Domestic Affairs

How Democrats Abandoned Education

The transformation of the schoolhouse is complete, and corporate America is fulfilling its end of the deal. Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 victory in Virginia has triggered a heated conversation over critical race theory (CRT) in school board meetings across the country. Republicans have seized on CRT in hopes of riding it into further electoral victories, while Democrats have been left squirming for an answer as the CRT culture war intensifies. Unfortunately, Democrats’ decades-long focus on transforming public schools into human capital factories has left them without the capacity to present an alternate vision of the society they want schools to build. Democrats should take this renewed focus on schools as a chance to reconstruct their image of public education into one that speaks to the needs of voters. 

Schools used to serve a central role in community building. Scholastic sports and fairs helped build a shared sense of identity in smaller towns and neighborhoods. Schools were also hubs for social welfare programs serving as a frontline defense against poverty. Other than free meals for students first introduced at the end of the 19th century and ubiquitous across American schools today, schools also hosted other initiatives such as parent education programs and substance abuse recovery sites. Finally, schools also served as fertile soil for democracy. Schools introduced students to the basics of civic education and democratic principles, adding to the sense of community made possible by having shared values. While it is true that public schools still fulfill these roles, their effectiveness in building community has gradually become an afterthought as energy is refocused on building a competitive workforce. 

Long gone are the days when schoolhouses were viewed as a place to build community and educate democratic citizens. Instead, the belief that the primary purpose of schools is to produce a reliable workforce now dominates contemporary dialogue about education. States now measure the worth of a school by analyzing metrics that determine the economic value added. Similarly, teachers are almost entirely judged by how much they can improve test scores under a Race to the Top framework, where states were financially rewarded for meeting federal guidelines. This trend can trace its roots to the 1980s and the rise in popularity of neoliberal ideas that hoped to make all aspects of life subservient to market forces. A new breed of neoliberal Democrats, including the Clintons, Al Gore, and Bill Bradley, increasingly saw education as the solution to the nation’s economic woes. 

In theory, a more educated populace would make for a more productive workforce and ensure American economic dominance. Although this may seem intuitive today, this marked a fundamental shift from education’s prior role when education was primarily a form of empowerment that was valuable for its own sake. The belief that schools were meant to prepare students for the realities of the job market is a relatively new development along with the conception of higher education as a financial investment. This redefinition of the goals of education meant that schools now had to be subservient to market forces. This way of thinking began seeping into policy, manifesting in standardized tests and annual teacher evaluations. 

Across the aisle, Republicans also began adopting similar rhetoric, and by the 2000s, there was bipartisan agreement that the primary function of schools was employment. The No Child Left Behind Act enshrined this rhetoric into law, and despite fierce pushback from reliably Democratic teacher unions, Obama continued most of the policies found in the Bush-era bill. As a result, education became a commercial product that hoped to fulfill different goals for different groups. 

As a result, both sides of the aisle championed school choice. Although school choice is sometimes executed in different ways, the ultimate goal is to give parents the ability to remove their children from their existing schools and enroll them in new ones of their choice. For social conservatives, it allowed them to send their children to private religious institutions. For neoliberal Democrats, it meant that children could be “rescued” from failing public schools and placed in successful ones. The idea among both parties was that failing schools would rot away while successful schools prevailed. It is a mindset that all but ignores the social role schools play. Not only did it incorrectly assume that teachers were merely lying in wait for the right set of penalties to become good educators, but it also rejected the idea that schools had any value besides their ability to create workers. 

To some extent, this way of thinking makes sense. Schools should give students the tools to succeed in life, and acquiring a well-paying job is often seen as synonymous with success. The problem is that the prioritization of labor success has been detrimental to other school functions. The increased funding for STEM fields at the expense of the arts and other electives is the perfect example of this logic in play. Schools’ new primary function means that funding these fields is nothing more than an afterthought because there is no economic need for the arts. 

Conversations surrounding learning loss in the aftermath of the pandemic have once again been met with calls to refocus all attention on STEM fields and cut time spent on other topics. Rather than investing time and energy into ensuring students are made whole again, psychologically and academically, the nation has once again chosen the path of least resistance, allowing the market to guide education policy. 

