Race and Classroom: The Corporate Connection

An Interview with Libero Della Piana, Senior Research Associate, the Applied Research Center, Oakland, CA

Libero Della PianaEliminating, Racism and Advancing School Equality (ERASE) is a project of the Applied Research Center that works with local groups in six cities around the country. In the following interview, Senior Research Associate, Libero Della Piana, talks about how the existing basic inequities in public education, place poor kids of color "at risk" for corporate experimentation in the schools.

CW: Many private educational initiatives are designed to appeal directly to urban communities of color. Do these so called public/ private partnerships in inner city school districts undermine public education, or are they a viable alternative?

LDP: Because of unequal funding, corporations step into the gap. So, schools that don't have enough resources to buy books and provide innovative curriculum go to supplemental educational materials provided by corporations. They go to Channel One so they can get TV's in their classrooms. They also go to Pepsi and Coca-Cola to build their stadiums. There are bidding wars between corporations to buy pieces of schools. If you go to schools they often are like advertising arenas, where you have giant coke machines that are basically ads.

Funding inequality, which plays out racially, creates the opportunity for corporations to influence schools. Without funding inequality schools don't need to kowtow and beg for corporate money. In poor communities you have Burger King Academies. Burger King comes in to help 'at risk' kids and provides them a job opportunity flipping burgers if they have a certain attendance record. But in rich communities you have Microsoft Academies which prep kids for high tech jobs and track them into the best colleges. So corporate influence is also unequal. The corporate influence in inner city Oakland is different than in Sunnyvale (California). And that has a racial angle too.

CW: How does corporate influence dovetail with the racial divide?

LDP: From their inception public schools were created to serve corporate interests. And corporate influence and racism go hand in hand from the beginning.

In the late 19th Century the fathers of the industrial revolution in the northeast wanted to create public schools. They herded Irish and Italian immigrants away from private schools where good puritan kids were being taught. What better way to prepare immigrant kids, who mostly came from agrarian societies, for an industrial system than putting them in a classroom, lining them up in rows and making them do the same thing all day long. Schools in some way became a model and a training ground for factories.

In the industrial north public schools existed. In the agrarian, slave owning south, they didn't. It wasn't until reconstruction that public schools came to the south and poor white kids got public schools because black people fought for them. What immediately happened was that Jim Crow laws were instituted and public schools that black people fought for were then segregated.

With Brown vs. the Board of Education, a whole set of institutional measures was put in place to desegregate schools. But the Milliken decision in the late '70's says you cannot desegregate across district lines. It meant that urban areas that were majority people of color could never claim resources from the suburbs. It accelerated white flight, because you could run over the border and your kids would not have to go to school with black and Latino kids from the inner cities.

CW: Why do corporations see education as so fundamental to business interests?

The way they describe it is that public schools no longer fulfil their important social role of preparing people for work. They subscribe to the Milton Friedman argument that certain students are creamed off and prepared for new information technology, for management, while the rest of the kids are left behind for McDonald's jobs. As Friedman says in some of his essays, he wants to create Rolls Royce schools for the rich and McDonald's schools for the poor. He uses those terms explicitly. The idea is that in the Rolls Royce Schools you have the best technology, teaching and curriculum and that those things would then trickle down to the McDonalds schools. But if you don't have Rolls Royce schools, you don't get innovation. He envisions that this would eventually destroy what he calls the "public monopoly on education."

There was a time when the corporate interests promoted public education because they needed low skilled, highly disciplined workers for industry. Well, we have another industrial revolution in this country, in which there is a two tiered economy. One is a highly skilled, computer intensive system that goes with new information technologies. The other is a low or no-skilled stratum that goes with the service economy: folks that are basically cleaning up around the new technologies. And really there's a third tier: a whole group of people in this country will never get a job-- kids who are going right from school to jail. What corporate educational reform is about is retooling education to meet the needs of the new industrial revolution.

CW: Now, in the 1990's, for-profit corporations appeal to urban communities by taking public monies and saying 'we can do a better job of running the schools.'

LDP: Part of the attraction is, 'anything is better than what we've got.' There's some appeal in bringing in an outside operation that's bureaucratic and sterile; that runs like a machine. There's been a lot to debunk that idea. The things that they do are not that different. The change the building management: they make the building cleaner they pipe music into the halls, they have fancy computers. That's what they focus on, concrete visible things. And people go 'wow the school is a different place.' But often what's happening is it's the same curriculum, the same kind of teaching system. And really there's little or no evidence that there is any academic benefit.

