The Industrialization of Education: Phase Three, 1992-Today

"This is a union busting tactic. All of this is. Vouchers, charter schools standardized testing, and teacher evaluation schemes were all created with two purposes in mind: destroy the teachers' unions and privatize education."

This three-part study of the education industry is by and for Angry Education Workers, a political art collective open to all instructional and support staff in schools, museums, libraries, and archives.

The Industrialization of Education - printable booklet version

The Transition Years and Industrial Conditioning, 1976-1992

After 1976, crisis set in as stagflation ravaged working people and cratered city budgets (Shelton 2017). Enrollment stopped growing. Reagan then imposed harsh cuts on social services and gutted business regulations (Gershon 2017). He redirected this money into the military-industrial complex (Husbands 1985). Decades of Cold War ideology had taken deep hold in the American psyche. Which gave Reagan a mandate to remilitarize the empire after Vietnam.

Since the 1930s, the American state had built up its ability to regulate the economy, engineer the social body, and serve the public at large—in unequal ways, of course—but those days were over. Reagan and his allies believed “government is the problem”. The only legitimate use for the state was bludgeoning workers into line. That and plundering the world. His regime swept away the last cobwebs of the New Deal state left after the Federal Reserve’s anti-inflationary measures. He declared war against unions by firing the PATCO strikers (Houlihan 2021). And after more than two decades of whites’ “massive resistance” against the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power, all political will for any progressive social action by the state collapsed.

As people stopped believing in the American nation-state’s ability to positively shape society, the state and the capitalist class activated “their right to arbitrarily choose new favorites and revise [their] obligations” (Riva 2022, 11). The elite of the corporate world openly discussed how to worsen workers’ conditions (Wong 2021).

Economic realignment was underway. Reagan, Thatcher, and other right-wing reactionaries opened space for Neoliberal capital to infect the host’s social body (Boyd 1987). Public education was one of the targets (Givan 2014). Finance capitalists on Wall Street and in boardrooms across the empire “formulated an all-out assault, and…found an ally in a Reagan administration focused on privatizing education as a means of breaking the grip of big unions and clearing the way for corporate profits” (Rooks 2017, 131). Their motivation was “the potential for financial gain tied to the education of Black children” (Rooks 2017, 131).

Fascism never ends with just one scapegoat. Another can always be conjured, because “the nation and state are two separate and unrelated things, and in exile the alchemy of a hyphen comes undone” (Riva 2022, 8). Pressure for charter schools and vouchers increased—the legacy of segregation academies (Black 2020). By the early 1990s, private sector unions were weak. Teachers' unions were weakening.

By the 1990s, the Neoliberal urge to transform everything into a market had picked up serious momentum in both parties. Now, a new generation of investors could industrialize tech, logistics, and education. These structural changes devastated the working classes of America—and the world. Wages stagnated in 1980. Corporate profits soared (Cohen 2018). They solved the profitability crisis of the 1970s by driving down labor costs—everywhere they could (Moseley 2013) (Nordhaus et al. 1974). Weak unions failed to stop them.

The capitalists no longer wanted to relegate education to the public sector after the strike debacles of the 1970s. They tested the legal waters throughout the 1980s to accomplish their goals. One campaign was to institute merit pay based on principal administered evaluations. It was always a reform pushed by business elites (Goldstein 2014). The first voucher law was passed in 1984 (Rooks 2017).

Financialization and deregulation encouraged capitalists to redirect investment from real production and towards abstract financial speculation across industry lines as corporations cut labor and operations costs. Tech, service, education, and logistics industrialized while factories closed. Career stability disappeared and workers needed to constantly (re)seek educational services to survive. Education that private companies controlled a greater share of with each passing year.

Capital can never stop moving, so education became a lightning rod for investment. The state facilitated this transformation. Governments generally serve as enforcers of their donors, and this was no exception. As they dismantled the New Deal state’s infrastructure, “liberals and conservatives both worked to promote deregulatory initiatives spanning vast sectors of public policy” (Cohen 2017). Then they handed it off to the pentagon and finance capitalists on Wall Street. Who were now interested in profiting from education.

Reagan commissioned the A Nation at Risk report. The report claimed that American public education was in deep trouble. It was bullshit (Tucker 2018). Only one teacher was on the panel that wrote the report—the rest were corporate executives and administrators. His voice was sidelined. He denounced A Nation at Risk as soon as it came out (Rooks 2017). Truthfulness wasn’t the point, though. Manufactured moral panic that undercut attempts to increase federal education funding, was (Rooks 2017) (Boyd 1987). It was as if an apex predator shook the bushes and waited for their prey to flee in fright—right into their jaws.

