Revolution #145, October 19, 2008
Restructuring Inner-City Schools for the Global Marketplace:
Locke High School and
the Green Dot “Solution”
Locke High School in Watts made national news last May when a fight broke out on campus between hundreds of Black and Latino students. The melee was reported in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and in Time Magazine. The Los Angeles Times treated it as though an alarm had been sounded—a radical solution to the problems at Locke and similar inner-city schools was urgently needed.
In many ways Locke High School concentrates the utterly failed education system that “serves” the oppressed people in the urban cores of this country. In 2005 only 332 Locke students graduated from a class that, as ninth-graders, had 1,318. Only 143 students qualified for admission to the University of California and Cal State University systems. In March 2005, a 15-year-old girl died after being shot in front of the school.
Even before the fight at Locke became national news, the L.A. school district had signed a contract agreeing to turn complete control of Locke over to a private charter school organization known as Green Dot Public Schools. (A charter school is a public school run by a private business or organization.) This isn’t the first charter school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). And it’s not the first of Green Dot’s charter schools in L.A.; they already operate twelve small charter schools. But this is the first time that any charter operation has been given sole responsibility for providing the public education that high school students receive in a section of a major urban ghetto.
This high-profile experiment in privatization is being looked to by the powers-that-be as a potential model for a radical transformation of the public education system in the most oppressed communities of the proletariat, especially Blacks and Latinos, not only throughout L.A., but nationwide. The L.A. Times wrote in a recent editorial, “[I]f it succeeds, Green Dot will have created a blueprint for public schools.”1
And a lot of people at Locke—parents, the teachers and administrators who stayed on, many students, and people all over—are hoping that Green Dot will actually be the model for “closing the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers” that the sales pitch of the charter school movement promises.
Green Dot aims to produce a small number of students from inner city schools who will help fill the need for “knowledge workers” in this society—people who work with information, such as engineers, analysts, marketers, etc. And for those who do make it into the “knowledge worker” strata, to serve as a political and ideological force to shore up this system of exploitation and inequality—including by providing a basis to claim that “anyone” can make it in this system; a cruel lie when in fact, for millions and millions of youth in the inner cities, their so-called “opportunities” are the streets and a likely early death, prison, or the military.
The conditions of the inner city schools today perfectly reflect the conditions of the inner cities.
Beginning after World War 2, and in intensifying levels by the early 1980s, the inner cities of the U.S. lost more stable and better paying factory jobs as the imperialists dramatically restructured the U.S. economy to take advantage of investment opportunities internationally. Those in power consciously chose to respond to these changes with policies that dramatically increased the polarization between the suburbs and these devastated urban cores. As a result the inner cities became more and more characterized by high concentrations of non-whites, rising unemployment, shit-jobs for those who could find work, and massive imprisonment.
The collapse and breakup of the Soviet empire in the early ’90s did not produce the “peace dividend” for social services and education that some hoped for—indeed it removed more barriers to globalization. In the ’90s, capitalism moved jobs out of the inner cities even more dramatically, leaving vast urban wastelands devoid of jobs, social services, or decent schools.
There has been conscious policy, as well as the workings of the system, behind the systematic decay of the inner-city public schools, just as there has been with the devastation of the inner cities overall. Jonathan Kozol has argued passionately and eloquently in a series of books against the conscious under-funding of inner city schools compared to those of the middle class, suburban secondary schools, and the savage consequences for the quality of education and the lives of the young people. Severe overcrowding; dilapidated school buildings; a shortage of books and supplies to aid learning; and teacher salaries too low for schools to either attract good teachers or do without substitute teachers in the schools of the urban districts—in sharp contrast to the well-funded and predominately white suburban schools.
In his 2005 book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Kozol reports finding on his recent visit to schools across the country that the proportion of Black students attending majority white schools was lower than any year since 1968. And the largest public school systems in the country have been all but abandoned by whites. This at the very time that the Supreme Court has accelerated this polarization by repeatedly stamping out attempts to use any form of affirmative action to even incrementally reverse this trajectory.
