Public K12 Education as a Capitalist Industry: A Political Guide for Radical Educators and Organizers


When I look into the face of a student, I see a human face. As an educator in schools there’s a feeling of responsibility that pulls on me to preserve their humanity, partly by my own efforts to make things fair and keep them safe in school and partly by helping them learn the skills to make things fair and keep themselves safe when they enter the “real” world. How to be faithful to the whole of a child’s current being and future potential is the daunting task all educators face. Even under perfect conditions this task is difficult enough. Under the conditions of the education system we find ourselves in this task is all too often impossible.

The multitude of problems in the school system leads any caring educator to ask larger questions about why things are the way they are. “Life’s not fair” is one answer, one we tell ourselves as often as we tell our students. If we don’t see agency in ourselves or in others, accepting the problems of the existing world as inevitable can be the first step in hardening ourselves and others as a strategy for mental and biological survival. “Life’s not fair, but…” accepts the world as it is in the present but makes space for the possibility of the world to be changed in the future.

When an educator looks a student in the eye, what about their economic relationship shapes what the educator sees? The educator is paid to be there and the student is compelled to be there to learn skills and get credentials that they’ll need later to get a job. These are partly class relations, relations of people in specific economic positions who encounter each other in the context of larger economic systems.

{My most dispiriting encounter with the education system occurred when I was teaching 40 hours a week at a private summer school in Los Angeles making $10/hr. My job was to force a classroom full of 6th graders to do worksheets all day, five days a week. The curriculum was a stack of photocopies of the worksheet pages from outdated textbooks. Because this was summer and kids hate staying indoors and doing worksheets when they should be outside playing with their friends, my students needed a fair amount of “cajoling” to complete their worksheets. When the students weren’t doing their job and I was insufficiently forceful in nudging them, my supervisor would come in and yell at the kids extra-loud, partly to whip them into shape and partly to show me how it’s done. It was humiliating for my students and for me. I felt like I was destroying something in these kids and I couldn’t bear it. I quit after only working there a month even though I really needed the money.}

Capitalism looks different across different industries, regions, cultures, and workplaces. Those of us who want to build a movement against capitalism should always be thinking through ways of applying anti-capitalist analysis to our organizing and making those ideas relevant to the communities we’re organizing in. At first blush none of the traditional economic categories of capitalism apply to public education, but deeper inquiry reveals that these economic categories are still very present and have merely taken on modified forms.

Those of us participating in or eagerly observing the recent tide of militant educator organizing and strikes could benefit from a more theoretical grounding of leftist ideas in the analysis of our schools. This post takes an economic look at the education system from the perspective of educators as workers under capitalism.

Capitalism vs. Humanity

The education system is an enormously complex system that fulfills various social roles and is under a litany of often opposing pressures. Trying to make sense of it is a tricky task, but trying to make sense of it in isolation from larger socio-economic pressures is like explaining the orbit of the planets while ignoring the gravity of the sun. The key to critiquing the K12 education system under capitalism is first identifying what capitalist education is and then measuring how distant that is from an education system that meets the full range of human needs and explores the full range of human capacities.

Any social system is designed to embody certain values. If democracy, fairness, human flourishing, and equality are fundamental and interconnected values we want to see in society, those are the values that should be embodied in an education system.

Capitalism has a separate logic, whereby the values of those empowered by capitalism (the rich who own the companies and the real estate) are prioritized above the values of those who are marginalized by capitalism (those who work for a living). Capitalism also works by privileging and marginalizing different groups of people according to race, gender, sexuality, and other social markers. Getting a clear image of capitalist education then is about figuring out how capitalism prioritizes the needs of the power-holders under capitalism while shunning the needs of those disempowered by capitalism.

Distinguishing features of capitalism’s realization in the education system are the following:

  1. The primary stakeholders in the education system are given little formal influence in how schools are run. Students, educators, and parents don’t govern the schools by setting and implementing policy, principals and superintendents do. The top-down decision-making structure in the school is largely the same as the decision-making structure in the factory. This is a subversion of democracy in the education system.
  2. The supposed success of one’s education is defined in terms of test scores on highly standardized tests and narrow curriculum, prioritizing math and reading over art, music, emotional intelligence, etc… These curriculum are designed to meet the self-interested needs of employers to make profit off of workers over and against the needs of young and developing humans. Students and teachers alike are disciplined and controlled around maximizing these test scores, much like workers are disciplined to maximize profits in the private sector. This is a subversion of fairness and human flourishing in the education system.
  3. Funding for schools comes from taxes, and the rich have incentives to try to cut taxes because of the progressive and redistributive nature of taxation, including taxes that pay more to fund the education of kids other than their own. To the extent that the rich do submit to paying taxes for education, they prioritize the funding and quality of schools for their kids over the funding and quality of schools for poor kids. This is a subversion of equality in the education system.

The features of an education system that would be based on human needs and values would be a photo-negative of those we find under capitalism:

  1. The primary stakeholders in the education system should have individual and communal self-determination over decision-making.
  2. Education should aim for a holistic understanding and serving of the needs and interests of children apart from their later roles as sponges to be squeezed for profit in the job market.
  3. Resource allocation for education should be based on meeting child and educator needs instead of on meeting the needs of rich taxpayers.

There’s a tendency among even progressives and lefties, including educators, to see capitalism as somehow totally separate from the education system because it’s supposed that the education system is state-funded, there isn’t a profit motive, and there’s not some specific product being produced for market. I think these assumptions are false and lead to counter-productive strategies for fighting back.