Milton Friedman and other libertarian intellectuals filled the rhetorical vacuum. Friedman’s text “The Role of Government in Education,” is still incredibly influential in the education reform scene (Haupt III 2022) (Rooks 2017) (Philanthropy Magazine 2013). It laid out a model of publicly funded, but privately administered, education. Education was to be totally based on parental choice (Friedman 1955). He advocated for voucher programs and the effective abolition of all government-run schools (Rooks 2017).

A “policy entrepreneur” named Ted Kolderie brewed up charter schools in the early 1970s and 1980s. As part of the Citizens League of Minnesota, along with the Minnesota Business Partnership, he was “critical in advancing school deregulation in the state” (Cohen 2017). And “when the League spoke, the legislature listened” (Cohen 2017). Kolderie and his allies in the Public Service Options (PSO) committee called for “school choice” and breaking the public sector “monopoly” on education (Cohen 2017).

Instead, “universities, corporations, public school districts, [and] nonprofits would compete in an marketplace managing K-12 schools” (Cohen 2017).

His vision was soon to be a reality.

By 1987, Reagan retreated from federal intervention in education. He successfully gambled that A Nation at Risk would spur a “wave of reforms” by dozens of states that could “have taken 30 years to enact through regular education channels” (Boyd 1987). His regime used the “bully pulpit” to transform “the semantics and agenda of American educational policy”. Doing so “with very little more than effective use of rhetoric and symbols, and their ability to command attention from the media” (Boyd 1987). States debuted standardized performance thresholds. Fear of foreign economic and geopolitical competition from Japan and the USSR was widespread. Researchers at the time documented a:

180-degree shift in emphasis away from the values that guided federal policy in the 1970’s: from equity to excellence; from needs and access to ability and selectivity; from regulations and enforcement to deregulation; from the common school to parental choice and institutional competition; and from social and welfare concerns to economic and productivity concerns (Boyd 1987).

Privatization wove all these threads together to reshape education along industrial lines. Teachers’ unions beat back many Reagan era education reforms, but their strength failed in the 1990s (Boyd 1987).

Charter school laws and enrollment, by state (NCES)

Open Market, Open Season: Education Industrialization, 1992-2001

Comprehensive legislative education reform strongly favoring private corporate interests came in 1991. That year, the nation’s first charter school law passed in Minnesota. A bipartisan frenzy of support erupted. Democrats were eager to sign on board in the age of no alternative. While framing themselves as aligned with social and economic justice causes, “the real power in the charter coalition was what might be termed the ‘technocratic centrists’: business leaders, moderate Republicans, and DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] members” (Cohen 2017).

As of 2019—3.4 million students were enrolled in charter schools. Only five states lacked laws authorizing charter school markets (NCES 2022). A total of twelve million American students have attended a charter school since 1992 (White 2022). Enrollment growth has accelerated: 1.4 million more students attend a charter school compared to 2017.

Around eight percent of current American students are enrolled in public charter schools. That might seem small, but focus on several American cities and the picture changes. Charter school students are the majority in cities like New Orleans, Kansas City, Detroit, and Washington D.C. Cities with majority Black and Latinx populations (Rooks 2017).

This is the future.

A primary source from education entrepreneurs

In 1992, total private investment in education was $64 million. By 2001, it was four billion (Fromm & Kern 2000, 40). A 2000 taxonomy of private investment opportunities, written by top executives of an education startup and published in The Journal of School Choice, is worth looking at. Their goal was to “to stimulate readers' interest in the education industry and, by doing so, to attract new investment capital that will fuel the continued transformation of the industry” (Fromm & Kern 2000, 38). They track how average yearly private investment in education rocketed upwards by 64 percent each year (Fromm & Kern 2000, 40).

They referenced several op-eds, studies, and conferences that discussed educational investments. One refrain present in every piece is something like ‘education hasn’t been much of a business, until now.’ The capitalist class was becoming conscious of the role they played in education and conspiring to take it further. Fromm and Kern included school related real estate, public investments, personnel and labor costs, and public capitalization.

