EduShyster, aka Jennifer Berkshire, interviews political economist Gordon Lafer in this post. He explains the role of corporate education reform in a broad economic and political context. This is one of the most enlightening interviews she has conducted. I urge you to read it.
She asks Lafer whether Walmart is helping poor kids get a better education by swelling the coffers of the Walton Family Foundation, which generously funds charters and vouchers across the nation.
First of all, the thing that correlates most clearly with educational performance in every study is poverty. So when you look at the agenda of the biggest and richest corporate lobbies in the country, it’s impossible to conclude that they want to see the full flowering of the potential of each little kid in poor cities. To say *I want to cut the minimum wage, I want to prevent cities from passing laws raising wages or requiring sick time, I want to cut food stamps, I want to cut the earned income tax credit, I want to cut home heating assistance. Oh but, by the way, I’m really concerned about the quality of education that poor kids are getting*—it’s just not credible. You’re creating the problem that you now claim to want to solve….Walmart has no trouble filling positions and operating with very high turnover because what’s demanded of people who work there is so little. They’re certainly not asking *where are we going to find more people who can do algebra and craft well-written paragraphs? In fact, the big problem with the *send every kid to college* argument is that there aren’t jobs for these kids after they graduate. You cannot find an economist who predicts that more than one-third of jobs in the US are going to require a college degree in our lifetime. The real question is not how can everybody be a college graduate, but how can people make a decent living. And here is where you see that the same corporate lobbies that are pushing education reform are doing everything possible to make that harder.
EduShyster pushed Lafer to explain how the corporate reform agenda made sense–especially the combination of budget cuts for the public schools combined with tax cuts for corporations. Lafer answered:
I think the direction that the most powerful forces in the country is pushing is a bleak and frankly scary one—that at some level they want us to forget the idea of having a right to a decent public education, which is one of the last remaining entitlements, and make it more like health care, which is increasingly seen as a privilege. What’s being done to schooling is, I think, devastating on its merits. It has ideological implications for lowering expectations for what you have a right to as a citizen or a resident. And it raises big, profound questions: How does your experience in school affect, not just your skill set for employment, but your sense of yourself as a person and what you think you deserve from life? I think that for the real one percent, the big political challenge is *how do we pursue a policy agenda that makes the country ever more unequal and that makes life harder for the vast majority of people without provoking a populist backlash?* One of the ways of doing that is by lowering people’s expectations, and one of the key places to do that is in the school system.
The good news is that the interview ends on a hopeful note. We can’t abandon hope, because if we do, we are lost from the get-go. We must believe that a political awakening will happen if we work hard enough to make it happen, and that the Robber Barons will be tamed. American history runs in cycles, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argued, and we must not give up believing that we can make change. Because we can.