While it’s no surprise that America’s billionaire elites oppose unions, it is worth noting how much they focus their attention on unions in the public, as opposed to the private, sector. Teachers’ unions, in particular, seem be their consuming obsession. In 2011, for example, they played a key role in Governor Scott Walker’s notorious campaign against teachers’ unions, along with those of other public employees. More recently, they laid the groundwork for the critical Supreme Court case, Friedrichs versus the California Teachers Association, brought by plaintiffs against a teachers’ union. Why, it might be asked, should the plutocrats be so concerned about unions in the public sphere, which seem primarily a matter for local governments and taxpayers? And why teachers?
Any explanation has to begin with the plutocrats’ anti- government ideology. Many of them, affiliated with Cato libertarianism and Ayn Randian philosophy, have become avid supporters of the “government is evil” mantra of today’s far right. Opposing virtually anything government-owned or government-run, they see “public” as a dirty word. The very idea of public schools, public libraries, public lands, public parks, and public services is, by this reasoning, suspect, and the replacement of these things by private-run entities a goal to be furthered. Pay-as-you-go services, vouchers, and charter schools are the new good.
Public employee unions have to be fought and neutered because their members are the human embodiment of government, being its most reliable stakeholders. As public employees answerable to the taxpayers, they are the poster children of what it means to be “public.” And since “public” means ungoverned by the laws of the marketplace, public employees are deemed by the mighty to be inefficient and dispensable. Moreover, they have an added quality that makes them an ideal target for the plutocrats: they are largely urban residents, women, and minorities who tend to be liberal-leaning and vote democratic. In sum, plutocrats see the breaking up of public employee unions as a way to reduce government, expand the private sector, and weaken an undesirable interest group.
Underlying the ideological argument against public service, however, is a strong economic motivation: the prospect that big money can be made by shrinking the public realm and transferring broad sectors of it to private hands. Indeed, the step-by-step privatization of public sectors of the economy is at the top of the plutocratic agenda, presenting opportunities for hedge-fund managers, venture capitalists, and other nouveau billionaires to put their newly harvested cash to work without undue restrictions.
It just so happens that the plutocrats see education as the mother lode of opportunity for public-to-private transformation. And for good reason: the public education sector of the economic has been estimated at over half a trillion dollars. Moreover, the education sector is particularly appealing because the investor class has been able to convince state governments to allow charter schools access to public funds while also leaving them less regulated and accountable than the public schools. Who could ask for more? It is no surprise, then, that billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons have been promoting private alternatives. In the last decade, school privatization has drawn a wide array of big and small entrepreneurs, providing opportunities for the construction, refurbishing, financing, and managing of charter schools as well as markets for ancillary products in K-12 testing, data gathering, and digital instruction, among others.
Still, their privatizing efforts, at least in the education field, have run into some bumps along the way. The reason is simply that most of the public, according to polls, favors public education. The rush to establish charter schools in many poor, urban areas around the country has not turned out as well as promised, with multiple examples of incompetence, corruption, gross profiteering, and often poor educational results. Moreover, the overuse of testing, which has been used as a way of justifying the shutting down of some public schools and introducing charters, is unpopular with parents, teachers, and students.
As a means of persuading the unconvinced, the plutocrats have made their anti-union campaign central to their cause. Their argument has always been that public education needed to be replaced because public employee unions and their pampered teachers had failed to do their job. Such rhetoric was useful in attributing school failure not to the obvious problems of insufficient resources and poverty, but to the work of front-line teachers, who were ostensibly over-compensated and ineffective. The argument led to key elements of the privatization program: the drafting of lightly trained college students to replace teachers (the modus operandi of Teach for America), the use of simplistic testing of students to evaluate the teachers who instruct them, digital teaching and “virtual schools” as substitutes for teachers, the de-emphasis on curriculum content and breadth (where teachers excel), and the emphasis on drill and discipline (which requires minimal training). Most of these methods, judging from the increasing volume of parental complaints, have not worked out so well.
Many parents around the country are not buying the “anti-public” message and have reacted by organizing, forming alliances with teachers, and going political to protect their local public schools. For the last couple of years, they have been attacking Common Core as a threat to local control and organizing anti-testing boycotts in many states, notably New York, Colorado, New Jersey, and California. Their ardor and relative success in many areas has threatened the privatizers’ narrative of inevitability.
If the plutocrats are running into resistance, it is because they have been tone deaf to core parental concerns. For parents, education is not a commodity purchased in a shopping mall or one of a line of bright new products. More than simply consumers, parents see themselves as active participants in their children’s education. They serve on PTA’s, get to know their kids’ teachers, participate in after-school programs, and monitor their children’s reaction to school. This hands-on attitude makes them inclined to favor a school with a sense of community and with leadership that has a higher goal than profit and the bottom line. Above all, they want a school that is directly answerable to them.
In this classic pitting of public versus private, communitarian versus libertarian, labor solidarity versus management authority, bubble up versus top-down, we are in the process of seeing a real test of American democracy. Although it is impossible to predict the outcome, there is reasonable hope that the tide is a’ turning.