They forecasted strong growth for the already gargantuan $740 billion dollar industry. Only healthcare made up a bigger chunk of GDP. One hundred billion of that was already in the for-profit market (Fromm & Kern 2000, 38). Thirty-five states had charter laws, and over 1,400 charter schools were built. Higher education and job training saw similar growth.

The simultaneous industrialization of the high-tech sectors of the economy created greater pressure to profit off education. Since the 1970s, state and federal laws mandated data collection. By 1992, troves of data on student achievement and demographics had accumulated in the background (Goldstein 2014). Computing technology enabled companies to collect information, analyze it, and eventually sell it as a commodity. There’s even a booming sub-sector called Ed Tech.

Rapid technological evolution heralded perpetually rising educational requirements for workers. Fromm and Kern say, “resources of the new, knowledge-based economy are brainpower and the ability to acquire, deliver and process information effectively” (41). Their words had another meaning: keep up or die. High school and college degrees get workers less with each passing year—and without a high school diploma, forget it.

Public capitalization is the highest form of capital circulation. Reaching the stock market signifies that you can convert sweat and blood into stock share prices. By 1998, 71 education companies were on the stock market. Fromm and Kern cited predictions that in 2000 alone over 35 companies would follow.

Data and Dollar Signs: No Child Left Behind, 2001-2009

No Child Left Behind is the 2001 version of the ESEA, originally passed in 1965. Its 2001 update synthesized education reform currents around ‘school accountability.’ Meaning high stakes standardized testing from a young age. Politicians, media pundits, and corporate ‘reformers’ pressed that a quality education was the civil rights issue of the day (Goldstein 2014) (Rooks 2017). They were obsessed with testing. And whenever someone questioned the efficacy and intent of the law, wealthy and connected supporters accused them of not believing that poor students can learn (Goldstein 2014).

At the 2008 DNC convention, then-mayor of Washington D.C., Adrian Fenty, said:

The American Federation of Teachers, which I don’t think does anything for the people of the District of Columbia, is weighing in against [a law to weaken teacher job security in exchange for a fraction of them getting merit bonuses] …Ten years ago when I talked about school choice, I was literally tarred and feathered. I was literally brought into a broom closet by a union and told I would never win office if I kept talking about charters” (Goldstein 2014, 211).

Fenty’s comments reveal his disdain for working people and a penchant for hyperbole. He writes off the demands of District teachers as an arrogant attempt at “weighing in” on a topic better left for the ‘experts’ to handle. His claim that teachers’ unions are useless to the community draws back to 1970s era editorial letters denouncing teachers as unproductive leeches (Shelton 2017). Corporate reformers routinely brand teachers as selfish and anti-progress. They can get away with all sorts of nasty, violent rhetoric towards teachers—like when Chris Christie fantasized about punching unionized teachers publicly—because a patriarchal society lets them.

State government power proved crucial in opening up public education to rampant privatization in the age of NCLB. Specifically: governors, both Republican and Democratic. Pennsylvania’s governor took over Philadelphia public schools in 2001 (Rooks 2017). Headed up by businessman James Nevels in the School Reform Commission, they completely mismanaged the city’s schools. By 2006, Nevels reported an even higher deficit, $73 million, than had existed before the takeover. Even as Nevels turned 45 struggling public schools over to the Edison charter company, he blew $107 million on charter school funding (Philadelphia City Paper 2013) (Rooks 2017). A similar story has played out in Detroit since the Great Recession (Albert Shanker Institute 2017).

This is a union busting tactic. All of this is. Vouchers, charter schools, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation schemes were all created with two purposes in mind: destroy the teachers' unions and privatize education. The end goal was “dismantling tax-supported public education in urban areas” (Rooks 2017, 131). Teachers' unions—for as long as they’ve existed—have fought for a robust, fully funded public education system that provides a range of academic opportunities for all (Black 2020) (Shelton 2017) (Goldstein 2014) (Lyons 2008). They also are a stronghold of feminist power. In other words, they are one of the few true bastions of democracy left in this empire, however imperfect. If you want to starve and slash public education, you have to smash the teachers' unions, or go around them by creating non-union charters (Goldstein, 2014).

No Child Left Behind inflamed the problem. Teachers’ unions, most of which hadn’t struck since the early 1980s, mustered a weak response to the fascist assault on their memberships (Koppich 2005).

The School to Prison Pipeline

Students who fail to conform to the standards of the production process are labeled as defective products and plucked off the conveyor belt as fast as possible. Many are dropped into the school to prison pipeline.

