Public schools are arguably the most important institutions to the well-being of any neighborhood, community, and society. The local school is the place where the consciousness and worldview of children are shaped, influencing them for a lifetime. It’s a place where families come together and develop meaningful social bonds. Public schools provide the means by which ordinary working class people can participate in some form of politics and share news. When home buyers or renters are looking for ways to measure the quality of a potential neighborhood, they will often gauge it by the local public school. And that’s understandable. On some level, you and I know that schools that are well funded, staffed with experienced and caring workers, that support high levels of public accountability and control, typically excel. Excellent schools are usually located in communities viewed as healthy and strong. We can also understand that communities that are unhealthy – that’s neighborhoods starved of public services, poisoned by environmental pollution, hobbled by a lack of high quality public transit, pummeled by the prison system, exploited by low wage insecure work, and slapped by practices that nullify neighborhood control – will have struggling schools. It’s really a no brainer; what happens to communities affects the local school, and what happens to local schools affects the community.
This intimate interplay between local public schools and the community means that we have to be quite vigilant in our scrutiny of policies and laws that might affect either. This is why red flags should wave when anyone – especially someone with no background in education – reaches for inordinate power to re-shape educational outcomes for communities they know nothing about. Governor Nathan Deal’s November 2016 referendum will privatize public schools, shifting decision making power and public wealth away from you and me at the local level – away from people who know something about education and our neighborhoods – to private operators, without any true public oversight and authority. And what’s especially clear from the list of schools in Deal’s sights, is that the vast majority of the schools are predominantly black, with students from low income working class families. Over 90% percent of the students who attend the schools that will be affected come from these demographic groups. If passed, the referendum will give Deal Jim Crow like powers to abuse black children with policies that gag and bind black families and educators, while limiting learning with high stakes testing, even as it enables Deal’s cronies to grow rich from public dollars.
Deal didn’t come up with this scheme to brutalize black schools by himself, though. He’s not a diabolical genius. Deal is merely one member of a legion of Democrats and Republicans who support the capitalist strategy of neoliberalism. There are two parts to this plan, which combine to support neoliberal expansion in public education. Part one is called Private Charter Schools (PCS’s). The other part is called Privatized School Districts (PSD’s). Both are being implemented throughout the country, but more specifically in the South.
PSD’s and PCS’s act as a one-two combination punch in this neoliberal blueprint, directed toward re-shaping public education and schools. They didn’t emerge simultaneously, however. Rather, they came about as extensions of each other. The PCS punch emerged in the 1990’s from right-wing think tanks like the Bradley Foundation.
However, it was Louisiana in the early 2000’s that coupled PCS’s to the concept of a PSD, for a kind of two-pronged stab in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Prior to Katrina, the public schools in New Orleans –like many schools systems in major urban areas- suffered from the effects of the intersection of capitalist, white supremacist, and patriarchal oppression. Schools were under-funded, segregated, and immersed in the same gender biases that we find elsewhere. After the storm though, with the region’s residents still reeling, the Louisiana legislature moved to place New Orleans’ schools under the control of its PSD/PCS, called the “Recovery School District”, which was signed into law by Democratic governor Kathleen Blanco. Since then, the regime of the PSD/PCS has heaped a human made disaster on top of victims of a so called natural disaster.
The PSD/PCS made conditions in New Orleans’s schools worse. It shifted the few public dollars these schools had to the private discretion of unaccountable hands. It wrested control of the schools from local communities, and handed it to distant elites living miles away, thus dismantling democracy. It has limited learning to a distorted view of education that is framed almost entirely around high stakes testing. Elites in Louisiana also went on to severely weaken worker protections, and wrongly fire thousands of experienced teachers –most of whom are Black women. And we have to pause for a moment to acknowledge how PSD’s/PCS’s act as vicious forms of aggression that injure Black women. PSD’s/PCS’s –like those in New Orleans- overwhelmingly aim for Black schools. And since Black schools typically employ mostly Black teachers and staff –who are mostly Black women- when they unjustly terminate school employees they disproportionately hurt Black women and their families. In many ways, PSD’s/PCS’s symbolize an abusive and politically violent way of relating to Black schools, students, and families because it so thoroughly disempowers us, while it permits elites to dictate terms about schools in mostly black working-class neighborhoods.
