This piece by VoiceWaves reporter Ceferino Martirez is from the latest issue of Calafia, Youth Leadership Institute’s statewide youth policy journal. Find the issue here.
There’s a spectre haunting American education, a ghost that has lingered for over a century. A once thriving institution now stagnates as the nation teeters under the weight of systematic failure. Underfunded and under supported, many students across the nation have been abandoned. The early American schools were built on the idea of good will and progress. Horace Mann’s reforms in the late 1830’s sought to bring universal schooling to children across America, passing statewide laws, like compulsory schooling in Massachusetts, giving opportunity to impoverished kids through literacy and vocation skills, according to “A Brief History of School Lunch” by Erin Blakemore.
In 1850, women began implementing school lunch programs all over the United States in order to feed students, many of whom were immigrants and had been malnourished due to poverty, per Blakemore. The march of progress rang true within early America.
However, a shadow would soon creep in. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, scientific management with the support of early millionaires began a process to socially engineer an education-industrial pipeline where, over the course of decades, grades matter more than practical skills and the class time was optimized to prioritize efficiency rather than necessity for future adults, according to John Bellamy Foster’s “Education and the Structural Crisis of Capital: The U.S. Case.”
Conservatives began using the free lunch programs as a way to culturally assimilate immigrants by “abandoning the diet of their parents.”3 Early segregationists in collaboration with southern plantation owners in the South defunded Black schools during reconstruction after Republicans lost their senatorial seats in Congress, damning an entire people into apartheid. It’s no coincidence that our current school system shares a large resemblance to an old industrial factory: you clock into a class, take a lunch break, and clock out like a routine from a factory.
Ever since the 1900’s, robber barons like Ford and Rockefeller have slowly been influencing our country into valuing students as a resource. In the school-to-factory pipeline, kids are more or less treated like employees to a machine rather than functioning adults.
In the 2000’s Bill and Melinda Gates spent over 2 billion dollars lobbying schools through the Turnaround Foundation in an effort to “reform.”4 Instead, they used the money to coerce schools into forbidding tenure for teachers, implementing harsh crackdowns on teachers unions, and extending the school day. Kids were also subjected to more discipline and longer school years forcing many schools to close due to the new policy, according to Foster.
Since the start, many billionaires, alongside former CEOs, have been using corporate style “venture philanthropy.” Originally used by Andrew Carnegie as a way to justify the massive wealth of the upper class, venture philanthropy allows billionaires to hide their private interests behind charity. The reasoning of this is twofold: one is to maintain positive goodwill, and the second is to influence inner city schools within the United States to adopt long term programs that aim to benefit their industry without having any of it count toward the IRS for taxes. Many schools lack the funding that keeps their services solvent. Through lucrative grants, the rich prey on this lack of funds, offering aid and private donations in exchange for a series of unfair contracts and guidelines. This leads to schools closing and forces students and teachers to be at the mercy of private charter schools.
When corporations have decision-making power over how schools operate, schools then function to serve corporate interests. However, this and many other projects by corporations are merely one of many.
In the early 1990’s millionaires began the process of lobbying the importance of “school choice” through charter schools. What people didn’t know is that charters siphoned money and funds from the public sector to the private sector through charter vouchers, further weakening the allocated funds that were meant for public schools.
Because of this, teachers in the United States have to frequently negotiate contracts with the schools and go on strike to maintain their funding, putting many teachers at risk.
Aryn Faur’s experience as a representative for the Berkeley Federation of Teachers has granted her insights into the state of school funding and privatization. An avid trade unionist for most of her career, she describes her experience as a teacher and an organizer. She and many others saw firsthand how charter schools squeeze public education in Chicago.
“When the charter gets a stronghold, they pull money from the city budget from the school. That leaves greater pressure and less resources,” Faur said.
“If we really want quality education for our students, we need that funding.” She and many teachers in Berkeley had to pay out of pocket for school supplies for students as the district remains unable to keep up with the growing demand for education.
Teachers also sacrifice autonomy in the name of standardized results as many school districts rush to fill graduation quotas. This pushes many students into courses that focus purely on “academic college readiness” in order to push students into certain careers with funding that fail to prepare them with the basic skills for being an independent adult.
Current academics have prioritized college requirements and extracurriculars to ensure students are competitive in the “real world” when they should be preparing students for adulthood. Social skills and practical street smarts win battles and keep the gears going.
While funding is critical, without a proper channel for students and kids to voice their opinion or have a say in the academic process, change is downright impossible.
Currently, the American model of Student Councils gives students very little actual say in the governing of the school, according to Peter Butera. Students can’t vote for classes, can’t demand to fix the cafeteria and definitely can’t voice their opinion without being silenced by the faculty. We have an identity crisis in this country. Every year, in cities across the country, schools promote ideas of democracy and equality when its students don’t even get the right to represent themselves.
Most working class students will likely never have the chance to climb out of poverty, much less become millionaires. Giving them the ability to democratically make a decision in the place that they learn for most of their lives would at least give students a fighting chance and alleviate the pain of surviving in an industry where everything is mass produced for a low cost, or as Con Blomberg says, “a depiction of a post scarcity economy.”
What if I told you there is hope for a better world? Look over at Europe, the small yet sturdy Federal Republic of Austria is considered by many as the pinnacle of public education within Central Europe. Its schools are completely funded and free by the government.
Discordia, a student hailing from the Austrian state of Carinthia, explains how her education system differs from that of the United States. Their class sizes are smaller, their school day is shorter. Most high school graduates can either join a “Berufsbildende Höhere Schule,” or a trade school in English, or a public university, free of charge. Although most schools in Austria don’t have a public cafeteria, most welfare and public service laws in the country have alleviated the poverty rate within the nation, giving families the ability to spend more on themselves.
Her country employs a system of student representatives to voice their opinions in a proper democratic student congress. Comprising several representative Student Led Trade Unions, they voice their opinions and desires to the Austrian government. Although she says that the system is still semi ineffective in getting all laws by students passed, it still provides a better benchmark for students to voice their needs.
The amount of control that corporations hold within education is immense, their influence runs deep within American society. They have control over our institution, our funding and our future and, at its current state, it’s an immense shadow that looms over the continent.
I can’t say what the future holds. Historically and politically these problems cannot be fixed nor reformed at the highest level of power. But what I can say is that only through radical changes in our national education that push the power to students and working class people will we be able to break our chains. There are always ideas and praxes that we should never be shy to embrace. Students and teachers demanding change and proper representation will be a step in the right direction, a path to peace and prosperity beyond compare.