Police in schools have become normalized and accepted since the 1990s. The Justice Department kicked off the process with its “Cops in Schools” program that brought thousands of police officers into schools around the country. Now, there are well over 50,000 of these pigs, known as “School Resource Officers” (SROs), in our schools (Vitale 2017). They serve as the arms perched over the assembly line—ready to strike and redirect students into the prison system.

The myth of so-called “superpredators” in the 1990s justified this turn. Republican and Democrat politicians alike parroted this racist nonsense. It was cooked up by conservative “criminologists” and so-called “researchers” like the frauds who came up with the Broken Windows Theory.

They convinced politicians that criminality was inherent in certain people and couldn’t be reformed. Logically, what followed for them was locking criminals—and alleged criminals-to-be—up as early and for as long as possible (Vitale 2017).

The industry’s obsessive turn towards testing and privatization are directly responsible. Researchers have thoroughly debunked the argument that SROs make schools safer. In fact, they make them more dangerous, and rarely prevent shootings (Vitale 2017). They are there to enforce an otherwise intolerable factory regime in the schools.

Teaching to the test sucks the joy out of teaching and learning, causing students to misbehave. Administrators then construct harsh disciplinary systems. Teachers are already overwhelmed. If they want to keep their jobs, they have to keep test scores up. That gives them an incentive to get low performing students out of their classrooms (Vitale 2017) (Nathan 2013). Schools “increasingly turn over more and more school discipline” to SROs, “finding it easier just to have a police officer come in and remove and arrest a student” than address the root of the student’s behavior (Vitale 2017, 155).

Standing to benefit are “for-profit companies with close ties to…Republican leaders” that provide “fingerprint scanners, metal detectors, and cameras” to schools (Vitale 2017, 149). There’s even a National Association of School Resource Officers, whose “annual convention is a panoply of military contractors trying to sell schools new security systems, train officers in paramilitary techniques,” and paint students as constant threats (Vitale 2017, 161).

Deskilling of Teaching after NCLB

High stakes testing was the lever that allowed government officials to close schools and reopen them as charters. It also gave everyone from administrators, curriculum developers, and writers of state standards an incentive to narrow schooling to the tested subjects. “This is the origin story of teaching to the test” (Goldstein 2014). The law mandated standardized testing regimens in all 50 states and DC for grades 3-8. Schools would be sanctioned through budget cuts—or even closed down and reopened as charter schools. Most of the fallout rained down on poor districts.

Testing companies took advantage of this. Educational Testing Service (ETS) has become a de-facto monopoly over standardized testing. If you want to go to college, become a teacher, go to grad school, or go to K-12 public schools, you have to take their exams. Graduate students are even pulled in as “guinea pigs” for ETS as they develop new testing questions (Americans for Testing Reform 2011).

The law ushered forth all sorts of “perverse incentives” (Goldstein 2014, 187). Schools that didn’t measure up “would be publicly declared failing, and could lose Title I funding.

or get taken over by their states” (Goldstein 2014, 185). State takeovers always prove disastrous for students (Lynch 2017). State government appointed guardians of school systems frequently force teachers to sacrifice to help balance city budgets (Shelton 2017). The Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) “unilaterally canceled teachers’ contracts, ordering them to pay more of their health insurance premiums in order to close the budget gap” (Shelton 2017, 196). That is just one of countless examples since the municipal budget crises of the 1970s.

By 2005, a national teacher survey revealed that “60 percent identified ‘testing demands/teaching to the test’ as the single biggest hindrance to public education” (Goldstein 2014, 188). Research discovered “65 percent of all districts, and 75 percent of those with at least one school in danger of ‘failing,’” slashed their social studies and science instructional time (Goldstein 2014, 187).

Districts cooked their books on dropout rates, test score increases, and teacher retention (Goldstein 2014) (Rooks 2017) (Nathan 2013). One superintendent successfully raised test scores by kicking out all the academically struggling kids in his district, earning himself $56,000 in bonuses (Nathan 2013).

School districts adopted “teacher proof” scripted lessons from Success for All. These lessons “provide prescriptive day-to-day, even minute-to-minute schedules for teachers to follow” (Goldstein 2014, 186). Kati Haycock—along with organizations like The Education Trust—expounded a “teacher accountability agenda” throughout the 1990s. One that smeared urban teachers as incompetent, lazy, and uncaring (Goldstein 2014, 184). Teacher pay has stagnated since 1996 (Allegretto 2022). That is no coincidence. Deskilling is a feature of industrialization. If workers are nearly indistinguishable from machines, you can justify paying them like shit.

