Rebuilding Public Education: An Essential Task of Civic Revolution


Richard D. Vogel
From Axis of Logic
Copyright © 2010 by Richard D. Vogel

Permission to copy granted


A top priority on the neoconservative agenda for America is the privatization of social services, and their education initiatives have succeeded in gutting many public schools across the nation.  As a result, the US has lost the education advantage that it enjoyed in the post-World War II era.  According to a recent study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, many O.E.C.D. countries are surpassing educational achievement levels in the US, and only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey, and Mexico have lower high school completion rates.  The US rate now stands at a dismal 70 percent.

The impact of neoconservative education reform has been extremely uneven -- while many suburban school districts have managed to expand and maintain high performing schools, scores of urban districts have deteriorated and countless inner-city schools have been reduced to run-down warehouses for marginalized children or demolished to make way for gentrification projects.

Jonathan Kozol has scrupulously documented the end results of the neocon campaign against public education in two hard-hitting exposés: Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (1991) which examines the decline of public education from the decaying schools of East St Louis, Illinois, which are not fit for human occupation, to the legal death of the American dream of equal education in San Antonio, Texas; and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2006), which starkly details the resegregation of public schools in the US.

Both books are required reading for citizens concerned about education in America.

With President Obama committed to following the disastrous public education policies established by his neoconservative predecessors, it is time to engage in the debate on rebuilding public education in the USA, a debate that is already under way.


The Debate

Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian and leading proponent of school privatization since the Reagan years and early defender of the No Child Left Behind program that became law in 2002, has experienced an intellectual crisis and has reversed her position on public education:  "The effort to upend American education and replace it with something market-based began to feel too radical for me."

The New York Times elaborated: "In 2005, she [Ravitch] said, a study that she undertook of Pakistan's weak and inequitable education system, dominated by private and religious institutions, convinced her that protecting the United States' public schools was important to democracy."

The Times went on to report that Ravitch is finding many supporters and received a standing ovation for her new progressive position at a recent convention of school superintendants in Phoenix.

The debate about education in the US has begun but it needs clarification.  The crux of the crisis of US education is the question of entitlement -- will education become just another consumer service offered in the market place or will it be recognized and secured as a human right available to all citizens?


Education as a For-Sale Service

The privatization of education in the US is integrally linked to the growing trend of neoliberal globalization.  Traditionally, in partnership with communities that wanted to educate their children, US businesses were vitally interested in public schools as a source of an educated workforce, but, along with the massive offshoring of US jobs during the past three decades, corporate interest in education has also shifted overseas.  Today the multinationals are investing substantial resources in education in the emerging labor and consumer markets of East and South Asia, either directly or through foundations under their control.

The economic and political consequences of abandoning public education in the US are grave.  Education has always been the gateway of opportunity for working people in America, and that gate is slamming shut.  With market-based schools, children from wealthy families are being educated, while those from poorer families are being denied the opportunity.  While affluent customers may be satisfied with the outcome for their children, rebuilding the economy in post-imperial America will depend on a large, well-educated labor force that can only be supplied by a free and universal public education system.

The political implications of privatized education are just as dire -- democracy simply cannot work without educated citizens.  The decline of democracy and civil society during the past thirty years under neocon rule provide a clear warning of things to come.


Education as a Human Right

Education as a human right offers the only acceptable alternative to education as a market service in the modern world.

Securing education as a right in the US will require revolutionary civic action.  To begin with, there is no right to education for US citizens in the Bill of Rights or constitutional law.  Although state constitutions may include such a provision, the quality of education provided is ultimately based on the wealth of the local community and the allocation of resources by local officials.  The history of "separate but equal" education in the US illustrates the worst-case outcome of local control.

Hopes for equal educational opportunity under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment were ended by the US Supreme Court in San Antonio School District v. Rodriquez (1973) in which the right to equal funding for education was denied.  The final blow was delivered a year later in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), when the Supreme Court exempted suburban school districts from participating in desegregation programs with cities (See Savage Inequalities, Chapter 6).

The right to education as a human right, on the other hand, has been gaining ground in the international community since the middle of the 20th century and offers a clear path to follow in securing that right in the USA.

Here are the key international treaty provisions on the right to free and compulsory education and the reactionary US position on each:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
"Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.  Elementary education shall be compulsory."  The US signed and ratified the UDHR, however, it has neither signed nor ratified the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) which would allow Americans to seek remedy through the UN for alleged rights violations by the US government.

UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960)
"The State Parties to this Convention undertake to formulate, develop and apply a national policy which…will tend to promote equality of opportunity and of treatment…and in particular: (a) To make primary education free and compulsory."  The US neither signed nor ratified this treaty.  Kozol's The Shame of a Nation offers damning testimony on the consequences of the failure to commit to non-discrimination in education.

International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
"Primary education shall be compulsory and available free for all."  The US signed this covenant on 5 Oct 1977, but never ratified it.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
 "State Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular: (a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all."  The US signed this convention on 16 Feb 1995, right in the middle of the neoconservative campaign to privatize education, and, needless to say, never ratified it. 
Every country in the world -- except the US and Somalia -- has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The half-century of progress in recognizing and securing the right to education as a human right by the international community stands in stark contrast to the decline of public education in the US during the same period.  The refusal by the US government to recognize education as a human right keeps the door open for the continuing privatization of education. 

The choice today is clear: to recognize and secure the right to education as a human right in the US or abandon the education of America's children to the vagaries of free market economics -- an option that will lead to greater inequality and hasten the decline of democracy in the USA.

Join the CIVIC REVOLUTION today!

Support public education!


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