Back in the mid-Nineties, devious right-wing activists at the Bradley Foundation, in Milwaukee, hit upon a “wedge” issue designed to wreck the alliance at the core of the Democratic Party’s urban base. Blacks and public employee unions – particularly teachers – were the foundations of Democratic power in the cities. Aware that African Americans revered education but were often in conflict with largely white teachers unions over issues of racism and community control, the Bradley gang, under president Michael Joyce, created out of whole cloth a “movement” for publicly-funded vouchers for private schools. No such Black community “demand” had ever existed, but well-aimed infusions of millions of dollars among opportunistic politicians like Cory Booker, a first term city councilman who aspired to become mayor of Newark, New Jersey, grafted Black faces onto a Hard Right corporate scheme to divide key progressive constituencies: Blacks and unions.
By the turn of the millennium, the Bradley outfit solidified its position as George W. Bush’s “favorite” foundation when it invented “faith-based initiatives” to funnel millions of public dollars to churches to provide social services. Faith-based funding and private school vouchers comprised the totality of Bush’s first term outreach to Black America. Neither program drew masses of Blacks into the Republican Party – even the wealthy social engineers at Bradley can’t perform miracles. But Bradley and its far-right sister funders – the Walton and DeVos Family Foundations, Olin, Scaife, Freidman and other troglodytes – had succeeded in penetrating Black Democratic politics, where the real action would unfold. Cory Booker, Harold Ford, Jr., the 29-year-old who inherited his father’s congressional seat in Memphis, in 1996, and other hustlers were the “new Black leaders” ready to embrace “pro-business” solutions to inner city problems, said corporate media boosters. The Democratic Leadership Council, the party’s corporate money bagmen, launched a frenzied, and quite effective, recruitment campaign among Black office-holders and aspirants.
This is the national stage onto which Barack Obama stepped with his U.S. Senate campaign, in 2003-2004, as the very embodiment of the “new” Black politician, full of phrases like “public-private partnerships” and other codes for corporate penetration of the public sphere. By this time, the wealthy foundations were directing much of their money and attention to hawking charter schools as the cure for what ails education in the inner cities. Not that the Waltons and Friedmans and Scaifes give a damn about ghetto kids, but because they understood that Black parents were desperate for anything that might save their children, and would be receptive when fellow Blacks made the pitch. From its inception, the purpose of the project was to drive a wedge between teachers unions and Black constituencies. In addition to being unencumbered by sticky constitutional considerations, charter schools are technically public schools, and African Americans remain broadly committed to the concept of public education. Most importantly, from the rich man’s point of view, charter schools are the gateway to corporate access to the public education purse, a “market” worth hundreds of billions a year in which the public takes all the risk – a capitalist’s paradise! Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan – a veteran Chicago union buster and corporatist – have labored mightily to erect an alternative national system of charter schools.
The Hard Right foundations now had even bigger company as boosters of charter schools: the institutional weight of Wall Street, huge hedge funds, and individual billionaires, all out to make a financial killing, knock off teachers unions, and mold the world views of new generations. After more than a decade of corporate cultivation of ambitious “new Black leaders,” a large cadre of business-friendly African American politicians was in place – including, by 2008, in the highest place of all.
President Obama is the guy that Michael Joyce, at the Bradley Foundation, was dreaming about when he launched his campaign to split Blacks from unions, 15 years ago. Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan – a veteran Chicago union buster and corporatist – have labored mightily to erect an alternative national system of charter schools, plugged into a private financial and educational services sector, that in some cities is as large or larger than the traditional public schools. Obama, because of his race and his party affiliation, is a far more effective foe of public education and teachers unions than his white Republican predecessor.
Michael Joyce was right; he knew that the crucial battle over school privatization would have to occur in Black Democratic circles, if it were to work as a fractious wedge issue. Last month, the NAACP and the United Federations of Teachers filed a lawsuit to halt the closing of 20 public schools and to stop giving preferential treatment to charter schools that often share the same buildings. The differences in learning conditions, schedules and equipment are so striking, says the NAACP, as to reduce public students to second-class citizens. Charter schools, which President Obama fawns over like his own legacy, are blatantly favored by school systems and corporate sponsors. The NAACP is seeking to prove – in a different age and racial context – that separate is not equal, in New York City and other sites of breakneck charterization.
The inequalities are by design. From President Obama on down, charter school strategists hope to expand their privatized systems by deliberately making charters relatively more attractive than traditional classrooms, in order to create a political constituency for more charters. At root, it is a kind of bait-and-switch that is not sustainable, and will come to a halt once the public school “competition” is marginalized or eliminated. By then, the political forces necessary to revive public schooling will have been exhausted in fratricidal battles, and the corporations will have established a system to suit their own purposes– as Michael Joyce foresaw.
When the NAACP joined in the teachers union’s suit, charter school advocates declared war on the civil rights group. Two thousand people attended a May 26 rally in Harlem, accusing the NAACP of dividing the community. Of course, Michael Joyce knows who did the dividing – he and his right-wing schemers and billionaires wrote the script.