A few weeks ago, I sat at the computer grumbling about the gay marriage frenzy – the hot topic that seemed to involve some sort of mass solidarity by sticking red Band-Aid-looking equal signs on one’s Facebook page. Here was a true civil rights demonstration – red Band-Aids everywhere. How boring.

As I walked down the block to meet my daughter’s school bus, muttering to myself about Emma Goldman’s “Marriage and Love,” a Washington Post headline popped up on my phone, “Barricades Erected Before Mass Protest Against Chicago School Closings.”

Barricades? Protest? I thought all we need are Rothko-esque swatches to speak in unison.

In Chicago, thousands of teachers, janitors, lunch ladies, parents, and students were amassing in Daley Plaza to disrupt rush-hour traffic. The city plans to shutter 54 schools, affecting 30,000 students.  Nearly all are elementary schools. And all of them serve students living in the poorest neighborhoods of a city infamous for a horror show of prison-like housing projects. Many of the 30,000, I expect, are the children of the children who grew up in the destitution of Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes, the Ida B. Wells Homes, etc.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel – the Sarah Lawrence College ballerina and Obama hack – ordered the barriers to protect the Chicago Board of Education from the lawless parents. (Chicago Public Schools also circulated a memo to principles, ordering them to spy: “Observe and report all information regarding possible protestors, locations, dates and times.”)

The Chicago plan is the largest to hit the nation. However, other cities have done the same: Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. What emerges from the ashes of your neighborhood school? Privately owned charter schools funded by taxpayers’ dollars. Charter schools typically hire newbie teachers, who are nonunion labor, and receive even more pitiful salaries than unionized public school employees.

The Chicago scheme reminds me of my town, Seattle, where the stench of big money is strong. Last fall, voters approved an initiative to siphon $100 million a year from public schools to fund 40 new charter schools. The charter school bid had been on the ballot for years. But this time, it was truly a battle of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent – or, more accurately, the 99.999999 percent versus the .000001 percent. And guess who won.

Turns out, the Washington initiative was funded almost entirely by five billionaires: Bill Gates and Paul Allen, cofounders of Microsoft, the parents of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Alice Walton, heiress of the Wal-Mart empire. The total price tag was $11 million. The Occupy movement couldn’t find a better real-world model of inequality and gross greed. (A similar measure passed in Georgia – partly funded by Walton, among other billionaires.)

Back east in Chicago, is it a surprise that a couple of these same billionaires emerge?

Hello again, Ms. Walton! She threw a half a million dollars at ads and robo calls to “educate” parents.

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation delayed granting $24.5 million to Chicago Public Schools.  Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, told the Chicago Tribune, “Given what’s going on with school (protest) actions in Chicago, the timing makes a lot of sense.”

A sleeper article in The New York Times dug into much of this back in 2011. Gates’ fingerprints are almost universal. He has bankrolled Astroturf “grassroots” organizations to tout charter schools, not to mention throwing waves of cash at think tanks to comb through research to promote the same. Gates also tossed a few million at the teachers unions to placate them. Brilliant.

What do these billionaires really have in common? A common distaste for unions.  Walton – well, that’s a no brainer. The Bezos folks: Amazon has crushed organizing campaigns over and over. Such is the case at Microsoft. Allen, who owns the Portland Trailblazers, smashed the 2006 National Basketball Association labor talks. “Here comes the Grim Reaper,” one union negotiator told Yahoo! Sports.

In 2010, Gates spent $2 million cheerleading the film, ”Waiting for Superman,” touching propaganda for charter-schools, and smearing Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.

What altruism. The charity of billionaires is a conduit for union-busting some of the most hard-working, inspirational members of our communities – teachers.

All this reminds me of Paulo Freire’s critique of education. He called it the “banking system.” The student is an empty account, and the teacher fills it with information. “It transforms students into receiving objects,” Freire said. “It attempts to control thinking and action.”

Now our nation’s schools are becoming bank accounts filled by the coffers of the most rich and powerful.

Published in CounterPunch magazine, April 2013


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