Commentary: Shock and awe, coming to a school near you
by Ron Whitehorne
Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, lays out in considerable detail how right-wing politicians have used natural and man-made disasters to impose privatization and market-driven "reforms" while bypassing the messy business of democratic decision-making.
There seems little doubt that this is what we are seeing in public education in Pennsylvania. To a remarkable degree, the storyline follows the formula Klein describes in her book.
Laying the groundwork
The dominant narrative for more than a decade has been that schools must be run as businesses, unions stand in the way of educational progress, and privatization is needed to make schools more "competitive."
Starved of resources and destabilized by ill-conceived and hastily executed "restructuring," traditional public schools are being abandoned by parents in record numbers for charters, particularly those favored by corporate reformers and foundations that share their agenda.
Taking advantage of the crash
The onset of the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression has provided the opportunity for applying the shock doctrine to public education generally and our schools in particular.
As articulated by conservative icon Milton Friedman, radical change of the kind he favors must be done quickly. A crisis is needed to create a sense that extraordinary measures are required. Thus in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the corporate reformers in New Orleans were able to jettison traditional public schools and replace them with charters virtually overnight without any substantive democratic process.
In January, the School Reform Commission seemed to be following this script. We learned that the budget crisis is much deeper than previously realized. Parents, students, and District employees were put on notice that more cuts are coming.
The SRC wrung its hands and appointed a "turnaround" specialist, former Philadelphia Gas Works CEO Thomas Knudsen, giving him extraordinary powers to rapidly address the crisis. No time for hearings or debate. Democracy is typically the first casualty when the Shock Doctrine is applied.
Unions in the crosshairs
The living standards of public school employees and the power of their unions are clearly under attack. The blue-collar workforce is already being punished for rejecting givebacks, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is now threatened with new demands for concessions. Weakening unions, if not eliminating them altogether, is another feature of the shock doctrine.
Knudsen is not a magician. To deal with the budget situation, it is likely that he is going to institute draconian cuts that will further incapacitate our schools. He will likely target unions and demand givebacks. There may be an effort to pit students and parents against school workers. The precise nature of these attacks may be unclear, but can there be any doubt that this will be the direction of his administration?
What will be left?
When his six months are done, what will be left of our schools? The budget will be balanced and a shrinking, bare-bones collection of schools will remain staffed by a demoralized work force. The process of privatization will accelerate under the new Great Schools Compact, with more Renaissance schools. And this will happen without any genuine democratic engagement of the citizenry.
For a glimpse of where we are heading, just look a few miles south. The Chester-Upland School District, which is only making payroll thanks to the intervention of a federal judge, is facing collapse. Judging from the attitude of the Corbett administration, it is entirely possible that the district might be shuttered after this school year. State control, management by Edison Schools, and a virtual takeover by charters were among the ill-fated reforms previously imposed on one of Pennsylvania's poorest districts. The results are plain to see.
The prospect of unprecedented austerity is predicated on the passivity of the city's people. It depends on the perception that there is no alternative.
An alternative exists
There is an alternative: a massive mobilization to demand a stop to the cuts, find additional funding, and restore some equity to the system.
Such a movement could alter the conversation about the crisis and lay the groundwork for electing pro-education candidates and reversing the larger anti-public education agenda in Harrisburg. The success of the Occupy movement shows that there are thousands of people ready to fight back and that the broader public responds to a different message about what's wrong with our country.
The SRC has rightly gotten some positive recognition for greater transparency. But this crisis, once again, reveals the limits of an appointed board. Selected by a budget-slashing Republican governor and a business-friendly Democratic mayor, the SRC is an unlikely candidate to lead such a movement. Leadership must be organized from below by parents, students, unions, and community-based organizations.
The question is whether there is the political will to do it.