NCLB caused many of these changes, but its passage also rode on the effects of 1990s market reforms. Clinton campaigned on education reform, signing the Improving America’s Schools Act and Goals 2000. These laws set the agenda in education and created enforcement mechanisms—usually through market schemes and privatization. Over one thousand schools had adopted Success for All by 1999 (Viadero 1999). And as the tech sector industrialized, there was more student and teacher data to analyze. The law explicitly required massive, and constant, data collection by schools (Goldstein 2014). But NCLB did collapse the foundations of the transformative gains unionized teachers had made in the Strike Wave Era.

The rich kids are coming for our jobs! Teach for America

Teach for America (TFA) undermined the professionalism teachers had won less than 20 years before by creating “alternative” staffing pipelines into teaching. Wendy Kopp founded TFA in 1989. She was not a teacher. In fact, she was an Ivy League graduate (Goldstein 2014). At a 1988 conference, she and other students soon to ascend the corporate ladder saw news about the teacher shortages of their time. They wondered if they were the solution to the crisis.

There was just one problem: these college kids soon to fill suits and board rooms weren’t education majors. And—in their eyes—you couldn’t get ahead with an education degree (Goldstein 2014). None wanted to permanently diverge from their luxurious futures.

Kopp’s strategy brought elite students into education with the promise of enhanced resumes (Goldstein 2014). Only the top fifteen percent of top college graduates are accepted. Teach for America then sends these rich kids into poor school districts for two years with five weeks of training.

There was never any intention to entice people to stay in education (Goldstein 2014). Most step back into their lucrative career paths in politics, law, and economics. Those who stayed became administrators and education policy writers. Some spawned their own education corporations like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) (Goldstein 2014).

Kopp was a businesswoman at heart. She excelled at securing funding from corporate donors and philanthropic foundations. Unfortunately, she applied these lessons to education. Merck, Chrysler, Morgan Stanley, Hertz, Carnegie, Kellogg, and other corporate foundations signed on early (Goldstein 2014). By 1990 she’d raised almost $2 million. Revenues shot up soon after.

Teach for America destabilized the teaching workforce, cementing an image of teaching as a lower career path (Goldstein 2014). For elite students, teaching was just a steppingstone—earning some social justice points along the way, as perks. Their actions helped reopen the teaching workforce to the American impulse to punish, punish, punish. Job security won through intense and militant union action eroded. For every fellow, school districts and charters paid TFA thousands (Goldstein 2014) (Cohen 2015). Meanwhile, Kopp and other entrepreneurs built powerful lobbying arms to ensure education policy was made by the rich, for the rich. By 2013, public school teachers were twice as likely to be fired compared to private sector employees. They were ten times more likely to be fired than federal government workers (Goldstein 2014).

Feeding Frenzy: Obama and Trump turn up the Heat, 2009-today

The lobbying arms of education industrialists convened an “unholy alliance of liberals and conservatives to push for ‘flexibility’” and freedom “in curriculum, teacher salaries, and hiring and firing-in the name of measurable student achievement” (Givan 2014, 70). In other words: freedom for the exploiter, and tyranny for the toiler. Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II had already created a poisoned environment based on high stakes, standardized testing. But the carnage of the Great Recession enabled truly bipartisan offensives against organized teachers. Organized labor serves as an essential storehouse of revolutionary workers consciousness. It must be exterminated for fascism to achieve its objectives. With private sector unions essentially destroyed by the time the Great Recession hit, public sector unions were alone.

Calls for crushing the teachers' unions became ubiquitous after the most devastating economic panic since the 1930s. The right wing had been at it for a minute: “In the last several election cycles, it has become de rigueur for right-wing candidates to express their anger at teachers and their unions, blaming them for any and all ills of public education, and characterizing them as resistant to change” (Givan 2014). Now they became truly vicious. Scott Walker’s Act 10 legislation gutted teachers’ pensions to balance the state’s budget and pitted private sector workers against public sector ones. Crisis justified harsh, damaging austerity.

(Shanker Institute 2017).

Democrats now got in on the feeding frenzy. Boldly “‘taking on’ teachers' unions has become a popular activity for a number of prominent Democrats” (Givan 2014, 70) such as Rahm Emmanuel, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Cory Booker, and Adrian Fenty” (Givan 2014, 72). Their assaults didn’t stop with rhetoric.

