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Disaster Capitalism Is Coming for Public Education

While educators across the country struggle to support and teach their students during distance learning, state and federal legislators are preparing to slash public education budgets. Defending public education during the coronavirus will require solidarity across the public sector.

Cynthia Wright asks students what they would like in their lunch bags, at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School on March 18, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. As a result of all schools in Washington state being closed, Seattle Public Schools is providing carry-out meals to students during lunch hours. Karen Ducey / Getty

Public education has been under attack for decades, as opponents of teachers’ unions and public goods of all kinds have used everything from charter schools, hard-line negotiating against educators, budget cuts, philanthropic giving by austerity-minded rich people, and more to try to privatize and weaken teachers’ collective power. The state of public education has long been dire. And coronavirus has made things worse.

While educators are overwhelmed with managing the chaotic transition to distance learning and trying to meet the needs that school buildings once did, states are trying to solve the revenue crisis and lack of federal aid by drastically cutting funding for public education. If states reduce education spending by the 15 percent projected by the Learning Policy Institute’s Michael Griffith, the country could lose 319,000 teaching positions. That’s counselors, nurses, reading intervention specialists, special education aides, speech therapists, basketball coaches, general education, art and music teachers, and more.

This would be an even greater loss than that of the Great Recession, when states cut education spending by 8 percent, and over 120,000 education jobs were eliminated. (An additional 275,000 teaching positions would have been cut, if not for $97.4 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.) Public education has still not recovered from these losses: in many places, the number of educators and state funding remains below 2008 levels.

Education privatizers are already planning to capitalize on the vacuum these budget cuts will create. Nathaniel Davis, the CEO of K12 Inc., one of the largest for-profit online schools in the country, spoke to investors last month about the “upside of the pandemic on our business.” The company has joined the right-wing Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, which promotes free-market solutions including expanded virtual learning.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently told Glenn Beck that the pandemic was an opportunity to “look very seriously at the fact that K-12 education for too long has been very static and very stuck in one method of delivering and making instruction available.” DeVos has already used over $300 million in discretionary federal grants to launch a new virtual education program that will most likely favor charter schools.

The Secondary Disaster of Distance Learning

Distance learning is its own disaster, on top of the pandemic. Educators are trying to adapt lesson plans meant for physical classrooms to virtual platforms and straining to hear students on video calls with bad connections. Students who have technology and the internet are struggling to learn at home alone, with no one to answer their questions, keep them focused, or encourage them in the moment.

Low-income students who lack access to virtual learning are relying on printed work packets. Platforms like Google Hangouts are collecting biometric data that will be weaponized against students of color. Essential workers have lost the reliable form of childcare that school provided. As unemployment slides toward Great Depression levels, nearly one in five children are going hungry, with no school meals to rely on.

To catch students up academically and help them process the experiences of the pandemic, schools will need expanded funding to lower class sizes and increase student supports. Smaller class sizes and personal protective equipment (PPE) will be critical to ensuring a safe return to school buildings.

But instead of increasing funding, states are cutting spending. Hawaii educators, for example, have lost a negotiated pay raise and are fighting a 20-percent salary cut that could take effect as soon as June 1. The cut would translate to a loss of $600 to $1,800 each month for teachers. Democratic governor David Ige has also proposed cutting the pay of first responders and nurses by 10 percent to offset an expected drop in tax revenue for the state.

In New York, Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo has said the state may have to cut aid to school districts by 20 percent if the federal government doesn’t provide relief for an anticipated $10 to $15 billion budget shortfall. Districts are already starting to lay off and furlough educators and school aides, and cut academic intervention and elective programs. In an extension of the unequal impacts of the virus itself, these cuts are impacting high-poverty districts and high-needs students most.

But these cuts aren’t inevitable, even during a pandemic-induced recession. Instead of balancing the budget on the backs of low-income and working-class students, Cuomo could do what he has long refused to: tax the rich. A wealth tax on the state’s 188 billionaires would generate $10 billion a year. Ending tax rebates on Wall Street stock transfers would raise another $13 billion each year, but that bill has been languishing in committee since last May. Cuomo has long opposed raising taxes on the rich, saying it would be the “worst thing to do” because “God forbid if the rich leave.”