The prototypical capitalist relation is that between the worker in a factory manufacturing commodities and the capitalist who owns the factory and who pays for the workers’ labor in return for ownership of what the worker produces. In selling the product, the capitalist aims to make a profit by generating revenue that runs above costs from labor, raw materials, and so on. This boils down class relations to their barest elements and is still a useful reference point, but what capitalism looks like is different in each context, especially in the 21st century US where factory manufacturing plays a much smaller role in the economy than it did 100 years ago.

As in any system of domination and exploitation, under capitalism there is always resistance and spaces being opened up for opposing power relations. The factory worker was never merely a maker of widgets but also was active in fighting for better working conditions, higher wages, and a more enlightened social order. So too have generations of educators and students struggled against and often confronted the factory model of education by building up practices and politics of teaching and learning that disrupt capitalism.

This post will look at the major concepts of capitalist production (commodities, workers, bosses, capitalists) and investigate how they apply to the K12 education industry. Specifically, for each of these concepts I’ll look at 1) how K12 education compares and contrasts to traditional factory production, 2) how capitalism structures the education system to meet its needs, and 3) what alternative approaches to education might look like and how to fight for them.


The Commodity: Making Students into Workers

In factory manufacturing, material goods are the commodity. Assembly lines are organized to put many different kinds of human labor into molding a final product that is useful to people and thus can be sold to consumers.

In the education system under capitalism, turning children into workers is the production process. “Good” workers are the commodity, the product. The assembly line consists not only of teachers and education assistants, but also the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers, the custodians, etc… School children who are given marketable skills and then become workers are not commodities to be “sold” directly to consumers in the same sense as a pair of jeans. But the same overall logic still applies.

Just like the raw materials of fabric and thread that enters the pants factory and comes out a wearable piece of clothing, so the raw material of the child enters the school system and comes out an employable worker. But whereas the pants are sold directly to those who want them, workers aren’t sold by others. Instead, the workers sell time-slots of themselves to employers in the form of labor-time which is paid for in wages and salaries. As a commodity, the worker still gets sold, it’s just that the workers themselves are the sellers as well as the commodity. As for any commodity, the production of that commodity prioritizes the needs of the buyers, which in this case are employers.

Above I said that “good” workers are the commodity. Workers defined as “good” under capitalism 1) have skills that employers need and 2) are obedient. Regarding the first, employers hire workers who can performs tasks that are profitable to the employer. Many of these things may be unpleasant or unsafe or uninteresting to the worker themselves (think of all the menial labor in the US and across the globe), but that is not a primary concern as long as those things are profitable. The way this looks in schools at their worst is students are made to do lots of repetitive busy work that mirrors the work of a worker on the factory assembly line whose only job is to attach part A to part B of a device hundreds of times an hour. This kind of deadening of mental and physical creativity at work serves a socio-economic function under capitalism and the education system dutifully prepares workers for it.

Of course, not all workers perform such menial tasks at their jobs. Some employers require highly skilled workers who also need creativity to do their job well. While the stereotype portrays skilled workers as “professionals” like lawyers, doctors, and such, most jobs require tons of different kinds of complex skills, it’s just that some skills are highly or lowly financially valued for various reasons. Schools can impart any kind of skills in such a way as to produce able workers who are profitable to employers. Whether schools focus on rote learning or more creative and critical thinking often reflects the class backgrounds of the students attending the schools. In many ways it’s easier and fits better within the workings of the labor market to offload the skills training that employers might have to do and make the education system do it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s just to point out that the production of highly trained, creative workers through the education system is not the subversion of capitalist logic but just one expression of it.

One might ask at this point, “Well the capitalist system can’t pressure schools to both create menial laborers and highly-skilled creative workers? Which one is it? Make up your mind!” The way this happens in the school system is through the sorting of students through grading and differing tracks for more and less “advanced” or “deficient” students. The grading system plays a pivotal role in this sorting because it isn’t just used for helpful feedback but to rank, reward, and punish students and adjust their access to future education opportunities.

This sorting happens not just within schools, but also between schools. For example, some schools, especially those in higher income areas, have more resources to give higher quality instruction while schools in poverty-stricken areas often have fewer resources which results in higher class sizes and more rote instruction. Local property taxes are a major determinant of school funding, which is one more way that class positions are passed down over generations.

The way the current school system sorts students into different kinds of jobs might otherwise be a little reasonable for meeting the needs of a modern economy with many different kinds of jobs if not for the vast difference in pay, respect, and enjoyment there is between these different kinds of jobs. The effect of all this sorting is that often from an early age some students are tracked to become menial and low-paid workers and others are tracked to become more highly paid workers, or even executives and investors. The capitalist class itself can afford all the luxuries that the most highly-resourced education schools can provide, and since wealth is passed down by inheritance and parents who are able to spend more money preparing their children privileged positions, their place at the top of the economic hierarchy is maintained.

At the bottom of the sorting pile are those who end up in prison. With the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s in the US (despite decreasing crime rates since the 1990s to historic lows at present), the education system has been a major contributor to this system and has created new forms of sorting to accommodate mass incarceration. These new institutional forms in education are known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

For example, police officers were put in schools in a widespread, unprecedented way supposedly in response to the big school shootings of the 90s, like Columbine. But the effect of these police officers has been to give students criminal records at a young age while having virtually no impact on actually reducing school shootings. The school shootings were a mere pretext and the real function of filling schools with cops was to intensify the school-to-prison pipeline that plays a central role in sorting in the education system. The war on drugs and the accompanying social policies based on the “tough on crime” mantra have been adapted for schools in the form of “zero tolerance” discipline policies. White supremacy is a major overlapping part of the school-to-prison pipeline where black, brown, and indigenous students are targeted. Whereas before mass incarceration, most of those at the bottom of the education sorting pile would still become workers in the economy in some way, now those at the bottom are just warehoused in prisons.

