Dakota Free Press notes the chair of the education department at NSU commenting that the South Dakota legislative study panel on education is rigged with the prospects of continuing to treat education as a nuisance to the state's way of life. However, rigging education studies to minimize, often exclude, the input of people actually involved in education has become the tradition in America. It began with the Nation at Risk report issued in the 1980s, which lamented that the state of education at the time portended ill for the nation. The commission was stacked with university presidents, school administrators, industry executives, and school board members. It had one token classroom teacher on the panel.
The Nation at Risk report was one of the initiatives of the Reagan administration in the early 1980s issued along with the policies that triggered the transformation of the economy from one based on productivity to one devoted to servitude and the resulting burgeon of income and wealth inequality. Ten years after the report, a book challenging it was published, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America's Public Schools. That book brought attention to a growing political movement in America for the enforcement of rigorous class privileges and exclusions. And it signaled a huge shift away from a basic American value.
As the USA developed, one of the first things new communities wanted established was schools. The Founders, some such as Benjamin Franklin who were self-educated, stressed the importance of educational institutions. Jefferson established the foundation for the University of Virgina and Franklin for the University of Pennsylvania. Lincoln, who had less than a year of formal schooling, signed the Land Grant College Act into law at the height of the Civil War. The history of every town in America gives accounts of the priority placed on providing education for children, even though it provided the young people with the knowledge and skills that made it possible for them to move away from their communities to search for greater possibilities. And when the nation was met with an influx of veterans after the Second World War, it turned what could have been a problem into the greatest resource for national development the nation has experienced with the education offered by the G.I. Bill.
Americans chatter endlessly about the widening political divide in the country. But they cling to the notion that Americans have the same essential values and only minor differences in how those values are attained and maintained. We talk glibly about culture wars. We are fearful to confront the reality that there is a raging class war within the nation. Lost in the euphemistic chatter is what the difference is between the fighting camps.. It's relatively simple to define. One group believes in liberty, equality, and justice for all. The other group doesn't believe in such qualities, except for themselves. One group calls themselves liberal, the other conservative. One group raises issues of hope, while the propaganda from the other is laden with ethnic stereotypes, denigrations of human worth, and all the pretexts for hate speech.
Public education has come under attack. There is no doubt that a disparity exists in the quality of public schools. Some urban schools do not produce many proficient and competent students. Teachers have been so involved in dealing with the social issues and discipline problems their students bring to school that they have little time and little success for education. It became a common quip among teachers at such schools to say that if their students were all alive by the time school was dismissed, they had a succeeded for that day.
However, the impediments to education existed in more placid systems, too. In some communities, school boards have dealt with complaints that teachers were expecting too much of their students and were creating conditions of stress. The boards' solution was to instruct the teachers to back off and provide a more relaxed and congenial environment in the classroom. This was a problem I encountered during 20 years as a co-director of the Dakota Writing Project which was engaged in cooperative arrangements with public schools. But it is a matter that has never been discussed as an issue affecting educational quality. Some students graduated with very diluted diplomas, while students from some schools graduated with high levels of preparation. When the South Dakota Board of Regents complained about the need for our colleges and universities to provide remedial work in some basic disciplines to bring students up to post-secondary levels of performance, they did not directly address the disparities in preparation among the school districts. Instead, they endorsed the massive testing approach with the No Child Left Behind program, and ended up with a scheme for improvement that placed all the blame for faltering achievement levels on the teachers.
Very few writers on education have taken up the responsibilities school boards have for the performance of schools. Over the last four decades, school boards have shifted away from being advisory committees that mediate between the public and the professional school staffs. In that mediation role, they generally let the professional educators formulate curricula, select teaching materials and methods, and suggest the educational decisions to be made, with the board reviewing and making final approval of the decisions. Today, most school boards act in the role of corporate boards which dictate the curricula, materials, and policies to the administrative and teaching staffs. This shift is reflected in the type of people who the boards hire as superintendent, principals, and administrative staff. The lead positions were once filled by people who were primarily teachers elevated into leadership positions because of their successful experience as front-line teachers. School executives for the most part today have had little direct contact with students in learning circumstances, but work as corporate executives in imposing policies and decisions on the the teaching staffs.
Much has been made of the so-called difficulty in getting rid of ineffective teachers and the power that unions hold in regard to such decisions. While there are cases of people who do not perform well as teachers, no attention has been paid to the faulty policies promulgated by boards of education or the quality of support provided and supervision imposed on the teachers. In my experience in working with teachers through the Dakota Writing Project, I found that the teachers who administrators would like to be rid of are the intelligent, effective, independent ones who apply their learning and their teaching experience with knowledge and effect. Those teachers often find themselves in conflict with the corporate-inspired policies which are directed at maintaining control over the staff and the students, not creating good learning situations and good students. The corporate-inspired policies are directed at creating obedience, not developing intelligence.
The intrusion of corporate management practices into education is just one aspect of the class war that has created the inequality and the impoverishment of the working class. However, that class war which was dismissed as political poppycock by the right a few elections ago has become, as the Washington Post points out, a staple of the current Republican campaign. Writer Chris Hedges explains how the inequality movement has taken over American government and why the left wing has been so ineffective in combating it:
If things unravel [in the U.S.], our backlash may very well be a rightwing backlash — a very frightening rightwing backlash. We who care about populist movements [on the left] are very weak, because in the name of anti-communism these movements have been destroyed; we are almost trying to rebuild them from scratch. We don’t even have the language to describe the class warfare that is being unleashed upon us by this tiny, rapacious, oligarchic elite. But we on the left are very disorganized, unfocused, and without resources.
The normal mechanisms by which we carry out incremental and piecemeal reform through liberal institutions no longer function. They have been seized by corporate power — including the press. That sets the stage for inevitable blowback, because these corporations have no internal constraints, and now they have no external constraints. So they will exploit, because, as Marx understood, that’s their nature, until exhaustion or collapse.Nothing poses a greater obstacle to the neo-feudal takeover of the corporate mentality than does a constituency that is educated so that it can critically examine the policies and the propaganda that the self-appointed hierarchy imposes on it. The last thing that oligarchic elite wants is people who can gather information and think critically. That is the reason for the attacks on education and the negligence in states such as South Dakota that regard education as a nuisance the leaders would prefer to eliminate. It also explains the rationale for privatizing schools rather than upgrading public education: it wants only the children of the would-be elite to possess the skills that education brings.
A measure of the state of education is the amount of money devoted to it. The trite and stupendously stupid cliche that you can't improve education by throwing money at it always comes up. However, the amount spent on education is only one measure of the political attitudes that determine whether the powers that be want our children to be indoctrinated into being serfs or educated to be free, equal, and just citizens. If the so-called blue ribbon panels elicits actual information from teachers and parents or contrives ways to further diminish educators and education will indicate what the future for education in South Dakota holds.
Remember, that to the conservative majority in South Dakota, real education is a subservise activity. Freedom, equality, and justice are a menace to the the new feudalism. So the controlling majority lays awake at night fretting that Obama will come and take their guns away. And that the populace might actually get educated.
There is a class war raging. Much of it in the dark of night who do not want America to become what its founders set in motion.