Nowhere is the market’s influence on education policy clearer than in Amazon’s search for HQ2, their secondary headquarters that promised to bring thousands of jobs along with it. Despite a slew of more than generous incentives from various cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dallas, it was Arlington County, Virginia, that ended up winning Amazon’s HQ2. So what did Terry McAuliffe and the Virginia Democrats offer Amazon? The schools. 

Virginia pledged to sink over a billion dollars into tech education from kindergarten through college. Although this investment will certainly have some benefits for Virginia students, it is an example of how corporate interests have been prioritized in education. Terry McAuliffe said as much in a letter he wrote to Amazon during the bidding process where he pledged to put “corporate partners first”.

Other companies have since followed similar patterns as Amazon, frequently spending millions convincing local officials to rewrite education programs to fit their needs. While this education may guarantee students a job after graduation, it is also limiting. Students have fewer opportunities to look into other fields that might interest them, and technical education sometimes starts so early that students are sorted into future jobs as early as sixth grade. 

Additionally, because corporations have overtaken communities in terms of their influence over education policy, the education curriculum is hyper-specific to a corporation’s needs. This means that students are sometimes only taught how to work with software or machinery that the local company uses and are seldom transferable to other jobs or industries. Again, this might ensure students a job upon graduation, but only while the controlling business is in the community. As soon as the company decides that any one particular community no longer makes financial sense, they get up and leave. Even when small towns make every possible accommodation to keep companies like Amazon from leaving their efforts are often in vain. The result is hundreds of students and workers with skills that no longer serve them. Sometimes businesses give current employees the chance to relocate with the company. Still, those offers are only extended to a fraction of employees and overlook those finishing up their education.

For businesses, influencing local education policy is a cost saving tactic. Offloading employee training to public schools saves millions for corporations and usually comes with a hefty dose of tax breaks as well. Shifting responsibility to schools also makes them less vulnerable to union pressure. Corporate funded career and technical education (CTE) programs have empirically replaced union apprenticeship programs shifting control over the spigot on talent to corporations. Strikes are less effective if a fresh graduate is always waiting to take your place. 

Unfortunately for Democrats, the promised results of neoliberal education have not come to fruition. The wealth gap has not closed in recent decades but has instead grown. America is increasingly losing its technological edge to rising nations, particularly China. Proficiency in core topics has not improved and schools have been left a shrunken husk of their former selves. It is not difficult to see why voters have lost trust in Democrats’ vision for education. 

Republicans have seized this opportunity and are now reigniting a decades-long war against public education with CRT at the helm. The architect of the CRT outrage, Christopher Rufo, has publicly stated that the ultimate goal of the push is to undermine trust in public schools and advance school choice and privatized education. Republicans have offered a competing vision of education’s role in nation building that is attractive to voters. Conservative parents desire an education informed by religious values and a version of history that paints over the country’s greatest sins. The attack on CRT and the eventual push for school choice offers an opportunity to make that desire a reality. 

Democrats could have chosen to offer voters a nation rooted in democratic principles, determined to confront its past and remedy past mistakes. Instead, Democrats find themselves speaking in the same language as their opponents, but with no greater project in mind. It is time Democrats shift from their obsession with CEOs and begin trusting teachers and communities to know what they’re doing. 

While Republicans argue for deregulation and school choice, Democrats need to begin arguing for increased public school funding and resources. The language around school needs to change from profit to social value. Civic education and democracy should be reinforced, particularly after the Jan. 6 riots and the growing popularity of anti-democratic sentiment. Teachers need to be trusted and given more freedom, not micromanaged. Finally, corporations can no longer be given free rein to write education policies. 

The Democrat outlook on education, however, does benefit from voters’ trust in their own local schools and teachers, despite their misgivings about the public school system at large. Additionally, teachers are strong supporters of public education and generally oppose school choice efforts. While Republicans may prove successful in privatizing schools and undermining public education as long as there is no response from the Left, the tides are likely to turn if and when Democrats construct a suitable response. Decades of insisting on the marketisation of education has left us with the dysfunctional education system we have now, and it’s time we change that.

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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