United Public Workers for Action

Neo-Liberalism and the Assault on Public Education

By George Wright
May 1, 2010
UPWA.info founding member

The nearly four decade-long effort to restructure public education along Neo-Liberal guidelines has accelerated since President Barack Obama assumed office.  Neo-Liberalism is an ideology that calls for "limited government" and a market-driven economy.  This project is being carried out on the federal, state, and local levels, while targeting publicly-financed K-12 schools and higher education.

Some of the objectives for restructuring public education include:

1) shifting the cost of education on to students, while increasing their debt burden to the benefit of banks;

2) promoting the expansion of privately-managed charter schools;

3) deepening the access to public educational resources for corporate-interests;

4) smashing teacher unions, thus weakening the political power of those unions, and cutting the cost of teachers; and,

5) eliminating multicultural, revisionist, inter- nationalist, and critical perspectives from the school curricula.

On the K-12 level, this agenda has been promoted under the guise of  "competitiveness;"  "national standards;" "accountability," "basic skills," "excellence," and standardized testing; while the assault on higher education includes budget reductions, "assessments," "merit pay," and curriculum reform.  The 2008 collapse of the financial system, amplified by chronic overlapping federal, state and local budgetary crises, has provided a "window of opportunity" to intensify this assault.

What are the roots of the assault on public education?;" How has that assault been manifested?; And, Why has that assault accelerated in the past two years?

During the late-1960's industrial-based corporations began to experience falling rates of profits.  The reasons for this decline are complex, but at the core were:

1) exhaustion of the automobile-industrial-complex profit accumulation model; and,

2) deficit spending the Johnson administration carried out fighting the Vietnam War and promoting "Great Society" reforms.

This resultant structural economic crisis caused both stagnant growth and inflation.

Simultaneously, United States' post-World War II global economic dominance was being weakened.  Causes for this weakening include:

1) the United States defeat in Vietnam;

2) the emergence of West European and Japanese economic competition; and,

3) the rise of Third World economic nationalism.

This structural economic crisis led to state and local governments experiencing chronic deficits, leading to recurring cuts for public services, including public education.

This reality was felt in California as early as the late-1960's.  In fact, in 1967 Governor Ronald Reagan made cuts in education spending, impacting both higher education and K-12.  In response to the chronic fiscal crisis the University of California, the state colleges, and the community colleges began to increase tuition and rely on non-union part-time teachers.  The University of California also sought more corporate and government funding for research purposes.  K-12 schools had to regularly lay teachers off; expand teacher- student classroom ratios; and cut curriculum offerings, such as art and physical education.  The education crisis in California would become chronically acute after 1978 when Proposition 13 was passed, significantly reducing the local property tax base.

Furthermore, the structural economic crisis led corporations to search for a new accumulation model to generate acceptable profits.  The profit accumulation model between 1932 and 1970 was based on government managing and regulating the industrial-based economy, while promoting redistribution of wealth to the working class.  The hegemonic ideology which shaped that period was Corporate-Liberalism.

The accumulation model settled on by the late-1970's consisted of:

1) shifting the manufacturing sector to the United States Sun-Belt and the Third World, where labor was non-union, costs were cheaper, and there were no labor or environmental regulations;

2) restructuring the country into a non-union service-based economy;

3) promoting the expansion of credit;

4) carrying out conglomerate mergers;

5) expanding real estate speculation; and,

6) intensifying financial speculation.

This model was underscored by massive military spending, providing profits for arms producers and commercial banks.

Implementing the new accumulation model also involved constructing a new hegemonic ideology that would rationalize the new model.   Thus, Neo-Liberalism was constructed during the 1970's to serve that purpose. As David Harvey explains in Neo-Liberalism: A Brief History, this "consensus building" process involved corporations, foundations, media, public relations firms, and Republican politicians, combined with the emerging Right-Wing forces, including the Sun-Belt wealth, "free-market" economists, anti-tax activists, the Religious-Right, and Neo-conservatives.

The policy guidelines Neo-Liberalism established are:

1) deregulation;

2) reducing  the public sector;

3) cutting taxes for the wealthy;

4) privatizing public services; and,

5) smashing unions.

The political implementation of these guidelines aimed to transfer income from the public sector and the working class to the wealthiest people in the country.

The Reagan administration institutionalized Neo- Liberalism, a hegemonic ideology which has shaped United States politics since.

The move to restructure public education in the interests of corporate-dominated Neo-Liberalism came into fruition in 1983 when the Reagan-appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education issued A Nation at Risk.   The report assessed the decline in student achievement scores and warned that that decline was an "internal threat that was more serious than Soviet Union communism."   Using language not unlike Reagan's Cold War rhetoric, the report added that, "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people."

