Fighting Back through Resistance: Challenging the Defunding and Privatization of Public Education in Pennsylvania (and beyond)

Curry Malott

The following speech was written and presented by Dr. Curry Malott, Assistant Professor in the College of Education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania June 16th, 2015, as part of the “Rally in West Chester for a State Budget Chester County Kids Deserve, which is part of a state-wide tour organized under “The Alliance to Reclaim our Schools.” The tour is traveling all over the state rallying at all of the 14 universities (Bloomsburg University, California University, Clarion University, East Stroudsburg University, Edinboro University, Indiana University, Kutztown University, Lock Haven University, Mannsfield University, Millersville University, Shipensburg University, Slippery Rock University, and West Chester University) in the state system (Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education), as well as in major cities where public K-12 education has been hit particularly hard by punishing austerity measures.

The premise of the “Reclaiming the Promise of Pennsylvania’s Public Education” campaign is that the old Republican Governor, Tom Corbett, recently left office after having followed the national trend of defunding public education. This tour is designed to put pressure on the new Democratic Governor, Tom Wolfe, to make an effort to deliver on one of his key campaign promises, that is, to restore the millions of dollars that Corbett cut from public education while Governor.

The Alliance is not only advocating for a more adequately funded system of public education, but it is campaigning for a system of public education, through initiatives such as “A Road Map for the Schools Our Children Deserve,” that put more emphasis on critical thinking and creativity than on test scores, again, challenging the national trend of high stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the back door it open for privatizing public education. That is, by setting a one hundred percent proficiency goal (i.e. every student has to pass the high stakes exams) in a context with growing poverty (knowing that the number one predictor of academic achievement is rate of poverty), then schools would be set up to fail. According to NCLB, schools who repeatedly do not improve their average scores would be subject to alternative management options (i.e. taken over by for-profit management companies). The aforementioned Alliance and its Road Map, aware of the connections between schooling and who the government intervenes on behalf of, argues, within their call to “fund our public schools fully and fairly,” for a call for ending “corporate tax loopholes,” taxing “gas drillers” and “halting any new prison construction.” This analysis demonstrates why Dr. Malott, whose work focuses on a Marxist approach to the history of education, education policy, and educational practice or pedagogy, was the local West Chester professor/activist/leader invited to speak. Other local activist educators have been invited to speak at the other stops of the tour, which is shaping up to be an important step in building a united educational front agitating against the ravages of capital, and for Dr. Malott, a communist future.

***

Sixteen years ago, in 1999, on the eve of the No Child Left Behind Act, which would prove to be the mechanism that would lead to the ongoing process of privatization and the more complete corporate takeover of public education, and subsequent attack on teacher unions, Bob Peterson, public school teacher, union activist, and a Rethinking Schools editor and writer, argued that to “meet these challenges, our public schools and our teacher unions should set two key goals: survival and justice.” In addition to survival and justice, I think we need to add resistance to the list because we resist through our unions, our organizations, and through alliances such as, “The Alliance to Reclaim our Schools.” In addition to defending public K-12 education, we resist by demanding that PASSHE’s mission to provide an affordable, high quality higher education is realized by agitating, with joy and without apology, for preserving the requested $458 million State System appropriation. Funding for public higher education in Pennsylvania is at a 17 year low. That is unacceptable, and we must fight back.

But students, educators and working people in general, as you know, and as this gathering is further evidence, have been resisting the attacks on our schools, our unions, and our ability to earn a descent wage. And as resistance movements flair up across the country and across the world, we should do whatever we can to be a part of them, from opt out movements in Seattle, to efforts to stop school closures in Philadelphia, to the Alliance to Save Pennsylvania’s Public Schools, to rebellions sparked by police departments that murder, with near impunity, the same black and brown students the schools have always tended to treat as inherently low achieving and thus as disposable, low-wage, unskilled laborers.

Again, as this rally, alliance, and campaign remind us, the struggle for the education our children deserve is building momentum. And as the Road Map this alliance has created points out, the struggle for a quality and well-funded public education system, from kindergarten through university, is intimately connected to a state and federal government whose revenue has been redirected away from public service programs, such as education, and toward corporate welfare for gas drillers, etc., and for turning public service programs into for-profit investment ventures, rather than attempting, however half-heartedly, to serve the so-called common good.

Again, public education is not just being defunded, it is also being privatized, which is not the same thing as private schools like Harvard who pride themselves on quality, whether real or imagined. On-line education, the University of Phoenix, and Charter school models are the most obvious examples of privatized schools. It is nearly common knowledge now that programs like those offered by the University of Phoenix do not produce quality education, but mountains of student debt contributing to the looming, potentially disastrous, student debt bubble.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what capitalism does to things it turns into commodities. That is, the quest to make a profit off of education has tended to result in the destruction of its use value, or its useful effect, that is, the quality of education, hurting other capitalists who rely on a well-educated work force. While increasing state appropriations for public education is bad for the education capitalists who want to degrade education so they can swoop in and pretend to save the day and take it over, increasing state appropriations is good for the vast majority of capitalists in the state of Pennsylvania who, again, rely on a well-educated work force.

If the current state wants to do right by the working people of Pennsylvania, then it should start by fully funding public education. After all, the state system of higher education in general, and West Chester University in particular, have an economic impact on the region that is significant. Consider:

  • West Chester University is the 14th largest employer in Chester County employing 1,635 people.
  • 7,127 additional jobs across the Commonwealth are supported through West Chester University’s existence
  • · For every one state dollar invested in West Chester University, $9.93 is returned to the Commonwealth’s economy
  • · Preserving the requested $458 million State System appropriation makes economic sense.
  • · Tragically, Pennsylvania’s State System universities have endured a $90 million cut over the last four years and currently receive a state appropriation that is less than 17 years ago. It is estimated that this cut has cost local economies over 2,000 jobs. Workers want jobs, and capitalists want to make profits, and must hire workers to do so. Fully funding public education should be a no brainer.

In addition to properly funding public education systems, all of the goals of the road map to the schools our children deserve are important. For example, the map calls for “More learning and less testing” to ensure Pennsylvania schools meet student and family needs. This is a position that James Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District supports. Scanlon has argued that, “learning should be challenging, but also enjoyable and exciting. Teaching should be dynamic and creative. We’re missing so much of that because of these tests…I hope you will join me in advocating for change.” Scanlon, we hear you.

One last example, the current Dean of the College of Education at West Chester University, Dean Witmer, my Dean, has brought the many concerns of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education concerning Arne Duncan’s proposed regulations for higher education to our College of Education as a whole. Analysts are calling it No Child Left Behind for higher education because it would tie the accreditation of teacher education programs to the test scores of student teachers’ future K-12 students. This is highly troubling, to say the least.

We are hearing more and more such stories of administrator’s, from Witmer to Scanlon, who are challenging policies because they know they do not represent what the American people actually want and what students deserve. The fact that administrators are resisting should give us confidence, strength, and energy to continue to expand our important movement. Brothers and sisters, seize the time!

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