The following are the percentages of Black and Latino students in the public schools of major U.S. cities: Chicago—87%; Washington DC—94%; St. Louis—82%; Philadelphia—78%; Los Angeles—84%; Detroit—95%; New York City—73%. And within these districts, segregation is often even more extreme, with white students mainly concentrated in a small number of wealthier neighborhood or magnet schools. And almost three-fourths of Black and Latino students attend schools that are predominantly minority. Greg Anrig wrote in Washington Monthly, “America’s urban school systems remain almost universally dysfunctional, primarily because the country as a whole is about as segregated by race and income as at any time since the civil rights revolution.”2
This is the ugly reality of the urban cores of this country, and the schools that serve them. It is producing a massive section of youth, seething with anger, who have been written off by this system, told “there’s nothing here for you,” and then shoved into the prisons at world record rates. It is an international embarrassment for this imperialist power claiming to be the model for the world, and it’s an outrage to sections of the middle class who are coming to know about it. And under certain conditions it can become extremely explosive, as was revealed by the ’92 L.A. rebellion. This is a critical concern of those driving the transformation and privatization of the school system.
Models of “Reform”
The ruling class has approached this crisis in urban education not from the perspective of how to provide a good education for every child, but through a collection of changes that have made the situation worse. Two significant changes have been the widespread promotion of school vouchers, which undercut public schools and in many cases promote religious schools; and the No Child Left Behind Act that imposed rigid test-based standards for schools.
In 2001 Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed with support of the Democrats. Behind the empty rhetoric about achieving “high standards,” “world class education,” and “closing the achievement gap,” NCLB is just standardized testing—with severe punishments instead of help if test scores don’t improve. Schools not showing progress over time are first required to pay for private outside consultants. Continued lack of progress leads to being forced to totally contract out education to private enterprises. Schools in the middle class are not targeted because this only applies to schools with very low test scores.
The impact of NCLB is to essentially force teachers to get students’ grades up at all costs, because the school’s very existence is on the line. It has led to a shift towards teaching via a script designed with the goal of preparing students to take standardized tests—widely known as “teaching to the test.” Large numbers of weaker 9th graders are held back in some schools just to improve results on the all-important 10th grade tests. It has resulted in the elimination of art, music, foreign language study, even sports in many schools, and it has reduced the time spent teaching subjects that are not included in the tests. Thousands of schools, mainly in low-income areas, are targeted for closure due to failure to meet stringent federal standards. This is fueling the growth of charter school organizations and education management organizations (EMOs) that are training “education entrepreneurs” to be the managers of the privatized public schools that are coming.
NCLB was passed in a context of a decades-long process of undermining the legitimacy of public schools, the development and funding of alternative schools, and the creation of models for a new kind of privatized public school. Reagan’s education program was “bring God back into the classroom” and government-funded school voucher programs. School vouchers give government funds to parents who want to put their children in private, and in particular religious, schools—popular among the growing Christian fundamentalist forces at the time.
Vouchers have been controversial because they challenge the principle of the separation of church and state. After a favorable state supreme court ruling in 1998, Milwaukee’s voucher experiment was expanded from about 1,500 students attending less than two dozen secular schools, to more than 5,000 students spread among nearly 100 mostly parochial (religious) schools. Today roughly 20,000 Milwaukee students attend 122 voucher schools. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court settled the church/state question when it okayed Cleveland’s voucher program by defining public funding of religious schools as an expression of “choice.” There are also voucher programs in Florida, Colorado, and the District of Columbia. Vouchers are championed by McCain in his education program: “Public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses.”
1. “Day 1 For the New Locke”—L.A. Times editorial, 9/8/08 [back]
2. “An Idea Whose Time Has Gone,” Washington Monthly, April 2008 [back]
Next Part 2: The Green Dot Charter School Model: Making a Bad Situation Worse
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