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  March 5, 2018

Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education (2/4)

In Part Two, author Noliwe Rooks says the privatization movement seeks to profit from educational apartheid under the guise of education reform
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NOWILE ROOKS: The book came from, I initially thought that what I wanted to do for myself was to understand a particular period in time right around 2009, 2008, 2009. I was teaching at Princeton University at the time and everywhere I looked, I was teaching a lot of really, really, really privileged white kids alright, and privileged black kids and then a lot people who are really privileged. Not everybody, but a whole lot of privilege, right?

But all of a sudden a lot of these white kids were in my classes where I would be doing stuff around education and they started saying, "Professor Rooks, you know, education is the unfinished book of the civil rights movement. You know, it’s unfair that a zip code is determining the outcome of students. Schools are unequal. We are failing them." I initially, in the very first moments that I started to hear this I was completely taken by this. I was really like, this is freedom summer nineteen sixty four, Mississippi. We got privileged white people who are going to come from these schools like Princeton and dedicate themselves to actual social justice and change. I was really thrilled, but increasingly I did start to ask, "How come right now? Why all of a sudden have ya’ll discovered poor people? Have y'all just discovered that there are crappy schools, like somewhere?” What has happened that all of you are evangelical in the conversation that you want to have about the necessity of saving these kids and these schools?

But the more that I would talk to these students the more that I came to recognize they didn't know any poor people, many of them did not know any black people, except for one or two that have been in there AP classes and honors classes, literally that is true for many of them. If they had gone to public schools, many of them, they were really high performing public schools, they bore no relationships to the kinds of schools that they now decided they were gonna fix. And so, that became really trying to understand that moment in all of these students and what is led up to it. And so, in having conversation with folks, it became clear, one, that there was a, a lot of what they were saying became talking points of when I was attuned to it, when I could hear it. I realized that when I would go to see this film Waiting for Superman, what was coming out of Waiting for Superman was almost exactly what was coming out of my student’s mouths almost verbatim.

Almost the same lines, “the unfinished work of the civil rights movement.” “Your zip code should not determine what happens to you,” and then right around the same time Barack Obama comes up with Race to the Top. New Jersey is trying to get one of the first schools to get Race to the Top money, so all over Princeton in just the news in general, people are talking about, we don't want the zip code to be, we got to do these things, we have to fix these things, the new federal policies will give us money. It was almost like this mantra and then [Mark] Zuckerberg decided on Oprah I'm going to give one hundred million dollars to schools because it's the unfinished work of the civil rights movement and because we don't want a zip code to determine education. I was like okay wait a minute, all of these folks have not just sort of stumbled upon this same language, these are talking points. Right, like I'm hearing them too many places, too many spaces the exact, not the same sentiment, the exact same words.

And so, I started to talk to the students. I said, “Talk to me about what it is that you're doing? What's the end game? How are you going to keep this unfinished work from…” and increasingly I started to hear all of the ways that, their lack of knowledge about the schools and the communities and the people, just from my students who I was talking with, really was coming out as a, you know. black people and poor people really don't care about education. They don't really care our kids in education. If there kids are born to get an education, we are going to have to go in there and help them form their schools. If their parents cared about them they would do X, Y and Z. If the communities cared about them, they wouldn't allow this, this and that to happen.

So. increasingly it became placed at the feet of the people who are the victims of the educational system . They were the sole problem. And it was pretty much up to these white students, to swoop in and save them, is the kind of language they were using, right? When they would talk about why this needed to happen. So, it was right around then that I decided to write a book. Ashley didn't do any research for years after this. It was right around then was like I need to understand this moment. I thought the way to understand it was to back up a little bit and contextualize what had come before, to say see look, before it didn't look like this. So, this is something new in the 2000s. The millenia has brought along all of this interest in black education. Philanthropic money being hurled at these issues around education. Government elites and financial elites joining forces to propose policies to fix these schools. This is all new in my mind. So, this is a narrative of how I cam to understand this period.

So, I said well I'll just back up a little bit and you know start in like the 1980s, see it wasn't like this. So, there's this move, I started doing research and it was like yeah, the 1980s we had the Edison Schools, which are the first for profit, y'all know what the Edison Schools are? Do we need to talk about it? Everybody's good? Everybody's good?

