Marxism and Education

Bilingual Education Under Racist Attack (January 2003).
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Smash Racist Purge of CUNY (February 1999). 
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June 2001  

For a Class-Struggle Fight Against the Racist Union-Busters!

Defeat the Capitalist Onslaught 
Against Public Education!

Teachers, Minorities, Immigrants Targeted

Parents protest plans to privatize Bronx school, 29 March 2001. 
(Photo: Tina Fineburg/AP)

The public school system is the focal point of an assault by key sectors of the U.S. ruling class. “Education reform” was a top issue for both Democrats and Republicans in last year’s presidential election, as it is in the New York City mayoral election this coming fall. Masked by phony pro-children rhetoric and squabbling over vouchers, there is a “bipartisan” consensus to “reinvent” public education to reflect the demands of the capitalist market. 

As usual, teachers are portrayed as the obstacle to high standards and improving schools. The fact that education budgets have been systematically cut back for decades, spending less and less money per pupil, goes unmentioned. Not a word about how American schools are being resegregated (insofar as they were even minimally desegregated), with minority students warehoused in run-down inner-city facilities. 

The privatization offensive includes free marketeers who push “vouchers” to subsidize private schools, conservatives and liberals who want to gut union gains with “charter schools,” and corporate execs taking over school administration to impose “accountability.” Republican right-wingers go after teachers unions as a whipping boy, while liberal Democrats want to lengthen the school day and the school year in exchange for a paltry raise.

This is the line-up facing NYC teachers today and teachers around the country. It’s not just about the need for a massive wage increase but a broader fight against a ruling-class onslaught targeting teachers and their minority, immigrant, poor and working-class students. The response of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association leaders is to embrace the treacherous “standards” rhetoric and try to cut a deal over “merit pay.” That is, they go along with the racist union bashers while pleading for a few dollars because of the huge teacher shortage. This is a recipe for disaster. 

A few voices are raised in opposition to “market-driven reforms” and in defense of public education as a building block for classless “democracy.” Such appeals to liberal/social-democratic programs of the past will go nowhere in the face of the holy alliance of New Democrats, neo-conservatives, labor bureaucrats and corporate chiefs. The AFT/NEA tops are not merely sellouts, they are consciously serving the interests of American capitalism – as they always have. They are a roadblock to struggle in defense of teachers and students.

The capitalist politicians cynically pose as if they are concerned with children’s welfare. Republican George W. Bush vows to “leave no child behind,” lifting a slogan from the Children’s Defense Fund, the cheerleaders for Democrat Hillary Clinton. This has about the same relationship to reality as the U.S. Army’s jingle “Be All You Can Be” or Dow Chemical’s talk of “Living Improved Daily” (through Agent Orange!) – namely it is the opposite of the truth. 

While appealing to the desires of teachers and parents to improve the quality of education, the capitalist politicians’ calls for “standards-based reform” are code words for a program to force out hundreds of thousands of students from the schools. This is the hypocritical frothing of the people who have kept schools from the South Bronx to South Texas (the two poorest Congressional districts in the country) in a state of deadening decay for decades.

Simply decreeing “standards” will not improve the schools. A New York Court of Appeals decision last January confirmed what everyone knows, that NYC schools are systematically short-changed compared to wealthy suburbs in the distribution of state aid. But this is also true within the city schools. 

Ten years ago, Jonathan Kozol noted in his passionate exposé of public education in New York City that the poorest NYC districts get roughly 90 cents per pupil from legislative grants, while the richest districts get $14 per pupil. He concludes that the present situation is “less a field of education options than a battlefield on which a class and racial war is being acted out” (Savage Inequality [HarperCollins, 1991]).

Kozol also writes: “To the extent that school reforms such as ‘restructuring’ are advocated for the inner cities, few of these reforms have reached the schools that I have seen…. Even in those schools where some ‘restructuring’ has taken place, the fact of racial segregation has been, and continues to be, largely uncontested.” 

