Privatizing public schools.
Defunding poor students.
Republicans across the United States have an answer – legalizing child labor.
Since 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration restricted children younger than 14 from being employed, and put strict rules in place on when those younger than 18 may be employed, for how many hours and in what fields.
Today Republicans across the country seem poised to repeal those protections.
In Wisconsin, Republicans want to allow 14-year-olds to work in bars and restaurants serving alcohol. These kids aren’t legally allowed to drink the beverages they’re pouring but I’m sure that won’t cause any problems. Nooooo!
In Ohio, the GOP majority legislature is trying to allow kids ages 14 and 15 to work until 9 p.m. during the school year with their parents’ permission. Those teens better make sure their homework is done before their work-WORK because there won’t be anytime before bed. (No matter that this is illegal under federal law. I guess the rest of the country will have to change to accommodate the Buckeye State.)
Donald Trump’s former press secretary, nepo baby, and current Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law in March eliminating permits that employers used to have to check to verify a child’s age and their parent’s consent before hiring a minor. Without this, it’s much easier for companies caught violating child labor laws to claim ignorance. But, hey, freedom. Right?
And that’s not even counting measures to loosen child labor laws that have been passed in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Iowa. (Iowa Republicans were even going to let 14- and 15-year-olds work in dangerous fields including mining, logging and meatpacking, before coming to their senses!) In the last two years, GOP Lawmakers have proposed loosening child labor laws in at least 10 states, according to a report published last month by the Economic Policy Institute. Some of these bills became law and others were withdrawn or vetoed.
Make no mistake. These are not aberrations. This is the thrust of the mainstream Republican party today.
National business lobbyists, chambers of commerce and well-funded conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity – a conservative political network – and the National Federation of Independent Business – an organization that typically aligns with Republicans – are backing the state bills to increase teen participation in the workforce.
Meanwhile, child labor violations have increased by almost 70% since 2018, according to The Department of Labor. The agency is increasing enforcement and asking Congress to allow larger fines against violators.
How did we get here?
Corporate education reform.
It’s like the old adage: if a frog is suddenly dropped into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out and save itself from impending death. But, if the frog is gently placed in lukewarm water, with the temperature rising slowly, it will not perceive any danger to itself and will be cooked to death.
That’s what our national education policy has been for the last two decades. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been slowly raising the temperature and now the water is boiling over.
We’ve been increasingly treating children less as individual humans who are ends in themselves and instead as cogs in the machine, widgets, things to be molded and manipulated for the good of the economy.
Here we have an entire industry of standardized testing that makes its money as a parasite on the public school system. The same multi-billion dollar corporations design the tests, grade the tests and then offer remediation when kids don’t pass the tests. It’s a classic captive market where the provider has no incentive but to perpetuate the conditions that increase its bottom line. Students aren’t the consumers of this product – school districts are – and they have no choice but participate. It’s encoded in federal and state law. They have to play along and are, themselves, judged by the results of that compliance.
Then we have privatization – charter and voucher schools. These are institutions ostensibly set up to educate students, but unlike authentic public schools, these organizations are allowed to turn a profit. Some of them get to hide behind the label “non-profit” but the result is the same. And once you allow financial gain of this sort into the system, that’s what it’s all about. Kids become a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
And let’s not forget how all of this enters into the finances of public schools. Unlike most countries across the globe, education in the US is supported primarily by local taxes. So rich neighborhoods invariably have robust public schools that provide students with all the resources they need. And poor communities have impoverished schools where students get only whatever parents and teachers can scrounge together. In this country, children are not a worthy cause all by themselves – we only care about them if they’re OURS.
The entire apparatus of corporate education reform is focused around jobs. In this ideology, the function of school is to prepare students for employment – that is all. It is not to make students good citizens, knowledgeable voters or even fully realized human beings. Rich kids are prepared for the jobs that will keep them rich. Poor kids are prepared for the service industry – so the rich have someone to wait on them in restaurants and stock grocery store shelves.
The fact that the Covid pandemic has reduced adults willing to continue working in these fields for such low wages has only motivated the wealthy and powerful to fill those vacancies with younger-and-younger people who won’t understand how much they’re being taken advantage of and won’t complain.
For example, take this quote from Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO:
“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? American schools have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.”
We find the same rhetoric on the left as well as the right.
The Center for American Progress (CAP) – a so-called liberal Washington think tank lead by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton minions like John Podesta – repeat the same conservative talking points. For example, CAP published and article called “Preparing American Students for the Workforce of the Future” which read like a companion piece to Tillerson’s diatribe. They did concede that being ready for “civic life” is important as well as being “career ready,” though.
So far, few Democrats have taken the next logical step along with their Republican colleagues.
And they ARE colleagues. Don’t let the hyped up media culture war distract you. When you take out social issues, America’s two parties are as different as milk chocolate and dark chocolate. They’re the same basic thing separated only by intensity and bitterness.
Republicans are ready to undo child labor protections. Democrats will only take away kids’ rights at school.
This is what you get when you dehumanize students. This is what you get when you signal it is okay to be a predator on student needs to help fulfill the needs of the economy.
Money comes first. Students – children – are a distant second.
So finally the chickens of corporate education reform are coming home to roost. I don’t think we’re going to like the eggs.
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