MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos doesn't believe in public education. She is an avid proponent of the school privatization movement, which operates through vouchers, charter schools and other means. Author Noliwe Rooks argues that school privatization enables the continuation of historic educational apartheid, oppressing people of color. Rooks wrote the book Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and Public Education, featured as the Truthout Progressive Pick last week. Rooks, the director of American Studies at Cornell University, argues that the so-called "education reform" privatization movement manifests as segregated education, rebranded.
In the introduction to her book, Rooks invokes the term "segrenomics" as the means by which profiteers make money from segregated and unequal education. In an interview with Truthout, she explains the term:
Segrenomics is a term I came up with to describe what I saw in so many discrete educational periods in [the US] where there was a consistent cycle for plundering funds supposedly for our nation's most vulnerable students and then hoarding those same funds to educate students who were either wealthy, or white and often times ... both.
I began to see that the separately unequal educations that define our nation were not merely the product of an apartheid imagination designed to educate different segments of our society into what a scholar named Horace Mann Bond termed the American social order, but was also a lucrative business model that from the 19th century on has aided the financial bottom lines of wealthy businesses. Looked at with that understanding, I began to see that the thicket of separate and unequal educational experiments described in the book (vouchers, charter schools, alternatively certified teachers and superintendents), many of which failed to educate the children they were created for, simply would not have been proposed if there was no money to be made from them.
Rooks also notes that "segrenomics" is "a specific form of capitalism that relies on segregation to do its work."
Those of us who believe that education should be considered part of the public commons have historically been confronted with individuals, corporations and groups who are literally invested in educational inequality for people of color and the poor. One consistent culprit Rooks finds in her analysis is the philanthropic community. Many foundations -- while appearing to champion the banner of better education for all -- actually reinforce educational inequity. Rooks describes such foundations as often serving as "segregation's bankers."
Organizations such as Teach for America bring a "white savior" complex to community schools that would be best served by enabling the local parents and students to play a major role in determining a school's direction. Furthermore, the private and public money spent on charter schools, for instance, cannot compensate for inadequate funding from widely varying tax bases that are generally distributed restrictively within economically and racially segregated school districts. In short, some school districts are well funded, and some are wretchedly underfunded. Private foundations and white savior organizations cannot make up the difference.
In Cutting School, Rooks raises the plight of parents who use false addresses to enroll their children in well-funded schools. This can result in the arrest and prosecution of the parents if they are found out. As Rooks explains in her interview with Truthout,
Over the past five or so years, we have seen a real uptick in the numbers of parents who are trying to escape their public-school systems, which are populated with low-performing charter schools and dysfunctional and low-achieving traditional public schools. What they do is enroll their children in higher-performing schools outside of their districts using the addresses of friends or family. Many districts across the country have begun to hire private investigators to surveil their students and when they discover that the students are enrolled in schools outside of the district in which they live, they are arresting the parents and charging them with educational theft, or stealing school....
This is one of the ways that we can really see how education has become a commodity. We are willing to send parents to jail for wanting the same type of education for their kids as wealthy parents get. We simply do not believe that economically vulnerable children deserve the same type of education.
Many parents and teachers' union members have advocated against the imposition of privatization and for increased funding and community involvement in local schools. Rooks also thinks it is important to consider the voices of young people who are resisting top-down educational "solutions":
They believe communities need to be consulted about the education of their children and not have outsiders come in and make top-down decisions. They believe that teaching children about politics, sexism, racism and identity is as important for children of color in struggling schools as is science and math. They believe that children always need to be treated with respect -- and that how we discipline in schools matters as much as if and why we discipline. I think that resistance looks like us following where these young people want to lead us.
Such resistance perhaps will go further, leading to widespread systemic change in the funding and management of community schools in economically deprived areas. After all, the educational needs of students in poorer districts, often composed of young people of color, are directly related to the broader financial inequality of the United States, which stems from racism and unbridled capitalism. Therefore, the issue of poor performing schools relates to a larger intersectional need for restructuring the nation's economic and social system.
One of our first goals should be stomping down the privatization movement. Rooks, in her Truthout interview, said: "Schools almost function like ATM machines for folks who have figured out how to use them that way." This must end with all due speed.