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Segregation, Assimilation, Austerity and Neoliberal Attacks on Public Schools

Updated on May 26, 2015

Education has gone through various manifestations in the United States over time due to the increase in human knowledge and technology and a change in political and economic ideology over time. From Plato and Socrates to Locke and Dewey, the prevailing ideas of the day, ideas that the elites promote or at least accept, have had an influence on how we have taught and continue to teach children and adults. Infrequently, teaching theories that promote a challenge to elite rule, most notably ideas of the “pedagogy of the oppressed” of Paolo Freire, become popular. There were also the Freedom Schools that challenged the dominant power structure in the 60s, and they still exist today. However, more often than not, educational institutions are used to defend and promote the dominant economic and political culture.

In the United States, Christian churches, government agencies and corporations have also had a major influence on how schools are run and people are taught. We are currently in the second corporate age of education where, more than any time since the beginning of the industrial revolution, worker drones are being trained to fit a need for their corporate masters and liberal arts education is being abandoned.

The Common School and its Alternatives

At various times in the U.S., corporations have enlisted the help of educational institutions to train workers for their profit making enterprises. That is why corporations sponsor schools and colleges, buy the naming rights to buildings and stadiums and give directly to programs that train their future workers.

Rarely has education in the main been about training people to be creative or to think for themselves. There have always been alternative schools, but the greatest upsurge of alternatives came in the United States during the Progressive Era (1890-1940) and the counter-culture, anti-war, free speech sixties (1960-75) also know as the Free Schools Era. That was an exception and is no longer part of the standard model of education. Alternative schools such as San Francisco’s Freedom School no longer has “structural or institutional support” of the government or other large institutions in the United States. (ibid)

The Oswego Movement in New York was another alternative. In the early 1800s, it was instrumental as an alternative to the standard common schools. Started by EA Sheldon, the Oswego Movement was founded, “…out of his desire to improve the education of the day and to solve a pressing social need—proper training of teachers as America was rapidly developing...” In fact, “Sheldon’s method was so well received and respected that it became the most popular method in the country,” Patricia Russo, an education professor teaching the history of education, said. Sheldon rejected rote memorization and the skills of memory and reason for object orientation lessons and mental training. (ibid) That was replaced quickly by the common schools around 1840.

When public schools for all started in the United States, they were all about job (skills) training and assimilation, “The public school system which began to take shape in the 1840s has developed systematically as a standardized and bureaucratic system so as to allow business leaders to control the socialization process of the nation's children.” (ibid) In 1840, the industrial revolution in the United States started to create havoc in society, displacing farm workers, increasing immigration to large cities not only from rural communities but overseas, and increasing unrest in over-crowded cities. Schools were looked to as a place to train and assimilate these new populations.

1900 English Classes for Italian Americans
1900 English Classes for Italian Americans

Assimilation and Americanization

Schools were called on to assimilate the new immigrants to the nation and rural populations to city life, “The dominant response to the new diversity was to try to streamline it to promote assimilation into a view that defined American identity as English-speaking, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon.” (ibid) The goal was to Americanize children by teaching them English, culture, U.S. history and laws. “…Between 1917 and 1922, more than 30 states passed Americanization laws, requiring those unable to speak or read English to attend public evening schools…” (ibid) Some saw this Americanization movement as necessary for the orderly growth of the U.S.; others saw it as bigoted, prejudicial and damaging to immigrant communities. We have similar debates about immigration and education today.

Immigrant students were put in English-only classes without any specialized help. It was sink or swim for them. Many of the non-English speaking students were put in the first grade, regardless of their age. That meant that often 12-year-olds were put in classes with 6-year-olds. They were also placed in special education classrooms, for their ignorance of English was deemed stupidity, “ 'It is absurd to place the boy or girl, 10 or 12 years of age, just landed from Italy, who cannot read a word in his own language or speak a word of English, in the same classroom with American boys and girls five or six years old.' ” (link)

These schools were also a way to educate some young workers for jobs in factories or in the growing white-collar sector including managers, clerks, and typists among others. National child labor prohibitions were not passed in the United States until 1938 though some states passed laws regulating a child’s work hours by 1842. White collar jobs were for native speakers of English from more affluent families.