Today the talk is of “reinventing” the public schools. But the real meaning of this rhetoric is even worse. New York state education commissioner Richard Mills and the others (like former regent, now NYC schools chancellor Harold Levy) who decreed that all students must pass five Regents exams in order to graduate from high school knew what they were doing. The effect of this and similar reforms around the country will be to dramatically increase the tendency to a two-tier education system, with more rigorous schools for those considered “college bound” and barracks-like “academies” for those tracked to be low-wage unskilled labor.

And it’s already happening, as every New York City teacher knows. In the high schools, the dropout rate has shot up by 25 percent in just two years with the introduction of compulsory Regents tests. Already more than a third of Latino and black students never graduate high school. At the current pass rate, the chancellor says that, “optimistically,” at most 40 percent of the students will graduate with their class. 
This could set off a social explosion, in a city where 85 percent of public school students are non-white. Denied a diploma, thousands of youths in the barrios and ghettos are thrown onto the streets with little prospect of getting a job. There they are prey to marauding cops who profile them, beat them, arrest them and shoot them down outside their homes. 

A fundamental fight is posed. Like the NYPD, Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his gang of racist reactionaries think they can beat up on anyone and get away with it. Already they have gotten AFSCME District 37, headed by a court-imposed leadership, to swallow “merit pay” supposedly in exchange for avoiding layoffs. Now they’re gearing up to strong-arm New York City teachers. Working in tandem with the mayor, the Democrats figure they can play “soft cop” and get the union to give up hard-won gains. 

The United Federation of Teachers leaders under Randi Weingarten pretend that by smart bargaining they will “get the money.” In fact they are preparing to cut a deal on Giuliani’s demands for “performance pay” (going along with the racist “standards” fraud) in exchange for a raise far less than what hard-pressed teachers need. Yet with a clear and present teacher shortage, the union is in a strong position. Now is the time to let the union-busters have it. 

This fight cannot and must not be waged by the teachers alone. They will face the strikebreaking Taylor Law, which prescribes jail for leaders of public employees unions who go on strike, huge fines on striking unions and on individual strikers. This union-busting law was used to jail UFT leaders in 1975 and against transit strikers in 1980. Weingarten is calling for lobbying in Albany to “reform” the Taylor Law. Fat chance. 

The response of labor to the scab law must be to turn it into a dead letter. To do that requires the militant mobilization of the 110,000 active duty members of the UFT (not just the 78,000 teachers but also more than 30,000 terribly underpaid staff and paraprofessionals), the largest union in New York City, along with hundreds of thousands of workers in other key unions, over a million students and millions of minority, immigrant, poor and working people in NYC. 

Together, we have the power to crush the racist labor haters from City Hall to the State House and the White House and defeat their escalating drive for the privatization of “public” education. But to do so what’s needed first and foremost is a class-struggle leadership.

Educational “Reform” to Serve Capital

When capitalist politicians talk of educational reform, the name of the blame game is always “pin the tail on the teacher.” Bush, a board-certified racist, sneers about “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and bandies about scores from phony Texas tests. Publishers churn out books like The Teacher Unions: How the NEA and AFT Sabotage Reform and Hold Students, Parents, Teachers and Taxpayers Hostage to Bureaucracy (Free Press, 1997) and Power Grab: How the National Education Association Is Betraying Our Children (Regnery, 1999). 

Mayor Giuliani, of course, is basher-in-chief. While unleashing the ghoulish Board of Ed “investigator” Stancik to frame up teachers for falsifying test scores or any other trumped-up charge, the core of Giuliani’s education “program” is to tie teachers’ pay to student test scores. Yet Hillary Clinton, the darling of the UFT tops, also “calls for national education standards and for linking teachers’ pay with students’ performance” (AP, 25 March 2000). 

The fundamental fact is that the push for national “standards,” “merit pay,” “school choice” and the rest of the “market-driven” education “reforms” is the common program of the partner parties of American capitalism. Indeed, although the drive was begun by the Reagan regime in the early ’80s, it was the Clintonite “New Democrats” who enacted the program under the name “Goals 2000.” 

The actual plan for national testing came from the Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC), the lobby led by then Arkansas governor Clinton which sought to ditch any vestige of liberalism in order to recapture the “Reagan Democrat” vote. It was embodied in President Clinton’s 1997 “Voluntary National Education Standards Initiative.”  

