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Yeah Prison Abolition.... but what about Public School Abolition?

Dan's picture

        I began writing this piece on the OZ clip of a riot scene which Sharaii and I found during our reading of Right To Be Hostile. How that clip relates to the phrase “epistemology of ignorance” is particularly interesting to me --  because the clip employs codes and stereotypes to reinforce ignorance with a particular economic, political, and oppressive agenda. I wanted to explore systemic ignorance and think about how that relates to the public school systems – and failing schools. In her book, Meiners advocates the abolishment of prisons as they exist now and the re-thinking of the entire criminal justice system. However, that sentiment isn’t shared (or at least I have never come across it) for “failing” public schools. I don’t often hear radical social-justice people discussing publicschool abolitionism – in fact, it is considered by most to be a self-sacrificing and admiral pursuit to teach and work in an inner city public school. But why, if the two are so deeply intertwined? Maybe it is just as problematic to support the public school system if it is a major contributor to systemic oppression and the continuation of the prison industrial complex.
            In my last paper I described issues I have with The Classroom and The Teacher, and how perhaps learning should exist outside of those models. Now, I want to extend that with a critique and then suggestion about the public school system. All of the images posted about public schools disturbed me. Jo and Serenas images of very unnourishing, low-quality food seemed poisonous; Sasha’s pictures of the pre-prison facade and interior of Boston Public schools – the bars and gates and metal detectors – are all physical manifestations of the reality which is the school to prison pipeline.

           Large, underfunded public schools often do not work -- on many levels; They are machines which, broken complexly and on in multiple places, would be much safer to disassemble entirely (or replace), and begin anew.
        From my experience working in Overbrook High Schools, the problems include 1. that the government does not want to fund the school sufficiently so teachers are often underpaid, understaffed, under-supported, and overworked with overcrowded classrooms. 2. The standardization does not cater to individual needs, creativity, or skills, nor does the test-based curriculum provide young people with any useful tools (but rather trains them to enter an unskilled labor force). 3. Districting creates very unequal/segregated schools -- thus establishing a separate and unequal education system yet again. Also the districting causes standardized assessment (which determines if the school should receive government funding) to be unfair and to endlessly punish those who need help. And 4. as we’ve explored through Meiners -- the surveillance, discipline policies, and security prepare low-income students of color for prison more than anything else. The school has become a scary (as depicted), unpleasant (for all parties involved), industrialized factory for perpetuating systemic oppression. I could go on and on.
        So, why are we holding on to this model? Why have we sworn our devotion to a broken machine? Is it because we feel we lack the skills, creativity, and energy to create a new one -- and so it is easier and more comforting to remain a part  of a failing model?
      When I began teaching at Overbrook High School, I spoke with a lot of education majors about a moral/ethical conundrum of entering into teaching -- which is, where to teach? Teaching at OHS and other underfunded “low performing” public schools can be (and often is) damaging to the spirit -- because as a teacher, you have to spend the majority of your time disciplining and being ignored, plus coping with administrative and bureaucratic nonsense (or so I’ve heard from the teachers I’ve worked with).
So, the spirit nourishing part of the job, whether it be connecting with students, inspiring them, passing on information, etc. is not what most of your time is spent doing. Plus, the salary and lack of benefits are not that most enticing. But, what people often argue as a pro is that it is a public service -- for the greater good. Teaching at a private school -- although very personally satisfying (because so much more time can be spent doing the enjoyable kind of educating) -- is both taking the easy way out and giving more support to those who already have privilege. These are the sentiments I encounter most often among those who participate in the Overbrook High School tutoring program.
      However, maybe these ideas are flawed... perhaps working for a public school is not for the great good (although Freedom Writers would say otherwise). Perhaps working in a public school like Overbrook is actually maintaining the systemic oppression which the school is a both a model and pipeline for.
Many social justice activists are now are calling for Prison Abolition, as prisons are a site where systemic racism continues, and so they should be abolished as slavery was and the Jim Crow Laws were. I want to suggest that perhaps public schools as we know them should be abolished as well.
There are many types of alternative education models to choose from if we want a revolution in education. If you do a quick web search, Montessori, Anarchist Free SChools, Waldorf Schools, etc. provide models and tools for more individualized, creative, empowering forms of learning. Perhaps those self-sacrificing education do-gooders could invest their hard work into establishing new kinds of schools, especially since public school teaching is overwhelming and energy depleting as it is. This could be a more rewarding project that will actually produce change -- and at the very least, won’t feed into systemic oppression the way the public school system does.
     Sir Ken Robinson, an educator and education revolution advocate said recently that “reform is no use anymore -- because that is simply improving a broken model,” so instead of calling for reform, he calls for education revolution. I agree with that. It is time to be revolutionary -- and education is the perfect place to start.