Interviews for Resistance: On the Commodification of Education

Sarah Jaffe May 18, 2017

Elijah Armstrong, an organizer with the National Education Association, talks about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the push to privatize schools. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. Since elec­tion night 2016, the streets of the Unit­ed States have rung with resis­tance. Peo­ple all over the coun­try have wok­en up with the con­vic­tion that they must do some­thing to fight inequal­i­ty in all its forms. But many are won­der­ing what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fight­ing for a long time. They’ll be shar­ing their insights on what works, what does­n’t, what’s changed and what is still the same. 

Eli­jah Arm­strong: I am Eli­jah Arm­strong. I work with the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion. I am an edu­ca­tion orga­niz­er with the teach­ers’ union.

Sarah Jaffe: This past week had some inter­est­ing moments on the edu­ca­tion front. First off, I want­ed to ask you about Bet­sy DeVos’s vis­it to an his­tor­i­cal­ly black col­lege and the wel­come that she received, or didn’t receive.

Eli­jah: I was extreme­ly proud to see the stu­dents resist Bet­sy DeVos, despite the admin­is­tra­tion bring­ing her against their will and hav­ing her give a com­mence­ment speech instead of actu­al­ly being there to dia­logue about her con­stant destruc­tion of edu­ca­tion, pri­mar­i­ly pub­lic edu­ca­tion. So it was great to see the stu­dents stand up against that. I was real­ly inspired by it. I was real­ly hap­py to see that they didn’t just allow her to come there and it be busi­ness as usual. 

Sarah: She had made some par­tic­u­lar­ly, shall we say, igno­rant com­ments about the his­to­ry of uni­ver­si­ties like Bethune-Cook­man in the past, right?

Eli­jah: Right. Her say­ing that HBCUs [his­tor­i­cal­ly black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties] are [the] def­i­n­i­tion of school choice is just not true at all. It is a choice [between] decid­ing not to be edu­cat­ed or being edu­cat­ed. If that is what you mean by choice, then yes, that was the choice that was giv­en to folks. The insti­tu­tion­al racism that didn’t allow folks to receive high­er edu­ca­tion was the cause for the birth of his­tor­i­cal­ly black col­leges and for her to make it seem like it was the same as choos­ing between a pri­vate school and a pub­lic school is just real­ly dis­heart­en­ing and just shows her lack of under­stand­ing of his­to­ry and also even edu­ca­tion as an insti­tu­tion. That some­one who is going to be the [edu­ca­tion] sec­re­tary, it is very dis­heart­en­ing that she doesn’t under­stand the his­to­ry of edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States nor does she even have the time to want to learn that and actu­al­ly try to bet­ter edu­ca­tion, to just push the same agen­da that she has been push­ing since she was in Michi­gan, just destroy­ing edu­ca­tion because she doesn’t see edu­ca­tion as a pub­lic good, but more as a commodity.

Sarah: I thought the com­ments from the school admin­is­tra­tion were inter­est­ing, say­ing that they need­ed to make friends with this admin­is­tra­tion. And, of course, there was that pho­to op of [Don­ald] Trump with HBCU presidents.

Eli­jah: Right. They are always very good with optics and they under­stand sym­bol­ism. They will take the pic­ture with us even though they invite us to a meet­ing that actu­al­ly dis­cuss­es real­ly noth­ing and then turn around in the same breath and say some­thing like, Oh, well, look­ing into it now, that fund­ing that we said we were going to do may be uncon­sti­tu­tion­al.” They present them­selves as one way, but in the same breath do some­thing that is com­plete­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry to what they just did. This has pret­ty much been his whole admin­is­tra­tion. So, why [would] we think it would be any dif­fer­ent with us, I don’t know. That is just the game that he plays. It is the whole, Oh, I am with you,” and then in the same breath, I am against you.” It is a tac­tic they have been doing for years and Trump has real­ly mas­tered that and I feel like he has been doing well, trick­ing peo­ple with his false narratives.

Sarah: In the same week, we saw Paul Ryan show up at Harlem Suc­cess Acad­e­my, a char­ter school in New York and also greet­ed with a lot of protest. It is inter­est­ing to look at these two events together.