The report aimed to restructure the governance, organization, and curriculum of public education. This would be accomplished by changing educational values and curriculum goals.

Significantly, ANAR blamed the performance of public high schools for the economic crisis, while ignoring global and national economic, political, social, cultural, and technological factors that, in fact, were more to the point.

The report called for: "excellence;" making schools and teachers "accountable;" national curriculum standards; "core courses;" and standardized testing.  The report also called for federal leadership and more corporate involvement in public education; confronting educators (and a public) who wanted to promote more democracy and diversity.

ANAR established an outline for a nationwide educational reform movement, which would permeate schools at all levels. Very quickly most states and local school districts began to formulate and incorporate ANAR recommendations.  Also, numerous educational associations and unions endorsed aspects of the report.

Thus, a new national consensus was being established claiming that public education was in crisis and that corporate-oriented Neo-Liberal reforms were necessary.

Moreover, the uneven, but persistent, state and local fiscal crises, which had begun in the 1970's, continued to starve public education for resources.  The assault on public education would occur on two-symbiotic tracks: the promotion of national policy and restructuring owing to budget crises.

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush expanded on the outlines of ANAR.   The role of Clinton in the education reform movement reflects the Democratic Party's shift from New Deal-driven Corporate-Liberalism to "bi-partisan" acceptance of Neo-Liberalism.  Bush I proposed legislation, under

America 2000: An Educational Strategy, aimed to standardize curriculum, and embrace school "choice." The America 2000 legislation died in the Senate, but funding for education under Bush I increased substantially.

The Clinton administration's education policy was framed in Goal 2000: Educate America Act, issued in 1993.  That report aimed to further establish a national consensus on goals, curriculum, and standards of achievement.

George W. Bush intensified the Neo-Liberal policies. This was initially seen with Bush II's massive tax cuts for the rich.  After 9/11 occurred, Bush II deepened that ideology in to United States foreign policy. Moreover, Bush II's education policy, called No Child Left Behind, ratcheted up the assault on public education.

NCLB legislated:

1) improved teacher training and test-based licensing;

2) annual testing in reading and mathematics in elementary schools;

3) the chance for children in "failing" schools to transfer.

Despite the inadequate funding the program received and growing criticism from the education community, NCLB was the law of the land.

The 2008 Presidential election occurred during the worse economic crisis since the Great Depression.  The economic shock devastated state and local budgets, causing massive reductions in public services, lay- offs, and housing foreclosures. California, already dealing with deficits and structural political impediments, experienced the most severe budget deficit of any state.  Since the crisis began in 2008 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state legislature have made deep education cuts.

A major reason for the 2008 financial collapse was Clinton's repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall regulatory regime in 1999, which allowed commercial banks to pursue unregulated mechanisms, such as "sub- prime mortgages."

Furthermore, corporate-interests recognized the crisis was so severe that to accumulate profits they needed government to intensify the transfer of public resources to them.  This would mean that funding for programs which benefit the working class, elderly, youth, the disabled, and education would be transferred to the ruling elites in the form of bailouts, subsidies, and debt servicing. This largely explains why the assault on public education (as well as the rest of the public sector) accelerated since fall, 2008.

Within that context Barack Obama was elected President. Obama has intensified the Bush II revised version of Neo-Liberalism: "limited government" except for Wall Street and the corporations.

Obama's education policy is a clear example.   This is reflected in a statement he made, in February, 2010, after the Central Falls, Rhode Island school district fired 93 unionized teachers, alleging that they were responsible for "failing" standardized test scores.  In what could be considered Obama's PATCO Moment, he stated: ".if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability,."  Just like Reagan opened the door for the attack on unions when he fired 13,000 air controllers in 1981, unionized teachers now are increasingly vulnerable.

Obama's education policy is called "Race to the Top," although its objectives are no different than the aforementioned Presidential educational policies.

Obama's policy also exposes the conundrum that teacher unions face supporting the Democratic Party.

In conclusion, under the current hegemonic ideological and economic framework, there is no end in sight to the assault on public education. ______________

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator George Wright, PhD is the author of The Destruction of a Nation: United States' Policy Toward Angola Since 1945  (Pluto Press, 1997) and Stan Wright - Track Coach  (Pacifica Sports Research Institute, 2005).  He in Professor Emeritus from the Political Science Department,

California State University, Chico.  His research interests include: International  Political Economy, African International Relations, and the Politics of International Sport.