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Oh No You Don't!

United States

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The Other America / EDUCATION

Oh no you don’t!
The long-established system of free public education is under siege across the US. But parents, teachers and students don't want their schools sold off. Matthew Reiss reports on the resistance to 'school choice' in New York.

The dining room of Manhattan's 100-year-old National Arts Club has an ornate fireplace, built-in book cases and a collection of fine silver on loan from its members. At a luncheon last year the room filled with bank magnates, corporate lawyers, real-estate moguls and representatives of New York's philanthropic industry. The guests had not gathered to exchange insider-trading tips. Troubled public (state) schools across the country had caught their attention - New York City's $11-billion-a-year school system in particular.

New York children were scoring poorly on tests; there were sexual assaults in stairwells; some students were even killed by falling construction debris. Across the country, mainstream newspapers regularly reported such stories but hardly anyone was talking about how the problems should be fixed. Instead, opinion-makers agreed that the issue was 'school choice' - a code word for gradual divestment from public schools and increased subsidies for private schools. Had the time come to abandon America's experiment with universal public education?

Few people - other than televangelist Jerry Falwell - have called for the elimination of public schools altogether. But in his first big televised speech to the nation, President Bush pledged to pull 'non-performing' schools from the federal dole. His initiative accelerated a 10-year-old process of shifting crowded public classrooms on to corporate America's balance sheets. David Swanson of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) believes that 'there's a clear campaign to degrade the schools and eventually to eliminate them'.

Which brings us back to the Arts Club luncheon. The corporate philanthropists had turned out to help the nearby, beleaguered Washington Irving High School. Their donations would go to a 'partnership' which, among other things, was working to persuade teachers to support a 'charter' or corporate structure for the school. Teachers could then convince parents to remove the school from public administration. New York requires a majority of parents to vote a school out of public hands.

One alumnus, Norma Kamali - the well-meaning CEO of a garment concern - was honored at the luncheon for donating time and money to the school's new fashion and design department. Entertainer Bette Middler promised to steer big donations to the school and open a new performing-arts center.

Yet a cloud hung over the proceedings. The Principal of Washington Irving, Robert Durkin, one of his top administrators and the executive director of the 'partnership' had resigned. Durkin - a college classmate of Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor of New York at the time - had dedicated his energies to getting teachers to support charter status. Teachers were invited to meetings with celebrities. Donations raised ostensibly for student programs were steered into a publicity campaign and towards selected teachers via extra pay for special programs. But the teachers voted it down. Without teacher support, parents would be almost impossible to win over. School investigators, community groups and the local press were looking into allegations of inflated grades and misused funds.

More heavy-handed approaches were soon underway elsewhere in the city. The New York City Schools Chancellor, Harold Levy, said he would deliver five failing schools - down from Giuliani's original goal of one hundred - to Edison Schools Inc, the nation's largest private administrator of 'charter' and former public schools. Levy quietly launched a campaign to convince parents in these five districts to vote in favor. But ACORN won a court ruling that New York City must provide information to parents on keeping the schools public. By a ratio of 8-2, parents supported improving public schools rather than privatizing them. 'Edison tried all their tricks; they even promised free computers,' says Swanson. 'But we had the advantage of being in the community already.'

For ACORN, winning the battle against privatization taught some useful lessons - for students as well as parents. A bus stop at one high school was removed by the city's transportation department. The nearest bus stop was two blocks away. 'A lot can happen at a high school in two blocks,' says ACORN's New York's Executive Director, Bertha Lewis. So students 'started knocking on doors, surveying the senior citizens in the neighborhood, asking them how long they had to walk. They mapped out a history of the neighborhood and made a field trip to the Department of Transportation to determine how stops get eliminated.' They got their stop back.

For the moment, privatization had been slowed in New York City. But the corporate sector and its philanthropic counterparts are still determined to see education, the nation's last universal social program, go the way of public sanitation, public health and public housing: private or virtually extinct. Meanwhile the National Arts Club has been raided as part of an investigation into possible tax evasion.

Matthew Reiss is a freelance journalist based in New York. [email protected]

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