BOOK REVIEW: 'The Assault on Public Education. Confronting The Politics of Corporate School Reform,' by Dr. William H. Watkins

"The Assault on Public Education — Confronting The Politics of Corporate School Reform" by Dr. William H. Watkins provides the reader with a number of studies exposing the politics of corporate school reform. The book includes the writings of eight authors who describe some of the challenges posed by the so-called "reform movement" as it relates to public education. The audience for this book includes all those interested in the current state of public education and undermining the politics of corporate school reform. Dr. Watkins writings lay a foundation that supports his views with those of scholars critical of the so-called reform movement.

Dr. Watkins describes himself as a "knowledge worker and political activist" (and he is also a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago). His research and writings have been focused on questions of power, race, and education. This book reveals the systematic way in which philanthropists and other corporate leaders are working against public schools while investing in private and charter schools across Chicago and other cities. This book will enlighten your thinking and may motivate readers to ask pointed questions that reveal the truth about the current assault on public education.

Chapter One is entitled "The New Social Order. An Educator Looks at Economics, Politics, and Race." In it, Watkins exposes some of the changes in the economic state of America today. He identifies the corporate intrusion against education as being for finanicial gain, not student success. He discusses the wealth gap among races in the past and present. He wants readers to understand how the new social order impacts public education. Does free inquiry in classrooms still exist today? Do students have the tools to critically think, analyze, and devise solutions to problems? Are student’s today mere products of a society of state standardized testing?

Chapter Two is entitled "Neoliberal Urbanism, Race, and Urban School Reform" and is written by University of Illinois Professor Pauline Lipman. In that essay, she discusses the various plans to remake public education in Chicago. "Renaissance 2010," "Plan for Transformation," "Turn around schools," and "Hope VI," are few projects set in place to supposedly to improve the city's public education. According to Professor Lipman, this neoliberal movement has a program for decreasing the public sector and increasing the private management of public housing and education.

One area discussed by Lipman is the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) programs of the City of Chicago. How has (TIF) impacted the state of education in Chicago? How have large multimillion corporations halted public housing, low income housing, and affected the public schools? Once an area is declared a (TIF) zone, Lipman points out, the city can force owners to sell their properties, giving developers an opportunity to swarm down and make big profits. The state of charter and contract schools work against true public education. The voices of the people are ignored here because those seated on the school board are philanthropists and corporate people who are in the business of making money — not expanding the minds of children to be free thinkers. Does a school benefit from being "turned around"? Who does benefit when public schools "fail"?

In Chapter Three, entitled, "The Rise of Venture Philanthropy and the Ongoing Neoliberal Assault on Public Education, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation", DePaul University Professor Kenneth Saltman introduces the reader to today’s "venture philanthropists." Venture philanthropist ideas are rooted in capitalism and the money is provided to further privatization and other corporate projects. Saltman notes that the public must be careful when they allow those with deep pockets to fund their institutions of learning and provide the framework for thinking about public education and the public sector.

Once they fund your institution, then they begin to guide and direct your decision making. This includes who is educated and to what degree. The neoliberals often view the differences of culture and class as negative components to the learning of a child stifling their academic advancement. Which city leads the nation with high schools now called military academies — and school leaders designated as “CEOs”? Why is a profoundly anti-intellectual pedagogical approach to education on the upswing? Why would Bill and Melinda Gates take on the plight of education? The public must ask questions that unlock the motives behind the so called reformers currently working on education.

In Chapter Four, "Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow — Using Accountability to 'Reform' Public Schools to Death" by Alfie Kohn describes reform in the context of high-stakes testing. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), standardized tests, state tests, and reform have become curse words in many teacher and other circles of today. Opponents of corporate reform do not believe these measures benefited students. Instead, they benefit people who manufacture, create, and score the tests. A test that is created to acquire a certain outcome that is then used to identify the deficiencies of a school are unproductive. The test today has at its core this ridiculous purpose. What is reform? Who determines those institutions in need of reform? Why are efforts put in place to discredit the public school? Who benefits from the failure of public schools? Is teaching simple the transmission of facts?

Chapter 5 is called "The Neoliberal Agenda and the response of Teachers Unions" and was written by Oakland teacher and union activist Jack Gerson. Where were the teachers unions when the campaign for education reform began? The author expertly addresses this question by highlighting on some key political factors. The first being that The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) were historically partners with the Democratic Party. However, as the author points out in this book, the No Child Left Behind legislation (promulgated by George W. Bush) and the Race to the Top program (the eduction reforms pushed by the U.S. Department of Education under the administration of Barack Obama) illustrated punitive measures against teachers and public schools. Gerson points out that this legislation was not only strongly supported by the Republican Party, but overwhelmingly by the Democratic Party, revealing that the campaign to “reform” public schools was bipartisan. Secondly, the author unveils key information about the unions’ decision makers and what crucial compromises were made in regards to teacher unions.

Who is the driving force behind the campaign for education reform? The campaign for education reform is a campaign for corporate business. Before NCLB had passed, a group called the venture philanthropists was significant because unlike other reformers, they were willing to invest massive amounts of money to create private and charter schools. In addition, the venture philanthropists introduced the model of corporate practices that include competition, choice, and test-based accountability. In short, the offers of multimillion dollar grants to public school districts altered public education. What is of most importance is that federal and state government policy supports the venture philanthropist’s campaign for corporate reform?

Chapter 6 The Role of the Religious Right in Restructuring Education by Malila N. Robinson and Catherine A. Lugg. Who are the Protestant Right religious and why are they promoting marketing of public schools? The authors share insightful information about the religious right and their relation to marketing of public schools. Notably, how the religious right, although a diverse group in political and theoretical beliefs, has sought to change policy in public schools. The author further expounds on how the conservative African-American church may share policy goals with those of the Protestant Right, but the Protestant Right has not successfully gained the support of the conservative African Americans. However, the authors show how African Americans communities are opting out of the public school system and supporting marketing of public schools.

Chapter 7 Resuscitating Bad Science: Eugenics Past and Present by Ann G. Winfield. The author writes, “Present reform agendas are not about making schools better, nor are they about tidying things up and becoming more efficient at what we do. Make no mistake, what is happening now is about institutionalizing human worth.”(p157).

Chapter 8 “It’s All About the Dollars”: Charter Schools, Educational Policy, and the Racial Market in New Orleans by Kristen L. Buras. Buras researched the New Orleans public school system as it decentralized from a public institution to a private charter school system citywide after Hurricane Katrina 2005. Her thorough research exposes how state laws enabled the marketing of Black school children and Black communities in the name of “choice."The author skillfully uncovers how “While poor and working-class African-American communities were in utter disarray and families remained far from home, public schools were abruptly taken over by charter school operators.”(p170)

[Book Review by: Raymellia Jones and Brandy Gale –National Lois University Doctoral students. The Assault on Public Education Confronting The Politics Of Corporate School Reform. Dr. William H. Watkins. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 2012. 208 pp.]


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