“Charter schools” exempted from union contracts – another Clinton program. In 1999 the DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute devised a plan for “performance-based federal education funding,” to dole out funds according to student scores on standardized tests. “Merit” pay for teachers is the logical extension of this program, so it’s no fluke that was embraced by “New Democrat” policy wonk Hillary Clinton. 

During the mid-’90s, Congressional Republicans under the sway of the right-wing Christian Coalition railed against any national standards and called for abolition of the federal Department of Education. What was decisive in bringing Republicans “on board” was the persuasive power of big capital. 

Clinton’s 1996 “education summit” of 49 corporate bosses and 40 governors was held at IBM’s conference center at Palisades, New York and called for “standards.” Leading corporations formed the Business Coalition for Excellence in Education to push these “reforms.” Prominent among these “reformers” were IBM chief Lou Gerstner and former Xerox CEO David Kearns. The Education Excellence Partnership spawned by the Business Roundtable and including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Governors Association, U.S. Department of Education as well as the NEA and AFT, has placed dozens of ads promoting national standards. This “unique coalition of public officials, business and teacher organizations” is the embodiment of class collaboration on education.

School Reform or Reform Schools

So what are the aims of the present education “reforms” being pushed by the White House, Congress and the Fortune 500? The purpose of all the rulers’ talk of “standards” is not to improve the chances for poor inner-city children – they don’t give a damn about that – but to make the labor force more “competitive” globally with its imperialist rivals, to “Americanize” the new wave of immigrants, and ultimately to prepare the population for war. 

The business interest is explicit. A 1990 New York Times article stated: “When it comes to reforming the nation’s schools, these days the leading radicals are likely to be wearing pin-striped suits and come from oak-paneled boardrooms rather than the ivy-covered walls of academia.” The article concluded: “The impetus behind the corporate embrace of education reform is concern about the quality of the American labor pool.” 

In 1989, a joint statement by President Bush and the National Governors’ Association declared: “As a nation we must have an educated work force, second to none, in order to succeed in an increasingly competitive world economy.” Although Wall Street fears of being overtaken by Japan, Inc. have given way to post-Cold War Amerika über alles triumphalism, the “education crisis” persists. 

Under Clinton, the emphasis shifted to the needs of the “new economy” of the “Internet age.” Combined with this was the bipartisan drive to axe welfare as a drain on profits. Thus the 1994 welfare “reform,” promising to throw millions of moms and kids into dire poverty, was accompanied by the School-to-Work Act to gear education to (low-wage) job expectations.

The neo-conservatives and New Democrats who together have designed the current reforms talk as if the U.S. economy will soon consist of “symbolic analysts” and “knowledge workers,” while manufacturing is shipped off-shore to low-wage Third World (semi-colonial) countries. In this view high school graduates with vocational training will simply be out of luck, so what’s prescribed is massive retraining and regearing the schools. 

The number of skilled, unionized jobs in this country has indeed been sharply slashed in recent years, and U.S. businesses are trying to turn Mexico into a giant maquiladora of free-trade zone plants. But the idea that the United States is going to become a giant Silicon Valley is an Internaut fantasy that will go up in smoke just as sure as wildly overpriced Nasdaq technology stocks did. No imperialist “superpower” is going to subcontract its fundamental industries. Meanwhile, along with herds of computer nerds they need unskilled pizza delivery boys and cashiers.  

The masters of American capitalism are intent on creating a far more sharply polarized economy, in which there will be a relatively highly paid technologically proficient petty bourgeois layer and a mass of low-paid service workers, while industrial wages will continue to be slashed in a “race to the bottom” in the name of “competitiveness.” It is notorious that under Reagan, Bush and Clinton, the yawning abyss between the pay of top executives and workers has dramatically widened. This is not accidental but intended. 

