Education notes: The neoliberal blame game

A quick survey of end-of-term school reports this year would note the frequent use of the latest education jargon: ‘He/she must make the right choices … must think about the choices he/she makes’. This refers to time in and out of the classroom, to behaviour and to learning, whether the pupil is aged five or 15. It is a deliberate, strategic manoeuvre by the managers of capitalism everywhere to transfer responsibility for collapsing social services onto individuals, in what the US Monthly Review calls the ‘neoliberal blame game’.1 Blame deflects criticism from the ruling class and suggests that there are personality and motivational solutions to the crisis of public services. Nurses must be more ‘caring’; teachers must have higher ‘aspirations’; pupils must make better ‘choices’.

Austerity creates an urgent need for the ruling class to disclaim responsibility for the crisis. The poor and the ranks of the working class who are increasingly impoverished might otherwise turn on and overthrow the system that oppresses them. The working class has to be persuaded that cuts in the welfare budget, service closures and reduction of benefits are all necessary because some section or other of the population is too greedy, too incompetent, too criminal or just plain too many.

Blame the state

Following the recent banking crisis the capitalist class has accelerated its neo-liberal programme of opening up public property and services to the market. Multinational corporations are taking over public resources. The lie is perpetuated that the private sector is a more efficient, flexible, and ‘value for money’ provider of goods and services than the state. The Department for Education recently defended the outsourcing of ‘children in care’ saying that it is ‘nonsense to suggest that private sector and voluntary organisations cannot provide good quality services for children’. They ignore the evidence. The outsourced Work Programme, for example, generated just 132,000 jobs lasting six months or more out of over a million referrals at a cost of ‘between £3bn and £5bn’ over five years. It is significant that the figure for actual payments to companies is not precise, indicating the chaos of the market grab by businesses.

English extremism

English school children are the most tested in the world. US management-style target-orientated tests are imposed on them from the age of five onwards. It is well known that high-stakes standardised testing narrows the curriculum and trains pupils to pass the test but has an overall depressing effect on learning. The chief use of national attainment targets is as a tool to discipline teachers, threatening them with payment by results and sacking for ‘under-performance’. These blame and shame management techniques are introduced under the heading of ‘high expectations’ for children combined with talk of ‘world class’ schooling to achieve economic success in a competitive world. The latest ConDem wheeze is to propose ranking every pupil in the country’s test score at the age of 11 from 1st to 600,000th. That’ll teach them!

The fightback in Chicago

The city of Chicago, Illinois in the US is the ideological home of neoliberalism. Under the leadership of Milton Friedman the ‘Chicago school of economics’ developed a fiscal ideology called ‘monetarism’ in the 1960s which was subsequently adopted by both President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a stick with which to beat state expenditure in favour of ‘free market’ capitalism. It was in Chicago that grand plans to open up entire social systems globally to entrepreneurial capitalism were launched. Multinational corporations immediately seized the chance to lower standards, cheapen labour and turn public services into commodities to be bought and sold.

Since 2004, the impact of these moves on the public schooling system in Chicago has been severe. In the words of Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), Chicago is a ‘city where strife and discord in education have been a way of life for decades’.

Blame for all the city’s social problems was loaded onto teachers, parents and children by successive city bosses. Teachers faced the constant threat of school closure, or sackings so that schools could be ‘turned around’. They faced rising class size, inadequate staffing levels and the loss of merit pay. The abuse of the public school system accelerated after the election of Rahm Emanuel, the former White House Chief of Staff under President Barack Obama, as Mayor of Chicago in 2011.

Across the country in 2008, the Obama administration inaugurated a $3.4bn economic recovery initiative for education known as Race to the Top. This acted as a licence to close public schools, expand privately-run Charter Schools and dismantle whole education districts (eg Detroit), or replace them with a portfolio of education providers (eg Philadelphia).2

In Chicago, on coming into office Mayor Emanuel proposed to extend the school day by two hours without compensation. CTU membership increased to its highest for 25 years as it organised a fightback with rallies and protests against this latest authoritarian diktat. In September 2012 90% of the entire union membership and 98% of those voting approved a strike and 30,000 members of the CTU marched on the streets of Chicago and kept up their rallies, protest and pickets for nine days. As a result of this action the CTU was able to restore many of the threatened basic protections in the contract, preserve health care benefits with no increase in rates, guarantee future pay rises, eliminate the unpaid suspension of para-professionals and teachers, and secure the ability to arbitrate in discipline cases. The CTU also negotiated a timetable that did not increase teaching time but increased student learning time with the addition of art, music and foreign language education.

The greatest significance of the Chicago teachers’ strike was the way in which the union worked to promote support for its action among all the communities in the city. The teachers had campaigned widely over a long period to forge links with parents across race, class and neighbourhood boundaries. The CTU was able to gain mass support and demonstrate that this was not merely a strike for sectional self-interest, improved pay and conditions, but for the future of public schooling and welfare in the city as a whole. It was able to ally its cause with wider social justice movements and resistance to budget cuts and privatisation.

The CTU, the communities and the working class of Chicago face difficult times ahead. Mayor Emanuel has claimed that the Chicago Public School Service (CPS) has a £1bn budget deficit and plans to close 54 schools, almost all of which are in black communities. On 18 June, Karen Lewis was invited to speak to the City Club of Chicago about public education. She challenged the CPS on its budget figures and demanded to know when there will be ‘an honest conversation about the poverty, racism and inequality that hinders the delivery of education to our children’. These are the same questions that need to be raised urgently wherever state welfare is under attack.

Susan Davidson

1 ‘Beating the Neoliberal Blame Game, Teacher and Parent Solidarity’, Rhoda Rae Gutierrez, Monthly Review, New York, Vol 65 No 2, June 2013.

2 ‘The Rebirth of the Chicago Teachers Union and Possibilities for a Counter-Hegemonic Education Movement’, Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Pauline Lipman, p9, ibid.

 Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013


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