Eli­jah: That is exact­ly what I am say­ing. After you get every­body with the hor­ri­ble health­care thing that he just did in the House, you run and try to have Bet­sy DeVos go down to speak to Bethune and then you have Paul Ryan go to the Harlem Suc­cess Acad­e­my to make it seem like you care about black and brown folks, espe­cial­ly in edu­ca­tion. These are some of the shin­ing exam­ples of things that you don’t real­ly support.

Even with the char­ter school piece, char­ter schools work on very small scales, but not up to large scale. When you try to actu­al­ly pri­va­tize schools, which is what folks have been doing, then it makes edu­ca­tion a com­mod­i­ty. Then, it is edu­ca­tion only to come to grad­u­a­tion. You real­ly min­i­mal­ize and triv­i­al­ize it so that you can sell it to folks. In order for you to sell some­thing to some­one, you have to make them think that your ser­vice is need­ed. To make your ser­vices need­ed, you do all types of things that have been hap­pen­ing in edu­ca­tion over the years. It is always the first thing they cut to bal­ance the bud­get. It is always hor­ri­bly under­fund­ed. Then, some­body pops up and will be like, Oh, well, we should grade schools,” and Oh, well, the schools that we go to are dif­fer­ent than the schools that you go to. You can have the same type of school that we have.”

What has been hap­pen­ing in edu­ca­tion over the last 20 – 30 years — peo­ple talk a lot about the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex and about the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal-indus­tri­al com­plex, but folks don’t talk enough about the edu­ca­tion­al-indus­tri­al com­plex. Edu­ca­tion is where all these things come togeth­er and that is what we have been hav­ing for the last 20-some­thing years is an edu­ca­tion­al-indus­tri­al com­plex where you have all these busi­ness­es come in try­ing to pro­vide a ser­vice and real­ly pri­va­tize edu­ca­tion, which is our last pub­lic good.

Repub­li­cans have been doing this for the last 20 or so years. Espe­cial­ly DeVos. Michi­gan is one of the worst states when it comes to edu­ca­tion. I have vis­it­ed those schools and those com­mu­ni­ties and when you destroy a school, you destroy that com­mu­ni­ty. You can go to any com­mu­ni­ty in Amer­i­ca and I can tell you how good that com­mu­ni­ty is doing based off of the lev­el of edu­ca­tion in that com­mu­ni­ty. So, it is also, by design, destroy­ing our com­mu­ni­ties and also using them for jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in the areas where they do take over these schools and char­ter­ize them, all these new high-ris­es go up, pub­lic hous­ing goes away, and it is sup­posed to bring in mixed-income [hous­ing] and these oth­er words that they love to use, but real­ly it is push­ing out the poor peo­ple that live there, bring­ing in new folks, and the school is used as the hook to bring folks togeth­er. Edu­ca­tion is a huge piece that we just haven’t real­ly been talk­ing about enough in a real way that has real­ly been affect­ing, espe­cial­ly our com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. The destruc­tion of pub­lic edu­ca­tion is a direct cor­re­la­tion. All these things are direct­ly tied to it.

Sarah: It is inter­est­ing when you say that com­mod­i­fy­ing edu­ca­tion makes it all about that grad­u­a­tion moment. When you think about it that way, watch­ing the stu­dents turn their back on Bet­sy DeVos is also their turn­ing their back on that idea that this is just about get­ting your degree.

Eli­jah: Absolute­ly. I thought that was huge. That is what they are always try­ing to make it seem, that the end goal is grad­u­a­tion. But grad­u­a­tion is just one com­po­nent. That grad­u­a­tion sim­ply says that you are able to fol­low a process and able to do the things nec­es­sary to get a piece of paper that says you are teach­able and you have knowl­edge in a spe­cif­ic sub­ject. Usu­al­ly, that is what a bachelor’s is. For that to be the end-all, be-all of edu­ca­tion is real­ly sell­ing edu­ca­tion very short.

That is an extreme­ly busi­nesslike way of think­ing about some­thing, where it is just the bot­tom line. Edu­ca­tion in itself doesn’t have a bot­tom line like with busi­ness. With busi­ness you have a bot­tom line. It is a prof­it motive. Then, if you flip that and com­mod­i­fy edu­ca­tion, then the prof­it motive would be grad­u­a­tion. That is the bot­tom line. There is noth­ing else bet­ter than graduation.

