School reform, Benton Harbor, and the Tea Party
Contra John Cole, I don’t think the libertarian reaction to Benton Harbor is really all that important. But I think Jason is missing a fundamental piece of the puzzle in his response as well. I will try to explain.
No Child Left Behind was the beginning of a new era in school reform. Oddly, though it was a Republican president who set the wheel in motion, the school-choice and accountability movement was largely spearheaded by liberals and by liberal corporate reformers affiliated with the big foundations such as the Broad and Gates foundations. This is important, because what materialized over the past ten or so years was a convergence of liberal, libertarian, and conservative forces all centered around these ideas. Suddenly public employee unions were under fire, not just from the usual quarters, but from Democratic leaders as well. And when I say public employee unions, what I mean is teacher’s unions.
At the height of this movement, with Michelle Rhee in D.C. and No Child Left Behind morphing into Race to the Top another phenomenon emerges: the Tea Party. Suddenly small government conservatism (and the Tea Party is a conservative movement, not a libertarian one as far as I’m concerned) is in fashion again, and with the economy in the dumps and a bunch of pension funds across the country badly bruised by the financial collapse – well let’s just say the stars aligned. Democrats had been pushing an anti-union school reform agenda, the Tea Party was mobilized, and even Hollywood had joined in with films like Waiting for Superman.
Then, in 2010 the Republican Party rode the Tea Party wave to victory across the country. In state after state, Republicans suddenly controlled the legislature and the governorship. Seeing chinks in the armor of collective bargaining all across the country – chinks largely left by the neoliberal school reform movement – Republicans began hastily drawing up legislation to weaken the unions. I say hastily, because I think they realized that the long-slumbering Democrats might just wake up once they saw the danger.
So in Wisconsin we have the massive protests as Scott Walker sweeps in to end collective bargaining for teachers, opens up the floodgates not only for public charters, but also for private virtual schools. In Florida, the Tea Party governor Rick Scott slashes nearly $2 billion from public education and implements a strict testing regime that could cost local school districts another $2 billion. And in Michigan, Tea Party governor Rick Snyder enacts legislation that allows him to declare any municipality or school district in a state pf financial crisis and appoint a private citizen to come in, fire elected officials, unilaterally change or abolish contracts, break up unions, and control all finances including state and federal grants. This emergency manager cannot be sued, and reports only to the governor.
This is just the logical next step in a long bipartisan succession of efforts to undo teacher unions across the country – from San Diego to New York City to Washington, D.C. School reformers sneer at democracy and implement top-down measures with little input from parents, teachers, or communities. Schools are closed and charters opened. Teachers are fired based on test scores rather than actual human evaluations. Students are measured based on their ability to take a test. This is all labeled as ‘accountability’. Lots of money pours in from the Gates and Broad foundations and from hedge funds and other deep pockets. Lots of people make lots of money.
To me, it is not so much that libertarians did not speak out against the actions of Rick Snyder. I’m sure some did. I’m not a referee of libertarian thought. What bothers me is that the ideas fueling this education reform movement are all libertarian ideas – choice, competition, accountability, privatization – and yet they are implemented time and again in an illiberal and authoritarian manner. Whether or not the ideas are sound (and I’m not at all sure they are) they are certainly not being carried out in a way that libertarians should approve of – and yet Michelle Rhee and Chris Christie and Joel Klein and all the other tough-guy school reformers are generally considered heroes or martyrs by libertarians. Slap the word “choice” on something, and suddenly all the other elements of the reform movement – all the other ways in which choice has been revoked and the liberty of teachers, parents, and students has been greatly diminished are unimportant, insignificant – either casualties of a just cause or simply ignored. I’m not sure which.
Benton Harbor is just another example. Detroit is another. I don’t think the school reform movement can be accurately called a libertarian movement. It’s not liberal in any sense of the word. It’s corporate reform wearing all the trappings of choice and freedom. I think libertarians should pay more attention to the dark side of these reforms. There are worse things than a public school monopoly after all. Sometimes they come in the form of despotic bureaucrats and megalomaniac mayors who think that enough money and enough force of will can help them remake the American public school system from the top on down. I suppose I am simply far too conservative to believe that they really can. But they can certainly do some damage along the way.