Guest Column: For sale: American public education — big discounts, free theme park passes

By David Stocker

Public education is undergoing the most significant revamping ever.

This moment caps 30 years of attacks on the rights of working people, two decades of deregulation, the suppression of democratic opposition, the greatest upward shift of wealth in U.S. history, the plunder of financial markets, and a double-dip recession that has destroyed middle-class America. It is a perfect storm. Education reform is fueled by billionaires confident the American people are on the ropes.

One tactic being used in Rockford is to focus public discontent on teachers. This hits a hot button for many on the receiving end of U.S. austerity, and draws focus away from the sleight of hand taking place in ownership and control of public education. But the reality is that public dollars once spent on education have been diverted to bailouts that enriched the same people who are now investing in companies buying up schools.

Rockford’s education restructuring initiative under leadership of Alignment Rockford has assembled a roster of local industry, nonprofits, Trade Unions Council, United Way, City of Rockford, District 205 administrators, Rockford Board of Education members and others. Alignment brings a new mode of governance in District 205. The mission is apparently to redirect education to better serve the needs of corporations.

University of Illinois professor Robert Lawless recently wrote: “The last thing the current ruling class wants is a group of people trained to think critically and to question the structure and conventions. …”

For the first generation in American history worse off than their parents, the question will be: How do we live in a society that fights to pay us less, drives costs of living up, and forces us into lifelong debt? With all the new spin surrounding reform, the means for funding education reform remain disappointingly old. If history is any teacher, the American taxpayer will be stuck with the bill for these adventures, both sooner AND later.

Alignment Rockford comes anew with a top-down plan to turn high schools into theme-based academies. Its coalition appears intent on destroying the teachers’ union as a precursor. Four years into Rockford’s unimpressive charter experiment, the same social engineers who advocated school closures to make way for Legacy, Galapagos and CICS are ready to unveil a major restructuring of Jefferson High School into quasi-privatized small learning communities (a strategy since abandoned by Bill Gates). We have no evidence that our charters save District 205 any money. Indeed, they are now trying to explain their poor performance to Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I). Alignment’s new deal is before us at the same time as the teachers are being forced to face a strike vote.

In early October, Alignment Rockford announced a fall calendar of public events aimed at turning the community against teachers. In November, District 205 posted to its website its explanation of the status of contract negotiations and attempted to construct an argument that 205 teachers are overpaid at twice the rate of the average Rockford worker. Reportedly, the district offered to remove their online attack only if Rockford Education Association President Karen Bieschke would instruct teachers to stop protesting at Board of Education meetings. Readers can see the teachers’ responses on YouTube: ROCKFORD BOARD OF ED FORCING TEACHERS TO STRIKE? Perhaps the most provocative display on the 205 website is a list of programs the schools could have but for the high cost of teachers.

No accounting has been made to the community of the cost of hiring and the generous payoff given to former Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield, the escalating cost of dozens of $100,000-per-year administrators, the misdirected Evans Newton Inc. ($5 million) scandal, open-ended $1,000-per-day crony consultants Peebles and Bingham, the failed experiment at Leadership and Learning Academy, a new expensive $2 million headquarters, the loss of career educators to the district, OR the cost to the community of a two-year struggle against a fabricated deficit crisis, the teacher firings and school closings it was intended to justify — all over just the last two years.

Alignment Rockford has side-stepped each ensuing wreck insisting they do not support charters, an assertion barely credible given their sponsorship of Waiting for Superman star Geoffrey Canada as Chamber keynote speaker this week. And that the founders of Alignment and the founders of Rockford Charter Initiative are one in the same. Alignment kept the Sheffield debacle at arm’s length, although those who engineered her hiring and directed her disastrous policies are prominent among Alignment’s governing board.

In her speech to her backers at the Chamber of Commerce one year ago, Sheffield made statements that stirred racial enmity. Now, the board turns this divide-and-conquer strategy to set the community against those who teach our children. Rockford should ask if the solutions to today’s problems include fomenting discord, degrading professional teachers, re-segregating students into industry-based theme schools, unequally distributing resources among schools, and the one-time discount selling off chunks of America’s system of public education to casino capitalists gambling with our children’s future. Yet, these are the strategies being vigorously promoted by Alignment Rockford now exerting direct control over the Board of Education.

David Stocker is a writer and musician in Rockford. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Cornell University and a master’s degree from Yale University.

From the Dec. 7-13, 2011, issue

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