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Why an Undemocratic Capitalism Has Brought Public Education to Its Knees

Posted: 2008-09-17

The public schools are being punished for the
achievement gap, which they did not create and
cannot close. Mr. Gibboney urges educators to
rise up and fight to protect public education and
democracy, which will both collapse if our
society refuses to take the steps necessary to
eliminate poverty.

From Phi Delta Kappan September 2008

Freedom, if dangerous in the hands of the poor
from ignorance. . . is. . . dangerous in the
hands of the rich from influence.
--Thomas Paine, "A Serious Letter to the People
of Pennsylvania," 1778

It is wrong to say God made rich and poor. He
made only male and female; and He gave them the
earth for their inheritance.
--Thomas Paine

Unchecked capitalism is destroying our nation's
public schools, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
is the final nail in their coffin. Marching under
the banner of "accountability," right-wing, pro-
business forces are willfully undermining the
democratic right of all children to a free, high-
quality education.

Rather than support policies designed to reduce
poverty and its toxic effects on the ability of
children to succeed in school, our lawmakers are
pursuing the misbegotten path of penalizing
schools in poverty-stricken cities and rural
areas for their failure to work educational
miracles. In so doing, they are eroding the
promise of our democracy.

Most children at the bottom of the economic
ladder start their formal education years behind
middle-class children in language development,
social behavior, and general knowledge of the
world. This self-evident fact, repeatedly
confirmed in research studies, creates a learning
gap of Grand Canyon proportions between the
children of social privilege and those who grow
up poor, who are disproportionately black and

No system of schools--public or private--has ever
demonstrated that it can close this poverty-
induced learning gap for most children. If policy
makers know this--and they surely must--they
ignore it. In fact, in the two decades preceding
No Child Left Behind, a succession of presidents
and Congresses gradually abandoned historically
successful Great Society programs that had lifted
many of the poor out of poverty. Today, more than
one-quarter of American children live in poverty,
more than in any other industrialized nation.

At the same time, those in the corporate elite
and their political allies have ratcheted up the
pressure on schools with a harsh accountability
system that they have consistently shunned for
themselves. Can you imagine applying to Enron and
the Wall Street financial manipulators who
brought us the credit and home foreclosure crises
the same punitive standards we now apply to the

With No Child Left Behind, Congress ratified an
upside-down education reform strategy: improve
learning by feeding children less and testing
them more. For those schools most affected by the
false standards of NCLB--largely the ones in our
poorest neighborhoods--all creativity,
intelligence, and imagination have been sucked
out of teaching and learning. The premise of the
law--holding schools accountable for test results
without any guarantees that students have
received expert instruction in safe, well-
equipped schools--contravenes science, flouts
morality, and makes no economic sense.

And in what I believe to be a historic and an
unconscionable failure, our nation's educators
have stood by and let all this happen. Instead of
relying on the energizing principles of
democracy--equity, opportunity, and fairness--to
fight this law and the mindset it grows out of,
educators have taken political and professional
cover in technicalities. . . .

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