But, we all know in edu­ca­tion you learn much more. You learn social norms, you learn things about your­self, how to fig­ure out how you are going to move and act in this world and be in this world. Through edu­ca­tion, you learn how to be social and make friends. You even learn the bad things. You learn about the bul­lies, you learn about racism. It doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be taught to you, you can see it when you go to the school­yard and how seg­re­gat­ed they are. You actu­al­ly learn every­thing about the world through edu­ca­tion. So, for you to try to bot­tom-line it, lets me know that some­body is prof­it­ing off if it. That some­one has a motive, they want a prof­it and sim­ply make edu­ca­tion about grad­u­a­tion. But, you go to these Ivy League schools and some of the most suc­cess­ful” peo­ple didn’t even grad­u­ate. So, if the bot­tom line is grad­u­a­tion and some of the most suc­cess­ful peo­ple in the world nev­er grad­u­at­ed, then edu­ca­tion clear­ly must be big­ger than that. But, why is it that it is being pushed to cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties that this is the only thing that mat­ters in education?

Sarah: One of the things that I have watched over the last few years is there has been a shift away from unequiv­o­cal, bipar­ti­san sup­port for char­ter schools. That there real­ly is a grow­ing move­ment in this coun­try that sup­ports pub­lic schools, that real­ly is will­ing to fight for pub­lic schools. I won­der if you could talk about that a lit­tle bit.

Eli­jah: I am a part of AROS, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. It is made up of par­ents, com­mu­ni­ty groups, teach­ers unions, oth­er social jus­tice non-prof­its that are all about reclaim­ing pub­lic schools and hav­ing the type of schools that our com­mu­ni­ties deserve. That is an ongo­ing move­ment that has been hap­pen­ing. We have been hav­ing walk-ins where folks from the com­mu­ni­ty, unions, par­ents, stu­dents, all walk into schools instead of walk­ing out. The sym­bol­ism behind it is that you are walk­ing in to reclaim your school because a lot of pub­lic schools aren’t friend­ly to the pub­lic, unfor­tu­nate­ly. Like, try­ing to get into some of these pub­lic schools almost feels like you are try­ing to get into jail, or some­thing to that effect, because there are so many restric­tions and the way it is run doesn’t seem as wel­com­ing. Not the type of school that folks want.

We are envi­sion­ing get­ting folks to envi­sion that these are your schools. They are from your com­mu­ni­ties. They are paid by your tax dol­lars. We should have ful­ly fund­ed pub­lic schools and we should have the type of schools that we want. Teach­ers shouldn’t wor­ry about hav­ing to teach to a test. Stu­dents have the pres­sure of these stan­dard­ized tests that we know are biased. All these things. Wrap-around ser­vices, because a lot of these com­mu­ni­ties are impov­er­ished. Hav­ing health ser­vices in these schools helps the sur­round­ing community.

We know what type of schools that we need and we are try­ing to get. It is a grow­ing move­ment of folks claim­ing and demand­ing the type of schools that we want and not allow­ing them to pri­va­tize them and destroy pub­lic edu­ca­tion. If they destroy pub­lic edu­ca­tion, if they pri­va­tize it, then we know what hap­pens when things get pri­va­tized. That doesn’t mean bet­ter. In most cas­es, it usu­al­ly means worse. Now, some­one has own­er­ship over it and they can decide and they can dis­crim­i­nate at their leisure because they own it. We have to keep edu­ca­tion pub­lic so that the peo­ple own it, so that we can decide what type of schools and what type of edu­ca­tion that we want.

With the rise of school choice” and vouch­ers, they are try­ing to take edu­ca­tion down that pri­va­ti­za­tion route because they are reward­ed from it. The mon­ey goes into their hands. They own the text­books. They own the tests. They even own the equip­ment that goes in the schools, all the dif­fer­ent soft­ware. It is a bil­lion-dol­lar indus­try. I tell folks, you spend half a tril­lion dol­lars as a nation on edu­ca­tion. That is mon­ey that won’t go away. So, of course, cor­po­ra­tions are always try­ing to find ways to get their hands on that type of mon­ey, because that mon­ey is going to come in.

