Monday, May 19, 2014

Charter Schools Are Failing

During the Iraq War the US Department of Defense hired some 25,000 private contractors paying them six figure salaries to perform such jobs like driving trucks, doing laundry, and serving food, roles that had traditionally been filled by soldiers making less than $20,000 per year. There is a lot to dislike about this mercenary practice, but from a purely economic perspective it makes no sense, especially since, as private citizens with no military training, they became liabilities to be protected when things got hot, rather than foxhole buddies who could be relied upon to watch your back. This was done in the name of what is called "privatization," the entirely discredited idea that the private sector can always do things more efficiently than can the public sector.

"Privatization" was one of the centerpiece buzzwords from my years as a junior business executive during the go-go 80's. Neoliberal economic theory was on the rise, brought to us by Ayn Rand and the Chicago School of Economics via the election of Ronald Reagan, the backbone of which was faith in the iconic "invisible hand" of the market place. Privatization, like most of the tenents of this economic theory, has always been, and remains, a tenent of faith more than science, one of those ideas that exist beautifully on paper, under the hand of a careful cipher or the fictions of a novelist, but that never performs as expected when unleashed in the real world. I've written before about why the real people living in the real world always thwart these "trickle down" plans and why they inevitably lead to financial and social success for a few, while making life worse for the majority, hence the ever-growing income gap between the 1% and the rest of us. Today, I want to focus specifically on privatization as it applies to charter schools.

Let me begin by challenging my readers, especially those who favor neoliberal economics (e.g., trickle down, supply side, laissez fair, Friedmanism, Chicago School, Reaganomics). I can find many examples of how privatization of formerly public services has made a small group of individuals wealthy, but I can find no instances in which privatization has lead to better products, services or lower prices for citizens. None. Yes, there are a few cases in which there was a surge of improvement, but that was always followed by the predictable crash and burn as greed, which is the immoral driving compulsion of economic competition, invariably wins. This New York Times piece from last year strives to portray a balance, but in every instance their privatization "success" example turns out to be nothing more than a bright moment before things go dark. The classic example being the oil giant BP, which Margaret Thatcher's government privatized during the 80's. Investors were happy as profitability rose, but it was paid for by the British people and the world in the currency of thousands of jobs, higher prices, destroyed eco-systems, and dead human beings. This is pretty much how privatization always goes.

If the private sector is really more efficient, then why are they so afraid of competing against single payer healthcare? It's because they can't: the public sector would eat their lunch. "The government," as it does in most of the rest of the industrialized world, will deliver a better product at a lower price and they know it. There are some goods and services the free market can provide efficiently, but when it comes to those things we all need and use, the private sector fails because of it's mandate to turn a profit and pay high executive salaries. Not to mention the "cost cutting" private businesses pass along to taxpayers, like cleaning up their pollution, using our publicly-funded police, fire and military to protect their private business interests, and the loss of productive citizens through workplace injury or death as cutting costs so often means cutting safety. 

Often when I write about the push to privatize our public schools, people misunderstand and think I'm being critical of private schools in general. This could not be further from the truth. My own child attends a private school, a choice we made 12 years ago because we had the wherewithal and because it was the best choice for our child and our family. Private schools have always existed alongside public schools, primarily serving certain socio-economic classes, religious requirements, or children with special needs not well-handled by public schools. Privatized schools, such as today's charter schools, are essentially private schools that are paid for by money that would otherwise be used for traditional public schools. This means, like we did with mercenaries in Iraq, the private sector gets the money, but without the rules, accountability, and transparency a democratic society must have from its public institutions. This is done based upon the faith-based crock of an idea that "competition" will lead to better education. And sure enough, we are now witnessing the BP phenomenon unfolding before our eyes: a few benefit, while the rest of us get screwed.

Guess who the highest paid government worker is? Nope, not the president, not even close. That dubious honor goes to Ron Packard, CEO of the online virtual charter corporation K12, founded by junk bond king Michael Milken, who has been taking home nearly $4 million a year. Oh, and by the way, NCAA universities recently announced that they would no longer accept credits from many of K12's "public schools," because of the poor quality of the education. And guess who's probably going to be sued by parents upset over their child receiving a subpar education? That's right, the taxpayers, while the private sector folks get to walk away with another $4 million in their pockets as they once again externalize the cost of their abject failure. This is how privatization always works: wealth for a few with no accountability except for profits, executive salaries, and over-priced crap for everyone else. 

Or what about this: Muskegon Heights, Michigan (which I've written about before) is now officially without a public school system. It seems that the for-profit charter operator, Mosiaca, that was placed in charge of their entire school district two years ago has just closed up shop, deciding there isn't enough money to be made, what with annoying expenses like teacher salaries and building maintenance. Of course, as is typical of the supply-side faithful, the problem can't be with their model, so the city is now shopping around for another for-profit charter chain to take over. Screw the kids, who have already lost two years of their educational life and are likely to lose even more. Oh, and just wait, the faithful, still unable to see the flaw in their system, will soon turn to blaming the parents, you know, for being poor and lazy.

When profit is the motive, all sorts of bizarre and sordid things result. Look what happened in Indiana when a charter school run by a deep-pocket political donor was about to receive a "C" on its accountability report card due to low algebra scores. Magically, after a few emails, the grade was changed to an "A," because, you know, in a for-profit enterprise, "accountability" means accountability to profits, not education. The privatization evangelist superintendent who appears to have authorized this corruption, has now moved on to Florida where he has been hired to work similar magic down there. Good luck Florida.

Of course, all charter schools are not for-profit, right? That's technically true, and from what I understand, the state of Maryland may have come up with a model closer to the great Albert Shanker's original idea for charters, although they are still positioned as "competition" to traditional schools rather than the allies as they should be. Keep in mind, however, that many of the so-called non-profit charters still pay comparatively huge executive salaries, lower teacher pay, ban unions, and affiliate with for-profit sister companies that provide such things as over-priced text books, supplies, and curricula. I understand there are a few charter schools out there operating with the children as their main focus, but that will not last because if the gospel of free markets has taught us anything, it's that one of the inevitable outcomes of a battle between for-profit and non-profits is that the non-profit must be destroyed.

No where is this disaster more disgusting than in New York's public schools, where hedge fund managers, lobbyists, and education corporations rule. Not only are these schools failing in their efforts to better educate children, they have created a corrupt, mercenary environment of educational apartheid,   and class and racial warfare, with the clear end-game being the outright take-over of public schools.

The privatization movement is a hoax, not just in education, but across the board. It is snake oil being sold by the lie that our public schools are failing, and the companion lie that charters produce better results. Competition might be the best way to produce and sell widgets, but when something more important than profit is at stake, when it's about something we all need, it is never the best way to go about creating quality and equality. In all honesty, I'm not even sure if privatization's neoliberal adherents even believe in it any longer, because it's hard imagining that anyone would be that much of a fundamentalist. No, it's becoming increasingly clear that children don't even come into the equation except as unpaid workers slaving away in the test score mines. There may have been a moment when charter schools held some promise, but it's quite evident that today's privatizers are cynically in it for the money, which is what we've come to expect from hedge fund managers, lobbyists, corporations, and their damned imaginary efficiencies.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for informing us of the truth.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for this.

Most Dance said...

Yes, thank you for the truth however I still don`t know how to choose the best school for my youngest child. You know my elder son got education in public school and we faced lots of problems. Starting with the condition of the building, and low qualified teachers. I don`t want to insult someone but he got very poor knowledge there and when it came to prepare for college he couldn`t even write his essay (we used this Help On Essay service ) moreover we spent a lot of money to pay teachers who explained those pieces of knowledge he has missed.