Monday, March 16, 2020

What are You Going to Do when Disaster Capitalism Knocks on the Public-School Door?

“Schools will be closed until at least April 20, after the upcoming spring break, but could stay closed for significantly longer, Mr. de Blasio said.”

When I read those words in the New York Times article announcing that New York City schools would finally close, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. For the past few days, I have been a vocal advocate for closing NYC schools. Knowing the impact that closing schools would have on marginalized children and their families who only have public education as their sole safety net, I still believed that we must close the schools to stop the spread of COVID-19. But then it hit me that for some disaster is the only way to fundamentally alter public education. Disaster capitalism is what Naomi Klein warned us about in her book The Shock Doctrine. And we’ve seen this play out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria (they also tried in Houston but not sure how far they got). As that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach grew, one question formed in my mind: how many schools would not reopen as traditional public schools when this is all over?

Many children will do well online. Some will not. Many teachers will enjoy teaching online. Some will not. Many districts will like the benefits of online schooling. Some will not. I can’t predict the future, and neither can you. But what we can do is learn from history and history teaches us that public education is ripe for those who want to implement significant changes during the time of a disaster. So even if you think this can’t happen, I assure you some intend to make it happen whether you like it or not.

Some people immediately responded that everything would return to normal because parents need their children to go back to school, so this online schooling can’t last forever. But online schooling doesn’t have to happen at home. Online schooling can take place in a school building and still be very profitable for disaster capitalists. Now that they made sure to place a computer or a tablet in the hands of every child to have during the quarantine, do you really believe they will not want them used once students return to school? Or will they now have the data to back up their claims that personalized learning through technology is the future? Will they now have a solution to the teacher shortage, union demands, and need to fund pensions? Can they now show the consumer, parents, that this is better for their child than traditional face-to-face instruction?

So, what can we do now? I suggest we closely monitor the new laws exempting school districts from state testing and mandatory instruction days. What other riders are being added? What deals are tech companies making with schools to get the technology to the students? What does the contract say for after the pandemic ends?

We must also collect our own data. What issues did we face moving to online schooling? How did students feel? How did parents feel? What worked and what didn’t work? What cannot be replaced through online schooling? We must collect and share our own data if we are going to tell our own story.

I believe education does need to fundamentally change. The current system cannot serve who we will be in the future. We don’t need a generation of children who can memorize facts for a world that assumes life is a competition to determine who is smarter than a fifth-grader. The purpose of education is not to pass a standardized test to get into college. We need to move away from producing knowledge consumers to helping all children be knowledge producers. And that will take a fundamental change in how we approach education. So, I welcome change. But I don’t welcome the kind of change that disaster capitalism will force on us. That change is all about increasing the profits of a few at the expense of the many. That change will not improve our current system but replace it with a system that is profitable to the powers that be to make education a commodity. We know that education is a priceless human right, and we must do what we can to protect it.

I know there are immediate challenges regarding what to do right now in the face of this pandemic. What about seniors? Will they graduate? Will all students move on to the next grade? How will we know they are ready? These are valid questions that require collaborative thinking and innovative approaches to deciding how to move forward in an unprecedented era. What we can’t do is allow online schooling to be the only solution forced upon us. If we can rewrite laws to waive mandates for instruction and testing requirements, we can make sure all students graduate and promoted to the next grade.  We can restructure what the next grade looks like to account for the impact this pandemic is having on the current school year.  We can decide that this is our summer break and resume regular school in July (don’t hate me I love summer too, but we’re thinking outside of the box). We can create unique assessments that ask students to demonstrate what they know and have learned and show us that they are ready to graduate or go on to the next grade. We can answer all these questions without allowing ed-tech companies to tell us that online schooling is the only option. 

I hope that I am wrong. I hope that all schools reopen before the year ends, and everything goes back to normal. Actually, I lied. I don’t want a return to the status quo that doesn’t help most children. I don’t want a traditional public-school system that reinforces racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and all other types of oppression.  I don’t want a public-school system that is underfunded and expected to provide food, safety, and counseling to all children.  I don’t want a profession that is disrespected daily and abused because of their natural dispositions to care for others.  I want the Great Equalizer that schools are supposed to be. I want the institution that welcomes all students, cares for them, educates them, and prepares them to be active citizens. I want education for liberation, not schooling for capitalism.

Disaster Capitalism is knocking on the public education door. The best we can do is answer the knock on the door by using this pandemic to produce the schools we deserve. The least we can do is ignore the knock and let disaster capitalism do its thing. I know what I’m going to do. What about you?

Denisha Jones is the Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College. She serves as the interim Assistant Executive Director for the Badass Teachers Association and as the Director of Early Childhood Organizing for Defending the Early Years, Inc.  Since 2017, she served on the steering committee for the national Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. In 2019, Dr. Jones joined the Anji Play Study Fellowship program where she will learn about true play from the Anji province in China and become an Anji Play Ambassador.