Clintonites like former Labor Department chief Robert Reich pretend that increasing inequality will be overcome by solving the “mismatch” of skills through increased education, but in fact the real pay even of college graduates declined through the recent “boom” (now gone bust). The fact is that in a frenzy to push up profits, U.S. rulers are producing a more “Latin American” type of social structure, with the famous “middle class” being hollowed out. Police are becoming more paramilitary forces, with heavy weaponry (tanks, attack helicopters) and occupation tactics (patrolling in convoys, hit squads) to match. And along with this shift, a more sharply bifurcated, public-private educational system is being created.

“Standards” and Standardization

The first element of this program is standardization through national and state “high-stakes testing.” In New York, education authorities plan to hold back large numbers of students who fail tests after fourth and eighth grade, and to deny high school graduation to those who don’t pass a battery of Regents exams in English, math, science, U.S. history and global history.  These education managers know full well that students separated from their age group and held back are far more likely to drop out of school altogether. Vituperating against “social promotion,” they are consciously creating a situation in which many students will flunk out and then drop out. 

Whole batteries of education professionals are being employed to dream up the tests. The Iowa Basic Skills test was deemed inappropriate – too many questions about farming. The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test touted by Bush turns out to measure far lower levels of competency than claimed, passing off a sixth grade math level as tenth grade. The Bush tests did solve the problem of the lack of textbooks that bedevils many New York City schools, however. For weeks before the big day, Texas teachers gather up all the books and shamelessly “teach to the test.” 

As for the college entry Scholastic Aptitude Tests, John Katzman, head of the Princeton Review test coaching company which trains kids to pass the SATs, says they are an “unmitigated disaster” which “measure nothing important and are biased in favor of affluent white males,” as the New York Times (19 April 2001) summed up his views.

Recently parents in affluent white Scarsdale boycotted the state eighth-grade test because they claim it leads to “dumbing down” the curriculum. But while rich suburbs may get away with gestures of protest, alternative “portfolio schools” in the New York City system are being forced to abandon their curriculum in order to teach the Regents. There should be no doubt what’s going on here: the whole movement to impose standardized tests is blatantly racist and discriminatory. 

For example, this year’s English Regents exam called for students to write an essay based on the idea that “as a frequent Internet user” they think agency grant money should be used to provide computer networking outside schools. While national statistics show that 95 percent of all schools now have Internet access, in many [NYC] schools the antediluvian computers are frequently broken down or locked up; the few Internet connections are seldom (if ever) available to students; and if they do manage to log on, what students can actually see is rigidly controlled by a censorship program designed by a Christian fundamentalist in North Carolina which bans words like “breast.” 

The idea that students with little or no access to computers or the Internet should be required to write such an essay (in which they must integrate information from a table of URLs!) is grotesque. But then, the year before, students were supposed to write an essay about the “power of nature” based on a story about a snowstorm. In one class in the Bronx, students from the Caribbean had never seen snow (the first snowfall occurred two days after the test). In another case they were asked to describe their feelings at seeing a Colorado desert storm. (Is that like watching smoke belching from the asthma-producing Mott Haven toxic waste incinerator?) 

The purpose of such standardized tests is not to measure achievement but to enforce exclusion, from four-year college, from high school and now even from junior high. After all, there’s no point in having the tests unless someone fails, and guess who that will be. Unionized teachers should ally with parents to denounce the racist discrimination of high-stakes standardized testing. Instead, beginning with their long-time leader Al Shanker, the UFT and AFT have supported the fraud of “standards-based” educational reform as they march in lock-step with the Department of Education and the “business community.” 

Forced “Americanization”

A second element of current “reform” plans is forced “Americanization” of immigrant students. U.S. capitalism has attracted millions of immigrants, both legal and “illegal,” from Latin America, Asia and Africa to provide low-wage labor. This immigration boom has meant that in New York City, a majority of students are foreign-born or come from first-generation immigrant families, where in most cases English is not spoken at home. While the bosses are eager to gouge workers by paying minimum and sub-minimum wages, they are worried about their ability to control millions of oppressed and exploited immigrants. Hence the “crisis” over bilingual education. 

