Ninety percent of America’s students go to public schools.
But you wouldn’t know that if you opened a book, turned on the TV or went to a movie.
The media is engaged in a disinformation campaign erasing public schools and public school students from our entertainments.
It’s another way marketing and advertising is forced down our throats and into our leisure hours.
Not only do the multi-billion dollar corporations who fund these entertainments want to convince us we need this pill, that appliance, those technological doo-hickeys — they need to cajole and inveigle us that we need school privatization, too.
And what better way to do that than to give us heroes that – what-do-you-know – just happen to go to charter, voucher and private schools?
No one takes Betsy DeVos, the billionaire heiress who bought her position as education secretary to tear down public schools, seriously. But we certainly do when it comes to Hollywood, the Boob Tube and Young Adult literature.
Take Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino Spiderman, who just made his big screen debut in Marvel’s “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse.”
It’s refreshing to see the iconic Spideysuite worn by a character of color, but why change his alma mater, too?
The original webslinger, Peter Parker, was an everyperson teen who went to a public school. But Morales goes to a private school in the movie and a charter school in the comic books on which the film is loosely based.
Then we have “The Kid Who Would Be King” a modern day retelling of the King Arthur legend. In the film, Alex finds Excalibur and becomes king – while attending a British academy, the U.K.’s version of an American charter school.
And let’s not forget “The Hate U Give.” In both the book and the movie, the protagonist, 16-year-old African American Starr Carter, deals with a white police officer murdering her black friend. And her struggle is worsened by the incomprehension she meets at her mostly white, privileged private school.
Why are all these stories taking place where a tiny sliver of kids are educated?
What happened to all the public school students?
It’s not like privatized education has ever been starving for representation in the mass media.
If anything, private schools have historically been overrepresented – Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Dead Poets Society, Catcher in the Rye, etc.
At least in the past you could count on the default setting for kids to be public school. Unless it was an integral part of the plot, it was just assumed that everyday kids went to everyday public schools.
John Travolta and Olivia Newton John dreamed of those summer nights, but they went to Rydell High.
Molly Ringwald and the rest of the Breakfast Club attended Saturday detention, but during the week they were in class at Shermer High.
Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy and co. fought off vampires, but they had homework at Sunnydale High.
Even Bella Swann navigated her vampire-werewolf love triangle at Forks High!
But today’s fictional teens wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those traditional institutions.
And nothing could be more unrealistic!
We’re whitewashing the reality to make America’s children and parents feel deficient for the schools they actually attend and – for the most part – are quite satisfied with.
It’s not about representation for the 10 percent enrolled in privatized schools. It’s about expanding the market to get more children and families to abandon public schools and pony up the dough (or siphon off the taxes) to enroll in these institutions, too.
Or at least TRY to enroll.
Back in 2011, when writer Brian Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli created Morales for Marvel comics, he was a reaction to the election of Barack Obama. As such, even his schooling had to reflect that.
In Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, he is shown winning the last spot in a charter school lottery to enroll in Brooklyn Visions Academy.
The comic book panels mirror almost frame-for-frame the school privatization propaganda film “Waiting for Superman.” Pro-charter school Obama becomes pro-privatization Spider-man.
It’s almost like the big corporations who own the super heroes can’t tell who the good guys and the bad guys are anymore.
Here we have an American icon hawking a solution to child education that increases segregation, does away with duly-elected school boards, does away with the kinds of regulations that protect kids’ rights and instead allows unscrupulous charter operators to reduce services for children and pocket the difference.
It’s like watching Mickey Mouse explain how your folks should invest all their money with Bernie Madoff.
For some reason, in the movie version Morales’ charter school is rewritten as a private school for smart kids. I wonder why they made the change. It’s almost like there’s no appreciable difference between private schools and charter schools. And there isn’t!
THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING
Speaking of which, let’s examine the strange case of “The Kid Who Would be King.” The movie is technically not out yet, so it’s hard to see if it will make much use of its apparent Academy setting.
However, the trailer includes lots of shots of kids in traditional prep school dress with a stylized formal crest on blazers and pants. It almost seems like the setting is little more than an excuse to embrace a certain aesthetic in the costumes more than a plot point.
Or perhaps the marketing department just wants moviegoers to associate the film with the Harry Potter movies.
After all, Hogwarts is the ultimate in quasi-privatization. Special kids go to a special school where they are taught special classes. It’s never quite clear how it’s all paid for, though the kids do have to buy their own supplies.
Would “The Kid Who Would Be King” be any better if the kids in it went to public schools? They certainly would be more relatable to the average child.
First conceived in the early 2000s, British academies are not bound by national rules for staffing and curriculum, and receive more money from the government for administration while reducing funding to the traditional schools nearby. However, according to a new peer-reviewed study by the London School of Economics, primary academies have not been able to meet the promise of increasing test scores.
The authors conclude:
“The English government has radically restructured its school system under an assumption that academisation delivers benefits to schools and students. There is neither any sign of a positive effect nor any suggestion that benefits might be increasing with years of exposure. If anything, the opposite is the case.”
Oh whatever! The blazers look nice!
THE HATE U GIVE
And that brings me to “The Hate U Give.”
Starr’s private school does at least seem to be important to the plot. After her best friend is gunned down by a gangbanger, a 10-year-old Starr is sent to Williamson Prep, a private school in the white suburbs. The family remains in the neighborhood and even takes great pride in living among other black people. But for some reason the idea of public school and the trauma of this event are entwined in their minds. They want more for Starr than just a public school experience.
Consider this bit of narration:
“The high school is where you go to get jumped, high or pregnant. We don’t go there. Williamson is another world. So when I’m here, I’m Starr version 2. Basically Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto. And I hate myself for doing it.”
Years later, she’s one of very few African American students at the private school. When another black friend is subsequently murdered by the police before her eyes during a traffic stop, her white privileged classmates don’t understand what she’s going through.
I wonder if things would have been different at a public school. I wonder if by enrolling her in private school her parents hadn’t taken away the kind of support system she could have used to help deal with the tragedy.
Starr overcomes it all, and symbolically pulls a “Rest in Peace Khalil” T-shirt over her school uniform signaling her refusal to be a divided person any longer. It might have been even stronger had she re-enrolled in her public school, too.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying these are bad movies, books or comics. I actually quite like most of them. But I wonder if most people realize that when they consume this stuff they’re getting something a little extra with their entertainment – corporate propaganda.
It doesn’t seem to be an accident that so few schools are being so overrepresented in the mass media.
The global conglomerates are always looking for a way to make a buck, and product placement has always been a surefire way to do it.
Unfortunately, such underhand tricks can have a large impact on the cultural landscape.
If we continue to be bombarded by unsubstantiated images of public schools not being good enough and privatized education as the savior for our children, we will lose our system of public education.
Schools will no longer be funded by tax dollars. Parents will have to pay for them out of their own pockets.
At very least this will result in an even more stratified education system where wealth not only buys comfort and resources but knowledge, as well.
Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!