Newsletter #68: The Path to Social Democracy Runs Through Public Education, with Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider

by William Harris

I spent the weeks leading up to Chicago’s mayoral run-off election canvassing my neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side. Brandon Johnson, founding member of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), the caucus that transformed the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) into the 21st-century US’s most radical and impactful union, faced off against Paul Vallas, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) known for journeying from city to city — Chicago, Philadelphia, post-Katrina New Orleans — to push the commodification of education and stoke attacks on teachers. It was an election about schools, how well they’re funded, and what they mean for our communities.

As I went door to door, I met people who recalled Vallas’s time as CPS CEO. He tried to shutter a school in the neighborhood that many of my neighbors had attended, and their parents and teachers had organized a successful campaign to stop him. It was no mystery to them: they knew what the election was about.

For Vallas himself, the election seemed to be about something else. A Democrat who occasionally identifies as Republican, Vallas was a remnant from a Bush/Obama-era bipartisan moment when “both sides” agreed on education policy: public schools were bureaucratic, costly, and outmoded, and needed to be updated through the resuscitating shock of the free market.

Now, however, as authors Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider explain in a new Dig deep dive on public education, this bipartisan moment has vanished. Centrist Democrats find themselves caught in the lurch. The old charter school approach no longer appeals to an increasingly progressive Democratic base (and an increasingly militant, anti-charter teachers union movement, best exemplified by the CTU), while the “education reform” movement has taken a swift turn to the Right, plotting ever new ways to defund public schools and chattering on about endless culture war talking points. Vallas decided the only way to gain traction in a Democrat-controlled city was to change the subject: he’d rather talk about crime.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

As Berkshire and Schneider argue, the upshot of Johnson’s CTU-backed victory — and of this new moment of education polarization in general — is that the path to social democracy runs through public education. With the demise of a bipartisan neoliberal consensus on education, Democrats and progressives have space to articulate an expansive vision of democratic social equality and the public good by leaning on the organized forces that in recent years have pushed for them most successfully: public-sector teacher unions. From Chicago to Los Angeles to Philadelphia, we’re seeing teachers unions organize for social-democratic political power, supporting students, parents, and educators not just through well-funded schools, but through well-funded societies: good jobs, healthcare, housing, parks, transportation.

If, however, teachers unions continue to be demonized and stripped of power, then a very different path for public education will emerge, as is already happening across many Republican-controlled states. From Florida to Indiana to Iowa, public-sector unions are under attack, as school vouchers threaten to disintegrate the very idea of a public school system.

Further Reading In addition to Berkshire and Schneider’s 2020 book A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, check out two books from Verso’s Jacobin series on public education and teachers unions in our time: Micah Uetricht’s Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity(2014) and Eric Blanc’s Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics(2019). Both books pair well with a 2022 essay by Elliot Frank and Jack L. in the Chicago socialist publication Rampant on CORE.

For further Dig listening, revisit historian Diane Ravitch’s 2017 interview on Betsy DeVos and the impact she’s had on corporate education reform.