This is a totally manufactured issue. Immigrant adults and children are eager to learn English – the real problem is lack of space in courses. Only 16 percent of NYC students are enrolled in ESL (English as a second language) or bilingual classes. Those who do go through the program score better on standardized tests than non-native speakers who are dumped into general classes without preparation. The enthusiasm of Giuliani and other racists for sink-or-swim “total immersion” programs is purely political. In addition to denying essential social services to “illegal” immigrants, they want to break any “foreign” cultural ties. Instead of bowing to this xenophobia, the union should defend bilingual education against racist attacks and demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants.


Along with the criminalization of minority youth goes an increasing militarization of the schools, particularly ghetto schools. Already police infest New York City schools, and Giuliani is pushing for the cops to take over discipline so they can carry out arrests inside the school buildings. Around the country, schools are doling out behavioral pills like Ritalin to drug undisciplined kids into submission, based on dubious diagnoses of “attention deficit disorder.” Pseudo-psychological categorizations are used to classify hundreds of thousands of troublesome youth, overwhelmingly racial minorities, as “special education” cases to be removed from the classroom. 

And long before the current “security” frenzy, following the 1992 Los Angeles upheaval, General Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now U.S. secretary of state and a multimillionaire who sat on the boards of several leading defense contractors, set in motion a massive expansion of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps in urban high schools. The purpose of the JROTC program is to put inner-city youth into uniform and get them used to barracks discipline. They are being trained to be cannon fodder in a future war. Any union worth its salt would demand cops and military out of the schools.


The centerpiece of the current reforms is privatization of school operation and corporate control of the public schools. Bush’s “voucher” plan may play well with the Christian Coalition, but the vast majority of students would remain in the public schools. The corporation chiefs understand this, so their thrust is to take more direct control of the “public” school system. This is symbolized by the naming of Harold Levy, an executive of the Citigroup investment firm with no educational experience, as chancellor of the New York City school system, the largest in the country. (Board of Education member Terri Thomson also works for Citigroup.) 

Meanwhile, the new superintendent of the second-largest public school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District, is former Colorado governor Roy Romer. The head of the San Diego schools is the former U.S. attorney for the area. The Chicago school schools “chief executive officer” is the former budget director in Mayor Richard Daly’s administration. In all cases, these businessmen, politicians and prosecutor were backed by business interests, and in all cases they have gone after the teachers unions.

Then there is the Edison Corporation headed by Benno Schmidt, the conservative former Yale president, Giuliani pal and executor of the racist purge of CUNY (see The Internationalist No. 7, April-May 1999). Edison and similar outfits see the public education system as a promising new “profit platform,” just like health care was a few years ago. (They refer to themselves as “education management organizations,” or EMOs analogous to HMOs.) 

Edison proposes to make millions by milking federal, state and local education budgets, just like defense contractors do with the Pentagon budget. But while it may promise more bang for the educational buck, its delivery vehicles have never lifted off. In New York, the Edison operation blew up on the launching pad. While Levy went through the motions, opponents actively organized. Parents in Harlem, Crotona Park, Flatbush, Crown Heights and Bushwick understood that their children were going to get short-changed to fill Edison’s coffers. When the Board of Ed finally revealed the results, more than 80 percent of those who voted said no to privatization. 

Public school privatization under any guise is a racist, union-busting plot. The “charter schools” favored by the Clintonites are at best “privatization lite.” Like Edison they rip up union contracts, pay teachers miserable wages (resulting in high turnover), have high-handed administrations, select their students to jack up test scores, and frequently foster a boot-camp atmosphere.  


While there are many variations, the common thread to these schemes is the idea of “contracting out” public education. And just like “out-sourcing” by manufacturers, the central target is the union. This is made crystal clear by a RAND Corporation monograph by Paul Hill titled Reinventing Public Education (1995) produced in conjunction with the Chicago school “reform” plan. Hill writes:

“Teachers will become independent professionals selling their services to schools. Unions will become brokers who help match teachers and schools….

“Crippling teacher strikes are possible, but not inevitable. Properly introduced, contracting can gain widespread teacher support and isolate intransigent local union leaders and senior teachers who cannot or will not produce excellent work to justify high pay.”

