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The Roots of Reform Revealed: Organized Coalitions of Major Corporations Launched by Lewis Powell in 1971

June 18, 2017

In “Who is Behind the Assault on Public Schools”, a compelling article from April’s Independent Socialist Magazine, the Monthly Review, Howard Ryan offer a thoroughly researched history and analysis of the so-called “School Reform” movement. Mr. Ryan opens his article with a solid, concise, and comprehensive description of corporate school reform:

The school reform movement presents itself as a collaboration among grassroots groups, business leaders, and private donors, united in an effort to improve education, foster a better economy, and help poor children escape poverty. Their goal is to “prepare America’s children for success in college and careers” (Barack Obama), “give low-income and minority students a world-class education” (Bill Gates), and help Americans “maintain our standard of living” (Eli Broad).1

For these reformers, high-stakes testing and teacher “accountability” are the defining metrics of success.

He then offers an analysis of those who oppose corporate reform, dividing the “progressive opponents” into three camps: those who view it as driven by profit; those who view it as an outgrowth of neoliberalism; and those who want to “…protect and advance white supremacy.” Readers of this blog are well familiar with the first two criticisms. For the time being, I am not persuaded that racism is a driving force behind the “reform” movement, but I do believe resegregation and the calcification of economic classes as a by-product of the “reform” movement. And while I am willing to give the philanthropists the benefit of the doubt in ascribing motives for their support for “reform”, I do believe that their desire to impose some kind of profit-seeking paradigm onto public education is deeply misguided.

The best section of Mr. Ryan’s essay is the one that puts the whole reform movement into historic perspective. He writes:

In tracing the origins of school reform, historians often cite the 1983 report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, commissioned by the Reagan administration. The report attributed the United States’ faltering global economic competitiveness to mediocre teachers and schools, and recommended that schools and colleges “adopt more rigorous and measurable standards.” I suggest instead that the school reform movement grew out of events a decade earlier, as part of a broader reassertion of corporate power initiated by major corporations in the United States and that would later spread globally. What one writer calls the “revolt of the bosses” came in response to two developments: first, falling rates of profit, as Japan and West Germany came to challenge U.S. dominance in global markets from the mid-1960s on, and second, the threat of democratic and anti-capitalist movements springing up around the world in the sixties and into the early seventies.

The bosses’ revolt was outlined in an August 1971 memo sent by corporate lawyer Lewis Powell to a friend at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell, who would soon be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, warned that the attack on the “American free enterprise system” is “gaining momentum and converts.” He singled out leftist college professors and especially consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who had become “a legend in his own time and an idol of millions” and, in the words of Fortune magazine, “aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatred, which is corporate power.” Powell’s remedy was clear and urgent: “Independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient. Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort.

I’ve written posts on Mr. Powell’s 1971 memo, which was originally brought to my attention through the Naked Capitalism blog by Yves Smith and has since been reinforced periodically in several other blogs. And as recently as a week ago I wrote a post on the “long game” that conservatives have played and are playing at the expense of public schools, which they have artfully re-branded as “government schools”, a term that reinforces the notion that “government is the problem”. The more times I read about this initial “Powell Memorandum” and the coordinated effort that occurred as a result of it, the more convinced I become that the for-profit corporate oligarchs have defined the framework for debate about public education. And they have done so by persuading the public that the effectiveness of public education and can be measured by a grossly simplified means of measurement: the standardized test administered to age-based cohorts of students on a systematic fashion. In the minds of reformers from 1971 onward, test scores are the primary metric for defining quality… and students and teachers have been shortchanged as a result.

Mr. Ryan offers some insightful recommendations for progressive opponents to school reform in his concluding paragraphs:

In my analysis, school reform is led by organized coalitions of major corporations, who seek a curriculum suited to their own economic and political hegemony. These hegemonists work in close alliance with edubusiness, along with a cohort of philanthropic market missionaries. What is the value of such an interpretation for the educational justice movement?

I believe that this analysis improves on previous interpretations by accounting for the leading forces of reform who are not out merely to “get rich” off schools, but have other objectives. Second, this reading may encourage us to think more strategically about the classroom as a site for challenging corporate hegemony. The demands for an education that is democratic, critical, multicultural, and multilingual belong at the center of a broad public education movement. Such curricular priorities become even more trenchant today as Trump and DeVos take steps to suppress civil rights and to promote conservative-Christian teaching in our schools. Finally, if the takeover of education is a class-based corporate project, integrally linked to the imperatives of neoliberal capitalism, then such an approach underscores the sheer scope of the task facing an educational justice movement. If it is to succeed at all, education organizing can and must connect the fight to defend public schools with broader agendas for social justice.

Mr. Ryan doesn’t say so explicitly… but his underlying message is clear: this is an uphill fight against people with limitless capital. It is not for the faint of heart… but it is on the side of angels.

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