Thursday, July 12, 2012

Blog chatter: are charter schools faux reform?

I've been frankly disappointed by the deafening silence among Tennessee Democrats on the question of privatizing public education by means of charter schools. As far as I can see very few are bucking the White House, which is firmly committed to "education reform" via charter schools. Instead, they seem more interested in the partisan game of slamming Republicans for vouchers rather than acknowledging that their own milquetoast party often offers nothing bolder than GOP-lite education policies.

So, I sit up and take notice when a Tennessee Democrat goes against the grain. Trace Sharp has honest questions based on her rural experience for her fellows who advocate charters and others:

  • Was collective bargaining for teachers dispatched out of the way to set charter schools in place? (In my opinion, the answer is absolutely yes.)
  • Why would a for-profit company be better for school children than public education?
  • How will data on the actual retention skills of information of students be measured? If charter schools don’t have to follow the regulations of public schools, what is their model and WHY is it better?
  • Once again, if a county only has one or two high schools, what determines which one will be a charter school, which one won’t and how will public funding be distributed? There are a lot of counties with only one or two high schools that go back back to the consolidation that occurred in the early ’90s where small, community schools closed and moved to larger-based schools.
  • Who will monitor the profits of the charter schools? Who will regulate the curriculum?

It is clear to me that privatization of public schools is the extension of Republican logic that business models are the solution to social problems and policy challenges. Democratic support of charter schools strikes me as a kinder and gentler form of rejection of government services, the utter resignation of the idea that public education is by definition guaranteed to all comers. They may use buzzwords like public-private partnerships, but privatization is more like leveraged buyout. They may shroud it with non-profit philanthropy, but it is remains private enterprise with all of its limitations. The Godfather of charter school philanthropy is Bill Gates:

[Bill] Gates' leveraged philanthropy model is a public-private partnership to improve the world, partly through targeted research support but principally through public advocacy and tax-free lobbying to influence government policy. The goal of these policies is often to explicitly support profitability for corporate investors, whose enterprises are seen by the Gates Foundation as advancing human good. However, maximum corporate profit and public good often clash when its projects are implemented.

(And I won't even go into the problem of the reactionary funders of school reform as Trace ably did; go read her post for that). Business models for education do not simply solve problems in public education.

As Molly Ivins used to say, business excels at creating wealth. That does not guarantee that it does everything else well (although it can buy enough public relations experts and political strategists to brand it a cure-all). Business models also invite new problems, like treating people strictly as either consumers or commodities, like reducing all good (classically a broader moral and social idea) to financial goods. Private companies and wealthy individuals buy greater influence while besieged and beleaguered communities, parents, teachers and students have only their own bodies with which to fight, assuming they have the time and energy to do so.

The private enterprise end of the private-public partnership naturally pushes the process to let entrepreneurs take control. As a result public education gets sold off to the highest bidders, who like Bill Gates, also wield political clout. Nashville lawyer Jamie Hollin underscores the problem:

No matter how nice candidates are, how long or how little they’ve lived in the community, whether their kids go to public school or not, whether they work for a company already receiving public tax dollars through contracts, how brilliant they may be, who they’ve worked for or with in the past, or who endorsed their candidacy, the ultimate goal of the monied-interests behind them is privatization. And, there’s lots of money to be made in privatization ....

I am not willing to completely dismantle the public school system in Nashville like the individuals and groups supporting these candidates are so hell-bent to achieve.

While Nashville abdicates to a kinder and gentler form of school reform, other cities like Philadelphia are moving with ruthless, heartless efficiency to privatize public schools. In a letter to Philly's school district "recovery" officer, a mother of children in district and charter schools calls education reform what it is, a conservative expression of the shock doctrine:

You’re not speaking to me with this brand of disaster capitalism that tries to shock a besieged public with unproven, untested, and drastic action couched as “solutions.” You’re not speaking to me when you invoke language like “achievement networks,” “portfolio management,” and “rightsizing” our schools – and say not a word about lower class sizes or increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching our curriculum.

You’re not speaking to me when you plan to close 25 percent of our schools before my son graduates high school. You’re not speaking to me when you equate closing down 64 schools – many of them community anchors – as “streamlining operations,” yet you’ll expand charter populations willy-nilly despite a national study showing two-thirds of Philly charters are no better or worse than District-managed schools.

You’re not talking to me when your promises of autonomy come minus any resources, and when the best you have to offer parents is “seat expansion” – which just means larger class sizes without extra funds.

You’re not talking to me when you say all schools are public schools. They are not.

We are indisputably facing a real crisis in education. As author Naomi Klein points out, crisis destabilizes communities, throws people off their guard, forces us to grasp desperately for answers, and in some cases, to panic, which gives wealthy, powerful and patient special interests the chance to rush in with sweeping "reforms" that tend to favor them more than the grasping masses. Likewise, conservative agendas rush in to fill the vacuum. School reform is no different. It is not a community-based, democratic or (regardless of what its adherents claim) progressive model of education, but a business-oriented, charity-bent, venture-philanthropy-funded model of keeping underserved populations compliant to the larger social structures that define their place in the first place.


  1. Great post, Mike! This reminds me of Diane Ravitch's scathing review of Waiting for Superman and its charter school championing....

  2. I have an idea for another model for government schools I think will help them address the needs of the kids they serve, raise the bar, compete with charters and be neighborhood schools. The current model is not working...more to to get my thoughts organized.