What makes this system of sorting cruel is two-fold. First, all people are worthy of a good standard of living but our economy makes that unattainable through the educational and economic sorting that produces extreme inequality. Secondly, the factors that largely determine this sorting are mostly distributed by forces beyond the individual’s control, such as the economic class of one’s parents, one’s race, one’s neighborhood, etc… This is another example of the needs of capitalists coming before the needs of members of society as human beings.

“Is all of this sorting really due to capitalism?” I would say yes, that sorting as it exists in schools is a uniquely capitalist function of the education system. All systems of oppression are essential collaborators in this process too whereby white supremacy and patriarchy do a lot of the dirty work. Even if we lived under a gentler capitalism where inequality and discrimination was less extreme, there would still need to be ways to sort workers into higher and lower paid jobs as well as into the broader and economically unequal categories of capitalists and bosses. If capitalism exists in any form, you have a class of people at the top who are fully invested in maintaining their class position and thus strengthening all the social systems that give them their power, prime among them the sorting done through the education system. The myth of the benevolent capitalist who takes their fair share and who gives the worker their fair share is dissolved by the material reality of opposing economic incentives (higher wages vs. higher profits). The myth of the benevolent school system as meritocracy is dissolved by the crushing reality of sorting masses of people by race and class into poverty wages and prison cells. The fact that a tiny handful of poor students later become rich doesn’t disprove the idea of education sorting, but rather props it up ideologically and is used to further justify the punishing and impoverishment of those who don’t do well in school.

The second thing that makes a worker “good” is obedience. With all the pressures, indignities, and exploitation that many workers feel, the obedient worker is gold to the employer while the questioning worker who gets together with others to demand more is the employer’s poison. Obedience is a product of many things, but the education system is certainly a major one. The hierarchical nature of the K12 education system, where students are at the bottom and spend a significant part of their day just doing what they’re told, prepares workers to be at the bottom of the capitalist hierarchy as workers doing what they’re told.


The idea that children are raw materials who are then carved by educators into commodities as “good” adult workers to maximize profits for employers should be disturbing to those who work in schools. That’s not why we signed up to work in education. It’s natural to object to this characterization of the education system because we feel complicit in it because we work in it. But there it is, and the further topics below should help fill out this picture more completely. I think recognizing this fact of our industry is central to finding ways to change it. If capitalists were to ever establish total control, this approach to education would become all-encompassing.

But capitalists aren’t all-powerful, and educators and students are humans with different needs and who have agency that they exercise daily in small and large ways. In different places and at different points in time, capitalists or workers may be in the favorable position of having more power to bend the education system to their priorities.

There are many ways that students disrupt capitalist logic within the school system. Students, as the commodity going down the assembly line, can muck up the gears and motors by refusing to participate in school and actively disrupting it through not doing schoolwork, talking in class, preventing other students from engaging, etc…. They are essentially sabotaging themselves as commodities, the way “bad” raw materials will lead to defective commodities in a factory. Sadly, capitalism co-opts this kind of student resistance through all the mechanisms of sorting that the student was resisting in the first place. “Bad” and disruptive students become fast-tracked into the sorting process and whole systems of discipline in schools are designed to facilitate this pipeline that ends for many in the prison cell.

Student resistance becomes anti-capitalist and liberatory when it finds a way to meet human and social needs by resisting capitalism collectively instead of falling into its traps individually. Students have a complicated relationship to schools because they are not only commodities but are workers too in some ways. Even though they are not producing products for sale directly and are not being paid for their work, they are expending effort by learning marketable skills; they are turning themselves into commodities through their own labor. Students can also muck up the gears of capitalism within schools by collectively withholding their labor as workers and making demands on authorities to bend the education system to their own needs instead of the needs of capitalism.

East LA Student Walkout

{In 1968, 20,000 Chicano high school students engaged in walkouts against racist sorting and segregation in East Los Angeles schools. Student organizer Moctesuma Esparza said about the events, “The word started to circulate. ‘Walkout. Walkout. Let’s boycott school.’ And we slowly planned this out, campus by campus, over a six-month period and we set a date, March 6, 1968.” After the walkout on the first day was met with widespread police violence, Esparza recalled, “The next day we walked out again, and we walked out the next day after that, and we didn’t stop for two weeks.” 13 students were arrested, charged, and found guilty of felony conspiracy for “disturbing the peace” for their role in planning the student walkouts but were later exonerated in a higher court. In the end, some of the students’ demands were met, and many of them went on to participate in the wildly successful campaigns to start ethnic studies programs at universities across the country. For more, see this short video, this article, and this hour-long documentary.}

In our long-term visions for a better education system, students deserve to have much more say than they’re currently given. Whereas the needs of the individual and the needs of society have to be balanced whatever kind of economic system there is, that is very, very different from the education system under capitalism, where the needs of students are balanced not very equally with the needs of a small minority of capitalists who need workers to make profit from. In a non-capitalist society, students would have real decision-making power over their own learning, both individually in terms of the choices they have but also collectively in terms of students as a whole being a major part of the governance of the school system. In any free society, those who are impacted by an institution deserve to have some power over how that institution is run. Student liberation from capitalism is the self-transformation of students as commodities trained only to sell their labor into students as human beings whose full range of needs and capabilities are nurtured and explored.

