Worlds of Education

Will the Blue Wave Stop the Privatisation of Education in the US?

published 22 November 2018 updated 22 November 2018

By Carol Anne Spreen, New York University

More than 1000 educators were elected as part of the Democratic Blue Wave, but this rising tide of education activists must get over the “red wall” of GOP-backed corporate education reformers to put a stop to the widespread commercialisation of education.

For many, the Democratic Blue Wave represents an emblematic shift towards restoring the rule of law and slowing down the Trump agenda. The sweeping victories in the House of Representatives - that put over 100 women and an exceptionally diverse influx of progressive, even left-of-centre, Democrats into national office – has buoyed the Democratic party. For progressive education activists these significant gains in local, state and national elections, open a window to mobilise against the many assaults on public education led by Trump and the US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is a Michigan billionaire who has long been a prominent promoter of school vouchers and of publicly funded but privately managed charter and virtual schools. She once described public schools as “a dead end.” DeVos was a shareholder in K12 Inc., one of the largest for-profit charter chains, and was substantially responsible for designing charter policies in Michigan, where 79 percent of all charters are for-profit. Among charters launched between 2001 and 2015, 40 percent were later closed, leaving children to shuffle from one failing school to another.

Research shows that students with disabilities, English learners, and others with high levels of need are often kept or pushed out of charter schools that end up choosing their students. For-profit and virtual charters have much lower student outcomes than public schools which are losing resources to these schools. Nonetheless, Trump and DeVos have made “school choice” central to their education reform.

The Democratic takeover of the House is potentially bad news for DeVos, with the majority now likely to intensify its oversight of the Department of Education. But the real struggle over how to save public education from the edu-business industry is being fought not only against DeVos’ pro-corporate agenda, it is also against the neglect within the Democratic party itself.

Despite the growing evidence many Democratic leaders have either wholeheartedly embraced charter and choice options, or have been benign at best, in their efforts to take on corporate interests and protect public schools from predatory for-profit companies.

Some of the leading Democratic voices (from former President Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to Governor  Andrew Cuomo and US Senator Corey Booker), have supported charter expansion and corporate “edupreneurs” (like Mark Zuckerberg, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Eva Moskowitz) who have been instrumental in expanding the charter industry and ed-technology markets.

Some of the biggest threats to public education - like the attacks on teachers and unions, the promotion of vouchers and massive growth of unregulated virtual charter school chains - have been muted by centrist democrats who underplay the growing influence of edu-business and widespread promotion of pro-charter legislation. Make no mistake, corporate driven education reform is a multi-billion-dollar industry whose leaders have wielded a ton of resources and influence over public policy and the media, and subsequently local and state elections. There is a lot of power and money at stake.

If we can learn any lessons over the last two years from the widespread teacher strikes, and the increased activism and political engagement by educators, it is how much our public schools are under threat. The eruption of teacher strikes and boycotts - over a range of issues from low budgets and stagnant salaries, to increased job pressures due to high-stakes standardised testing and horrific gun violence - marked a tipping point. In last week’s mid-term elections, an unprecedented number of educators and progressive candidates ran for political office.

According to the NEA nearly 1,800 current or former teachers and other education professionals ran for state legislative seats. Of those, 1,081 won their races on Tuesday. That success means teachers and educators will hold roughly 15 percent of all state legislative positions nationwide next year.

Many of these educator candidates came from the “red” states that experienced massive teacher walkouts: West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. However, in the Republican controlled states the results have not favoured pro-public educator candidates.

In Kentucky, where teachers walked out of schools last spring over pension reforms and budget cuts, only fourteen of 51 educators vying for office won on Tuesday. Other Democrats who promised to raise taxes on the wealthy to increase teacher pay failed to unseat Republican governors in Arizona and Oklahoma. Ballot initiatives to support public schools in Oklahoma and Utah were also defeated.

Despite these obvious challenges, teacher organisers and union leaders should be encouraged by mid-term victories of candidates who ran on pro-public education platforms and won gubernatorial contests in key states suggesting signs of a turning tide. Voters in Betsy DeVos’s own home state of Michigan handed the education secretary a stinging rebuke in Tuesday’s elections, electing a new governor who spoke out against DeVos’s education agenda.

And Michigan wasn’t the only state where voters rejected DeVos agenda. Pro public school candidates also won in Wisconsin, Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota and New Mexico. In Wisconsin, former school superintendent and Democratic education secretary, Tony Evers, wrestled away the governorship from the Republican incumbent, Scott Walker, who was viscerally anti-union and an education ally of DeVos’s.

In Illinois, the Republican candidate who openly supported DeVos’s school choice agenda lost his re-election bid to a Democrat. And in Minnesota, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat and former high school geography teacher that ran on a platform of increasing public education funding, won the gubernatorial race.

In Arizona voters overturned a law that had expanded the state’s school voucher program, (though they did re-elect a Republican governor who supports charters and vouchers). But educators also won other high-profile victories in congressional races, such as Jahana Hayes, a former National Teacher of the Year, who won a U.S. congressional seat in Connecticut.

The success of insurgent anti-charter educators who won seats in state and local races in places like New York and Massachusetts, will help push back on charter expansion and bolster national debates around funding for schools and increased teacher pay. But it will take building a more progressive wing of the Democratic party to more vehemently reject a much broader privatisation platform and finally put an end to the growing, un-regulated and failing for-profit operators that are backed by big money and both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Much hope lies in this rising tide of new insurgent activist-educator legislators to push the Democratic party and further embolden union leaders to more aggressively take on the “edupreneurs” and tech companies in resisting privatisation and advocating for quality public education for all.

What's at stake is the rampant commercialisation of education and uncritical acceptance of technology products and services sold to schools as a panacea for reforming education.

This is all being done without any oversight or accountability and little evidence of success. Simply creating an educational “market” has not improved education or addressed the growing inequality in our society. Blue Wave democrats should work together to ensure that good public schools exist in every neighbourhood across the country — and advocate for specific investments in education like hiring and retaining high-quality personnel and programs.

Time will tell what sort of impact the Blue Wave might have on rolling back the privatization of education. But, if there is one thing we have learned from past teachers’ struggles it is that in order to resist, organise we must and organise we will!!

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.