Public schools and the myth of corporate salvation

Public schools and the myth of corporate salvation

A large retail chain is currently featuring a humorous theme for its back to school sales. In the TV ads, enthusiastic teachers greet parents, describe the subject they teach and then break out into a popular song from the 1980s to describe the products students will need when they go back to school.

The spots work because the viewer believes the teacher cares. Essentially, the teacher is saying “I am going to provide a fantastic year for your child; you just need to buy the supplies and clothes.” That is the ideal all parents and guardians want for their students, teachers thrilled to begin another school year. The ads are a great example of a multi-million dollar company celebrating teachers and their commitment to molding young minds in order to bring in business.

Now, if only our state legislative leaders had such a positive and celebratory attitude toward teachers.

A look at the recent actions of the North Carolina General Assembly reveals a different attitude borrowed from a less friendly corner of corporate world: the notion that teachers are simply disposable units. Whether it’s the constant refrain that public schools are “failing” and that much of that “failure” is caused by teachers, the repeated efforts to eliminate educator positions and limit worker benefits, the effort to drive away otherwise willing future educators by eradicating programs that professionalize the position, many state lawmakers have evidenced an attitude that looks more like hard-hearted contempt.

But the effort to import a kind of hard-edged corporate culture doesn’t end there. Not only are legislators treating teachers like a disposable commodity, they are actively working to privatize schools themselves and convert them from an essential service provided by public institutions into one based on a corporate model.

Consider, the most recent and visible proposal to overhaul North Carolina’s public schools – state Senate leader Phil Berger’s “Excellent Public Schools Act.” As originally proposed, all state teachers would have been converted from professionals with career status or “tenure” into temporary employees with one-year contracts. Though ultimately eliminated in the final version of the proposal that was inserted into the state budget bill (most observers expect it to return in 2013), what did survive was a call for schools districts to create “pay for performance” schemes. Unfortunately, while bonuses are often used and frequently make sense in the private sector, they do not usually make sense for teachers – especially when they’re based on student performance on end of grade tests.

And then there was the legislature’s move, under cover of darkness, to push through a bill designed to prevent teachers from having dues automatically deducted from their checks in order to support the organization designed to advocate on their behalf, the North Carolina Association of Educators. This was followed in short order by the legislature’s move to cut all of the funding for the extremely successful North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program – a program that provided money and opportunities for high school graduates who wanted to be teachers.

A substitute program advanced by Senator Berger known as the Teacher Corps holds some promise, but the program on which it is modeled, the Teach for America program, provides a far more limited experience than what a Teaching Fellow received. The Teacher Corps would also not help with expenses for a person while in college like the Teaching Fellows program. Once again, in other words, lawmakers opted for the quick and cheap approach favored by many multinational corporations rather than investing in a proven method that assures teachers do not enter the profession without rigorous training or the proper educational background.

All of these acts are clearly ill-conceived. K-12 education is not a business. Schools are not factories and students and teachers are not commodities. Issues in public education cannot be solved by creating the myth of teacher as CEO. CEO’s get to choose their employees, teachers cannot choose their students. CEO’s get to evaluate employees based on a steady flow of work product. Teachers can impart wisdom and help to mold good citizens but their performance is only measured by the results of their students on high-stakes standardized tests.

In other words, while it is entertaining to watch ads in which corporations pay actors to play teachers singing songs about their desire to teach, it is devastating to watch our General Assembly try to demonize, dismantle and privatize public schools in pursuit of inappropriate and inapplicable corporate principles. When teachers are being attacked and undermined this way, we miss the point of education. North Carolina’s students have a constitutional right to a sound basic education and a moral right to a high-quality, diverse education. Neither can be provided through our own government’s version of a hostile corporate takeover.

Chris Hill is the Director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.