The Workers: Educators

The waged workers in the education system are the educators. Like the factory worker, the educator is paid for the labor they perform on the commodities that are produced. Like the factory worker, the educator doesn’t have any ownership over the workplace and is subject to the oversight and management of bosses. Just like the factory worker whose job consists of connecting part A to part B hundreds of times an hour and who was trained to do so in a very specific way to maximize efficiency, so too the educator’s work is being increasingly micromanaged by standardized tests and curriculum. Like the factory worker whose production lags even temporarily, the educator whose products don’t meet the standards of quality control put forth by the bosses–like test scores, which are often influenced by forces beyond the teacher’s control like poverty and homelessness–are liable for increased surveillance, discipline, and even release. Like the factory worker whose production targets are inched up every year beyond what can reasonably be accomplished, so too are class sizes bursting at the seems in under-resourced schools all across the country.

Some educators who are lucky enough to earn higher wages buy into the myth they’re better than mere “workers” and see themselves as professionals who are somehow exempt from the problems that workers face. A teacher might think, “I make more money than other workers, my work is more skilled than other workers, I’m working with children and not with widgets, therefore I’m not a worker.” While it’s true that working with children is very different than working with widgets, we all have jobs because social needs compel production in certain industries. Working with kids doesn’t make educators better than farmers, cooks, custodians, or brick layers, it just makes educators different. In all the ways one can look at the economic relationships in schools, educators are workers.

The myth that educators aren’t workers is very convenient for the bosses in education. If you’re not a worker and you thus don’t care about the money and your own treatment and you only “care about the kids”, then it’s easier for the boss to cut your pay and benefits and erode your working conditions.

Contrary to the kind of self-sacrifice mentality that some educators take on for the sake of the kids, often what’s best for educators is also best for students. Seeing standardized testing both as an intensified form of sorting for students and a form of discipline and control of educators helps us see what alternatives to such tests might be. Students are prime beneficiaries of schools that treat educators with respect and pay them accordingly, and vice versa, policies targeted to improve student learning, like smaller class sizes and more services for student mental health, also make teachers’ lives better. In the fight against capitalist education, educators and students should be natural allies.

{A few years ago at a school district in Minnesota, a principal could lobby to have their school designated as a “Community Partnership School” (CPS). While “community partnership” sounds quaint, what it actually did was give principals the authority to ignore parts of the union contract and if test scores didn’t improve over three years a school could be closed and reopened as a charter. At one school the principal announced at a staff meeting her intention to submit an application to the district to become a CPS. She assumed that people wouldn’t know what that entailed and hoped it would slide beneath the radar. Some educators at the school knew exactly what was happening and got large turnout to the school-wide union meeting the next day where the details of CPS were explained. They came up with a plan to have a staff-wide vote on whether to endorse the CPS plan. The vote was not legally binding, but if it failed it would make the principal’s attempts to push it through look bad, and the principal couldn’t risk alienating her entire staff. The next day educators walked into the principal’s office and told her of the plan to hold a staff vote on whether to support becoming a CPS. Knowing that the vote would clearly sink the plan, the principal started tearing up about how important CPS was in a last-ditch effort to guilt the workers out of it. Undeterred, the educators carried out the vote, 82% of staff cast their ballot against becoming a CPS, the principal dropped the idea, and the school was the first in the district to successfully stop a CPS designation. When a new superintendent came into the district a year later, the expansion of CPS’s was halted.}

But who really counts as the “educators” in the schools? Here, a definition that’s broad in some ways and specific in others is helpful. Our concept of educators should contain all who work in the K12 education industry, including those who work directly with kids and those who don’t. Many who aren’t paid to work directly with students, like cafeteria workers and bus drivers, end up forming relationships with kids that are as important to their education as any other part. Even those who don’t interact with students at all, like those who deliver the student meals to the schools each day, are best considered educators, because without them, how would kids eat and be able to learn at school? Those who have managerial powers, including especially the ability to discipline, hire, and fire other workers, should not be included in the “educators as workers” definition here, for reasons discussed in the section on bosses below.

This definition of the educator raises strategic questions as well. For example, a large obstacle to educators organizing together is not only the professional separations that exist in schools (teachers vs. assistants vs. cafeteria workers vs. office workers vs. etc.), but the obstacles to collaboration created by the mainstream labor movement by slicing up classes of workers into separate and often isolated unions and collective bargaining agreements. This is called “craft unionism” because workers organizations are separated from each other by craft. In my school district, workers are separated into 15 separate craft unions, which doesn’t include those excluded from unions altogether along craft lines, like substitute teachers.

If we define educators as all the workers in the K12 education system, then all the educators have the potential to disrupt the education system when they withhold their labor collectively by going on strike. In the 2018 statewide strike in West Virginia, for example, the bus drivers were at one point quicker to go on strike than the teachers and helped push other education workers into taking the action that they did. By uniting across job class, educators have more power together than separate and can win more for all. This is called “industrial unionism” because all the workers in the larger industry come together.

Capitalism’s Strategy against Workers: Divide and Conquer

“If the workers are many and the owners are few, why on earth do workers put up with this?” Capitalism’s strategy is to divide workers from each other in order to weaken any potential unified force that would threaten the sovereignty of owners. This happens in many ways both within and through the education system.

