In 2014, children’s book author and illustrator, Christopher Myers, penned an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” (Myers, 2014). A study had shown that out of around 3200 books published in 2013 only 93 of them featured black people. Myers states that there is no proper villain in this story; the villain is in fact elusive. He is told that The Market just doesn’t demand this type of book.
Advocates of neoliberal reforms use this nebulous entity, The Market, to justify decisions made (solely) in the name of profit. Pauline Lipman (Lipman, 2011) states that the power of neoliberalism lies in its saturation of social practices and consciousness, making it difficult to think otherwise, other than the dominant line. Distinct narratives are put forward to outwardly demonstrate care and consideration for those blindsided by neoliberal rationales. The narrative of ‘failing’ schools and the need to ‘turn-around’ these schools absolves the market of any role in their decline. It also disregards the human toll of these ‘reforms’. Mass closings of public schools impact the community in ways that are foreseeable and preventable but The Market is ostensibly a pragmatic entity and so the closings continue. These closely linked narratives lead to the narrative of individual success. Neoliberalism is nothing without winners and losers, no matter how young or disadvantaged the child. The media also pushes the neoliberal agenda without reflection or thought as to why particular narratives exist and thus often serves as the propaganda arm of the neoliberal state. Lost in the fray are the narratives of the hidden curriculum and mass disenfranchisement of whole communities. These communities are, however, far from silent and submissive, despite efforts to the contrary. So the final narrative presented here is that of hope, courage and activism on the part of people directly affected by these reforms, and on the part of those who cannot stay silent faced with such injustice.
Charter school advocates advertise them as an alternative to ‘failing’ public schools. What these ‘failing’ public schools have in common is that they are almost always in communities of color and are almost always underfunded. A report entitled Death by a Thousand Cuts (Journey 4 Justice Alliance, 2014) from May of 2014 notes that attempts to replace public schools with charter schools in predominantly white areas are exceedingly rare. The key word here is replace. There are charter schools in predominantly white areas but they are an alternative to open public schools; they have not taken over an existing school. White children from low-income backgrounds are not affected to the same degree as children of color. From the time of slavery on, wedge issues were used to make poor white people feel superior to black people (Alexander, 2012). This was done intentionally as those in power did not want people mobilizing across racial lines, even if their economic struggles were the same. What is sorely missing from the narrative of ‘failing’ public schools is the human component. These schools are made up of flesh and blood beings navigating an increasingly cutthroat world. What is also missing is concern for how critical community ties are for ongoing emotional support leading to academic (and other) success. Burgeoning literature (Guthrie, John T., 2011) shows that emotional support affects students’ academic performance and that the benefit of emotional support is stronger than the benefits of excellent pedagogy for cognitive learning. Guthrie goes on to assert that students participate more socially in the classroom when teachers emphasize interpersonal relationships and the belief that they (the students) are important. Unfortunately for children impacted by school closings, this type of scientific research is never taken into account.
Lipman reminds us that neoliberal policy discourses are ‘politically neutral’ based on technical criteria of ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ thereby excluding discussion of values, philosophy and social interest; pragmatism is the order of the day. This pragmatic approach may work when dealing with objects and services, but when public schools are under fire for either ‘failing’ or being ‘underutilized’ it is not the market’s place to step in (unless the market is working in conjunction with school and community members for a greater good than mere profit). Lipman discusses the Right to the City: the right to transform the city, the right to democratically determine the future development of the city. Lipman adds that although cities attempt to impose homogenized corporate culture, cities are vibrant cultural mixes and sites of creative experiments in alternative economic and social relations; unless utter disaster strikes. Hurricane Katrina was manna from heaven for the neoliberal reformers who had their eye on New Orleans. Plans hatched before the storm, became much easier to carry out once parts of the city provided ready-made scorched earth. Making decisions for a community without consultation and without taking community needs into account reeks of neocolonialism. The people of New Orleans, in particular those in the areas most affected by Hurricane Katrina, are left without a voice. Policy is done to them, not with them. No consideration of their lives before the storm has factored into the equation. Kristen Buras (Buras, 2015) states that providing vocabulary to talk about meanings of place is essential to the analysis. She draws on the work of Harvey and a socioecological web of life, or the critical analysis of space-time. Absolute space is fixed, i.e. a city map; relative space-time refers to the relationship between objects and depends on what is being observed, who is doing the observing and why; relational space-time refers to the past, present, and future ‘swirling through and across space’. Neoliberal reformers see New Orleans as an absolute space where history can be effaced. Testimonials from community members that draw on relational space-time are ignored. Sam Smith (Smith, 1996) comments that current zoning laws are blithely indifferent to decades of accumulated ecological knowledge. Smith goes on to quote Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who says that a community without history is like a person without memory. Neoliberal reformers have the power to choose whose memories count and in these instances The Market subsumes the heart and soul of communities already devastated by a natural and man made disaster. Buras describes this behavior as ‘accumulation by dispossession’. She goes on to affirm that this is a feeding frenzy. It’s an asymmetrical show of force with the winners determined from the outset.