Charter schools, EMOs, merit pay (see back page) are all thinly disguised schemes to break the power of teachers unions and run the schools according to the latest “market standards.” A century ago, Lancasterian schools reproduced the life of a factory. Today staffing agencies lobby in Albany for the Workforce Investment Act to expand adult education to train…temps

The RAND study was supported by the Lilly Foundation, which is part of a web of conservative and far-right outfits including the Bechtel Foundation, Adolph Coors Foundation, Pew Freedom Trust, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Olin Foundation, Manhattan Institute and Hudson Institute who are funding and planning to privatize and corporatize the “public” schools. Together with IBM, Xerox et al. they have drawn up designs for “break-the-mold” schools, “New American Schools” and the like. 

“Right Thinking” and Racism

In these schools they will indoctrinate students with right-thinking lessons. Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education in the Bush Sr. administration and one the most prominent “theoreticians” of the anti-“progressive education” movement, was asked at a 1996 Toronto meeting on the history of education how standards would be set for history teaching. Her response: “I want the right attitudes developed by history instruction” (from Joel Spring, Political Agendas for Education [1997]). You can bet your bottom dollar that “right attitudes” does not include a teacher presenting a rigorous and sympathetic analysis of Marxism.

Or of any other movement of the exploited and oppressed for that matter. For these would-be reinventers of the public schools are racist to the core. This is the same crowd that has opposed affirmative action to diversify the student body of law schools or medical schools, and pushed through the elimination of open admissions at New York’s City University. These are the forces that sank the “Rainbow Curriculum” in the NYC public schools for being “soft on homosexuality.” 

The reactionary “reformers” and their right-wing financiers are also the backers and colleagues of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, whose book The Bell Curve (1994) purports to provide statistical proof of inherited intelligence and the alleged inferiority of the lower orders. Herrnstein’s “research” was supported by the Pioneer Fund, set up in 1937 by an admirer of Hitler’s “eugenics” (racial “cleansing”). The Bell Curve was also financed by the Manhattan Institute, which acts as a Giuliani think tank, with Ravitch and Schmidt among its senior fellows.  

This right-wing coterie has managed to drive out tens of thousands of black, Latino and immigrant students from colleges and universities in the name of enforcing “standards.” Now they are trying to do the same in the high schools. They are trying to whip up an anti-immigrant backlash, they want to regiment secondary education and their immediate target is the teachers union. 

Again, the same themes of the Reagan/Bush “neo-conservatives” are repeated by the Clinton/Gore “New Democrats,” who also talk of “reinventing public education,” who pushed through a bipartisan welfare “reform” bill, as well as the 1994 “Effective Death Penalty and Terrorism Act,” the 1996 immigration “reform” and countless other reactionary measures. Reflecting their ties to the Democratic Party and their unbreakable loyalty to capitalism, the UFT/AFT leaders go along with the privatizing onslaught, at most dragging their heels. 

So long as teachers fight only for the most limited aims in the framework of pro-capitalist “business unionism,” so long as each sector of the oppressed fights only for narrowly defined sectoral interests, they will fail in the face of a bourgeois front stretching from Levy and Giuliani to Clinton and Bush and backed by leading corporations. But a struggle that takes up the cause of all workers, oppressed racial and ethnic groups, immigrants and the poor has vastly greater power than the capitalists, their politicians and their state. 

UFT/AFT Tops in the Service of Imperialism

The UFT in New York and the AFT nationally are run by a deeply entrenched bureaucracy irrevocably wedded to American capitalism. So much so, in fact, that when it comes to a direct conflict between the interests of capital and labor, the Shankerite bureaucrats of the AFT/UFT invariably defend the bosses. That is, after all, the role of the labor aristocracy that socialist Daniel De Leon described at the turn of the last century as the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class. 

The RAND Corporation, champion of “market-driven educational reform,” cites as an example of “national union leaders [who] have anticipated such changes” a 1990 article by Al Shanker, “A Proposal for Using Incentives to Restructure Our Public Schools.” Who can be surprised, then, when Shankerites Sandy Feldman and Randi Weingarten come out for “school-based” merit pay?