One way this happens is through the sorting into different jobs. The worker who earns a little more than the one across the hallway (or across the the street, town, state, country, or hemisphere) becomes invested in the system because they know they could be moved across the hallway themselves if they’re not careful. The worker who earns a little less comes to focus their resentment on the worker who earns a little more. Meanwhile, those getting rich off the workers are enjoying their mansions and yachts. While this presentation is an oversimplification, the hyper-awareness of our economic positions in relation to those around us and knowing who is above and below us permeates every industry and every workplace. In subtle and not so subtle ways, this awareness is leveraged to make us believe that we are all in (not so) friendly competition with other workers and steers our attention away from underlying economic structures and the largely unseen owners. Sorting in the education system and the myth of meritocracy play a central role in setting up these divisions between workers.

The other major way capitalism divides people is by taking differences that naturally exist between people and turning them into differences that rationalize some getting more and some getting less. White supremacy is in many ways about convincing poor white workers (and white workers of every income strata) that they’re better and deserving of more than workers of color, and our white supremacist society backs up these inflated claims by gifting more resources and opportunities to white people. It’s not difficult to see how the focus on competition between workers noted above can be refracted through the lenses of white supremacy and patriarchy to reinforce relationships of privilege and marginalization in the economy. White workers and workers of color might have common interests against those who profit from their work, but while mainstream society is able to persuade white people that people of color are the problem, capitalism remains safe. The same is true of religion, gender, sexuality, ability, and so on. All of these forms of oppression provide the cultural beliefs (“white people are smarter”, “women shouldn’t work in STEM”, etc…) that capitalism uses to underpay, exclude, and control marginalized groups. In a very unequal society, oppression is the lungs and capitalism is the heart.

Regarding the education system in particular, gender and race have been used to the great benefit of capitalism and detriment of workers. The teacher workforce is now 75% women, and this percentage has increased over the last 20 years. Studies have shown that occupations in which women hold a high majority of the positions are paid less compared to similarly skilled men-dominated professions. This helps explain the lowering of teacher wages compared to similarly-skilled jobs in other industries in recent decades. Reflecting a similar dynamic, the teacher workforce in New Orleans was easier to fire entirely in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina because the teachers were mostly black (and women). All the teachers had to re-apply for the jobs, which became non-union and without job protections at newly-opened charter schools, and many were replaced with white and temporary teachers from programs like Teach for America. In broader terms, women (and the entire industries they have major representation in) and people of color are marginalized by dominant social norms which makes them easier for capitalism to underpay and discipline.

Fights against capitalism in education are also necessarily fights against white supremacy and patriarchy because of the way these systems interconnect. The silver bullet against capitalism’s attempts to divide workers is to unify around the universal right people have to not be oppressed and exploited. That means unifying against white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.

In education, majority white teachers and teacher unions have often been pitted against mostly poc parents and community members, with unions being smeared for supposedly protecting bad teachers, for only caring about inflating teacher salaries, and for keeping educators of color out of the ranks. While there’s always a degree of truth to each side of these conflicts that capitalism plays on to keep people divided, mainstream narratives need to be re-examined to see who is really benefiting from them. One great counterexample in education is how Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union found ways to break through the impasse with local communities by privileging parent and student concerns around class sizes, opposing school closures in poc neighborhoods, and doing anti-racist work in schools. While overcoming divisions and oppression always sounds easier than it actually is given how deeply rooted structural biases are, the challenge is ours to face.

The Bosses: Principals

In the factory, there’s the foreman, the low-level manager, or the shop-floor supervisor, and in the school there’s the principal. This is the immediate boss who oversees workers at the point of production: the workplace. The principal’s tasks are many, including liaising with the higher-level administrators at the district, implementing and designing school policy, crafting budgets, supporting staff, etc… These are tasks that other admin and school workers are sometimes involved in even though the principal often has final say.

However, among other things principals-as-bosses have two distinguishing features. The first one is that the boss, whether in the school or factory, has the authority to discipline workers. This gives them a degree of power in the workplace that no other person in the workplace has and creates an imbalance between bosses and workers.

As with the formal authority of any role, the boss’s prerogative to punish workers can be used responsibly or abusively. Under capitalism, principals are given the authority to have workers disciplined or fired. Sometimes principals act with integrity and remove workers for good reasons, such as they’re harmful to children. Principals also often act to advance their own personal agenda by removing workers who ask too many questions about school policy, who object to poor working conditions or or wages, or who they have petty disagreements with.

Even in unionized workplaces where workers enjoy more protections, the principals can fire probationary teachers on a whim (the probationary period is 3 years in my district), can rearrange budgets to lay off educators without going through due process, can out-maneuver educators thru complex grievance procedures, and can re-assign teachers to classrooms outside of their comfortable subject and age range or to understaffed classrooms with behavior challenges to wear them down and pressure them to quit. Even when the principal does have to go head to head with the union, they usually have the full weight of the district on their side, including its legal team, HR department, media liaisons, and relatively deep pockets. To object to the role of bosses under capitalism is to object to the unilateral authority of one person in a workplace to be able to fire and discipline any of the others.

The second distinguishing feature of the boss is that their job is to maximize certain outcomes in the workplace by taking orders from above and enforcing them on the workers below them. In the private sector, higher profit is the outcome which shareholders hire executives, who then hire other managers, to carry out. This maximizing of particular outcomes as passed down from above combined with the power to unilaterally discipline workers is what makes a boss a boss.

