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How ‘segrenomics’ underpins the movement to privatize public education

“If we as a nation really took seriously dismantling underperforming school districts and replacing them with the same types of educational experiences we provide the wealthy, it would negatively impact the bottom lines of many companies.” — Noliwe M. Rooks

That is a striking truth at the heart of an important new book, “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and The End of Public Education.” It was written by Noliwe M. Rooks, director of American studies at Cornell University whose research includes racial inequality in education.

Rooks takes a unique look at the history of and the forces driving the privatization and deregulation in public education today — which is supported by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

She explains how 19th century Reconstruction-era policies led to the creation of separate, segregated and unequal systems of schooling — in which black children from poor families got inferior educations. And, coining the term “segrenomics,” she links that era to today, when companies and individuals are profiting handsomely from segregated and inequitable education.

Along with this analysis, Rooks looks at people and movements who are fighting segregated education and working to save urban public schools, and she argues that integration is the antidote to crumbling school districts and efforts to privatize public education.

Rooks, who served for 10 years as the associate director of African American studies at Princeton University, is an interdisciplinary scholar who explores how race and gender are connected to popular culture, social history and political life. Her earlier books are “White Money/Black Power” and “Hair Raising.”

Here is a Q & A I did with Rooks, followed by a podcast she recently did with education blogger Jennifer Berkshire, author of the Have You Heard blog and podcast, which is worth listening to for additional insight into the book.

Fascinating book. Please talk briefly about the central premise and why you decided to write this now.

I had been thinking about segregation, poverty and education for the better part of 10 years before I actually decided there was a book here worth writing. I think it was on my mind, not so much because of my personal experiences with public education, but because on Princeton’s campus, where I was working at the time, the topic of education and education reform was everywhere.

Of course, Wendy Kopp had come up with the idea for what would become Teach For America while a senior at the school and for many of my students, she occupied rock-star status. But it wasn’t just TFA that excited students. There were also charter school chains, and venture capitalist firms that were focused on narrowing the opportunity and achievement gaps between students who were wealthy and those who were not, and various consulting firms focusing on education policy and “reform” organizations began to recruit on the campus with success rates that rivaled those of the financial services companies. Really wealthy titans of industry (often billionaires) began proposing solutions and funding educational “innovations” or experiments designed to close the so-called achievement gaps. There was even a film, “Waiting for Superman,” that focused all this attention on struggling schools and communities and talked about fixing all this as an extension of the civil rights movement for our age. Initially, I was totally, and pretty much uncritically enthusiastic about all of it.

However, as time went on, I couldn’t help but begin to notice that the students who were most involved in much of the planning and organizing were white and came from middle and upper-middle class schools. They really didn’t think it was important to include families and caregivers and students in discussions about what they wanted to see in their neighborhoods, communities and schools, and so much of what was touted as positive interventions involved teaching students in these schools how to raise their hands, sit up straight, take tests, and learn to accept stringent discipline.

While none of these things in and of themselves are necessarily negative, I couldn’t help but notice the difference between what was considered opportunity leveling educational strategies in working class and poor communities, and what children in high achieving districts and private schools got. I began to wonder why in order to “save” students who were disenfranchised we had to offer them idiosyncratic forms of education that were worlds apart from the ways we educated the wealthy and privileged.

Then, I started to notice how interconnected many of the leading figures were in terms of educational backgrounds, philanthropic support and influences, friendships and this burgeoning business in urban and rural education reform. I thought these interconnected relationships were probably a contemporary phenomenon. So I went looking for earlier periods of time when the education of the poor was not quite so idiosyncratic, concentrated in the hands of people outside of those communities and not so tightly tied to business. I kept backing up almost decade by decade looking for a period when there was a sort of unfettered equality in education until I bumped into the beginning of tax-payer-supported education in the South following the Civil War and there was no further back to go. I couldn’t find it.

So then the book stopped being about telling the story of race, segregation and education in the 21st century and became a story about how we got here and about how we have overlooked the fact that providing educational products, forms and services to racially and economically segregated communities is today a multibillion-dollar business and that amount of money makes it difficult to seriously talk about ending educational segregation.

