Radicals On Campus

I went to College because I was supposed to go to College, and I decided on teaching almost by accident. During my time in undergrad, I worked full time at the grocery store across the river from campus. By the time I graduated, I was managing the dairy department, and I actually loved the work, the schedule – everything. I got to be in my own little corner of the store, making the orders, keeping product rotated, and making sure everything was fully stocked and perfectly faced at all times. I was good at it! I was proud of my work, every day! All things being equal, I could have honestly seen myself doing that kind of work for the rest of my life. But all things were NOT equal: I was at the top of the pay scale for my position at $11.50 an hour (which it would likely still be if I still worked there, 12 years later) and the managers above me on the totem poll actually made LESS money than they had when they started in their positions. The store I worked at was part of the 3rd largest chain in the nation, which has since become the largest. The squeeze of corporate consolidation was very much on, and staying in that position meant – quite frankly – a lifetime of poverty. So I went to school. I got a teaching license. I moved away.

But all of that is a little beside the point I was trying to make when I started writing this post: While I was in school, the charter school movement was just taking off. In the School of Education, every single one of my Professors was on board with the movement, and they were teaching us to be good little reformers too. We watched “Waiting For Superman” in class – actually in two different classes. We learned that the system was broken, we learned that schools were a cause of rather than the result of endemic poverty. We learned that a good teacher was all that some of “these kids” needed to pull them up from poverty, but that the public school system wasn’t producing good teachers. The evidence of the failure of the education system was all around us, and we were all young go-getters who wanted to change things, and “school choice” was the path forward.

Here’s the thing about all of this… it worked! I believed them! I came out of college thinking that public schools were bad because they lacked competition and incentives to be better. I thought everyone who responded to these failures by saying “…But Poverty!” was just making excuses. I thought that more testing and better visualizations of the data from that testing would give schools a path towards improvement. I harangued people who believed otherwise. I see some of my Facebook posts from back then and I’m embarrassed as hell. And it lasted a long time! When Portland teachers almost went on strike in the early 2010s, I was within a hair’s breadth of signing on to cross the picket lines and be a scab teacher to work in the buildings while they were fighting for better working conditions. I thought they were being petulant. I thought they didn’t have the best interests of students at heart. I’m so embarrassed by views back then that it would be easy to pretend that I’ve always been on the right side of this stuff. But I haven’t. I wasn’t just wrong – I was aggressively wrong.

It’s been 12 years since I graduated and got my teaching license after a full round of pro-corporate indoctrination at the University of Montana’s School of Education. In that time, we’ve had 8 years of an education reformer as President with a charter school proponent as Education Secretary. We had incentive programs and grants and extra school funding based on better test scores and an explosion of the number of charter schools and the closing of hundreds of “failing” schools. We’ve had Common Core Standards, an explosion in the number and funding for non-profits whose explicit purpose is to encourage students to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We had an entire generation of teacher education graduates like myself who had been fully radicalized by the movement. We were on board and we were thrust into the workforce fully intending to make it work.

And where has it gotten us? That’s a big question, but I think that the most generous assessment is that the results have been.. mixed! Some charters have seen success. Others have seen none. Still others have been swamped by allegations of selective admissions processes and outright money laundering. Some students will swear by their charter school experience, and others were completely left behind by it. And that’s the generous assessment!

So even by the most forgiving of standards, can anyone really claim that the movement has been anything other than a failure? Do you remember what they were promising? Do you remember that family in “Waiting For Superman,” and the way they cried when they got admission to the charter school? Do you remember how in the wake of that movie, reformers got everything they fucking wanted and then some, for more than a decade? Can YOU hand-wave away the money laundering, the poverty wages for teachers, the union-busting, the closing of hundreds of public schools, the outright corruption that has taken place in states like Florida and Louisiana? Can you honestly tell me that the Betsy DeVos’s of this world are not an inevitable result of a system that turns education into a commodity and prioritizes “competition” and “efficiency?” Can you tell me with a straight face that further attempts to do the same thing – even with the best of intentions – won’t result in the exact same thing happening, over and over again? But most importantly: Is this what they told us would happen?

Right wingers like to talk about radicalization on College campuses, but the reality is that College campuses keep radicalism at bay. I was a radical-in-waiting while I was in College – someone with real left-wing impulses who looked around him and constantly asked “why is everything so fucked up?” They knew this, and they took those impulses and funneled them in the exact same direction that every other one of our impulses is funneled – towards the private profit of ghouls like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers and the Clintons. They showed me a genuinely broken system and taught me that the only way to fix it was to continue breaking it. They turned me into a good little Capitalist who prioritized private profit over public good. And I ate it up because I was young and naive, and I had genuinely altruistic motives that needed an outlet.

It’s hard for me to fathom how anyone can have existed in the working world, in the educational world – in any of it – without having been fully talked out of this shit at this point. To the extent that College is radicalizing, it pushes people to the right, and reality should have pulled everyone back to the left at this point. The writing is on the walls. If anyone is still on board with this movement after all these years, it’s because their political beliefs are a form of religious practice completely unmoved by the material conditions around them. All of this means they’ll be fighting the same losing battle from the same bullshit moral high ground forever and ever. But then again… maybe that’s the point.

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