In the schools, the spread of standardized testing has lead to higher test scores being the main target outcomes that principals organize production around. This is a huge attack on the human needs of students, whose own needs and desires often don’t fit into bubbles on standardized tests which their education experience is constructed around. A watershed moment for the intensification of testing was George W Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which tied federal funding to states to mandatory standardized testing and punished repeated bad test scores with turning schools into charters or closing them entirely. Then Obama’s Race to the Top policy doubled down on this approach by incentivizing states to compete with each other over who could best base teacher pay on test scores and use testing outcomes to “turn around” schools. While federal funding for education comprises less than 10% of total education dollars, it also greatly influences state and local education policy. All of this focus on testing and evidence-based policy is ironic considering there’s little evidence that increased standardized testing improves education outcomes.

Testing regimes coerce teachers into focusing much more on the measurable outcomes of some areas (math, reading, and writing) at the expense of a more holistic vision of human abilities and experiences. Some centrally important but mostly untested domains include emotional skills, creative thinking, interpersonal skills, art, music, physical education, knowledge of one’s own history and culture, and so on. The popular backlash against current standardized testing practices does not favor designing “better” tests so that every aspect of being a kid can be “properly” measured, assessed, and sorted. Much like human needs of workers in the private sector shouldn’t be wholly subservient to the profit-motives of investors, so too data should be subservient to human needs instead of making human needs subservient to data in the form of high-stakes tests.

A central way to attack capitalism in any workplace is to build worker organization that can take action to force changes in working conditions that better meet workers’ needs. This takes decision-making away from the unilateral authority of the boss and at its best democratizes our working lives. In schools, an organized workplace might look like one where teachers make decisions with each other about curriculum, challenging student behavior, and working conditions; where educators feel empowered by each other to design and teach the curriculum they think best instead of the one being pushed by the district to maximize test scores; where the principal is afraid to implement any new policy before getting approval from the committee of educators at the school who do all the work; where students and educators together can co-determine how best to meet their intertwined human needs. Ultimately, the end goal is to get rid of bosses and principals entirely, but this goal can be reached incrementally through gradually building worker power by taking direct action and gradually transferring the authority to make school decisions from the bosses to the workers.

While many of the worst things that happen in capitalist education happen under the reign of bullying and abusive bosses, a frequent objection I hear to an anti-capitalist approach to labor organizing is the “problem” where a workplace has a nice and supportive boss. This is especially prominent in schools, where, just like teachers, many principals initially get in the business to “help the kids”. This creates cognitive dissonance because then it’s hard to match the image of the principal as the bad guy with your everyday experience of your principal doing good work. Those who have supportive principals can be happy that they don’t have abusive ones, and there’s no use in trying to make up reasons for why you think your principal is really mean on the inside.

The point about analyzing social systems, such as capitalism, and not just individuals is so that we’re able to see the forest and not merely the trees. Systems can have overall dynamics and be governed by rules and pressures that aren’t apparent from looking at isolated cases. The problem with capitalism isn’t that all the bosses are mean, but that capitalism structures our social relationships in such a way that some have power and control over others and that this produces an extremely unequal distribution of resources and opportunities. The nicest principal in the world still has a full arsenal of disciplinary weapons at their disposal that they can use against workers when they so choose. The formal options available to individual workers to resist discipline and hold a principal accountable are extremely restricted. This is the power relationship between bosses and workers that exists regardless of personality, and is why collective action by workers and collective organization in the form of unions are necessary to counter the principal’s and the superintendent’s authority.

{How do you organize against a nice principal? The key is to maintain focus on collective action over individual initiative and to emphasize the structural issues in the workplace over individual features of a boss’s personality. This might look like getting a bunch of coworkers to ask the nice principal for something. You don’t have to be aggressive about your ask if that doesn’t seem strategic. If the principal says “yes”, then great, it’s a victory for workers! In the debrief of the action highlight that it was the workers asking that got the problem solved and not the principal’s personality. You can keep building with your coworkers by asking for something a little more each time. Eventually, the principal is bound to say “no” either because they don’t want to give in or because they don’t have the authority to give in. At that point it turns into a more traditional worker-boss conflict. Of course, organizing isn’t as simple as all this, but this is a rough sketch of one way to approach organizing under a nice boss.}

Upper Management: The Politicians

Whereas principals are the school-level bosses, the bosses that formally sit atop the education system and who make higher-level decisions are politicians. Locally elected and appointed school boards, state legislatures, and the federal government all play important roles in decision-making in the education system. This layer of the structure of the education system is one with no immediately obvious analog in factory production, but a closer look reveals that the role of upper management as higher-level decision-makers in corporations matches well with the role of politicians as higher-level decision-makers in public education. One might think that because politicians are democratically elected that maybe capitalism and oppression don’t exist in the education system.

While it’s often presented that way, elected politicians, by themselves, do virtually nothing to blunt the effects of capitalism within education (for a more in-depth critique of electoralism under capitalism, see this other post). The proof is in the pudding. School boards are the ones who hire superintendents, and the supers are the ones who hire and direct HR teams to negotiate labor contracts. Just like in the private sector, educator contract negotiations are fierce battles over resources with the bosses trying to pay the workers less and the workers trying to get more. If society and the school system were remotely “democratic” and wanted education funding to keep pace with other social priorities, educator wages would keep up with GDP or at least inflation. Instead, wages for educators have been hacked at for decades with wages and benefits for teachers vs. wages and benefits for comparable jobs in other industries falling 11% in 20 years. In more than half of US states, teachers make below a “living wage” as defined by MIT researchers, and in 35 states teachers with 10 years of experience and a family of four qualify for multiple kinds of public assistance. Wages for my current position as an education assistant have been, accounting for inflation, pushed down 20% by bosses and politicians in the last 17 years. All of these attacks on educator wages damage student learning by contributing to widespread staff shortages and high turnover.

