The One Percent Solution; How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time by Gordon Lafer. Cornell University Press, 2017.

Gordon Lafer’s title is confusing. He doesn’t really think that the remodeling of our public education is a “solution.” Rather his is a description of how “corporations”- but I would say the wealthy – those who are in the top 1% income bracket – are leading us into a very big mistake. They are encouraging us to abandon the public schools in favor of charter and proprietary schools. That ‘experiment’ of opening education to private enterprise is being tried on a city-wide scale in New Orleans.

A Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, has greatly facilitated the flow of millions of dollars into both political parties. But in recent years a disproportionate share has gone to the Republican Party and its candidates. And their opulence has allowed them greater influence over the political process. Lafer has taken notice of that in the subtitle to his book How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time.

One good example is the flow of resources into private schooling. New Orleans joined what has become a major trend in K-through-12 schools, supporting privatization either by issuing vouchers, rewarded to parents with the idea that they can then seek the best education for their kids, or by reshaping K-through-12 instruction so that private schools can compete with the older public school system.

Conservatives have constructed a strategy and rhetoric that turns out to be quite successful. They are critical of the practice of deducting the cost of union dues and various benefits from teachers’ pay.  Or if that is too obvious, some states have required that the employer ask for and be given permission to deduct union dues and the cost of those benefits, but employees should only be allowed to do so if they have received permission from the wage earner, be it teachers and other employees. This would restrict the ability of unions to bargain effectively. “Wage theft” is the polemic used, and barring that practice is “paycheck protection.”

(Lafer points out that there are no such laws requiring corporations to notify their stock holders when they are taking political stands or making political contributions.)

There are efforts within the public schools to create opportunities for corporate America. The money flowing into education from the private sector reduces the influence that public school teachers have over the education they provide. As part of the graduation requirements, many school districts require at least some of public school education to be delivered by digital instruction. That is particularly true of any evaluation, and hence an opportunity for standardized tests and eventually a standardized curriculum. In many school districts, teachers are evaluated, in part at least, by the scores, which makes the tests more important to the curriculum.

There are any number of ironies in Lafer’s evaluation of American education. It has always been considered important that whatever interventions there are by state Departments of Education, they should not discourage the professionalism of the teacher. An apprenticeship should be involved. There is no mention of “student teaching,” which would have been preceded by at least some pedagogical training at an accredited college.

Leaving the school room, if you consider the American work force in total, you will find a market structure that isn’t rewarding improvements in productivity. Lafer notes that from 1973 to 2013 American labor productivity increased by 74.4%. But compensation only increased by 9.2%. Lafer begrudges the corporations (and the richest 1%) their disproportionate gains. He is perplexed, and so will be the reader, by how persuasive the rhetoric is that defends this state of affairs. Why isn’t there some mechanism that would prevent this from happening? Particularly since most everyone would agree that this huge economic inequality leads to political inequality.  Nor have the American corporations, so richly rewarded, created much in the way of new jobs.

Nor has worker productivity benefited wages. The minimum wage is intended to at least boost some wage rates at the bottom rungs of the wage ladder. But the minimum wage looked to be a definite threat to the returns of the employer class. So that was fixed in many states and localities by state and federal legislation that prevents them from creating their own minimum wage – often considerably higher than the federal. Increases in the minimum wage should at least have kept up with the inflation rate.

An employer might want to bestow the category “independent contractor” on you, allowing some greater independence as his employee. But that might deprive her or him of mandatory requirements such as unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, sick leave, overtime, even meal breaks.

Say “no thanks!”

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