Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in the August print edition of The Oklahoma Observer.
BY JOHN THOMPSON
Oklahomans have often said “Thank God for Mississippi.” That state kept us from being last in so many important national measures. According to a new CNBC poll, we should now be thankful for Tennessee, which is the only state with a lower quality of life.
Regardless of the reliability of the CNBC survey, its point is well taken. All of those surveys that place our state near the bottom of the barrel can’t be completely wrong. I can see a scenario, however, where the Volunteer State could be saying, “thank God for those Sooners.”
After years of following Tennessee’s lead in privatizing essential functions of government, we Oklahomans are reclaiming our public schools. In doing so, may be taking the first steps toward reclaiming our democracy.
Oklahomans, due to our distrust of big government, have long flip-flopped between privatization and populism. Nowadays, we forget that the settling of the frontier was not so much the result of individualism as an exercise in privatization.
The federal government gave the railroads the land next to its tracks as an incentive for conquering the West. The results included the Indian Wars and environmental catastrophes.
The reason why Oklahoma’s prisons, orphanages, and mental institutions were so brutal is that they were turned over to well-connected individuals who ran them as their personal fiefdoms. Too often, our public sector was public in name only. For all practical purposes, Oklahoma was conceived in the darkness of privatization.
Populist counter-insurgencies often appeared and reappeared in response to the contracting out of essential services. Sometimes the populism was liberal, even Socialist, and other times it was mostly conservative, but rarely was it ideological in the conventional sense.
The corruption and brutality of privatization would reach a point where Oklahoma’s sense of neighborliness would be forced to reassert itself. Our communities then bred new waves of populism. Unfortunately, we rarely sustained them.
Ironically, Oklahoma, like Tennessee, owes much if not most of our economic success to the New Deal and other government programs. Federal infrastructure and subsidies helped create enormous wealth.
Sadly, when that bounty was not shared, we often blamed government not the private entrepreneurs who enriched themselves with federal funds.
In recent decades, Tennessee has led the contemporary privatization movements. It seemed exceptionally well positioned to prosper in the global marketplace; it even beat Oklahoma out as the new home of Gaylord Enterprises.
The state started with subsidies for Japanese investments in union-free car manufacturing. Then, FedEx, located in Memphis, was supposed to be the archetype of a 21st Century economy with overnight delivery and instant adjustments to the market’s demands. But once the corporations got their free lunches, little was left for essential government services.
Starting with prisons and health care, Tennessee blazed the path towards the mass contracting out of services. Then, in 2009, they became first in the Race to the Top corporate school reform experiment.
State Superintendent Kevin Huffman, the ex-husband and the ideological twin of Michelle Rhee, is a founding member of the blood-in-the-eye corporate reform group known as “Chiefs for Change.” Chief Huffman has used market-driven “reforms” to dismantle public schools, break the power of teachers and unions, and essentially mandate any theory of school improvement that captured the fancy of Bill Gates and the “Billionaires Boys” club.
Oklahoma has followed in their path and it hasn’t been pretty. The mess created by Oklahoma Chief for Change Janet Barresi is merely an underfunded version of the Tennessee school reforms.
Similarly, our rejection of Medicaid funding is rooted, ideologically, in the Tennessee experiment with the contracting out of health care services, often to the mega-corporation based in Tennessee.
In some cases, Oklahoma corporate greed outpaced that of Tennessee’s version. Twice in the last year, New Yorker magazine has featured Oklahoma’s ultimate nightmares, spawned by the privatization of the criminal justice system.
Oklahoma agencies have hired private law enforcement surrogates to choreograph the improper confiscation of the property of persons guilty of driving while black or brown. Simply cruising on the Interstate near a jurisdiction which seeks to fund its law enforcement agencies through illegal searches and seizures can result in the warrantless confiscation of honestly earned property.
New Yorker also cites Avalon private prisoner pre-release facility for producing out-of-control violence. And let’s not get started on the outrages spawned by our private prison boom.
The issue in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and elsewhere is more than subsidies to the elites and the contracting out of essential services. When privatization defeats the prison guards’ or the teachers’ unions, their wages go down. The quality of services provided by private vendors invariably goes down.
That leaves society less prosperous, less safe, more unhealthy, and less educated, but the harm doesn’t stop there. The real evil isn’t directly the result of the powerful profiting from the vulnerable or driving down wages and benefits.
The real tragedy is that the power of the people is undermined.
When Tennessee, Oklahoma, and the other privatizers break the power of unions, they also cripple the key political institutions that fight for the underdog. Without union organizing and funding, progressive and populist candidates are overwhelmed.
Our citizens still exhibit the same old neighborliness and liberal and conservative populist sentiments but, as union power weakens, we lose the ability to organize ourselves into viable political campaigns. And that has produced the unchallengeable Republican majorities that have shredded our social safety net and has driven Tennessee and Oklahoma down to the point where we may have the lowest quality of life in America.
But, of all places, Oklahoma is leading the grassroots rebellion against corporate school reform. We’ve killed Common Core and its testing and we’ve stopped high-stakes testing and punishment of 3rd graders. A populist rebellion kicked out Chief for Change Janet Barresi.
This bottom up movement has propelled unknown Democrat Joe Dorman into a real threat to the re-election of Republican Gov. Mary Fallin.
And Tennessee is poised to follow. Both Republican legislators and district school superintendents have called on Chief for Change Huffman to be fired, as unions are litigating the violations of teachers’ rights.
From the poorest black neighborhoods of Memphis to the more liberal areas of Nashville, parents are protesting the mass closure of public schools and the mass replacement of teachers from their neighborhoods with Teach for America.
And the national lesson should be obvious. If Oklahoma and Tennessee can fight back, our nation is ready to reclaim our government from the corporate elites and their ideology of privatization.
Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly at The Huffington Post, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.