Robocop And The Charter School Movement

Editor’s Note: This Tuesday, we have a guest post from Brandon Melendez and a science fiction metaphorical piece around the issue of charter schools. Makes for an interesting read. -M.P. 

Many people write off the classic 1987 science fiction film Robocop as mindless action, wrapped in a low budget veneer, and full of gore are profanity. On the surface this is true but there is a deeper message built into the narrative of this, often undervalued, piece of cinema. Allow me to paint a picture in synopsis before I explain.

In a dystopian near future the sprawling American Metropolis of Detroit is in dire straights.  Crime is running rampant, the city is broke, and the Police Department is overworked, underpaid, and growing thin. Enter the seemingly benevolent-yet-underhanded Omni Consumer Products Corporation (OCP). OCP proceeds to purchase the Detroit police force and aims to destroy what they dub “Old Detroit” in order to put in place the futuristic marvel of “Delta City”. With the police force in their pocket they need only deal with the pesky problem of mortality, free will, and unionized displays  on the part of its officers. The answer to their dilemma is the cyborg Robocop—a reanimated officer, Alex Murphy, who was killed in action and fit the psychological profile of the “perfect” cop. Of course, just in case their cyborg should have a moral crisis he is armed in his prime directives not to arrest any OCP upper executive.

You see, this 1987 B-Movie has not so deeply hidden in its narrative an observation that is easily applicable to it’s near future—our present. Here we have financially crippled metropolitan governments taking an essential public service and selling it out to a private interest. We have said corporation looking for a way to bust the unions, limit the actions, and mute the conscience of its street level instruments. You have the destruction of economically (let me add racially) marginalized areas being changed, purchased, bulldozed, and otherwise changed demographically to bring forth gleaming towers affordable only to the affluent rather than some grass roots attempt to better the circumstances of current inhabitants. What you have is the bearing of many of our elected officials’ answers to the economic and political quagmires of our times as predicted by a movie you greatly overlooked as a bang-bang shoot ‘em up.

This is most readily apparent in the large-scale movement towards instituting charter schools as a wholesale replacement for the public education system. Break it down piece by piece, from the corporation buy out, to the underserved communities, to the breaking of unions, to the limiting of ground level decision making we are seeing a parallel that can be made with literally no stretch of the imagination.

In Philadelphia this is already happening systemically—their public education system was sliced up like a day old pie and served to whatever companies were willing to take each district under its wing like subsidiaries being sold off in a corporate assets sale. The corporations must agree to operate their slice of pie in concert with the larger network—the pie pan—to create the public education system, on the pubic dime, but with minimal-if-any public accountability. While it is true that, generally, public education systems have limited accountability to the public in terms of direct elections they are still accountable to the electorate via school boards, community boards, and elected officials. The boards of charter schools and organizations are nebulous and tied up in an enormous amount more red tape than the public sector—and furthermore, are elected by shareholders and investment if at all. These schools, while having to meet some of the absurd requirements met by public schools are not required to meet two of the important ones—they don’t have to hire union teachers and they don’t have to hired certified teachers.

In recent years with the proliferation of the Leave Every Child Behind Act, or rather the supposed No Child Left Behind Act, teacher licensing, at least in New York, has been eschewed in lieu of certification. The difference is that certification required re-certification as opposed to licensing which requires renewing, perhaps. This was to align with the NCLB requirement that teachers get a highly qualified professional. Therefore, teachers have to constantly be in professional development and must have either 75 PD hours or 12 college credits every certification cycle. These courses can be astoundingly expensive and essentially marry teachers more so to their positions—though not as a matter of calling but rather as a matter of candidacy for employment. That’s fine. Teachers should be constantly learning new trends and theory in the state of their art; the expense is almost counter balanced by the benefit of teachers not broadcasting base 12 math.