Divorcing children and school members from the ‘failing’ school narrative, and divorcing communities from the spaces they occupy is a sought after goal by neoliberal ‘vulture philanthropists’. We are expected to address these issues objectively, and not feel a heartbeat nor sense a smile, let alone be moved by the laughter of children playing in a safe and secure environment. We are expected to take as gospel that ‘zip code isn’t destiny’ and celebrate those who make it out, without considering those left behind. In the neoliberal world there are always winners and losers, despite the enormous burden placed on those unlucky enough not to succeed in capitalistic terms. While the charter school movement started out as one genuinely seeking alternatives to public schools, it is now controlled almost completely by ‘no excuses’ corporate charter schools. Just as The Market doesn’t demand books with children of color in them, The Market apparently doesn’t demand that children of color display their personality in school. In fact The Market sees expression of individuality and culture as a negative, to be quashed, in children of color that is. Social efficiency is the order of the day and children are to be seen and not heard, again when talking about children of color. The Market may pretend to be politically neutral, and neoliberal reforms certainly come from the left as well as from the right, but economics is never politically neutral and when discussing corporate charter schools, economic rationality is the order of the day. Children of color in a corporate charter school are implicitly told that their behavior is what will make them college and career ready. There are strict rules governing behavior and these are to be followed to a tee to avoid punishment, such as wearing a shirt inside out to demonstrate that he or she needs to work on ‘behavior’ such as doing homework. There is to be limited talking in class, and only when the teacher says so, no talking in the hallway, no talking in the lunch line, and in class eyes should be always on the teacher. The child’s personality is strictly curtailed and self-expression is replaced by conformity and submission. This goes against everything we know about child development and sound pedagogical practice. There is no doubt that the most vociferous advocates of (corporate) charter schools do not send their own children to these schools. There is no doubt that their own children go to schools where they can laugh and play, and fully express themselves.
Lipman asks how can we contest these injustices with greater potency and clarity than we have mustered so far? It is no easy task to confront the neoliberal machine, especially when those truly holding expertise are discounted at every turn. Educators are mostly excluded from mainstream discussions about the state of the nation’s public schools. Educators, in fact, made up only 9% of guests during education segments on cable news programs in 2014. Events such as NBC’s Education Nation routinely bypass educators for celebrity guests such as Goldie Hawn. Education Nation showcases films such as “Waiting for Superman” that create a false dichotomy amid the pretense that charter schools are a true alternative to public schools. We see crowds of people in the film waiting for the lottery results, not realizing that many children who do not fit the traditional mold and thus cost more to educate, are already excluded. Libby Schaaf, the new mayor of Oakland, was trailed by a reporter when she recently visited three OUSD schools. The mayor visited a well-resourced charter school, a mid-range high school and a ‘failing’ school. Unsurprisingly the charter school impressed and the school lowest on the totem pole was disregarded. The reporter was unable to think critically about the situation; the fact that the charter school received phenomenal sums of money while the ‘failing’ school received almost none was not at all taken into account. Oakland is portrayed as taking an ‘unconventional’ approach in regards to charter schools and public education and the question is whether all schools can keep up; OUSD is absolved of any responsibility. Stating that privatizing public education is in fact innovative and that it goes against the status quo raises newspeak hackles on many teachers’ necks. The media has maybe decided it is too messy to take a critical look at what is really going on to keep its neoliberal backers content.
