March 21, 2013

I blame John Amato for getting me hooked on the new Netflix Series, House of Cards. Kevin Spacey is fantastic, the pace is great, but unfortunately, the policy issues they tackle in this first season are predictably corporate.

Nothing screams corporate like the storyline about education reform. After Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) forces his colleague to abandon education reform because he's "too left", Underwood finds himself negotiating a package with union representatives that feels a lot like Reed Hastings' dream "reform package."

Adam Bessie introduces Ms. Reform, Hastings' dream girl of education reform:

Ms. Reform is the Marilyn Monroe of domestic policy. The corporate media – and the President himself – can’t get enough of her.

It’s no surprise she’s become famous. Ms. Reform is sexy and seductive, especially to the powerful: she looks like a philanthropist – kind and nurturing, committed to helping the poor, forgotten black and brown children in the inner-cities. Who in their right mind could be against her plans to help our children – especially our most vulnerable and least privileged – have a fair shot in life? But inside – a side she never shows the camera, and when she does, it’s Photoshopped – Ms.Reform is a cutthroat businesswoman: she’s read Ronald Reagan’s economic advisor Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom from cover to cover, she has complete faith in “free enterprise,” she’s never heard of John Dewey nor deigned to teach a day in her life, and boy, does she friggin’ hate unions. In short, Ms. Reform appeals not just to the bleeding heart social justice Obamaites, but also, to venture capitalists that think Obama is fomenting a socialist take-over of America. The only surprise is that she didn’t become famous sooner.

Now, Ms. Reform is starring once again, this time, along (another) Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey in the NetFlix original seriesHouse of Cards, which explores the sordid underbelly of Washington politics. The protagonist Congressman Frank Underwood – who has no allegiance but to his own power – takes on the education reform bill for the new President, one which looks strikingly similar to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top: the bill increases charter schools, and ties test scores to teacher evaluation, echoing the corporate style, free enterprise reforms both bills have implemented. And of course, as is always the case, Ms. Reform is cast as heroine – and the unions, at best obstructionist and only interested in the needs of the teachers, and not the children (To be fair, though, it’s clear that the real villain in the show is not the unions, but Underwood himself – and as Underwood is supporting the bill, it might cast a negative light on the policies to some viewers).


To be clear, Ms.Reform’s on-screen portrayal mirrors Hasting’s values and his hefty investments. Hastings – who objectifies and commodifies education by characterizing it as business “space,” devoid of humanity – is invested both in for-profit, non-profit, and lobbying efforts that push for the very reforms reflected in House of Cards.

Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress noticed it too:

Elsewhere in the education fight, the only discussion of policy are facile mentions of charter schools, collective bargaining, and performance standards. A union official appears in one scene to declare that “Charters jeapordize our ability to organize, which is reason enough” to object to Frank’s draft of the bill. Otherwise, the movement is represented only by picketers who melt when Frank and his wife serve them barbeque, and by a paid lobbyist who is manipulated into decking Frank in his office, giving him the advantage he needs to force a settlement to a teacher’s strike and a legislative deadlock. When Frank manipulates Congressman Russo (Corey Stoll) into running for Governor of Pennsylvania, his opposition is largely personified by the head of a shipbuilder’s union decimated by the BRAC process that shutters a local shipyard.

It's true that Hastings didn't write the script, but I can't help thinking he shaped a narrative that lends itself to such a script. The casual treatment and perception of unions as thugs, of teachers as incompetent, of solutions as simply privatizing the effort altogether while using data analysis as the benchmark for nearly everything is characteristic of today's reform discussion.

News broke late tonight that Chicago Public Schools may be closing 50 public schools. FIFTY. There is absolutely no way the school system can absorb that kind of shock. I don't think the number 50 is a coincidence. Back in the days when the Gates Foundation thought charters were the answer to everything, the foundation put millions into the district to create charter schools, including 50 new high schools under their "small high school" initiatve.

In 2012, the Gates Foundation announced they would not put any more funds into CPS, leaving the district with a choice as to which schools to de-fund and which to keep. That wouldn't have anything to do with Chicago teachers going on strike last year, would it?

Shall we take bets on which schools stay open and which ones close? I'm betting on the charters staying open and the public schools closing. You?

It worries me that we're seeing the reformers worm into popular culture without fully exploring all of the issues around education reform. I realize Reed Hastings, Bill Gates, Betsy DeVos and Michelle Rhee think they have all the answers, but they really don't.

A show like House of Cards is uniquely positioned to honestly explore all facets of an issue like this in a fast-paced and entertaining way. It's disappointing to see the writers reach for the corporate solution without even looking at the other side of things.

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