We have got to fight for it and we have got to fight for it now. We have seen what hap­pens when you take away the fund­ing from these pub­lic schools and you put them in these char­ter schools that don’t have the same account­abil­i­ty. Some of these schools are fly-by-nights that are just lit­er­al­ly there to take mon­ey. Oth­er schools lit­er­al­ly destroy these kids’ con­fi­dence by con­stant­ly over-test­ing them, burn­ing out the teacher work­force because teach­ers are held to these ridicu­lous mar­ket-based stan­dards where their whole eval­u­a­tion is based off of stu­dent test per­for­mance and they under­stand that these stu­dents are com­ing from pover­ty, so it is not that they can’t under­stand and process infor­ma­tion, but they are deal­ing with so much that they are not always nec­es­sar­i­ly there. It is a lose-lose cycle for every­one. And then, they are deem­ing these folks as fail­ures on top of that. No one wants to be asso­ci­at­ed with any­thing that is failing.

There is a huge move­ment right now, like I was say­ing. AROS are not the only ones. There are oth­er dif­fer­ent coali­tions, but all of us hope­ful­ly are com­ing togeth­er and are work­ing togeth­er around demand­ing the type of pub­lic schools that our com­mu­ni­ties deserve.

Sarah: I was just think­ing about even the grad­u­ate stu­dent teach­ers who are hunger strike at Yale. This real­ly is every­where, even at the rich­est uni­ver­si­ties, you still have teach­ers fight­ing to get paid.

Eli­jah: I am not as abreast on that, I can’t real­ly speak on it, but I def­i­nite­ly sup­port what they are doing and bring­ing atten­tion to that cause. It just speaks vol­umes that even at Yale … When you think about inte­gra­tion, the only lev­el of edu­ca­tion that real­ly didn’t get inte­grat­ed was Ivy League schools. State schools and oth­er schools kind of got inte­grat­ed, but real­ly, that was a mon­e­tary thing. Tele­vi­sion came around, they were able to use that to get prof­its off folks through the ath­let­ic pro­gram. But in your Ivy League schools, whether it was sports or aca­d­e­mics, they still have real­ly nev­er inte­grat­ed tru­ly. They are still pre­dom­i­nant­ly white insti­tu­tions that folks of col­or still strug­gle to actu­al­ly be a part of because they don’t real­ly allow the space in a real way. I think what the Yale grad­u­ate stu­dents are doing is awe­some, to real­ly try to con­tin­ue to shed light on that.

Ivy League schools are the place where lit­er­al­ly the folks that run this world and cre­ate jobs for folks come from. None of the folks that look like me are there then that just lit­er­al­ly means that we are going to be work­ing class forever.

Sarah: We are look­ing at the Trump admin­is­tra­tion on so many lev­els: health­care, immi­gra­tion, depor­ta­tions, pris­ons and polic­ing, and now the FBI this week. Edu­ca­tion often has slipped off the radar with this admin­is­tra­tion. It would be great to hear a lit­tle bit more about what is going on with the edu­ca­tion move­ment right now. Where are there strug­gles that peo­ple should know about around the issue of pub­lic schools?

Eli­jah: That is the thing, edu­ca­tion inter­sects with all of those things. We talk about polic­ing, the polic­ing that hap­pens to folks in the com­mu­ni­ty, they get their first taste of that in schools. It is fun­ny how the whole zero tol­er­ance poli­cies came about was because of what hap­pened after Columbine when dis­grun­tled stu­dents decid­ed to, unfor­tu­nate­ly, take the lives of oth­ers and them­selves, but that was in sub­ur­bia in Col­orado. But most of the secu­ri­ty and things and mea­sures took place in inner-city schools. The places that actu­al­ly were the most affect­ed by the zero tol­er­ance poli­cies were places where none of that had ever tak­en place. When you go to the Detroits, the Chica­gos, and Philadel­phias and Bal­ti­mores, they have all these met­al detec­tors and things like that — but if you go to Columbine, I have been to Col­orado, there are no met­al detec­tors in those schools, but that is the school where it happened.

It makes you also think of, Who are we polic­ing and who are we pro­fil­ing and who are we pro­tect­ing?” You hear these hor­ri­ble sto­ries about school resource offi­cers con­stant­ly slam­ming kids and things like that. When you look at those videos, the thing that is con­stant is that the per­son that is get­ting slammed is usu­al­ly a per­son of col­or. Whether it is a woman or a man, it is usu­al­ly a per­son of col­or being slammed and it doesn’t usu­al­ly mat­ter the age. I have seen videos of a kid as young as 5 get­ting arrest­ed over a tantrum. A young lady up to 17 – 18 being slammed for being late to class. It varies.

To me, how folks of col­or have been treat­ed in the edu­ca­tion sys­tem is lit­er­al­ly a direct cor­re­la­tion of how we are treat­ed out­side in the com­mu­ni­ty. If we are crim­i­nal­ized in our schools, we are going to be crim­i­nal­ized when we are in our com­mu­ni­ties, as well. There is a correlation.

Then, we talk about the immi­gra­tion piece. That also direct­ly comes into the edu­ca­tion piece. Kids are being picked up, ICE raids are hap­pen­ing at bus stops. Kids are afraid to go to school or walk home from school with their par­ents or have their par­ents come pick them up because lit­er­al­ly they are wait­ing at these bus stops and fol­low­ing kids home because they are pro­fil­ing kids who they think are undoc­u­ment­ed and fol­low­ing them home and deport­ing them or their par­ents. That is hap­pen­ing from schools.

Or, you have got chil­dren who are being bul­lied sim­ply because they are Mus­lim or sim­ply because they are Lati­no and things like that. Those things hap­pen in schools. They are a microcosm.

To me, edu­ca­tion is always there. Now, whether it is talked about in a way where folks can see the direct con­nec­tions, that is dif­fer­ent. But, it is very preva­lent in all things. Even with the health­care piece. Most of the folks that need health­care also go to schools that are 95 per­cent or 100 per­cent Title I schools, in high­ly impov­er­ished areas that are all kinds of pushed togeth­er in one area so they are all com­plete­ly under­fund­ed. Those kids, their par­ents, their fam­i­lies are the ones that are suf­fer­ing the most from also this health­care piece. It is just like how now in the school sys­tem where they can do re-zon­ing and make sure all these schools are sup­ple­ment­ed with enough resources for them to be sus­tain­able, but they pur­pose­ly make sure that these schools are high­ly con­cen­trat­ed with pover­ty and then those are the schools that are always sub­ject to low test scores and the schools that need to be improved and things like that. But, if these kids don’t have the resources, you are lit­er­al­ly strip­ping them of their resources that they need and then call­ing them fail­ures and say­ing it is their fault. The same way that they are stripped and they don’t have the ser­vices that they need, it is the same thing that is hap­pen­ing with health­care. The folks that are the most affect­ed, those stu­dents go to those schools, they come from those areas.

All the things, to me, inter­sect at the edu­ca­tion lev­el. You can lit­er­al­ly look at edu­ca­tion and pick an issue and I can tell you how that plays out out­side of the edu­ca­tion are­na. To me, it is piv­otal. And, of course, I am biased because I am an edu­ca­tion orga­niz­er, but I see all the dif­fer­ent par­al­lels and tracks and how they all inter­sect, but we are not nec­es­sar­i­ly talk­ing about it the same way. What we are try­ing to do in the edu­ca­tion move­ment is get our folks to under­stand that. There has been a big effort for us to be a part of the immi­gra­tion fight and the Fight for $15 and the fight for health­care and the fight against polic­ing. We were even part of the big May Day cel­e­bra­tion that hap­pened May 1st where we were with all the dif­fer­ent groups and cel­e­brat­ing not only work­ers’ rights but immi­grant rights, real­ly try­ing to get folks to see that the edu­ca­tion move­ment has always been there, but we are try­ing to be bet­ter allies and make sure that we real­ly see our­selves as a part of the over­all movement.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you and your work?

Eli­jah: The Face­book page, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, you fol­low us there and get all the updates on what is going on in pub­lic edu­ca­tion around the coun­try. Also, you can fol­low me on Face­book, as well, Eli­jah Arm­strong. You can just type me in and I usu­al­ly pop up.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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