However, in the first of many contradictions, the panacea of public school system failure, charter schools, are not required to hire exclusively certified teachers. Some are allowed to hire non-certified teachers within a certain ratio to their certified ones. This is part of an effort to ensure that charters can hire dynamic, talented, teachers that may not otherwise be able to teach. If this is such a brilliant idea, why not extend it to the public system? New York City Public Schools had previously had a large number of these kinds of teachers, “in the process of certifying”, and it was deemed unacceptable leading to many lay offs some years back. Suddenly, it’s OK for a para-public institution (private schools are in fact allowed to do so, but they are private schools and are not publicly funded) to hire non-certified teachers “in the process” and it’s a great opportunity? Something stinks—it’s just a way to make it easier to privatize the system. So, seemingly, charters can run with some public funding, with public students, without direct public accountability, without the same restrictions as the public system? The cards are stacked against the public system.

The non-certified teachers are forced to tow the party line of the school because without their approval they won’t be able to teach anywhere. The certified teachers don’t have union support and teaching jobs are hard found in these austere times so they have to keep their yaps shut as well. Without shop stewards to support them, and organizations behind them teachers are open to abuse and threats from administrations and administrators who are behooved to make these schools appear stable, viable, and successful when they might be anything but. May I introduce Prime Directive 4, “Never oppose an OCP officer”?

In another contradiction, the same casual liberals and would be progressives that laud charter schools also loathe union busting not seeing this connection, or perhaps making a philosophical exception. If industrial unions are vital to the protection of the industrial worker, then wouldn’t that same logic be extended to the public service worker? It is one of the few likening of public services to industry that holds water. Some assert that teacher unions protect teachers too well but in our highly litigious age such as our own, where false accusation and misdeed are both ubiquitous, and given the importance of the classroom teacher’s job I think a little protection is necessary. Perhaps some reform in the treatment of teachers found guilty of crime or infraction is required, but the same is true of all public employees including our elected officials.

I wonder what these casual liberals and progressives, and these armchair activists would say if suddenly OCP bought their Police Department? Or their Fire Department? Welfare Services? Public Housing? Child Protective Services? What then? An argument of apples and oranges is not applicable—what happens when the governmental corporation’s subsidiaries are sold off and liquidated? What happens when Air Traffic Control is controlled? Additionally how would conservatives and constitutionalists feel when the military is sold off?  Who will your complain to when your job owns the IRS and your taxes are too high? At what point do we return to the serfdom of the corporate mining town? It only starts with children; children who will have been educated in a system run by corporations may be all too ready to live in a system owned by them literally rather than hyperbolically or rhetorically.

If the question is about school choice then open up the districts rather than shutting them down. This has also had mixed success, if any. The corporate, commerce based solution to our educational woes won’t work—and as over 8% of the population will tell you, it doesn’t really seem to be working in our economy either. Don’t misunderstand, reform is needed, necessary, and vital to the continued existence of our public education system—and probably all our public services—but the issue isn’t economic its psychological. As a people we love to give lip service to the education of our children as a priority but it isn’t. Not in our heart of hearts. We care about stadiums, tanks, and fashion; big movies and big cars. Every solution we have come up with is scotch tape on dam burst because we don’t really care to educate our children. Even our high performing schools don’t match up internationally because our focus is on standardization, assessment, and accountability instead of innovation, invention, and investment.

Until then, you’ll find that the public schools will continue to falter under legislation that was not written by educators and charter schools that thrive under conditions they stack in their favor. You’ll see their results fly because that’s what they do; but remember, at the end of the day the guys who report statistics are the same guys who cook the books.

Welcome to Delta City.


Brandon Melendez is an Adjunct Professor in the American Urban Studies Program at the Audrey Cohen School for Human Services of Metropolitan College of New York and serves in the Special Education Department in the East Williston School District. Additionally he is the Media Director/Education and Curriculum Supervisor at Eat Your Serial Inc. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in American Urban Studies from MCNY and a dual Master of Arts in Childhood Education and Childhood Special Education from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

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