a new idea for billionaires or their favorite politicians. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has always tirelessly advocated the union-busting movement to privatize the public school system.
Public education and teachers unions have some of the largest union memberships in the nation — the two major national teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, together represent over 4.5 million workers. Although neither has militant national leadership and the majority of the successful strike organizing in recent years has been accomplished at the grassroots union local level, these unions have long been a thorn in the side of public policy makers with ties to private enterprise simply based on their collective-bargaining ability.
Through charter schools, corporations have been eroding public schools increasingly since the 1990s, and especially after Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans’s public schools were almost totally privatized. Charter school proponents targeted communities of color where public schools were chronically underfunded and starved of resources by the state, using tactics like admitting the top public school students through images of slick classrooms, young, excited teachers, and promises of a safer school environment. Students not accepted by — or pushed out of — charter schools were warehoused in buildings that made education even more difficult than it already had been. And since private charters and charter corporations collected the per-pupil funding and used public buildings rent-free and for the most part didn’t accept special-needs students, public schools were starved of even more resources. Then, thanks to punitive models like that of Bill and Melinda Gates, these funding-starved public schools were shut down on the grounds that they were, simply, bad schools with bad teachers.
Inside the charter schools, children of color have been criminalized, arguably even more so than in public schools crawling with security officers. Higher suspension rates than in public schools, military-style discipline, and a “no excuses” model involving “longer instructional days, data-driven instruction, school uniforms, insistence on proper classroom behavior, [and] an embrace of testing and accountability” — all this prepares students for an economic model in which they will be perfect candidates for either the “economic draft” or menial labor. Their futures are limited by the very institutions who insist they are setting higher standards for Black and Brown students. This is the neoliberal reformer’s model for the education of the future.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s website reported that “the charter war has only grown more fraught since the election. President Donald Trump backed Michigan native DeVos, an ardent school-choice crusader, to lead the Department of Education, with a proposed $20 billion for school-choice initiatives. A victory for charters, but at the cost of deeper division.” But the fightback has also continued: As recently as December, 2018, the Los Angeles teachers union fought to institute a state cap on the number of charter schools in California.
But the Gates Foundation refuses to back down on its agenda to gut public education. The Associated Press reported in July 2018:
Dollar for dollar, the beleaguered movement to bring charter schools to Washington state has had no bigger champion than billionaire Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder gave millions of dollars to see a charter school law approved despite multiple failed ballot referendums. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given about $25 million to the charter group that is credited with keeping the charter schools open after the state struck down the law, and then lobbying legislators to revive the privately run, publicly funded schools.
Even the Walton family is excited for school privatization. “The Walton Family Foundation . . . is the largest donor to the state charter advocates, giving $144 million to 27 groups.” The motivation behind school privatization is telling when one of the wealthiest and most virulently anti-union corporations in the United States is throwing money at the movement.
In the face of this new and renewed attack on public education and these bald-faced efforts to increase educational inequality, it will take a unified movement of teachers and parents to demand not only an end to cuts in public education but also free, fully funded education for all students and at every level.