Creating good citizens was the goal of eduction. As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “‘Even more all-embracing than this is the statement made not long ago, before a group of English headmasters, by the Archbishop of York, that 'the true purpose of education is to produce citizens.’…Learning to be a good citizen is learning to live to the maximum of one's abilities and opportunities, and every subject should be taught every child with this in view.” Then she goes on to blame the 'bad teachers' and praise the 'good teachers' like modern education ‘reformers’. (ibid)

Education was, and is for many power elite, first and foremost about creating ‘good’ citizens, not citizens that will challenge the status quo. Politicians that decide funding for schools at state and national levels want citizens that will uphold the flag and support empire. At other times, we educated people out of fear of the hostile alien. Teaching students to challenge the dominant economic and political paradigm is seldom the goal.

Case in point, when Mexican American Studies (MAS) programs all over Arizona, especially in Tucson, AZ, educated students about Mexican culture and asked questions about White European dominance in the nation, they were shut down and accused of teaching students ways to "overthrow the government." In actuality, they were teaching students to think. Moreover, those Latino students who took the courses did better in schools than those who didn’t. However, the MAS narrative was not acceptable to the state's conservatives and many schools that had Mexican American Studies classes were threatened with a loss of funding and stopped their program.

Segregation as school policy

In 1890, the Supreme Court decided Plessy V. Furgeson, ruling that public school facilities could remain segregated, i.e. “separate but equal.” Anybody living in the real world and not wearing robes and sitting in secluded chambers could see that separate was not equal.

School segregation remained the norm until the 1950s, “The ruling resulted in a major setback in the struggle for equality between races in the United States and set the stage for racial segregation within the South until the overruling in 1954.” The Plessy decision left Blacks in poor, unkept schools without books and without equal opportunity to learn. Because schools are run locally, the ruling allowed unequal education to continue for Blacks all over the nation, especially in the rural South where rural, Southern attitudes toward the races prevailed.

In 1954, school and other forms of segregation were ruled illegal in the Supreme Court Brown V. Board of Education case. Desegregation of schools proceeded at a slow pace and is increasing again in recent years.

As a reaction to school segregation, Freedom Schools were formed in the 1960s as an alternative, “As more than 2,000 college students from across the country volunteered to register voters, a select minority opted to teach in 41 ‘Freedom Schools’—alternative middle and high schools that taught the art of resistance and the strategies of protest.” These ‘Freedom Schools’ questioned the basic tenets of U.S. democracy and government.

After the Brown decision, “…federal desegregation orders helped “break the back of Jim Crow education in the South, helping transform the region’s educational systems into the most integrated in the country.” (ibid) In 1963, only about 1 percent of black children in the South attended schools with White children. By the 1970s, 90 percents of all Black children were in mixed schools. This was it was rightly believed that segregation lead to inequality. Thus, the federal government took up the cause to integrate the schools.

Unfortunately, segregation has returned. This is due to the prevailing political ideology around education and the promotion of the myth that desegregation is no longer needed. In fact, “As the Civil Rights Project shows, minority students across the country are more likely to attend majority-minority schools than they were a generation ago.” And these segregated schools often leave Blacks and Latinos in the worst schools. (ibid) Desegregation, especially busing, started to decline with President Nixon’s education policies starting in 1974.

Anticommunism, Neoliberalism and Attacks on Public Education

Fear of communism along with the Soviet’s launch of the first Earth orbiting satellite, Sputnik, lead to an infusion of funds for education. The “National Defense Education Act (NDEA)...sent an unprecedented infusion of federal funds into the public schools. According to President Eisenhower, the United States needed to outdo its foe, the Soviet Union…” The U.S. government was interested in beating communists, and that meant more money spent in science and technology. It also meant that the Pledge of Allegiance that once lacked a reference to 'God', would now contain the words “under God”, added in 1954, in an attempt to beat back atheistic communists.

