Education in the Crosshairs: Thoughts on the New Student Movement
A statement by the Solidarity student working group
An unprecedented assault on public education is underway. State governments are slashing public school and university budgets, while the White House and Congress push school competition, firing teachers and privatization as a “solution” to the crisis of funding. But students and teachers are fighting back—most visibly in California, but also at schools across the nation. The movement will likely grow as more and more states cut education funding. It’s a sign of a vital movement that vibrant debates are occurring over tactics and strategy. As a contribution to these debates, we offer these suggestions to orient the movement.
First, it’s important to understand that the current attack on public education is only the most recent phase of a long campaign. For our parents’ generation, public universities and community colleges were practically free, and public grade schools were far better funded than today. But with the economic crisis of the 1970s, American capitalism entered a long-term period of stagnation, prompting a political offensive on the part of the ruling class. In order to bolster their falling profit rates, corporations began a long-term campaign that continues today, smashing unions and cutting pay and benefits. As part of the same offensive, the government has cut taxes for the rich and slashed funding for social programs and education, destroying public school systems and forcing students to take on an enormous debt burden in order to go to college.
Now, the ruling class is trying to use the current economic crisis to drive the final nail into the coffin of public education. In higher education, state after state is dramatically raising tuition, laying off professors and entire departments, and increasing class sizes. Spaces for critical thinking and democracy in the universities are being eliminated, replaced with narrow technical training. Meanwhile, public grade schools are being privatized (through charter schools) and legislators and the media are preparing to deal a death blow to teachers’ unions, eliminating the strongest potential source of organized resistance to this restructuring. All these measures are designed to shift the burden of paying for education onto students, teachers, and workers—negating the very purpose of public education.
The fundamental problem, therefore, is far larger than our individual campuses. However, by beginning with organizing on our campuses, we can start to build a nationwide response to the ruling-class offensive. We think demands like these can help bridge that gap:
Tax the Rich. Our foremost demand must be that the funding to preserve public education come from the wealthy and from corporations, who pay less and less taxes every year. This must be our main target, since without it, victory is impossible.
Open the Books. At many of the schools where the cuts are most drastic, the basic facts of where our money is going are not transparent. We should demand that administrators, trustees, and regents make a detailed budget available to all. Administrative bureaucracies are not on our side, but they are not always our main enemy, either—and when they are, the best way to fight them is getting them in the line of fire between the movement and the demand to make the rich pay.
Money for education, not occupation. It’s a sign of our government’s twisted priorities that it is willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—which destroy human lives, violate the right of those countries to self-rule, and put hundreds of thousands of young people in harm’s way—while cutting funding for education. The student movement can strengthen itself by allying with the anti-war movement, and by pointing out this obvious potential source of funding for education and other social goods.
No divide and conquer. Against the wealthy and powerful, our strength comes from organization and united action. We will face repeated attempts to divide the movement for public education—between teachers and students, workers and community, or along lines of race, class, or citizenship status. The movement needs to avoid these pitfalls by including demands of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our coalitions along with broad demands.
Political independence. Our movement must remain independent of the major political parties. The Democrats are as committed as the Republicans to privatizing and cutting education, as illustrated by Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan, who as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools worked to privatize many schools there, as education secretary. Democrats will back their rhetoric with action only to the extent that our movements force them to do so—we can’t afford to set aside our organizing in order to campaign for them.
In order to win concessions, we need to build a movement that includes everyone affected by the education crisis. Student organizers should reach out to activist teachers, unions, and local communities. Further, winning the fight for education requires that we challenge the very logic of cutbacks and privatization, not just the distribution of resources within an already privatized system. Getting more funding for higher education at the expense of prisoners, welfare recipients, or low-wage workers would be a Pyrrhic victory—we can’t fight over pieces of a shrinking pie when the point is to reorganize the bakery. Therefore, students have to ally with other groups who are exploited by neoliberal capitalism, including workers and communities of color. Even if such alliances are not immediately possible, we must see the movement against education cuts as a wedge which can open a space for a much broader movement, one which will have the power to overwhelm the rich. This has to be part of our strategy from the beginning, while we also pursue immediate gains.
Since the cuts to education are rooted in the structure of capitalism itself, we need to create an alternative vision of what society should look like, one based on the fulfillment of human needs and desires rather than fabulous profits for a tiny elite. Our demands should not stop at making education as it is more affordable—we should also present a vision of education for a truly free society, seeking solutions to social problems, fostering participatory democracy and community engagement, and developing human consciousness. The movement for public education—a matter of immediate self-interest for millions of students—can also be a bridge to creating new forms of education, possibilities that can only be dreamed of under capitalism.