Obama further loosened restraints on private business in education with the Race to the Top funding program. To access the money, districts and states had to “recalibrate their education policies around such things as charter schools and teacher accountability programs” (Shelton 2017, 196). It intensified the Bush Dynasty’s testing regimens, curriculum narrowing, and school closures (Rooks 2017).

Teachers were singled out. In the years since NCLB, intellectual engineers at universities, foundations, and research facilities devised ways to correlate standardized testing data to individual teacher—rather than school or district— performance (Goldstein 2014). Teachers could now be disciplined and fired according to ‘objective’ criteria. Which, in reality, varied from state to state and district to district (Goldstein 2014).

Administrations implemented invasive observation methods and effectiveness scores.

If you fail to rate “effective” at many schools, especially charter schools, you’re gone (Rooks 2017). Teachers have nothing to do with the formulation of these assessments. Groups like the National Comprehensive Center work with education agencies at different administrative levels, testing companies like Educational Testing Service (ETS), education non-profits like Learning Point, and elite universities like Vanderbilt to design them.

Financialization and Monopolization

Charter school companies have been in a prolonged period of expansion in scale since 2008. Continued access to venture capital and foundation funding has combined with Obama’s deregulation and privatization. Education companies are popping up like weeds using billions of taxpayer dollars (Scheuric, Elfriech, and Scott 2008).

The Mind Trust, a Charter Management Organization (CMO) founded in Indianapolis in 2006, has been spawning companies in its own image since 2011. They have founded over 36 CMOs. Starting in 2012, they hollowed out Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) by running and lavishly funding “candidates for the school board, with all of their candidates winning” to the point “IPS now completely operates in terms of the Mind Trust agenda to destroy traditional schools, charterize the district, and eliminate the teachers’ union” (Scheuric, Elfriech, and Scott 2008).

With Indianapolis saturated, some of these charters sought new markets. Phalen Leadership Academies (PLA) offers a telling example. Its CEO sought out new markets in Detroit, Michigan, Texas, Alabama, and Washington D.C. Places that already have thriving charter sectors and complicit local governments (Jason 2017) (Graham 2018) (Collins 2022). It’s an updated version of imperialism and colonialism with a new frontier in the urban centers. Their “support for gentrification to attract young white folks to the city” directly displaces and destroys Black American communities (Scheuric, Elfriech, and Scott 2008, 2).

Industrialized education is spreading internationally, too. Wendy Kopp is exporting TFA as quasi-franchises (Goldstein 2014). Online learning is going global. K12 is expanding into the Global South, for example (Albert Shanker Institute 2017) (K12 2010). At the same time, education workers around the world are facing escalating repression (PM Press 2012). Internal settler colonialism progresses without end, as gentrification and seizures of indigenous land intensify. While the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returned a lot of education authority to state and local governments. Even so, consolidation of private businesses connected to Wall Street have brought us towards a state of monopoly capitalism in education.

All factors of an industrialized part of the economy are now present. By the end of the last decade, there were over three million public school teachers, almost 300,000 charter schoolteachers, and over 500,000 private school teachers. That’s not to mention paraeducators, food service workers, interventionists, and custodial staff. Over six million workers total (Loeb 2016). There were over 360,000 library workers and over 700,000 museum workers (Melon Foundation 2017). Just under five million work in post-secondary education. Tutors add another million to the total (Organisciak 2019). There are around 200,000 curriculum developers. Less than 1,000 education policy analyst jobs exist (BLS 2022) (Roberts 2019) (BLS 2022). A little under a million administrators (Department for Professional Employees 2019). That’s an industry comprising at least 15 million workers and managers. The scale of raw material is vast, too: over 80 million students.

K12 makes annual profits of over $849 million as of 2017—it’s likely over a billion now.  Over $100 million of that profit comes from their failing virtual schools (Rooks 2017). A leader at KIPP schools in DC killed himself after embezzling $2.2 million to buy himself cars, property, and other expensive things (Ravitch 2022). Good riddance. Ominously, higher education has been identified at the Davos Conferences as the third most potentially profitable sector in the global economy (Albert Shanker Institute 2017). Overall, the education industry is worth $1.4 trillion domestically and $5.6 trillion globally (Zion Market Research 2022).

