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Brian Jones: Obama admin. promoting privatization, competition and attacking unions instead of aiming for universal access to quality public education

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OSCAR LEÓN, TRNN PRODUCER: On August 28, 1963, a quarter of a million people took part in the March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a key moment in the civil rights movement. This past weekend, tens of thousands of people rallied at the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ’63 march.

The Real News’ Jaisal Noor caught up with educator and activist Brian Jones to discuss the state of public education and civil rights 50 years after the Washington march and under the Obama administration.

BRIAN JONES, EDUCATOR AND ACTIVIST: I came here today because it seems to me that the civil rights struggle has always been and is today intimately bound up with the struggle for educational justice. One of the signature achievements of the civil rights movement was smashing of Jim Crow segregation, especially in Southern schools. And we as a country brag and boast about Brown v. Board of Education and we celebrate those achievements, but the reality is that the real–that struggle and what came out of it still haunts the country.

I mean, the phrase separate and unequal, straight from the 1954 decision, really, unfortunately, is a phrase that fairly precisely describes what’s going on in education today. It’s not only racial segregation, which where it was pushed back in the South is now reemerging and in the North was never really accomplished, but it’s also a profound social and economic segregation in schools. Our public schools can be dramatically different from each other in terms of who attends them by race, and especially by economic status. And so, funding for our schools–in so many different ways we have a separate and unequal school system. And that remains a struggle, a central struggle.

I think that connected to that is a trend that’s happening in education today where the current leadership, from the U.S. Department of Education all the way up to the White House, is pushing to the side the old goals of or the old aspirations for universalism, universal access, and equality, in favor of goals that are more about competition, free-market choice, so-called choice, and profit-making, and pitting schools against each other, you know, organizing education funding as a race, as a funding competition, and, of course, all of the ranking and sorting of students, and now of teachers, depending on high-stakes standardized test scores. And so in place of the idea that we ought to try to figure out what is the best model for education and then just give that to everyone, instead we have races and competitions and pitting people against each other over test scores, which actually degrades the quality of the education. So it’s not only that the questions of racism and social and economic justice and equality are at stake, but it’s also the quality of education itself.

And furthermore, I think there’s something that Dr. King said that should make us as a nation rethink this whole trend in education, and that is this: he said that we are bound together in a single garment of destiny, that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And if that’s true, then there’s no way to get justice for children while beating up on adults. There’s no way to value students and devalue teachers. And so the whole trend towards attacking teachers and their unions and their organizations and their rights as workers and their pensions and their benefits in the name of improving conditions for young people I think really is set up to pit us all against each other rather than figure out a way to bind us together.

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: I want to ask you. So President Obama has endorsed those policies you’ve talked about–privatization, competition, and Race to the Top. And the main organizer of this March, Reverend Al Sharpton, he has also endorsed Race to the Top. Would Dr. King support those policies? Would he be here and support those policies?

JONES: Well, it’s hard to speak for Dr. King, but I think there’s a lot about the politics that he stood for that seem to be in contradiction to the present policies. For example, as you mentioned, the present policies have a lot to do with privatization. Dr. King died, spent the last moments of his life in Memphis fighting for a public-sector union. And the current policies are very virulently antiunion, very strongly antiunion, attacking not only teachers unions but other public-sector unions. Really, there’s a ripping up of the public sector and the public safety net. And Dr. King was for strengthening of the public sector and the safety net. Unions, including public-sector unions were, were intimately involved in the civil rights movement of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s.

And today I think that the current policies are so anathema to even the idea of the public sector, even though what just came out from the Obama White House the other day, that they’re going to try to help students with their undergraduate student loans by promoting competition, by trying to create, to ratchet up competition between colleges and rank and sort the colleges based on their data of how the students turned out and their ability to pay back their loans. They’re going to counsel students about how to pay back their loans. So nothing is about overcoming the logic of loans as opposed to grants. We’ve been going more towards loans and away from grants. Instead of trying to overcome that logic, it’s a reinforcing of that logic and then coaching you as an individual how to deal with that debt.

Same thing with health care. Instead of moving towards a public option, instead of moving towards an expansion of Medicare, there’s a reinforcing of the private health insurance as a system.

And so everything seems to be moving in that direction. But it’s always in the name of justice, equality, helping people.

And so it just raises a big question, which is: can these really free-market policies, can choice, competition, and the free market be the thing that helps people on a mass scale in this country? Can that be in any way a lever for social or for racial justice? And it seems to me that when it comes to education, that those kind of priorities are wreaking havoc with the schools, that wherever we see the proliferation of charter schools, privatization, high-stakes standardized testing, we see greater racial stratification in the schools. Look at the place where they’ve gotten nearly everything they wanted–New Orleans. And they destroyed the union. They’ve destroyed the public schools. And what have they created their place? They got their complete free-market model. And we see a re-stratification, both racial, social, and economic stratification of the school system there.

So there really has to be a way in which we have a new movement, a movement for civil rights and racial justice that’s able to see beyond the politics of the Obama administration and the priorities of the free market and is able to articulate and make a clear argument about why the public sector is important, why something shouldn’t be organized for profit–health care, prisons, and certainly our public schools.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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