Instead, he is oscillating between dangling the public sector off the side of a cliff to elicit more federal funding and framing the crisis as an opportunity to invite billionaires to “reimagine” and reform education, health care, and transportation. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, will lead a commission to revamp New York State’s education and health systems. Schmidt, who is still a paid adviser to Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has promised to incorporate remote learning and telehealth. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, notorious for privatizing education and proliferating charters, will also play a role in this fundamental rethink of the classroom.

At a May 5 press conference, Cuomo described a dystopian future for education:

The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have?

This vision recalls another recent instance of what author Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”: Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, free-market economist Milton Friedman framed the hurricane as “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” Mike Pence and the Heritage Foundation set the gears of privatization in motion, and a system of school vouchers and charters washed away what the water hadn’t.

Today, there is not a single public school left in New Orleans. The city’s seven thousand public-school teachers were fired, and the schools reopened as charters. The number of black teachers in the district dropped from 72 percent to 49.7 percent, and teacher turnover has nearly doubled.

In California, Democratic governor Gavin Newsom is also choosing to partner with billionaires to “save” the public sector by dismantling and privatizing it, instead of taxing them to fund it. His Economic Recovery Task Force is cochaired by charter-friendly Ann O’Leary and billionaire Tom Steyer, and includes education privatizers like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Netflix, and thirty-seven CEOs.

California faces a $54.3 billion budget deficit. Like Cuomo, Newsom is calling for more federal aid, but he has made no moves to raise taxes on the state’s 165 billionaires, who have a combined net worth of $723.7 billion. Instead, he is considering cutting funding for education by $18 billion, leading to potential layoffs of 13.8 percent of California educators.

The Other Opportunity

Capitalists and billionaires see this crisis as an opportunity to profit from the destruction of public education. Replacing the relational care that hundreds of thousands of educators provide with insufficient and even harmful technology is a win-win for the wealthy and powerful: governments spend less on education, and private tech corporations profit by filling the vacuum. The only people who lose out are millions of students and educators.

But COVID-19 has also created a crisis of legitimacy for key aspects of the capitalist system. Medicare for All is surging in popularity as another 20 million people have lost their jobs and the health care tied to them. The strike wave that teachers sparked in 2018 is spreading as workers across the country, unionized or not, are walking out and striking. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have already threatened strikes if schools reopen without adequate safety measures.

The money to fully fund public education exists — it’s just in the wrong hands. Jeff Bezos’s net worth has grown by $25 billion in the first four months of this year, Elon Musk’s by $5 billion. The CARES Act gave $4.3 trillion to corporations with little oversight. The Pentagon budget is $1.2 trillion. States and the federal government need to tax billionaires out of existence and fully fund education, health care, and more. But they won’t do this unless their hand is forced.

Educators today can learn from the organizing that occurred during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, disruptions across the country at the local level had a trickle-up effect that loosened the purse strings of the federal government in the public’s favor. Unemployed Councils stormed relief offices, marched furniture back into the homes of people city marshals tried to evict, and joined picket lines. One and a half million workers went on strike in 1934. Worker power grew exponentially in 1936 with the invention of the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan. Those moments of crisis turned into an opportunity to expand working-class power.

A similar strategy is necessary now. To stop disaster capitalism, educators must build broad, multifaceted nets of solidarity with parents, public-sector workers in health care, transportation, and higher education that will face cuts and furloughs soon, and the beneficiaries of endangered social services like WIC, SNAP, and unemployment. These groups can harness their joint disruptive power and use car caravans, socially distanced protests, boycotts, strikes, and more to pressure local, state, and eventually federal officials.

Organizing with schools’ classified staff, who will be hit hardest by cuts, is essential. Educators and public-sector employees need to start organizing within and across their workplaces now, so that they are prepared to act when state budgets are solidified this summer and thousands of layoffs are announced weeks before school begins.

The future of public education is in grave danger, but if we fight hard enough, this crisis can become an opportunity to move beyond what was “normal,” which systematically underserved students and the working class.