The way it plays into institutional racism is that, first of all, most of these companies target so called "at risk schools." You don't bring in corporate management to schools that are doing well. The idea is that the school is a disaster, and no one can fix it but big business. So, it disproportionately affects kids of color. What happens is that the schools are cleaner, they have computers, but often times the kids don't get the attention or the kind of support they need. Often, the teachers that are brought in are less experienced, and work without a union contract.

Again, it's a slippery slope-- it's basically a foot in the door for privatization. The fact is the most of the rest of public schools is already being privatized. Building and grounds maintenance, school lunches and bus services are already privatized in many cities. Teaching and management of the schools is pretty much all that's left. The bottom line is those companies become more accountable to their investors than they are to the kids and the parents.

CW: What is the appeal of vouchers in communities of color?

LDP: Part of the appeal is simply that it sounds like it gives you choice, that it gives you opportunity. One of the things that parents loved the most (in Milwaukee, the first U.S. city to approve vouchers) was that their kids got to move. It didn't matter if their kids did better or worse in school. It was the feeling that they had a role in deciding where their kids went. They often got to be on the local school board or site committee, kids wore uniforms, the school was cleaner and they had a direct involvement. Parents weren't necessarily looking for academic improvement.

CW: You went to Milwaukee and you didn't find what you expected. What did you find?

LDP: Milwaukee is a very particular case. Vouchers there worked, in a sense. They constrained vouchers so that you would get a lot of the benefits without a lot of the problems. For example, vouchers in Milwaukee are means tested, so you have to be below a certain income level to qualify. Acceptance into the voucher schools is random, so the private schools can't turn you down because you have a bad disciplinary record, or your grades aren't good. The voucher program is only in the city, not in the suburbs, so a majority of the kids who benefit from it are low income, kids of color. It was limited initially to 1,500 kids. So, if you remove money for 1,500 kids, it's not going to cripple the school district. All of these things mean that a lot of the potential problems of vouchers were avoided.

CW: So, do you think that vouchers represent a viable alternative when the kind of controls placed in Milwaukee is used?

LDP: It's hard to say. I think it's a slippery slope. Immediately after vouchers passed they tried to extend it to include religious schools. (Ed. Note: The Supreme Court recently ruled that Milwaukee could extend its voucher program to parochial schools.) They also tried to expand it to include 15,000 kids instead of 1,500.

While you can look to the Milwaukee experiment and say, some of the kids did better, some of the kids stayed the same academically, parents really loved the program: what's wrong with it? The damage was limited because it was left in this really constrained form. I do believe that if vouchers were unleashed the way they were proposed in California it would be really destructive. In fact, it would subsidize those kids already in private school, who are mostly affluent and white, instead of the low income, inner city kids of color whom they claim they will benefit.

CW: What are some of the alternatives that you think do work?

LDP: One of the things we're interested in is how to solve the question of funding inequality. For instance, the city of Oakland completely surrounds another city called Piedmont. Oakland has about a12% white population. The schools of Oakland are only 8% white. The district of Piedmont is all white. Even though, there's equal funding from the State --Oakland probably gets more money because they get Tittle One and other Federal money--what happens is that PTAs and parents and corporations supplement that funding. So, part of the problem is how do you create funding equity, when that funding is supplemented. There's no teacher art in Oakland High School, but Piedmont parents just pool their money and hire an art teacher even though it's not in the budget.

In Kentucky, they passed a law saying that it's a constitutional mandate that every kid have equal opportunity to educational resources and success. And they delineate that; they say every kid must have access to a book. Instead of a specific dollar amount they say, 'this is what these kids deserve.'

CW: In the 1960's the whole move towards community control was to empower communities of color and challenge racism in local school systems. Has the left abandoned that idea, and have the corporations and their allies in the right wing think tanks co-opted it, with privatized charter schools and vouchers?

LDP: The problem is that the whole context has changed. Look at Oakland: here's a district in a city with a majority population of people of color. The school board and the administration are all people of color. Because of the way institutional racism operates and inequalities are institutionalized, because of housing segregationall these things. Sure, you have control, you can make decisions for the school, but you have no resources to make those decisions with.

People can't imagine a system where every school is good. You go to communities of color and what people want is to get their kid out. What people want is an opportunity to cream their kid, because 'my kid's good enough.' Instinctively, people are fighting to get their kids the hell out.

So, we need to think about how do we restructure schools altogether. Why do we have gifted programs in elementary schools? How does that set up kids for failure? How do we lift all boats and make everything a gifted program? How do we offer the same academic and educational opportunities at all schools instead of creating separate schools that are better schools, because it implies that other schools are the trash schools.

The Applied Research Center's report on education is due out in January 1999.

AMP Section Name:Consumerism & Commercialism
  • 187 Privatization

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