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John Thompson, historian and teacher, lives and writes in Oklahoma, where he has a first-hand view of the assault on the public sector.
Most of my professional friends are focused on What’s the Matter with Oklahoma? Our state followed the rightwing playbook described by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and we face a series of worse case scenarios as the legislature and the governor avoid dealing with the $1.3 billion budget hole that was created by the Kansas playbook.
Being an educator, I worry just as much about the neo-liberal and liberal school reforms that have been imposed from above; these corporate school reformers are taking advantage of the potential catastrophe produced by the rightwing, and are kicking teachers, unions, and public schools while we are down. So, I was commiserating with a veteran progressive about a seemingly arcane quandary about how to communicate with professionals and philanthropists who should be on our side. My friend turned me on to Frank’s new Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?.
I can say enthusiastically that my friend was right about Listen, Liberal. But, I have to say reluctantly that Frank has nailed the reasons why so many neo-liberal Democrats have become some of public education’s worst enemies. I wish it weren’t true, but Frank pulls together the various strands of the story of how so many liberals have abandoned poor students of color, leaving them to the mercies of those who would shrink government to a size where it could be “strangled in the bathtub.”
Tragically, technocrats in the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, and other “venture philanthropists,” doubled down on the teacher-bashing and union-bashing while coercing states into adopting most or all of the corporate reform agenda.
Franks doesn’t deny that the Republicans, who represent the “One Percent,” are worse. Democrats, however, have abandoned “the People,” as we became the party of the “Ten Percent.” Frank explains how the Democrats have become devoted to elite professionals, and how they have created a “second hierarchy” based on “credentialed expertise.” He borrows the words of David Brooks, the conservative whose initial support of President Obama was described as a “bromance.” Brooks praised Obama for the way he staffed his administration with like-minded professionals and creating a “valedictocracy.” In doing so, Franks explained why it is so hard for educators to get the Ten Percent to listen to why they should stop supporting corporate reformers and edu-philanthropists who are treat our students like lab rats in ill-conceived and risky top-down experiments.
The specific problem which baffled me was the question of why can’t we persuade more philanthropists who support early education and other humane, science-based pedagogies to distance themselves from “brass-knuckled” philanthropists who fund its opposite – the test, sort, reward, and punish school of reform. Perhaps today’s advocates for pre-kindergarten and wraparound services don’t know that neo-liberal, output-driven reformers used to ridicule those policies as “Excuses!” and “Low Expectations.” The idea that poverty, not “bad” teachers, is the enemy has long been derided by those test-driven, competition-driven reformers. Why is it that supporters of early education and/or full-service community schools, which are based on the idea that teaching in the inner city must become a team effort, will often go along with mandates for soul-killing, bubble-in accountability and attacks on unions?
The Obama administration, as well as so many other Democrats seeking a “Third Way,” have convinced themselves that “college can conquer unemployment as well as racism, … urban decay as well as inequality.” Had these professional elites shared on-the-job experiences with working people, or even listened to fellow professionals who study economic history, perhaps they would have subjected their assumptions to an evidence-based cross examination. But, without a basis in fact, they bought the reform spin and the claim, “If we just launch more charter schools, give everyone a fair shot at the SAT, and crank out the student loans” that education “will dissolve our doubts about globalization.” The person who may have drank the biggest dose of their Kool Aid, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, said it worst, “What I believe – and what the president believes, is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”
Perhaps because I have been such an Obama loyalist, I’ve ducked the hard realities which Frank lays out. “To the liberal class,” he observes, “every big economic problem is really an education problem.” Obama’s education policy may have increased segregation, undermined the teaching profession, broken the morale of many educators, and benefitted rightwing union-haters, as it drove down student performance, but it can’t face up to these facts because, “To the liberal class this is a fixed idea, as open to evidence-based refutation as creationism is to fundamentalists.”
Frank explains why my efforts to reach out to our erstwhile allies (who may still ally themselves with unions and educators on progressive social issues while attacking the teaching profession) haven’t gained traction. The seemingly weird idea that education reform can defeat poverty is “a moral judgment handed down by the successful from the vantage of their own success.” Frank then concludes with a bluntness that I wouldn’t dare express on my own. The Ten Percent’s prescription for better teaching as the cure for poverty is “less a strategy for mitigating inequality than it is a way of rationalizing it.”
Arne Duncan’s and the Obama administration’s reign of education policy error is the culmination of more than a generation of Democratic fidelity to the “learning class.” Under the names of neo-liberalism, futurism, the Democratic Leadership Council, and New Democrats, they have assumed that “wired workers” were destined to dominate the 21st century and both parties had to “compete single-mindedly for their votes.” President Clinton propelled the party down a path which ignores working people and less-respected professionals by assembling an administration with a “tight little group of credentialed professionals who dominated his administration.” It was a political monoculture where “almost everyone agreed” with their technocratic, meritocratic mentality.
Then, the Obama administration put this “professional correctness” on steroids. It forgot that “the vast majority of Americans are unprofessional: they are managed, not managers.” So, “Team Obama joined the fight against teachers unions from day one.” This became nearly inevitable as his administration was staffed by people “whose faith lies in ‘cream rising to the top’ (to repeat [Jonathan] Alter’s take on Obama’s credo)” and “tend to disdain those at the bottom.”
Sadly, Frank doesn’t have concise solutions. He provides little hope that accountability-driven school reformers will hold themselves accountable for either the education debacle they choreographed or for abandoning the overall fight against economic inequality. Frank mostly urges us to speak truth to our party’s power. He also makes a great case that the Democrats rejection of populism is “a failure for both the nation and for their own partisan health.”
Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I also find hope in listening to President Obama who re-found his voice after the 2014 election. And, in the short term, we must support Hillary Clinton, and hope she takes heed of the message delivered by Bernie Sanders and Listen, Liberal.