If we as a nation really took seriously dismantling underperforming school districts and replacing them with the same types of educational experiences we provide the wealthy, it would negatively impact the bottom lines of many companies.

Why the movement to privatize public education is such a bad idea

The “how we got here” is quite a story. You write that “we have overlooked the fact that providing educational products, forms and services to racially and economically segregated communities is today a multibillion dollar business and that amount of money makes it difficult to seriously talk about ending educational segregation.” Do you think it was overlooked or intentional? And how does that work? How does providing products, forms and services to these communities that are racially segregated perpetuate that segregation and make it hard, if not impossible, to talk about ending educational segregation?

Students educated in wealthy schools perform well as measured by standard educational benchmarks. Students educated in poor schools do not. Racial and economic integration is the one systemic solution that we know ensures the tide will lift all educational boats equally. However, instead of committing to educating poor children in the same way as we do the wealthy, or actually with the wealthy, we have offered separate educational content (such as a reoccurring focus on vocational education for the poor) and idiosyncratic forms of educational funding and delivery (such as virtual charter schools and cyber education) as substitutes for what we know consistently works. While not ensuring educational equality, such separate, segregated, and unequal forms of education have provided the opportunity for businesses to make a profit selling schooling.

I am calling this specific form of economic profit “segrenomics.” Children who live in segregated communities and are Native American, black or Latino are more likely to have severely limited educational options. In the last 30 years, government, philanthropy, business and financial sectors have heavily invested in efforts to privatize certain segments of public education; stock schools with inexperienced, less highly paid teachers whose hiring often provides companies with a “finder’s fee”; outsource the running of schools to management organizations; and propose virtual schools as a literal replacement for — not just a supplement to — the brick and mortar educational experience.

The attraction, of course, is the large pot of education dollars that’s been increasingly available to private corporate financial interests. The public education budget funded by taxpayers is roughly $500 billion to $600 billion per year. Each successful effort that shifts those funds from public to private hands — and there has been a growing number of such efforts since the 1980s — escalates corporate earnings.

What else did you learn while writing the book?

I kept finding out about young people and parents and community members all over the country who are literally giving their all to ensure that they and their children have a better educational future than they themselves had. So often the inspirational stories we hear about students and parents are only associated with charter schools, and rarely with traditional public schools.

For example, I learned about an organization comprised of white parents called “Integrating Schools” who are committed to sending their middle-class white children to economically vulnerable schools that are majority black or Latino. This is an example of “parental choice” different from what the term usually means. We just don’t hear about white, wealthy parents who think that racial and economic integration is important enough a goal that they make a commitment to helping the integration effort by starting with their own children.

Also, I learned that across the country, students are striking and protesting and meeting with elected officials and educational administrators in order to work with them to improve their educational experiences. I had to go looking for these stories. I don’t know if I would have known that they existed otherwise. I found these stories uplifting and learning about them is one of the reasons I ended the book with narratives of two students who I had taught in college, and who had both gone on to have careers in public education. I don’t have the last word in the book. They do. I think that is how it should be.

So where do we go from here? How do we even start?

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos?” I often reflect on his questions when thinking about where the contemporary paths we are traveling in relation to public education are leading. I think community or chaos are two potential destinations. We have to stop and reflect on where both our educational preferences and policies are leading us. We can either continue to encourage chaos by allowing our tax dollars to be used to educationally experiment on working class and poor children, and disrupt poor communities by closing schools, or we can embrace community by requiring that poor children are educated in the same ways as the wealthy.

The choices we make are will tell future generations much of what they will need to know about what our democracy means to us here in the 21st century.

What ‘school choice’ means in the era of Trump and DeVos

You can hear an interview with Rooks here. And below you can listen to a podcast with Rooks, done by Jennifer Berkshire, author of the Have You Heard blog and podcast, which tells you more about the book. Berkshire is a freelance journalist and public education advocate who worked for six years editing a newspaper for the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts. This first appeared on her blog. and she gave me permission to republish it.