Thursday, August 18, 2016

Vacant Ruins On Main Street

The reason I have never spent a penny at Walmart is because I despise their business model. Over my lifetime, in small town after small town, they built their big boxes, usually with taxpayer subsidies, then used their giant-ness to offer artificially low prices until their competition -- mostly the small businesses that once anchored Main Streets -- were out of business, then raised their prices again. There's more to dislike about that company (e.g., they pay such low wages that many of their employees are forced to rely on public assistance), but that was the one that made me vow to never set foot in one of their stores.

One of the reasons I avoid using Microsoft products is because of the company's history of producing inferior software, then using their financial wherewithal to crush or buy any competition that threatened them, robbing the marketplace of superior products in favor of their juggernaut.

Three times in my state of Washington voters rejected charter schools at the ballot box, but since this is a pet project of deep pocket interests, including the wealthiest man in the world and Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the heirs to the Walmart fortune, they were able to keep bringing it back. Finally, on the fourth try, on the tide of tens of millions spent flooding the state with advertising, a measure authorizing taxpayer money to fund private schools finally squeezed by in 2012. 

It was the Walmart/Microsoft business model all over again. Time and again, we've seen it happen: charter schools, backed by billionaires, get their nose under the tent. In the beginning these new private schools might seem okay, innovative even, but then the big, for profit chains move in, the Microsofts and Walmarts of the charter world, companies like KIPP and Gulan, bringing their clever policies of excluding low performing students, implementing their standardized curricula, anchored by a laser-like focus on standardized testing, cranking through teachers like fast-food employees, all while producing no measurable improvement over traditional pubic schools. They drain funding and middle class students from traditional public schools, putting them in the same category as those poor mom & pop stores that Walmart destroys in its wake; or those software start-ups with better ideas that Microsoft deals with by sucking them up or stomping them out.

This time, however, the Walmart/Microsoft crowd hit an unexpected road block: in 2015, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that charter schools, as passed by the voters, were unconstitutional:

. . . (T)he Washington state high court ruled . . . that the law violates the state constitution, which says that public school funds can be used only to support "common schools." The justices voted, 6 to 3, that charter schools -- which are publicly funded but privately run -- are not "common schools" because their governing boards are not elected but are appointed by the founders of the individual schools. 

That's exactly the point: charter schools are simply not public schools. Public schools are democratic institutions set up not to train our children for those "jobs of tomorrow," but rather to educate them so that they are prepared for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and therefore must be overseen by "we the people," not "they the billionaires." Now if there was truly a level playing field, I might concede that a little healthy educational competition might lead to innovation and improvement in our educational outcomes, but all you have to do is look at Walmart and Microsoft to know that there has never been a level playing field and there never will be. And not only that, but charter operators, like many of the charters around the country, will outright cheat in order to win. In this case, in fact, it appears that the Walmart/Microsoft crowd has actually broken the law. From the relentless Seattle Education blog:

As described in a recent post . . . I showed the timeline of emails that involved the Gates Foundation, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction . . . the Washington State Charter School Association (WA charters) and the Mary Walker School District (MWSD) in getting public money funneled through the MWSD, a 500-student school district in eastern Washington, to the charter schools scattered around the state to keep them open. WA charters stated last year the they received $14M to keep the charter schools open but apparently that was just a ruse. The plan was to keep the charter schools open with tax payer dollars even though the Supreme Court ruled they were unconstitutional and therefore illegal.

This is the way the privatizers work. They may or may not have violated the law, but in any event they are insulated by their billions and they aren't going to stop until there is no more public education, because that's the plan. It isn't enough to compete, but they must also destroy their competition in the process, which in this case are real public schools educating real children. Despite opposition from the voters, they just kept spending until they got what they wanted and now, apparently, despite the law, they are going to just keep spending. In the end, their objective is to end public education as we know it and turn the project of educating our children over to the highest bidder.

Of all the prongs of the corporate attack on public education (e.g., high stakes testing, standardized curricula, Common Core, union busting, de-professionalization of teaching), the replacement of real public schools with charters is the aspect where they seem to have had the most success, and that success is, in fact, their biggest threat to democracy. The goal, as Diane Ravitch illustrates in her book Reign of Error, is to completely privatize schooling in America. If they succeed, it will be a dark day. Whenever I write about charters, there are always readers who respond with stories about the "wonderful" charter attended by their own child. I believe that there are some that fit that category, but believe me, they are not long for this world. The business model of Walmart and Microsoft will eventually stomp them out, leaving vacate ruins on Main Street.

I hope it's not too late to push back on charters. I hope there are enough of us who aren't ready to give up on the promise of public education. Because that's what it's going to take: enough of us saying "No." To paraphrase Jim Morrison, let's hope that while they've got the money, we've got the numbers, because that's the only way to fight billionaires.

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