CTU 2012

{In 2012, the Chicago Teacher Union (CTU), the third largest educator union in the country with 27,000 members, went on strike. Unlike in many other big school districts, the school board in Chicago is not elected but is appointed directly by the mayor, who was Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former Chief of Staff. Just as Obama bailed out the big banks but neglected homeowners and workers with his economic initiatives, so Emanuel was close with the business interests of Chicago and helped push school reforms whose functions have been to weaken the teacher union, close “failing” schools, and double down on test scores. In the decade leading up to the strike, 70 schools were closed, many were replaced by charter schools, and 6,000 union teacher positions were vaporized. A group called the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators within CTU took over the leadership positions in the union in 2010 and started building from day one to a strike by creating a strong base of leaders in each school. When Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago in 2011 while at the same time being given new powers over the school district by the state legislature, his first move was to cancel a 4% raise guaranteed in the existing teacher contract. More than any other educator strike in recent memory, the CTU strike was essentially one of the workers against a singular politician. The teachers’ demands in contract negotiations focused as much on teacher issues as on student issues including guaranteed pre-K, access to less-tested subjects like art, music, and physical education, and smaller class sizes. The strike lasted from Sept. 10th – 18th, and on the first day 35,000 teachers and allies marched and rallied in downtown Chicago, closing not only the schools but the main business center of the state. When a contract was reached, it was declared a victory by the union because it successfully fended off the worst of Emanuel’s reforms but it also didn’t manage to win major gains either. However, the result is more sympathetic when seen in the light of an economy in the midst of a deep recession, and as the first major teacher strike in decades, it helped educators on the national stage break out of complacency and laid the groundwork for militant teacher strikes later in the decade. Any misconception the residents of Chicago had about their highest elected official working for their interests in the education system were shattered and his true colors were revealed. As the years following the strike saw more aggressive attacks by Emanuel on Chicago schools and CTU’s continued resistance, one Chicago Tribune headline reported, “Teachers union has triple the public support of Emanuel” regarding education policy. For more information, check out How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers and this article.}

The Capitalists: The Rich

With the factory, there’s the rich person who owns the factory or, with today’s stock markets, the shareholders who own the company. The owners seek to maximize the return on their investment by hiring a CEO to run the company. The CEO’s implicit job description is to “Maximize profit”, and this is enshrined in and enforced by corporate law. If the CEO doesn’t do a good job maximizing profits compared to other industry competitors, the CEO will likely be fired by the shareholders and replaced by a different CEO who will. The company owners don’t do the work of the company themselves and instead hire the executive to hire and manage the workers of the company to do the work.

The way to determine if your industry is structured by capitalist logic is to ask if any small group benefits financially from pushing down the wages of the workers. In the private sector, it’s the rich shareholders who benefit financially from keeping wages and salaries as low as possible. In the public sector, rich taxpayers are the ones who financially benefit from gouging the wages and benefits of educators because tax burdens fall disproportionately on those with wealth and labor costs are a primary expense of public sector industries like education.

How this plays out within the school system is a variation on the main capitalist theme. There is no direct owner of the public K12 school system in the same way a rich person has a legal document entitling them to an ownership portion of a company. But just as private investors provide the money that pays for the capital (buildings, machinery, loans) and pays for the wages used in the private sector, so mostly wealthy taxpayers, through the government as an intermediary, provide the money that pays for capital (buildings, curriculum, information technology) and pays for wages in the public sector. In effect, rich taxpayers stand in the same relation to schools that shareholders stand in relation to the company: one of minimizing costs, especially from labor, and, where possible, maximizing returns. Driving down their tax commitments is a fundamental way in which the rich maintain their wealth and power, which subsequently starves public services of resources.

While there’s a carefully crafted image of the rich as your “ah shucks” neighbors who want to make an honest living and contribute to a good society, actual studies of the opinions and political spending of the rich reveals an extreme and aggressive agenda bent on slashing taxes and undermining public services like education. To take just one example of the effects of efforts to lower taxes for the rich, from 1995 to 2007 the effective tax rate for the top 400 taxpayers in the US them went from 30% to 16% due in large part to Clinton and Bush incrementally lowering the capital gains tax til it hit 15% in 2003. This lowering of taxes for the rich amounts to each of the richest taxpayers saving an average of $46 million each year compared to a decade earlier. Put another way, as a society we’re giving each of the richest 400 people $46 million a year instead of spending it on public goods like education. The capital gains tax rate inched back up to 20% in 2013, but this has likely been overcompensated for by the fact that the wealthiest Americans have captured so much of the wealth created since the Great Recession. The capital gains tax is still far below below what it was in 1995 (25%) and the 1970s (35%), and additionally the income tax rates for the wealthy in the US have plummeted from 90% in the 1950s to 40% today. All in all, the rich have been extremely successful in driving down their tax commitments in opposition to overwhelming public support for higher taxes on the richest Americans.


The opinions and actions of economic elites relating to education policy in particular is just as troubling. A poll of public opinion of the richest 1% vs the general population on public policy issues found that only 35% of the rich agreed with the following statement while 87% of the general population did: “The federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to.” Revealingly, this was tied for the widest opinion gap between the rich and everyone else across the 18 issues polled. This is particularly disturbing in light of findings like those from a major study of thousands of public opinion poll results and their influence on federal policy: “economic elites and organized interest groups play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.”