Fear of communism meant that a close eye was put on what was taught to our young children, and teachers suspected of communist leanings could be let go, books were banned and curriculum was altered during the second red scare.

Moreover, more attention was being paid to civic education in the schools, “Until the 1960s, it was common for high-school students to take as many as three courses in civics, democracy, and government. Today, however, most students take only one government-related course.” (ibid)

As the prevailing ideology of the leaders in the U.S. changed during the Nixon Administration, support for free schools also waned. Rather than focusing on students and their needs as individuals, school had become more about functionality.

In 1968, Nixon came out against court ordered busing used to desegregate schools. His anti-busing position was part of his “Southern Strategy” and helped Nixon win the presidency. Then, in 1974, “The Equal Educational Opportunity Act passed and stipulated that ‘no provision of this act shall be construed to require the assignment or transportation of students or teachers in order to overcome racial imbalance.’” With this law, Congress blocked federal money for court-ordered busing.

In the 1980s, President Reagan’s emphasis on neoliberal reforms lead to, “the relatively new concept of charter schools—that is, schools with special or independent dispensations, or charters, from their states to experiment with alternative publicly financed approaches to education—had emerged on the national scene.” Charter schools are a market-based attempt at school reform that relies on the belief that private businesses can run schools better than public institutions and is still a model promoted at a national level today.

Even the teachers’ unions supported these changes at first, “Relatively early in the Bush administration, the charter school movement gained support from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which previously had supported ideas such as site-based management, schools-within-schools, and school-community partnerships.” (ibid) How could the anti-union charter schools gain support from the AFT? It appears that the AFT didn’t want to lose the support of the White House that had more influence over funding and how schools are run than in history.

Rather than an oppressive and manipulative engine for capitalist accumulation, schools should function as centers of creativity and imagination where an ethos of democratic life is grounded upon cultural inclusiveness, social justice and economic democracy.
Dr. Antonia Darder

Testing replacing Teaching: No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top

No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are neoliberal Trojan Horses used to privatize schools. Not only do these initiatives make public funding available for private companies running charter schools, testing companies have made millions selling tests for schools under these programs.

Through budget slashing austerity measures at the national level, “…states are drained of resources and are shifting the burden of such deficits on to public schools and other vital public services.” This leads to cuts to schools and infrastructure to support schools. Meanwhile, as “…the nation’s schools and infrastructure suffer from a lack of resources, right-wing politicians are enacting policies that lower the taxes of the rich and mega corporations…” For example, Governor Christie in New Jersey used the manufactured fear of deficits to lower taxes on millionaires and to cut funding for schools.

And students pay the price, “At work here is a pedagogy that displaces, infantilizes and depoliticizes both students and large segments of the American public. Under the current regime of neoliberalism, schools have been transformed into a private right rather than a public good.” No Child Left Behind (NLCB) was a high stakes plan to make schools and teachers responsible for test results. Those that supported NLCB were legislators and business leaders, not educators, parents or students. People weren’t yearning for more tests and less teaching time.

The same is true of President Obama's 'Race to the Top' (RTTT). The difference is that RTTT pits schools against schools in a competition over limited bonus funds. Not surprisingly, both high stakes testing programs, NCLB and RTTT, have led to rampant cheating over test scores and results.


Since the economic crash of 2008, corporations, legislators and neoliberal reformers have decided we need to focus schooling on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Clearly, the STEM push blames schools' perceived lack of focus on these important subjects for school failures. Moreover, they are using fear of future economic downturns to push funding for STEM through Congress and state legislatures.

Certainly, STEM subjects are important, but they are limiting. Not only does this STEM focus exclude important disciplines such as linguistics and literature, a focus on STEM fails to make the connections between the arts and science. Furthermore, not everyone excels in the STEM disciplines, but they might do well in arts, writing, languages, history, psychology and other academic and artistic disciplines that are valuable in our society.