CommonDreams.org reports that, “Critics charge that the rapid privatization further segregated New Orleans schools by shepherding white students into the best charter schools while sending African American students into poorly resourced ones.” And as I’ve written here, PCS’s discriminate against immigrant communities as well. “In early 2013, Reuters released an in-depth report showing that charter schools across the United States have adopted complex screening practices that include requiring detailed applications available only in English, tight scheduling that allows for application only during an annual two- or three-hour window and Social Security card or birth-certificate checks (which are illegal requirements).”
This is the play book that Georgia Governor Nathan Deal is taking his cues from. He wants to accelerate a kind of Katrinafication process to re-shape Georgia schools. The father of environmental justice, Dr. Robert Bullard, once said, “Metro Atlanta is going through its own hurricane Katrina, only in slow motion”. Deal clearly doesn’t plan to wait. His referendum will speed up the process of Katrinafication. It would do for Georgia what the actual hurricane did for Louisiana; grant the governor and distant law-makers obscene power to make sweeping changes that could not have been made otherwise.
Sadly, this kind of copy-cat codification in the South isn’t new. The system of Jim Crow itself came to us in a series of laws and policies enacted at the turn of the 20th century, first implemented in one place, and then applied elsewhere. Coincidentally –or perhaps not- one of the most important events that facilitated the copy-cat codification of Jim Crow came out of Louisiana, in the Plessy vs Ferguson case.
This Supreme Court ruling robbed Homer Plessy, and later Black people throughout the nation, of their human rights. According to the civil rights attorney, Peter Irons, Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown –who wrote the courts majority opinion – utilized the “widespread and long-standing practice of school segregation to give the Supreme Court a foundation in precedent for the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.”
One has to wonder if this process of sped up Katrinafication with PSD’s/PCS’s isn’t setting the stage for some future trap designed to further contain and control black working class lives. Can it be that neoliberal Democrats and Republicans are setting precedent with PSD’s/PCS’s for future maneuvers, just like school segregation set precedent for Jim Crow one hundred years ago? It makes sense when you realize that PSDs/PSC’s are metastasizing throughout the south. States such as Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina are already implementing PSD’s/PCS’s in some form, and like Louisiana and Georgia, they’re seeking ways to profit from the deepening of currently existing segregating and sexist practices. But perhaps they’re also getting in position to deliver even more ruinous blows to black lives.
All is not lost, however. Not by a long shot. History teaches us that when we organize and stand up, we can make deep and fundamental changes for our betterment. My friends, there is inspiring hope in the midst of all this tragedy. At the time of this writing, people are organizing and resisting. One notable example of a fight back was seen last year when a coalition filed a civil rights lawsuit against Louisiana’s PSD/PCS, alleging discriminating against Black children. The suit against Louisiana says, “The state shuts down conventional…schools that are almost entirely black.” It reveals that, “Displaced students then have unequal access to the city’s best public schools, which are heavily white and allowed to use admissions policies that exclude black students.” The complaint further asserts, “The state has robbed these children of their neighborhood schools while keeping them trapped in failing, under-performing schools”.
I’m glad people are exposing these wrongs as they go through the process of rising up. Law suits like these tell us what we can expect if Nathan Deal gets his way. With this fore knowledge, we as parents, students, educators, workers, and allies are obligated with the responsibility to do what we can to forestall such a calamity for us, and help contribute to a new wave of resistance in the South. Privatized School Districts (PSD’s) and Private Charter Schools (PCS’s) won’t make public education better, and certainly won’t provide positive opportunities. Deal’s referendum is really an act of vulgar opportunism. Black students, schools, families and their allies should utterly reject this self-styled “white father” who seeks to abuse us with state power.
The Organization for Human Rights and Democracy (OHRD) believes that you and I must not give Nathan Deal our power in November 2016. We say, vote to preserve your human right to determine what’s best for your child. Vote No to Nathan Deal’s school referendum. But we also must do more than vote no. You and I must organize ourselves to use our collective economic and political strength to stand up to the bullies and improve public education. We must build people-centered human rights movements to create a more just reality.
Join the Organization for Human Rights and Democracy (OHRD) today to fight for your human rights and make a difference in the lives of others.