Many thousands of dedicated, anti-racist teachers desire to aid their students in gaining access to the accumulated knowledge of bourgeois society. By and large they seek “educational reform,” but of a “progressive” sort counterposed to the blatantly regressive policies now being pushed from Washington and Wall Street. Yet they fight the capitalist offensive piecemeal, denouncing the “prison-industrial complex,” “zero tolerance policies,” “Eurocentric curriculum” and the like when these are only aspects of the overall capitalist society in this period of imperialist decay. 

It has been widely reported that in the decade from 1988 to 1998, New York State spent $761 million on prisons while its spending on public universities declined by $615 million (and tuition doubled). This is presented as a matter of legislative spending priorities in Albany. The implicit program is the reformist “butter or guns,” as German Social Democrats put it before World War I. But jails instead of schools is not a matter of budget “reallocation,” it reflects the class interests of the bourgeoisie. 

The AFT/UFT leadership proclaims itself a “partner” with its business and government “allies” in formulating the program of the bourgeoisie. In exchange for a “place at the table,” they are more than willing to do the dirty work for their imperialist masters. A pamphlet by George Schmidt, The American Federation of Teachers and the CIA (1978) details how Al Shanker and his fellow Cold Warriors of Social Democrats U.S.A. (SDUSA) were deeply involved in union-busting operations by the U.S. spy agency even before taking the helm of the AFT. 

Schmidt notes in particular the work of former AFT International Affairs secretary Denise Thiery, which “included cooperation with the U.S. government in the coup d’etat that overthrew the Allende government in Chile in 1973.” The staff of the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department and the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), which acted as an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency in Latin America, was shot through with SDUSAers. 

The Shanker regime was braintrusted by Max Shachtman, a renegade from Trotskyism who broke from the Fourth International in refusing to defend the Soviet Union in World War II. Shachtman subsequently went over to open support to U.S. imperialism, in the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War. Shanker hired Shachtman’s wife, Yetta Barsh, as his administrative assistant in the early 1960s, and she in turn promoted SDUSAer Sandra Feldman. who eventually took over the New York operation. 

Providing “socialist”cover for the dirtiest U.S. government operations, the SDUSA’s paper New America, edited by Feldman’s then-husband Paul, featured Jonas Savimbi, Angolan front man for the CIA and apartheid South Africa. 

The high point of the AFT’s counterrevolutionary services to American imperialism came in 1981, when the anti-Soviet Polish “union” Solidarnosc set up a U.S. office in UFT headquarters on Park Avenue South. Lech Walesa’s outfit was bankrolled by the CIA via the AFL-CIO to the tune of millions of dollars. When Trotskyists picketed the Solidarnosc press conference in September 1981, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on “Communists and the AFL-CIO” threatening: “They should not be allowed to do so easily.”

That the Shanker bureaucracy aggressively defended U.S. imperialism abroad was fully in keeping with its role at home. This directly and grievously damaged the interests of teachers, notably in the 1968 teachers strike. That walkout was provoked by liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay, who embraced a “community control” scheme pushed by McGeorge Bundy, the Democratic Vietnam War architect who had gone on to head the Ford Foundation. Shanker’s railing against “mob rule” and “extremism” fed into the provocation, as did his appeal to Governor Rockefeller, who was behind the “community control” scheme, and his calls for protection by the racist cops.  

The immediate cause of the ’68 strike was the firing of a number of local union officials by the black superintendent of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district. When 250 teachers walked out in protest, they were transferred and non-union scabs hired. While virtually the entire left (including the Communist Party, Progressive Labor Party and International Socialists) opposed the strike and actively supported scabbing, Trotskyists defended the UFT strike against this blatant union-busting attack. But Shanker’s propaganda catering to conservative and racist fears grievously inflamed the division between the union and black working people, to the delight of the ruling class. 

Fight for Socialist Revolution to Emancipate All the Oppressed!

The Shankerite brand of business unionism, “professionalism,” virulent anti-communism and aggressive insensitivity to the concerns and interests of black people and other oppressed groups is based on identification with imperialism. Today, the AFT/UFT bureaucracy is the biggest obstacle to waging the sharp fight needed to defeat the capitalist onslaught against teachers and working-class, minority and immigrant students. 

