Beware of Cabinet Officers Bearing “Gifts”

“We already have the privatization of the military…; we’ve seen the privatization of the prison system. Well, the next step is the privatization of public schools.” That prediction by Jonathan Kozol four years ago has come closer to reality with the enactment of President Obama’s Race to the Top educational goals.

Besides continuing the previous administration’s No Child Left Behind policy that pushed high stakes testing and punished teachers and schools whose students scored low, RTTT forces states which want extra Federal funds to agree to expand the number of charter schools in their jurisdiction. All in the name of school reform.

The president and his outspoken secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have all the leverage, as most states have broken budgets due to the Great Recession, and any extra bucks from the Feds look good. My own union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, despite significant qualms from its membership, supported RTTT at the last minute, enabling Massachusetts to win some of that extra government cash. To their credit, the state’s other teachers union, the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, said “No” to the bribe.

In neighborhoods with overcrowded and underfunded public schools, local charter schools with decent teacher-student ratios and art and music programs certainly seem attractive to parents, particularly to poor and working class parents, who can’t afford the private school alternative. No one can blame those parents who choose to send their children to the charter school. But the bigger question, the public policy question, is, why don’t we provide the resources to build the beautiful state-of-the art public schools with enough teachers and staff and curricula and amenities that a good society would make available to its children?

There are different types of charter schools, but the basic model is a specialized elementary or high school that is publicly funded, non-union and run without many of the regulations that govern public schools. They take money away from the already financially struggling public schools and in the process weed out special needs and non-English speaking students who are more costly to educate. Nonetheless, despite media focus on examples of charter schools that do well, the most comprehensive national study released last year concluded that charter school do not do better than their public school cousins. The Stanford University researchers found that 37% of charters did worse than public schools; 46% about the same; and only 17% scored better.

Evidence of a policy not working doesn’t necessarily mean that the policy will be reformulated or ended. We know that already from our failed wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The attacks on public schools and on teachers’ unions can best be explained as part of the decades old ideological war against public workers (their pay, their pensions, their right to have a job), the public sector and social programs. Cutting taxes and bashing teachers is only part of it. Money-making opportunities for corporate America is central, and if prisons and war-making can be profit centers, why not education? Jonathan Kozol highlights the advice from Montgomery Securities to its corporate clients: “the education industry represents the largest market opportunity” since health-care privatization or, to put it more succinctly, “The K-12 market is the Big Enchilada.”

A quarter of charter schools are run by for-profit corporations. It should surprise no one that the Walton Family Foundation holds first place in charter school investment and John, the son of Wal-Mart’s founder, owns nearly a quarter of a million shares in a leading for-profit charter firm. But there’s still a lot of money to be made with the non-profit charters as well. According to the N.Y. Daily News and Democracy Now reporter Juan Gonzalez, big investors and leading banks have taken advantage of the Federal New Markets Tax Credit to loan money to non-profits that build charter schools. The huge Federal tax credit combined with other tax breaks can bring a nearly 100% return on the lender’s investment in seven years. That explains JPMorgan Chase’s multi-million dollar investment in charter schools along with big-moneyed New York hedge funds.

When Arne Duncan called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” he was celebrating the destruction of the city’s public schools and their teachers union, and the new charter school majority in the Big Easy. But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina also revealed the ever-widening racial and class inequalities in New Orleans. Race to the Top simply perpetuates those inequities. State governments shouldn’t be bribed into bad public policy, nor should rank and file Americans be seduced by the rhetoric of “school reform.” We need to see RTTT as part and parcel of the neoliberal assault on progressive social programs and the social safety net, and not just an isolated set of policies from a second tier cabinet official. That kind of understanding will bring us one step closer to something we really need: a social movement big enough and unified enough to reverse the inequities in the U.S. that Katrina made plain.

2 Responses

  1. I think that one of the best critiques of the charter school/privatization/”Waiting for Superman” rhetoric now dominating talk about education is Diane Ravitch’s recent piece in The New York Review of Books:

    The classism inherent in bashing teachers from whom much professional autonomy has been stripped as distant powerful policy makers prescribe daily classroom practice is appalling.

    Good to see this blog!

  2. CP

    Well written. I have similar critiques of underfunding public schools (thanks to Prop 13 in my home state of CA), corporation owned/for-profit charter schools (like NYC is seeing), and NCLB, all of which I’ve seen the damage from. Additionally watching the Tavis Smiley show where the “Superman” director’s justifications were rife with classist attitudes, I couldn’t help but shake my head; just more of the same nonsense from our “betters” who keep destroying everything they reserve full control over for themselves.

    At the same time, our Asperger’s son goes to a non-profit charter which came out of a crushed magnet program in our local USD. Going Charter was the only way we could go back to the progressive education program the magnet once was before NCLB. Our son’s charter school is run and “funded” by every parent’s sweat and no corporate money is sought or been taken. RTTT, however has provided a small amount of seed funding for this charter school. We took it because we had to or we couldn’t make the charter work. And we did so with mixed feelings.

    In light of this experience with a charter school because the local USD was not interested in providing a public education suitable to our children’s distinctive needs and would not allow parents to put in sweat equity to alternatively “fund” that suitable education, I am learning the blanket condemnation of charter schools is just as reckless and irresponsible as the classist neoliberalism that is in fact privatizing public education under RTTT. A nuanced critique of RTTT is thus necessary.

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