Educational Justice

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As a parent and teacher I’ve come to understand how the fight for educational justice is everyone’s fight, not just the teachers and students whose lives are most affected by the politics of school reform. Education is the foundation on which democracies get built, and quite often schools are not just epicenters of learning but anchor points for larger and broader social justice struggles. What happens to teachers can happen to all of us—eventually, in one form or another. And as Howard Ryan makes abundantly clear in his well-researched and readable Educational Justice: Teaching and Organizing against the Corporate Juggernaut, teachers and teachers unions have drawn the ire of rightwing ideologues and privatization schemers for precisely this reason.

With a combined total membership of four million, today’s teachers unions represent one of the last bastions of a well-funded and vocal union activism. It’s no mystery why the neoliberal ‘juggernaut’ launched by Reagan in the eighties took special aim at teachers and a purportedly ‘failing’ education system. As Howard Ryan notes, the historical trend is clear: corporate school reform from Reagan to Bush II and beyond is just one facet of a broader “bosses’ revolt” seeking to counteract perceived threats from global competition and domestic threats in the form of “grassroots movements demanding democracy and equality” (31-32). In short, Reagan’s mythical ‘nation at risk’ had little to do with failing schools but much to do with runaway corporate greed and conservative fear of a surging post-Sixties cultural liberalism.

The architects of neoliberal school reform have three goals, according to Ryan:

1. Education toward corporate hegemony.
2. Educate toward the market-based world vision or ideology of the school reformer.
3. Make profits from schools or spin-off opportunities. (36)

Standing in the way of these goals, of course, are teachers unions, which not only thwart the juggernaut’s forward progress but also make sizable donations to Democratic campaigns while lobbying on behalf of more progressive (by and large) educational policies. Ryan does an excellent job in Educational Justice of detailing the specifics of this struggle, and readers will walk away from the book with a clearer sense of (1) why unions and even individual teachers have been targeted with vicious negative media campaigns and (2) why teachers unions are essential to the broader effort to push back against this rightwing attempt to steal our children’s future.

Teachers unions, Ryan writes, “can provide a vital centerpiece for an educational justice movement,” and no other grassroots group can match their “resources or breadth” (66). In pushing for democratic school transformation as a progressive alternative to neoliberal privatization, Educational Justice makes the important point that teachers unions represent not just teachers but counselors, librarians, and others covered by union contracts. Moreover, to strengthen the movement, unions need to pay closer attention to a wider field of constituents—students, parents, the community at large—all of whom, Ryan duly notes, also deserve “democratic voice in schools” (82).

One of the central aims of Educational Justice is to lay the groundwork for finding that “common cause” among all those (all of us) who care about the future of education in this country. Anyone interested in learning more about how to organize against the corporate juggernaut will find much of value in this lucid, thoughtful book.

Howard Ryan, Educational Justice: Teaching and Organizing against the Corporate Juggernaut. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016.