Last week, Mother Jones magazine ran an article about how “The GOP’s Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded.” It tells the story of the failure and collapse of a charter school called the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which recently had a student body of over 13,872 students, the largest public charter school, maybe the largest k-12 school, in the US. You might find it interesting. According to the article, the school provided for many a “sham education” and “functioned more like a profit center than an educational institution.”
Related to this, the Tallulah Charter School in New Orleans was closed in December after the Louisiana Department of Education voided 325 scores on the LEAP tests after finding evidence of systemic cheating. An investigation found the school was “administering incorrect accommodations, administering accommodations inappropriately and giving students access to test questions prior to the test.”
Charter schools are not subject to the same regulation as public schools, so such abuses as reported above are understandable. As Diane Ravitch argues in her book Reign of Error, they “…are deregulated and free from most state laws….” Unlike public schools, which take any and every student who comes to their door, charter schools can screen for the most advantaged. Despite this screening, they are no more successful than public schools. As educator Steven Singer put it, “school choice is no choice.” The schools chose the students more than the other way around. When adjusted for the economic situation of students, statistics show charters often do worse. Charter and other privately run schools can hire uncertified teachers who are not unionized, not as well trained, and who can be paid less.
But despite these problems, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, says she is in favor of establishing a voucher system, where parents can choose where to send their children for their education. Public funds will be used to pay for students to attend charters, religious, or other private schools instead of public ones.
She argues, despite evidence showing otherwise, that “choice” will increase equity among all students by forcing competition in the education market. But her approach treats our children as commodities, sources of money, (as exemplified by speaking of “value added” to students by schools) and conceptualizes the purpose of education as meeting the needs of employers, (or in DeVos’ case, meeting her agenda of Christianizing education: see the NYT article on the subject) not meeting the needs and dreams of students.
The push for “choice” developed over many years of attacks on the image and funding of public schools. Diane Ravitch argues that education corporations worked with individual politicians to undermine public schools, teachers, and teacher unions, and have been attacking the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, can successfully manage and direct an educational system.
Once public education was forced into this deliberately manufactured crisis, there were increasing calls to create privately run, publicly funded, charter schools, and vouchers for private schools. In 2016-7, there were 3.1 million students enrolled in charter schools, triple the number from 2006-7. With charter schools, public money is transferred from teachers and administrators, who are mostly in the middle or lower class, to corporate investors. In the case of cities like NYC, hedge fund managers, whose primary goal is fast profits, have taken over several charter schools.
If our society truly wanted to create an equitable educational system it would begin by investing more money in schools where the need was greatest. It would treat teachers with the respect they deserve and need in order to creatively and compassionately meet the educational needs of students. It would do a better job of treating students as whole people with emotional, social, and health needs as well as intellectual ones. It would do any of these things before it would spend one nickel on vouchers or corporate created charter schools.
The call for “choice” is a call for privatization of the whole public sphere. It is part of an across the board effort to undermine all aspects of our democracy and to send taxpayer money to rich investors. It is happening with our water systems. In 2011 three quarters of municipalities had public water systems. But the Trump EPA has steadily worked to undermine the rule of law and cut back on protections for rivers and other water systems, and his calls for infrastructure improvements have been tied to pressure for privatization of municipal water systems.
It has been happening with prison systems. In 1983, the first private prisons were opened. By 2015, 126,272 people were imprisoned in private institutions. It has been happening with the military. Since the 1990s, the US and other nations have increased their dependence on private military firms (corporate mercenaries). This was highlighted last year when Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, tried to get the Trump administration to privatize the war in Afghanistan and turn it over to Prince.
It is happening with health, pension and earned benefits systems. The GOP has repeatedly tried to privatize Social Security and end or undermine Medicare and Medicaid in order to appropriate the benefits earned by workers. Mr. T and other Republican politicians repeatedly attack the FBI and CIA. These efforts are partly to undermine the Mueller investigation. It is also to establish an intelligence and investigation institution that owes allegiance not to the constitution, “the people” or the government as a whole, but to Mr. T, personally, as evidenced by T asking for Comey’s “loyalty” and saying he expected the attorney general to protect him from the Russia investigation.
I could go on and on, talking about attempts to end voting rights, economic justice and racial, religious or gender equality, destroy the free press, the postal system, etc. Privatization is a vehicle for undermining democracy and destroying the best hope of this nation. President Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, called for people to dedicate themselves to “the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far nobly advanced… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.” Maybe I’m going too far here, but it seems to me that ending a government of, by, and for “the people” is exactly what Mr. T is trying to do. Thus, resisting him and the GOP is nothing less than helping to complete the unfinished work President Lincoln called for.
**Thank you to Jill Swenson for the heads up about the first two links about charter schools.