No? Some people don't? So, the Edison Schools are the first for profit management of core schools. A company that said in much the same way, Chris Whittle, who's the founder of Edison Schools, never been a teacher, didn't grow up around any poor people, didn't know about black and latino people. Goes to a place like Baltimore which was one of the first places that they came, Philadelphia, New York, and said we can provide cheaper education and higher quality education than your school system. So, since y'all are broke. You know, legislature are slashing funding left and right, y'all are all complaining about teacher pensions, y'all are all complaining that the school buildings are bankrupting you, let us come in and manage the schools for you. And because we're gonna get up to scale, we’ll be able to provide some total of what you need for education cheaper than you can. They also went to Wall Street and said you know, we want to get on the stock exchange. We want to be a for profit company. So, they were the first for profit in business to provide a return for their shareholders. Their primary function while education was the vehicle to do it, was to provide profit.

And the places where they were going were all places that were at least 80% or more poor, 80% or more people of color. Those are the communities that they needed in order to function. So, it's like okay, you can't back up to the ‘80s and say this didn't exist then, ‘cause look there's this and then the Rockefeller Foundation is going yes lets give you money to do this and Wall Street's doing, now like that and leading up to the ‘70s where you have president Nixon deciding in the 1970s that he decided a lot of things, but around education and busing in particular, he decided that I'm gonna make sure that suburban areas, white areas that are suburban with a high tax base do not have to participate in desegregation efforts. And in order to decide that you have people like Joe Biden, our former Vice President, coming up with bills, he got a lot of help from Democrats, Nixon did. They coming up with bills saying...Joe Biden said well we're gonna make it illegal to put gas, to pay for gas with federal dollars to put in buses if the purpose of the bus and the gas is to desegregate schools.

Nixon decided I'm gonna let suburban areas opt out of desegregation in the way that I'm gonna make it palatable. So, I'm gonna say I'm gonna give more money to urban school districts. So, black folks will stay put, the poor folks will stay put we give you an influx of cash. Much of it was coming from foundations, from different government entities. So, it's sort of like okay this is not the moment, where there's this sort of widespread interest in the education of black people.

Long story short, I backed up all the way to reconstruction. Kept trying to look for these moments before all of this was happening. Backed up to reconstruction and in reconstruction education is great. You, of course, have federal troops in the south with guns, making sure that money, and education, and space is being regulated. However, you know, poor white people and black people are learning at crazy rates during this period in time. Because there's enough money to educate everybody because the federal government is pumping it into the south as a way of stabilizing the region post civil war. So, for the eight years, ten years or so it's really great. Voting rights are going through the roof, and educational justice is a real thing. One of the things that taught me, having to back up that far, really was that voting rights and educational justice go hand in hand in ways that we don't often talk about. At moments in this country’s history when everybody can vote, when democracy is strong, when we are having conversations about what it looks like. And who it should serve, we are also as a nation having conversations about what education should look like.

When we’re at moments when were trying to hoard democracy, where certain groups are hoarding democracy for themselves, you also have a hoarding of educational resources. So, what the whole project ended up being was a whole is a history of race and education and democracy through the limbs of privatization. I came up with this term segrenomics, to talk about, one of the things that we need to pay some attention to is we have conversations about segregation. Segrenomics talks about business strategy, educational strategy, but other things as well. But in this context about educational strategies that just don't work in the absence of high levels of racial and economic segregation. Think TFA, think a lot of the wealthy charter school chains, the wealthy charter school chains will tell you we need 90, 90, 90 schools in order to be successful. What those are, are schools that are 90% of color, 90% below federally set poverty levels, and 90% underperforming. That's what's required for them to do well. TFA is four $400 million and the last time I looked at their report they have about $400 million million available to them.

Most of the neighborhoods, they started off being real interested in rural areas. These days most of the neighborhoods where they are, are again neighborhoods with these levels of inequality. Their business model doesn't work in the absence of those high levels of segregation. And so, one of the questions that I end up asking and sort of teasing through the rest of this history is if one of the reasons it's so difficult for us to eradicate segregation, to actually make inroads, is that there’s some really powerful people making a ton of money off of it. And we don't often talk about it like that. We talk about segregation as a moral or ethical imperative.

We've not really looked at the business of segregation. And there's no place to start that's sort of more salient than to look at education and again the history, and its not new. I don't have time to tell you all the moments and all of the ways, but its not new. And the one thing that actually works to educate the groups of students who we say we can't educate is integration, not because black kids and poor kids sitting next to rich white people is some sort of a magical fix, but because it forces the hoarding of resources that is taking place in that kind of segregated space, in rich wealthy white spaces, it forces a sharing of those resources. That's why systemically integration has worked.


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