Pledge to See a Movie During This National Emergency

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Schools Matter

Pledge to See a Movie During This National Emergency

If you are a teacher with 28 children in your class this Fall, four of them live in poverty.

On Thursday the Census Bureau released a report showing that 1 of 7 Americans now lives in poverty. That's 44,000,000 people who, if they live in a family of four, have a family income that is less than $22,000 per year. If it were not for unemployment benefits, another 3,300,000 would be included in the poverty figures. Even with such impressive numbers that exceed the levels of poverty for when President Johnson declared the War on Poverty in the 1960s, higher numbers of people are without health insurance, which now stands at over 50,000,000 for the first time since records have been kept.

What has been the national political response? The Republicans have not mentioned it, preferring instead to continue to hammer their talking points on maintaining the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 per year. The Democrats are more interested in the middle class who vote, with the President on Friday making the case from the Rose Garden for middle class tax cuts without mentioning the historic poverty report released the day before. In a Washington Post story on Thursday that asked a pundit from each political party what should be done in the face of this accelerating devastation, the Republican urged poor people to make sure they get married, and the Democrat urged the continuation of the surviving patchwork of social welfare programs that are already entirely swamped by the deluge of the poor.

Without comment on poverty reports, however, wealth continues to accumulate for those with the wealth to make it happen. We know this not from any disclosures from the privileged, but from the public disclosures by large investors such as university endowments and retirement funds. Last week brought news that Columbia University has recouped much of what was lost in the most recent Wall Street debacle, with a 17 percent return this year on investments that remain undisclosed. We can only imagine the astronomical returns that the hedge fund gamblers are bringing in for the casino capitalists of Wall Street if a university endowment is able to collect 17% on its investment.

On the other coast in California, a Bay Citizen story published by the New York Times reports that a review of the University of California shareholder voting records show a pattern of disregard for UC's long-standing investment policy "to promote human rights, environmental sustainability and efforts to fight discrimination." It is as if the acrid whiff of economic collapse has placed conscience and moral argument on the losing side of a zero sum game, a sentiment expressed in remarks by a UC Davis law professor who argues that UC must keep in mind the "ultimate beneficiaries:" "Do they want to be socially responsible or do they want to have retirement money when they retire?"

There are those among us, however, who feel as though they will have their cake and will eat it, too, and have more cake as a result. And thus we see the great outpouring of interest and even tears among the wealthy and well-heeled lining up for the new documentary feature on the un-caped crusaders of the corporate education reform movement depicted in "Waiting for Superman," a film amply funded by philanthro-capitalists, those irrepressible investors who do well by doing good from their unique capacity to spot a business opportunity where the rest of us just see the cancerous effects exuding from the malignant neglect of poverty. From what I can learn from the well-oiled promotional machine that, beyond the "Superman" website, is funding op-eds, newsy articles, interviews, and TV specials to generate support for the movie's corporate-approved educational solutions, the film hopes to push over the top an educational revolution of sorts that will sweep away poor children's failure as easily as plans to sweep away teachers and schools where poor children score the lowest on tests.

This new corporate poor children's crusade will not be constrained by burdensome adult work rules, union agreements, due process considerations, or even children's work rules or due process, for that matter. The model chain for corporate school reform, KIPP, works students and teachers 10 hours a day, and then they are on duty for 2 to 3 hours of homework every night. Plus Saturdays. Though costly for students and teachers alike, who must cut short other life activities such as family and friends (and sleep), the new crusade will be accomplished apparently without the need for addressing the many, otherwise, expensive social and economic challenges where poor children live and score poorly in crumbling schools with shortages of decent learning materials, libraries, health care, parent jobs, housing, transportation, equal opportunity, or the diverse social capital that enables healthy cultures to interact and thrive.

What this new "civil rights" crusade based on segregated containment and a "no excuses" mantra disguises is a very old ideology based on blaming the poor for their poverty and blaming public schools in order to dismantle them for corporate benefit, with both unacknowledged goals carried out while diverting attention away from the economic canyon that divides the poor from the rich who now plan to get richer by exploiting the poor in ways that leave them even more contained and invisible than before.

The heart-tugging and anger-pumping machinations of "Waiting for Superman" mask a cynical excuse to impose a cheap form of punitive social triage through a total compliance penal form of schooling for the poor that carries with it the added benefit of a huge financial dividend for the philanthropic investor class that Diane Ravitch has termed the "Billionaire Boys' Club." Though costly for students, parents, and teachers alike, none of these constituencies are even present in strategies for this new crusade, unless they are recruited to serve as passive audiences for lectures by Bill Gates or Arne Duncan. They did have their presence felt last Tuesday in DC, however, and no doubt they will have it felt again.

Trying to turn poor children into middle class ones without the benefits of the family wealth or access to social capital to go along with the psychological and behavioral modifications of the KIPPs will be do untold damage to children and their families that will not be judged kindly by history in the long term, or by voters and civil rights advocates in the short term. It will be of minor consequence to the wealth of the wealthy, however, even if it all falls flat. If this brand of apartheid testing camps were to become the model for urban education, however, corporate education reform would make many of the wealthy even wealthier, with an added social dividend. For if the psychological alterations of the poor are as effective as the corporate "positivity" consultants would have it, we may assume that these poor children, once successfully modified, will become as blind to poverty as the white, and black, missionary types who are lined up for a ticket to feel good about believing that poverty is no longer an excuse for being poor.

Meanwhile, 5 of 35 school children in every overcrowded classroom in America remain impoverished, with nothing on the political horizon or from Hollywood to change that reality or even to challenge it.

Jim Horn

Jim Horn is Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA. He is also an education blogger at Schools Matter @ the Chalkface and has published widely on issues related to education reform and social justice in education. With co-author, Denise Wilburn, his new book, The Mismeasure of Education, was published in July 2013.

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