New York City teachers have been working for six months without a contract. Weingarten’s “Unity” team refuses to go up against Giuliani, who cultivates a mad dog image the way Nixon used to, and they didn’t want to cause problems for Democrats Clinton and Gore in the 2000 elections. Now the 2001 municipal elections are under way, and the UFT tops parade Democratic candidates through the delegates assembly while short-circuiting discussion on merit pay. 

As they gear up to get a contract from Giuliani by the end of the school year, they pass out armbands saying “No contract, No respect.” What is that supposed to mean? We say, “No contract, no work!” To defeat Giuliani & Co. it will take a strike. And it can’t be a walk-through, but an all-out knock-down, drag-out class battle. To win such a battle requires a class-struggle leadership that has the program and determination to mobilize the power of all labor and the oppressed to fight a ruthless enemy. Instead, various phony leftists in mildly “opposition” caucuses raise only limited contract demands. 

Following in the footsteps of her predecessors Feldman and Shanker, Weingarten’s program of business (as usual) unionism and virulent anti-communism has meant that the UFT has gone along with anti-labor “reforms” from charter schools to high-stakes testing and now the introductory form of “merit pay.” Last time around, Weingarten rammed through a Giuliani two-year wage freeze by ordering a revote when the UFT membership voted it down the first time around. (Many of her cohorts in the Municipal Labor Council were even cruder, simply falsifying the ballots to secure their sellout deals.) 

To prepare for the kind of powerful strike action that is needed, the UFT needs an elected union-wide mass strike committee, with strike organizing committees elected by the teachers in every facility. Beyond organizational preparations for a solid strike, teachers must wage this fight by allying with doubly oppressed black, Latino and immigrant working people against the common enemy. You can’t defeat the wage gougers in City Hall and fight for quality education without dealing with the racist cop terror that minority students and youth face on the streets. 

The teachers union should be in the forefront of mobilizing workers power against the killer cops who murdered Amadou Diallo and scores of other young people. Instead, as head of the Municipal Labor Coalition (which includes the cops’ PBA), Weingarten hobnobs with detectives association chief Tom Scotto. We say: cops out – the bosses’ gunmen are the enemies of labor, minorities and all working people! 

Every day teachers confront the all-sided oppression of this capitalist society. No real struggle can be waged without taking this on. Teachers and all labor must fight the racist “workfare”system, organizing WEP workers into the unions with full pay and benefits. The fight against women’s oppression must include demanding free, 24-hour child care at school sites, which would benefit both teachers and parents.  

Above all it is necessary to forge a multiracial revolutionary workers party by breaking the chains that bind labor and the oppressed to the capitalist parties, principally the Democrats who falsely pose as “friends of labor.” That means raising a class program that goes well beyond simple trade-union demands to fight for a workers government and international socialist revolution.

Just as the bankruptcy of “business unionism” becomes manifest in a period when the bosses are ripping up union gains, a century of movements for “education reform” have repeatedly run up against the limits of capitalism. Virtually every reform has been tried – progressive schools, free schools, whole schools, no schools – to no avail. After decades of decrying “chalk and talk” – teachers standing before a blackboard and lecturing – the new “reforms” amount to “grill and drill” for standardized tests. 

As Jonathan Kozol noted in Savage Inequalities: “Liberal critics of the Reagan era sometimes note that social policy in the United States, to the extent that it concerns black children and poor children, has been turned back several decades…. In public schooling, social policy has been turned back almost one hundred years.” To put it another way, capitalism is in decay.

The fundamental reality was pointed out by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels over a century and a half ago: 

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production….”
The German Ideology (1847)
To fundamentally remake education in the interests of the working people and oppressed requires the overthrow of the capitalist system it presently serves and a socialist reconstruction of society on an international scale. Only in that way will the institutions and ideas of the present ruling class, which serve to justify exploitation and misery, be replaced by a truly liberating education that is not confined to the classroom but permeates social life and productive labor. 

This is the program of the Internationalist Group, section of the League for the Fourth International. n

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