Education Technology Startups (CB Insights 2012)

Trump and the Remobilization of the Public Boss Class

Donald Trump needs no introduction. One of his henchmen is Betsy Devos, who he appointed as Secretary of the Department of Education. Devos is rightly detested. She called public education a “dead end” in a 2015 speech at the SXSWedu conference (Strauss 2016). Devos described education “as an ‘industry’”, rhetoric that was “in line with the corporate education reformers—including those in the Obama administration—who believe public schools should be viewed as businesses with competition from the outside” (Strauss 2016). Her words are worth quoting in fuller form:

It’s a battle of Industrial Age versus the Digital Age. It’s the Model T versus the Tesla. It’s old factory model versus the new Internet model. It’s the Luddites versus the future. We must open up the education industry—and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry—we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators…

We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it. As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Wikipedia, or Uber. We won’t see any real innovation that benefits more than a handful of students.

She was well received by the crowd and garnered lots of compliments during their question-and-answer segment.

Her and Trump’s material effects on state and local education policy were limited. Congress shot down her attempts to spend hundreds of millions of public money on private religious schools and voucher programs (Turner 2020). But their maneuvers at the bully pulpit were highly effective. Trump and Devos made an unprecedented visit to Kentucky to promote a state voucher law, for instance (Black 2020).

Rule changes under the ESSA only slightly relaxed the punitive elements of NCLB anyways (Stratford 2016). Devos wielded that remaining power to privatize more of education. The president of the AFT pointed out that the “Education Department still ‘insists on punishing schools that do not test at least 95 percent of students. Punishing schools when students [or their parents] opt out of testing is a throwback to No Child Left Behind’” (Stratford 2016). She overturned the Obama era rules protecting transgender students. On top of that, she rewrote Title IX to shelter students enacting patriarchal violence such as sexual assault from accountability (Turner 2020). Under Devos, the Education Department also screwed student loan borrowers over when she “did the administrative equivalent of throwing sand in the gears of Borrower Defense” (Turner 2020).

Despite everyone from Reagan to Trump to Devos raising the alarm about bureaucratic red tape, they sure as hell facilitated the growth of the academic-managerial class. From 2013 to 2019, the number of administrators grew 26 percent, even as staff shortages in schools and libraries grew more acute (DPE AFL-CIO 2019) (Black 2020). It’s not about educational quality or equity or accountability, but control over the production process.

Devos, Trump, and many economists crafted bunk science to convince the public that schools were safe from Covid-19 (Cartus and Feldman 2022) (Green 2020). Education workers and the communities we serve were then forced into unsafe buildings. Or fought intense battles to secure and maintain safer virtual instruction (Brady 2022). Once again, education workers faced a showdown with the public boss class—which reared its ugly twin heads: white, rural, small-time capitalists and urban liberal elites. These heads have more in common than either would like to admit (Blake 2020) (Cartus and Feldman 2022). Most education workers are now back in-person even as workplace hazards multiply.

Devos’s impact on commodifying education stretches back decades. She and her husband transformed Michigan into a new frontier for industrializing education. She and her husband “worked to pass Michigan’s first charter-school bill, in 1993, which opened the door in their state for public money to be funneled to quasi-independent educational institutions” that were nearly unregulated (Mead 2016). Over two-thirds of Michigan charter school companies are for profit (Mead 2016). Devos lobbied to privatize education through corporate reform organizations (Mead 2016). Dick Devos, her husband, is an educational entrepreneur himself, with his own charter high school (Philanthropy Magazine 2013).

West Michigan Aviation Academy, Dick Devos’s charter school

Betsy DeVos also “has a long history of backing virtual schools, including founding and funding groups that have supported the expansion of online education” while “Dick…was an investor in K12, a large network of more than 70 online schools” (Barnum 2016). Every legitimate researcher who has studied them concludes virtual charter schools produce “dismal” academic results (Barnum 2015) (Barnum 2016) (Rooks 2017) (Molnar et. al 2021) (Ravitch 2014). By 2016, one of its founders, Michael Milken, had a net worth of $2.5 billion. The money is mostly from public education contracts that fund his ventures with taxpayer money (Rooks 2017).

Florida is another frontier in industrialized education. Jeb Bush has spent the last thirty years pushing for virtual charter schools using dark money (Adcock et. al 2022) (Mencimer 2011). Bush is president of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), and former governor of Florida. He loosened regulations and diverted public funds to privately run virtual charters like Academica and K12, which “undercuts public employees, their unions, and the Democratic base. In the guise of a technocratic policy initiative, it delivers a…big windfall for Bush’s corporate backers” (Mencimer 2011) (Rooks 2017).