John Dewey famously said that education is not preparation for life, it is life. Lessons learned in school surpass mere academic goals. Jean Anyon (Anyon, 1980) detailed how school structures resemble the career paths the children are likely to go down and how they highlight behavioral structures the children will face. In the schools in low-income areas Anyon noted that the school day was highly structured with rote learning, bells to mark the end of periods, and strict behavioral norms to adhere to (as with corporate charter chains today). There were no opportunities for children to explore and research topics of personal interest. The schools in the wealthiest areas enjoyed a day that included many non-academic subjects such as the Arts, foreign languages and tennis. There were no bells to tell children when to line up, and when a class was over. Academics included ample time for research and for exploration of a wide variety of topics. These children will enter a world that will do their bidding and they have endless opportunities ahead of them. The children in the low-income schools experience a day when control is almost completely out of their hands. Anyon did not explicitly name the ‘school to prison pipeline’, but the implication is there. Lipman reminds us that punishment and incarceration are a key neoliberal strategy to politically contain and manage surplus labor. The children in the low income areas who were otherwise being sensitized to work in a factory, are now being molded into the prisoners of tomorrow; disenfranchisement is thus complete for those born into a society where too many people are considered dispensable.
Giroux (Giroux, 2004) states that proliferating sites of pedagogy bring into being new forms of resistance, raise new questions, and necessitate alternative visions regarding autonomy and the possibility of democracy itself. Sites of pedagogy can be extended to broaden and deepen the meaning and importance of public education. Our children require schools that are ethically committed to a humanizing ethos of education. In the absence of such an environment, teachers and students need to find a way through the cracks. Annie Adamian recently affirmed that anyone surprised by youth, such as those interviewing Asean Johnson, know nothing about them. As this is written, the Newark Students Union has taken over the office of Cami Anderson, the superintendent of the Newark Public Schools and a virulent neoliberal reformer. On January 12th of this year Arce (Maya Arce, Tucson high school student) vs. Huppenthal (State Superintendent of Education, Arizona) was heard in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The case will determine the constitutionality of the Mexican American Studies ban in Tucson. In the last year students and teachers in El Rancho School District, Los Angeles Unified School District and San Francisco Unified School District have mobilized to make Ethnic Studies a requirement in their school district. In the face of neoliberal reformers who seek to colonize and dehumanize education there will always be resistance at the grassroots level, even if the going is sometimes slow. A sign at the December SFUSD board meeting (where an Ethnic Studies resolution was unanimously passed by the school board), read, “Ethnic Studies helps me breathe again”. Informed resistance to neoliberal attempts to brand those less fortunate with dollar signs, helps us all breathe again.
Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, N.Y.; Jackson, Tenn.: New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution.
Anyon, J. (1980). Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work. Journal of Education, 162(1), 67–92.
Buras, K. L. (2015). Charter schools, race, and urban space: where the market meets grassroots resistance. New York: Routledge.
Giroux, H. (2004). Public Pedagogy and the Politics of Neo-liberalism: making the political more pedagogical. Policy Futures in Education, 2(3&4).
Guthrie, John T. (2011). Chapter Seven: Best Practices in Motivating Students to Read. In L. B. Gambrell & L. M. Morrow (Eds.), Best practices in literacy instruction. New York, N.Y: The Guilford Press.
Journey 4 Justice Alliance. (2014, May). Death by a Thousand Cuts. Retrieved from http://www.empowerdc.org/uploads/J4JReport-Death_by_a_Thousand_Cuts.pdf
Lipman, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city. New York: Routledge.
Myers, C. (2014, March 15). The Apartheid of Children’s Literature. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/the-apartheid-of-childrens-literature.html?_r=0
Smith, S. (1996). Saving Our City from the Experts. In W. Ayers & P. Ford (Eds.), City Kids, City Teachers: Reports from the Front Row. New York, N.Y.: The New Press.
 Myers pointed out at a later date that when you account for historical narratives and biographies you are down to about six books with black people in them.
 “[It] doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.”
 Charter schools do exist, however, that stay true to the original vision of a transformative space. These schools do not rig the lottery nor use selective entry techniques. They serve the community they are in, in an equitable fashion. ARISE in Oakland and Community Roots in Brooklyn, NY are examples of these kinds of charter schools.
and from KIPP itself: