Educational Experience

You’ve been indulgent,dear reader. Like Morrissey, I started something I couldn’t finish on Jan. 9. That week’s editorial, “Ring the Bell,” began to make the case against the rising taxpayer cost of exotic, for-profit alternatives to good, ol’-fashioned public education. I promised a glorious follow-up, in which I would share my own first-hand experience in the field.

Then, as I dipped my quill in its ink well and prepared to bare all, I was called to opine on the state of the mayoral race. Fair enough. But now, friends, we return to our regularly scheduled programming. Without further ado, Folio Weekly presents the thrilling conclusion of “Ring the Bell.”

Where were we? I had just outed myself as a former teacher, having presided over a ninth-grade algebra classroom at Southeastern High School in Detroit. (Don’t ask.) The school is almost famous. It’s referenced in passing in Jeffrey Eugenides’ autobiographical coming-of-age novel Middlesex. The author’s parents attended the school during Detroit’s industrial heyday. Like many of the Motor City’s boom-era buildings (those that hadn’t been touched by arson, at least), Southeastern remained very much as it was then—only older, dilapidated. The teachers did their best; administrators dealt daily with budget cuts. Yes, there were metal detectors at the entrance. Yes, there were a couple of gang-related shootings outside the building during my tenure. But inside, the students felt safe, even if there wasn’t much hope for the future. It was a comforting, ramshackle edifice.

The top floor, though, was a different world. Dedicated to JROTC, it was a shrine to cleanliness, discipline and efficiency. It was really a recruitment office for the United States’ biggest public sector jobs program. The pitch was understated but clear: Forget education—the armed services are your only way out of the neighborhood.

And it’s true. The opportunities for merit-based upward mobility offered by the military are laudable, but such opportunities shouldn’t come at the cost of killing or being killed on some dubious foreign battlefield. I don’t want to hear about bootstraps. No young person should have to put their life on the line just to get a level playing field on which to live their lives.

Now imagine if public education enjoyed the resources and support blindly given the military-industrial complex. A career in military service would be but one choice among many for young people in “underserved” communities.

Instead, public support has been eroded by decades of anti-union propaganda, and resources are increasingly diverted to unaccountable, for-profit services. During my stint in academia in Detroit, the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind program asserted itself. As Southeastern was a “failing” school, like so many others in the district, federal funds were funneled toward private, after-school tutoring services for our students—not into the school itself, where they might have made a difference.

It wasn’t a crony bid, either. Parents had their “choice” of providers. Each “failing” school held a fair at which educational hustlers could make their pitch directly to the “consumers.” Detroit is massive. It was a windfall. Legitimate tutoring agencies had to double their staff overnight. Other, fly-by-night companies were incorporated out of whole cloth. One suburban tutoring company executive, who would eventually hire me, said he had never seen so many con artists in one room.

“Buyer beware” doesn’t even begin to describe the cynicism with which “tutors” descended on Detroit’s neighborhoods to collect the parental signatures they needed to bill Dubya. Who’s the proverbial buyer anyway? At the end of the day, these exotic schemes have nothing to do with the “free-market solution” that Republicans traditionally champion. In this case, parents chose the provider, students benefited (or, more often, did not), and Uncle Sam foot the bill.

I should know. For several months, I worked on both sides of the fence: in the classroom during the day and in families’ living rooms afterhours. The latter paid a lot better, but there was no communication, no oversight, no accountability. It was catch as catch can.

And it was futile in the grand scheme. I don’t think it was even intended to succeed. It was intended as one more nail in the coffin of public education, part of the ongoing Republican subversion of shared, accountable outcomes. The Bush Administration was content to squander the money as long as it didn’t go to the schools that needed it. This particular program boasted the added bonus of not helping standardized test results for those same schools. Like Ray Liotta says in Copland, “It’s a deep and dark motherf*ck.”

What’s the endgame? To feed the self-fulfilling prophecy of “failing” public schools. What are the purposes? They are legion: to stick it to uppity teachers unions, to enrich private-sector cronies, to avoid public accountability (school boards are elected; think-tanks are self-appointed), to circumvent curricula that teach inconvenient truths like science, to keep communities segregated—and to groom underserved communities as grist for our military-industrial complex.