By Matthew D’Amico
With the school year underway and children getting ready to learn new things about the world, there is great worry as to the state of education in America today. As the father of an 8-year-old boy who attends public school, I know the concern parents have about their children doing well in school. And as a political coordinator for a labor union representing public employees throughout New York State, I’ve seen that working men and women are deeply troubled about our economy. Watching parents having to struggle to provide the basic necessities affects children, even while they are sitting in classrooms about to learn math or the history of the American Revolution. It is shameful that more than 16 million children live in poverty in America, which has such great wealth. And millions more are near poverty, with their parents living paycheck to paycheck—if they are lucky enough to have a job at all. With these agonizing worries—which no person, let alone a child, should have to go through—the ability of children to learn is made unnecessarily more difficult.
We should all be doing everything we can to make sure our public schools are well-funded, so that every child gets a good education. However, there are many people who are now attacking that great thing—free public education—wanting to privatize our nation’s schools as a source of profit for themselves. There are now more than 6,000 charter schools nationwide, double the number from just a decade ago. They’re publicly funded, but privately run. These charter schools are now part of the growing privatization of public education. Here is what I read on Forbes.com: “dozens of bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors…gathered to discuss…investing in for-profit education companies.” But according to the National Education Association, “Privatization is a threat to public education, and more broadly, to our democracy itself.”
Why this is happening now is clearly explained by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, in her commentary What Education & the Economy Are For. It is a must-read for all who are concerned with education, including the worry that the ‘public’ will be eliminated from public education. In it too is the explanation of why there are such ferocious attempts to do away with unions, and it is also what is behind the drive to privatize public schools. Ms. Reiss writes:
“Eli Siegel is the philosopher to explain: ‘The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.’ This idea is fundamental to the Aesthetic Realism method, which has been enabling children of all backgrounds to learn successfully—including children who had been thought incapable of doing so. To like the world through knowing it is why we should learn the alphabet, find out about numbers, continents, atoms, history. To like the world is the purpose of everyone’s life. Meanwhile, humanity has lived for centuries with a system of economics completely opposed to that purpose.
“The profit system has not been based on the fact that this world should belong rather equally to every child from birth so he or she can have a full chance to benefit from it. Profit economics has instead been based on contempt. The profit motive is the seeing of human beings in terms of: how much money can I get out of you?; how much labor can I squeeze from you while paying you as little as possible?; how much can I force a buyer to pay for my product, which she may need desperately?
Ethics, Unions, & America’s Children
“In 1970 Eli Siegel explained that this contemptuous way of economics had failed after thousands of years. The profit system might be made to stumble on awhile, but it would never recover. The fundamental cause of its failure, he said, was the force of ethics working in history. For example: 1) People on all the continents know more, can produce more things, and so ‘there is much more competition…with American industry than there used to be.’ 2) Unions, by the 1970s, had been so successful in their fight for decent wages—so successful in bringing people lives with dignity—that big profits for stockholders and bosses who don’t do the work could no longer be easily extracted from American workers.
“The persons trying to keep the profit system going cannot undo the first of those factors. So they have been trying ferociously to reverse the second: there has been a vicious, steady effort to have workers be paid less and less, be made poorer and poorer. And to achieve this, one has to undermine, even extinguish, unions—because unions are the power which prevents workers from being swindled, kicked around, humiliated, impoverished, robbed.
“Meanwhile, there are America’s children. They are literally abused day after day by those persons trying to impoverish the American people so as to maintain the profit system. Many children come to school hungry. Many don’t have warm coats for winter. Home (if a child has one) is often a place of economic deprivation—and the accompanying anger.
“Then, there are the schools themselves. In recent decades, as traditional venues for profit-making have fared ill, persons have looked for new ways to use their fellow humans for private gain. Behold—that huge ethical achievement in human history, public education! And the profit-seekers thought, ‘There’s a whole new industry for us here!’ The one reason for the enormous effort to privatize America’s public schools—and that includes through vouchers and through charter schools—is: to use the lives and minds of America’s children to make profit for a few individuals.
“This use of public schools is related to the effort to privatize public sector work in various fields throughout America: to have public monies used—not for the American people, not to respectfully employ public sector workers—but to finance private enterprises. And through it all, again, a big aim is to undo unions so workers can be paid less and the money can go instead to some private-profit-maker.”
What Ms. Reiss is writing about is a national emergency. No child, whether in Alabama, rural Maine, or the South Bronx, should have to go to bed hungry, or have their basic right to an education be a means of profit for some corporation or individual. The time is now for our nation’s leaders to be courageous and answer with honesty this urgent ethical question asked by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being alive?”