there’s nothing democratic about ed reform

Will Wilkinson has long labored to square the circle and advocate “liberaltarianism.” I’m more amenable to conditional alliances on particular issues with libertarians than your average lefty, but often these efforts amount to using progressive language to advocate for boilerplate libertarian ends. You can see that urge in this post of his guest-blogging at the Dish, where he surveys an American populace inflamed against racism and inequality and uses it as fodder to attack collective bargaining.

Now, looking at the tendency of the state to murder its most economically and socially disadvantaged people and declaring “you know what the problem is? Unions” is inherently self-parodic for libertarian types, to the point that I’m almost content to let Wilkinson’s post undermine itself. And saying that “Democrats reflexively defend unions” in a world of Rahm Emmanuels and Andrew Cuomos is so flatly wrong that I hope most people will dismiss it out of hand. It’s not 1975. Democrats have been bashing unions with vigor for as long as I’ve been old enough to be politically conscious. But when he says, “teachers’ unions block almost every conceivable democratic reform to the public school system,” he’s endorsing a much more widespread falsehood.

What is it about the preference  for crushing labor, making teaching a less attractive profession, and shifting public funds to private corporations a matter of increasing democracy? Wilkinson doesn’t say. It’s likely that Wilkinson knows that typical ed reforms represent a litany of failure– private charters, vouchers, merit pay, one failed idea after another. But democratic? How? The Gates Foundation and the textbook companies don’t, actually, represent the popular will. If anything, the ed reform movement has been an effort to pull more and more local control away from the people and hand it to institutions, corporations, and people who are not democratically elected at all. The Common Core, for example, is a straightforward attempt by the Arne Duncan types to undercut the local authority of public school boards and state governments. The only reason that the Common Core push has run aground, despite overwhelming elite consensus in its favor, is because of bipartisan, grassroots opposition. Local people refusing a vast takeover of learning goals is democratic. Bill Gates spending his millions to effect that takeover is not.

Or look at the Chicago Public School teachers strikes and attendant protests. Were these examples of people calling for ed reform as a way to take democratic control of their own communities? The opposite. They were local communities resisting Rahm Emmanuel, a prototypical reform-spouting antidemocratic political elite. An even better example is the efforts of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and celebrity politician Corey Booker to wrest control of Newark’s schools from Newark’s people. After a series of heavy-handed privatization efforts, enforced from above by Booker’s political power and Zuckerberg’s money, the parents and students of Newark rose up to defend their teachers and their schools. That’s people power. That’s democracy.

What makes “Mark Zuckerberg, Dictator of Newark Schools” democratic? Well, if you’re a libertarian, the fact that he’s bringing private money to bear to take control of public schools; the fact that these efforts inevitably involve union-bashing; and the fact that they transfer money from taxpayers to private corporations. That’s what makes them democratic. When you call corporations people and you act as though democracy grows out of wallets, privatization and shrinking government are synonymous with democracy. Myself, I prefer the traditional definition: when the people take community control over what belongs to them.