The Questions of Education Reform Are Really Questions of Who Decides

It is clear that the education “reform” is being driven by a tiny minority of super wealthy “philanthropists”, executive authorities at state and federal levels of government, and some select “experts”. These are the same forces that have been “leading” education “reform” for the past 30 years, with the result that little has improved, while much has been damaged. Inequalities of all kinds have increased, while the content of schooling has been narrowed and in many places reduced to preparing for what amount to arbitrary tests and the humiliation of public marks of low performance that often follow, especially for schools enrolling working class and minority youth and youth with special needs.

One of the underlying tensions of this reform revolves around central tenets of the U.S. system of governance: federalism. The question posed by the framers of the constitution was how to secure national interest without tyranny; how to share power without diluting it; how to avoid civil war among those being “federated.” Underlying the current efforts is a dramatic increase in the role and power of the federal government, especially the power unelected executive branches now exert over state and local education systems. Sometimes explicit, other times implicit, the debate is rendered as one of defending the constitutional status quo — states rights, local control, etc. — or the need to move beyond partisan politics, that this is “for the children” and is not in any way altering who is in control. In pushing for national standards, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reportedly told state Governors: “some people may claim that a commonly created test is a threat to state control — but let’s remember who is in charge. You are. You will create these tests. You will drive the process. You will call the shots.”


So where should one stand? The experience of history yields the following conclusion: neither the past system of “local control” (and its role in defending crimes of segregation and inequalities of wealth) nor the present drive for “innovaation” in the form of “national standards,” “pay-for-performance,” “alternative certification,” and “high quality assessments” along, with a certain kind of “choice,” will serve the interests of the people as a whole.

In contending with how to move forward, what stands to take, it is important to understand that the drive for broad, universal education in the United States was very much influenced by African Americans and workers generally, beginning after the Civil War. The system that emerged was the result of a fight, one that has been continuously waged, between factions and classes over the form and function of eduation. Universal education under their auspices required no admissions tests, no fees or tuition, no “agreement” to accept draconian test-prep methods and humiliation as a basis for enrollment, no rejection of students with special needs. Most important from the point of view of the present is that this model did not adopt the notion of competition as its underlying principal. It was driven by the demand of enlightened humanity, against slavery and all forms of oppression. It was premised on the conclusion that education is a basic human right, with society responsible to ensure its universal provision as a condition for individuals and collectives to fulfill their social responsibility to society. This broad education was a key element in the vision for the advance of humanity that emerged with the end of legal slavery in the United States.

Among conditions of forced illiteracy, education activists of that time and on to the civil rights movement of the 20th century demanded an education far beyond “literacy” and “work readiness” (the limits now imposed by todays “leaders” so that they can profit from global competition). Demands for culture, political decision making and philosophy stood behind practical efforts to raise the educational levels of entire communities in record time following the civil war (whose progress was blocked from further advance by the state-organized racist gangs such as the KKK and the post-Civil War arrangements of legal segregation).

This lesson of history is that if education is to serve the public interest — is to serve the society — the people themselves must set the standards designed to govern the content and form public education is to take. That Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is outrightly bribing states and local school districts into accepting the corporate agenda for schooling by awarding federal funds to only those who comply with this agenda is itself a frank admission that the direction he is driving education is against the public will and the public interest. It is illegitimate as bribery is not a modern basis for securing the consent.

Parents, teachers, families and entire communities reject the vision handed down to them by these “reformers” that says the highest aspiration served by education is that of getting a job or being “ready” for “college” — itself now reduced to more job training. Such a standards smacks of arrangements before the Civil War, where extensive education was reserved only for the rich, with the masses receiving only that which the rich deemed necessary for them to function as workers and slaves.

2 Comments The Questions of Education Reform Are Really Questions of Who Decides

  1. Meredith Stern December 4, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    This is a great article, and I am flattered you used the image! Thank you for writing this article.

  2. Mark Garrison December 4, 2009 at 9:48 pm


    I’m thankful for the artwork. it is amazing how much time I spend surfing the internet for graphics that support the demand that education is a right. I was so pleased to find yours. I think it is the denial of rights — human rights as well as political rights like the right to organize and defend one’s interests — that is causing the social problems. Keep up the good work and keep encouraging artists to take up the content of rights in their work … especially the right to healthcare, livelihood and, of course, conscience!

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