Democratic politicians in Ohio, Indiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and beyond have worked closely with Bush to promote virtual charters (Adcock et. al 2022) (Mencimer 2016) (Ravitch 2014) (Ravitch 2019) (Rooks 2017). In 2020, the liberal Washington Post published an article by Jeb Bush. It pushed virtual charter schools. He attacks teachers’ unions less than two paragraphs into the article (Bush 2020).

Enrollment at virtual charters grew during the pandemic as parents desperate to keep their kids safe fell prey to their lure (Yoder 2021). Even before it, “more than 330,000 students attended virtual schools in 2019-20, roughly 60 percent of them at for-profits” (Yoder 2021). Virtual charter executives have even been placing ads on children’s TV channels, leaving out any information about their total lack of academic rigor (Yoder 2021).

A war on public education and organized workers in the industry is coming from all sides. Conservative assaults on LGBTQIA+ educators and students are coming through mob actions at school board meetings and public libraries. They're a fascistic response to grassroots progressive and revolutionary organizing by educators and students. White affluent progressives in the cities are no better, with their continuing resistance to policies that would desegregate their cities’ schools (Blake 2020).

The point is to leverage abusive tactics to corrode already shaky job security. If you could get your license revoked because a parent reports you for teaching “Critical Race Theory”, you might just shut your mouth. You’ll probably then keep your mouth shut about other things, too. Exile to the swelling homeless camps or prisons can come much more easily than many imagine.

All the while, the education system of the United States is falling apart. Nearly everyone has started to notice. Educators are at their breaking points as they are subjected to violence on a daily basis. As the more privileged educators leave, those left behind face economic insecurity, dangerous conditions, and heightening exploitation. The industry is adapting to a high turnover model. Meaning the rest of us are doing the jobs of two, three, or even more people for pay that hasn’t changed in years.

Conclusions and References

Hidden in plain sight within the heavy book of American education history is the story of how education industrialized. For example, the heavy involvement of local, state, and (at times) federal governments to structure and regulate the education marketplace. This is a feature of capitalist economies. Governments of capitalist societies have always intervened to erect the parameters businesses operate in (Gross 2018). Public investment is key to incubating their ventures. Ideas, inventions, and other innovations are developed by the public sector, then auctioned off to private bidders. Just like how land stolen from the indigenous nations of the Northwest Territory was sold off to white settlers.

Public education is unique for how long it has held out as a public good (at least in name) against privatization. For that, we have the efforts of organized teachers and tens of millions of ordinary Americans (Blanc 2020). For a century and a half, they have fought passionately to protect education as a fundamental right (Black 2020) (Lyons 2008) (Mead 2016) (Mencimer 2011).

Ultimately, all these struggles illustrate the growing role class power had in shaping curriculum, staff discipline, and student population. Counter-intuitively, the location of education in the public sector played a central role in its industrialization. Capitalists could bring the coercive power of the state directly to bear on workers, students, and their communities. All while placing the burden of cost on the public.

Public money consistently served private capital. This is clear in the union busting frenzy of the 1920s. Corporations used the state to rob the schools. Teachers at underfunded schools then had to work harder and longer for less pay. All the while, administrators craft the architecture of our exploitation—enforcing the application of standardized tests, one-size-fits-all curriculum, arbitrary evaluations, and horrendous working conditions. Our students, especially those from poor or colonized backgrounds, are siloed into schools where they and the staff have few, or no, other options. The isolation of these communities enabled the capitalist class and their cronies in the government to generate capital from public education, reshaping it along the lines of industrial management and production.

If we care about our students, communities, and ourselves, then we have to take up that same struggle. Public education is one of the few institutions in American society and history that has, however imperfectly, afforded opportunity to all. Proletarians in this country a century and a half ago were mostly illiterate. Today, the vast majority have, at the least, a high school education. We have access to skills and new ways of thinking our ancestors did not. Let’s use them to not just save public education—but to transcend it.

We need truly public institutions. State ownership is superior to private ownership, but social ownership should be our goal. Schools, libraries, and museums should be controlled by the workers who operate them, in collaboration with the communities they serve. Our administrators and managers exist solely to abuse us until we accept our exploitation. We have nothing in common and we do not need them.

Find all sources cited or referred to here

Find parts one and two here!

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