Furthermore, corporations are aggressively seeking ways to insert for-profit companies into public education through standardized tests, textbooks, subcontracting of busing and food services, those charter schools that are for-profit, and for-profit property companies that rent to non-profit charters. As conservative billionaire investor Rupert Murdoch said, “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed” in reference to investing in companies that can take a piece of that pie. While these efforts are particularly exploitative and should be resisted, we shouldn’t let them distract from the larger fact that public education as it exists normally is still essentially capitalist in its structure. As long as capitalism is the dominant economic system and the rich hold the vast majority of the political and economic power, public education will be subordinate to capitalist pressures.

As attacks against organized labor have pushed private sector union density from 35% in the 1950s to below 7% today, one of the last bastions of working class institutional power are public sector unions. In the efforts of rich interests to push down labor costs across the economy, they have now strategically singled out public unions for attacks in order to decrease their tax burdens. Additionally, destroying unions and pushing down labor costs in one sector creates downward wage pressures on the rest of the economy and leaves more money for profits.

This anti-teacher union assault by billionaires has increased in intensity over the last couple decades with the rise of non-union charter schools (funded by Walmart fortune heirs alone to the tune of $355 million and with plans for $1 billion more); alternative teacher licensure programs like TFA that essentially turns teaching into a low-paid, post-college internship (despite most of TFA’s money coming from public sources it has accumulated $100s of millions in surplus above its operating costs on the backs of low-paid teachers and in states with financially struggling school districts); Right-to-Work laws where members can opt out of unions in otherwise unionized workplaces (funded by a slew of billionaires led by the Koch brothers); and now the Janus lawsuit decision which institutes those laws at the federal level (billionaires, including immediate family members of current Dept of Education head Betsy DeVos, are now funding aggressive post-Janus de-unionization campaigns). Amid all of this teacher unions have been on the ropes, dropping from 64% density in 1984 to 49% today.

What then are educators to do? If we can’t fight against direct shareholders like we can in the private sector, do we have no options for advancing worker struggle? Luckily, most of the same strategies and tactics the factory worker uses against direct owners can be tweaked and applied by the school worker against indirect owners. For example, the strikes in West Virginia were as much against the state’s political establishment as they were against the economic elites (that the WV governor is a billionaire tips off how close those two establishments are).

{In West Virginia, public education had been suffering from severe malnutrition due to a decades long attack by both Democrats and Republicans against school funding and educator unions. Teachers in West Virginia were ranked 48th in the country in wages. The spark that lit the strike came from proposed legislation that would increase the health insurance co-pay by 20% while raising wages so little that it amounted to a wage cut amid annual inflation. Organizing started out 8 months prior and culminated in a strike that lasted from February 22nd to March 6th of 2018 and included all 55 counties in the state. 20,000 teachers went on strike as did 13,000 other school employees, making it among the largest labor actions in recent decades. The state’s billionaire governor tried to talk teachers down from the strike and scolded them with lines like, “You should be appreciative of where you are”. At one point, school bus drivers were the ones in front forcing the work stoppages and bringing along other workers into the strike. Teachers won a 5% raise and killed parts of the legislation that were most egregious (and went on strike again this last February to kill a retaliatory bill targeting educators). These actions inspired similar mass educator strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky in 2018. All together, the more than 300,000 teachers across the country who went on strike in 2018 was more than the number of teachers who struck in all of the previous 25 years combined. Expanding into blue state territory in 2019, teacher strikes have been successfully pulled off in Los Angeles, Denver, and Oakland. For more information about West Virginia, see these articles.}

West Virginia Teachers Walkout


Factories vs Schools


While public education holds a special place in the liberal imagination as a great equalizer, it is more often a place of exploitation and oppression. Strife and conflict abound over who will be sorted into the corporate boardroom and who will be sorted into low-waged jobs and prison cells. Who will be fired and who will be lucky enough to keep their jobs but see their pay cut year after year? The major portion of the working and learning lives of teachers and students are governed by bosses who are more accountable to standardized tests than meeting human needs. We should reject the liberal reverence for public education and see our schools for what they are: sites of struggle over what kind of society we want to live in.

In this view of public education there is great potential. As educators and students, we are uniquely placed to affect change in the schools and, by extension, society as a whole. As one of the industries that is least susceptible to automation and outsourcing, public education is also strategically positioned within the labor movement. Our aspirations should be further elevated by the political moment we’re living in, one where teachers are leading strike waves across the country and enjoying broad public support. Similarly, the role of youth in leading social movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street points towards the collective power of youth in challenging the status quo, which is nowhere as contested as in the schools youth attend.

With educator-led actions popping off all around us, we still shouldn’t neglect taking the time to inquire about the root problems in society and in the education system. Without a political analysis to root our struggle, we’re likely to blow with the capricious political winds and then fall scattered to the ground after things settle down. We’re caught up in a power struggle forced on us by capitalism, and there’s no better time to firmly choose a side.

The commitments that students and teachers have to making social change are reflected in the commitments they have to each other. The relationship between the teacher and student is at the core of the education system, and yet it is one enveloped in fraught class relations. It is also one where we can discover our shared humanity and fight for it with each other.

One thought on “Public K12 Education as a Capitalist Industry: A Political Guide for Radical Educators and Organizers

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