In fact, non-STEM disciplines can enhance the teaching of STEM, “Integrated liberal arts knowledge, where STEM is a vital component of a larger curriculum that includes a range of literacies, creative expression, and the arts, seems to be ideal for developing future STEM teachers, practitioners, and researchers.”

Author and education critic Alfie Kohn agrees that the focus on STEM to the exclusion of other disciplines is counterproductive, “…reading and writing skills, too, have obvious implications for real-world success…” However, they are not easily linked to “economic productivity and profit” as the STEM courses are.

While STEM courses appear to be invaluable when training for future work, there are not enough STEM jobs for the supply of workers now, “'each year there are more than three times as many [science and engineering] four-year college graduates as S&E job openings.'” What is the point of educating people in areas that they don’t want to study when there aren’t enough jobs in those fields as it is?

What we need to teach students is cognitive ability, critical thinking, scientific logic, and the ability to learn. If we can train people how to learn, then what they learn is not as crucial. In the end, people will learn what is crucial for their lives if they know how to learn. In fact, “Any cognitive scientist worth his salt knows that it isn’t subjects like algebra or chemistry that matter. It is cognitive abilities that are important…”

Moreover, “…a new study by RTI International suggests that STEM isn’t for everyone. While nearly a quarter of high performing students who began pursuing a bachelor's degree between 2003 and 2009 declared a STEM major, nearly a third of these students had transferred out of STEM fields by spring 2009.” Forcing STEM education on students who have little interest or capacity for those disciplines is a waste of time and money. Millions of successful people have learned what was required before a focus of school funding on STEM, and they will learn what is needed after this latest educational trend is over.

Austerity: the Neoliberal Battle Ax

Cuts in funding for education is also counterproductive. It is this lack of funding that leads schools to fail. Lily Eskelsenvice, president of the National Education Association, states, “ 'I am seeing higher class sizes, kids that don't have proper textbooks, technology and support staff…’ ” And school funding has been dropping since the early 2000s, “Overall, 30 of the 47 states analyzed are providing less per-pupil funding for K-12 schools this school year than they did before the recession.”

Today, ideological think tanks with their political agenda have more power than ever over what gets taught and how it is taught, “Public education is under assault by a host of religious, economic, ideological and political fundamentalists. The most serious attack is being waged by advocates of neoliberalism, whose reform efforts focus narrowly on high-stakes testing, traditional texts and memorization drills.”

The ideology of austerity affects education budgets, and leads to overcrowded classes and shorter class hours. For example, Kansas has had to close schools early this year due to a $45 million dollar cut to schools to help address an $800 million dollar state budget deficit brought on by tax cuts passed by the conservative Kansas legislature.

Austerity budgets also lead to increases in college tuition, making it unaffordable for thousands of students who would otherwise attend a college or university. Student debt has surpassed 1.2 trillion dollars due to cuts in Pell Grants and higher tuition.

We are graduating a class of debtors whose expendable income is near zero. This will damage the economy for years to come. Under the auspices of austerity, states are balancing their budgets by cutting services and education funding. In addition, fewer students have graduated from universities since the 2008 economic collapse and that further damages our future economic prospects.

This neoliberal slashing and privatizing of schools is far from a Republican problem. Democratic Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, created a crisis in Chicago schools in order to have, “…more school closings, more privately managed schools, more testing, merit pay, longer school hours…” It’s all a part of turning schools, the public sphere, into a for profit enterprise at the expense of our children’s education.

However, private schools and charters do no better at educating students than public schools and they cost more in the long run. Moreover, these charters schools don’t have to adhere to state or federal regulations as do public schools and aren’t required to have certified teachers.

Charter schools drain money from more inclusive and more diverse public schools that help all students, not just the top students. Let’s create schools that teach students to think and how to learn, instead of insisting that they learn a few facts for some political end. Schools should not teach with the goal of making the powerful comfortable; they should teach students to challenge the unquestioned assumptions of society.

Tex Shelters


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