Public Comment

The Privatization of Public Schools

Harry Brill
Thursday March 02, 2017 - 03:15:00 PM

Our society is moving rapidly in a dangerous direction. Government is increasingly playing the role of assisting business to maximize profits instead of attempting to improve the quality of life of the public. The strategy is privatization. Among the public institutions that are becoming increasingly privatized are K-12 educational institutions. Called charter schools, they are rapidly increasing at the expense of public schools. In Washington, D.C. 44 percent of the students are enrolled in charter schools. In some cities, including Detroit and New Orleans, a majority of the students are educated in charter schools. 

Charter schools are defined as public schools that operate independently from local school boards and other public schools. But the only thing that is really public about them is that they get their money from the public sector, which as a result financially bleeds the public school Those who are interested in exploring why educators and progressives generally are disappointed with charter schools should go to the internet site, Charter School Scandals. You will read about how in many instances the funding of public schools are being cut to feed the predatory interests of charter school proprietors and managers. You will also read about their lack of transparency and accountability. In California, for example, the charter schools do not favor transparency for good reasons. State authorities have found that many of its charter schools have been responsible for over $80 million in wasteful and fraudulent spending of public money. 

President Trump appointed the billionaire Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She has very close ties to the conservative wing of the Republican Party. She served as the Republican National Committeewoman in Michigan. DeVos has worked very hard and successfully to expand the number of charter schools in Michigan. She has supported these schools no matter how poor their record of accomplishments are. For example, although students of the charter school in Detroit, Hope Academy, have continually experienced very low test scores for more than a decade, its license was nevertheless renewed. 

It would be a serious mistake, however, to assume that all charter school advocates are interested in only profit. On the contrary, many progressives have been concerned about the shortcomings in public schools and accordingly, want to find a way of improving the quality of K-12 education. Among the advocates was Albert Shanker, who was head of the American Federation of Teachers union. In 1988 he proposed what was soon after called charter schools. He offered a vision of setting up alternative schools that gave teachers much greater freedom to teach and develop the curriculum. Many prominent educators agreed. 

The first charter school opened in St. Paul Minnesota with about 35 students in 1992. There are now over 6,700 charter schools in the United States who teach more than two and a half million students. Unlike the orientation of progressive educators, the charter schools, instead of cooperating with the public schools, have been competing with and attempting to replace them. Instead of involving teachers in the task of improving and developing curriculum, how to shape these schools is now completely in the hands of management. Because of the very vigorous efforts of charter school administrators, only 10 percent of the charter schools are unionized. In public schools, 49 percent of the teachers are union members. The union affiliation gives these teachers some clout to influence school policy. Unlike public schools, the main interest of charter schools is to make money. In fact, it is about making lots of money. 


But it was progressives like Shanker, not conservatives, who first proposed charter schools. Their model favored democratic decision making along with giving teachers an opportunity to develop different approaches to educating K-12 students. Certainly there were problems with the public schools that needed to be addressed. But by proposing alternatives to the traditional public schools they legitimated the unfortunate development that followed. The progressives did not realize that ambitious entrepreneurs would take advantage of the opening that Shanker and others provided. 


In retrospect, it might have turned out differently if progressives instead had focused exclusively on the existing public schools rather than seeking to support alternative educational institutions. The most serious problem confronting the public schools has been inadequate funding. Without a decent budget there are serious limits to what can be accomplished. Particularly important, teachers needed more autonomy to improve the performance of the schools. Although Shanker and other progressives supported a benign kind of privatization, they later regretted what has actually emerged. But as the private sector became more active in building support for charter schools that they would completely control, it was too late to contain this development. Those who craved profits had immense political and economic advantages, including the strong support of Clinton when he was president, and President Obama, who embraced Charter Schools and favored their expansion. 


Nevertheless, progressives have seriously attempted to address the serious problems of charter schools. Last year in California a coalition of community groups, parents, and state leaders banded together to persuade the state government to enact a charter school transparency bill. Charter schools would have to comply with the same state laws governing open meetings, open records, and conflict of interest laws that are required of traditional public schools. However, Governor Brown not only vetoed the bill. He included in the budget $20 million for charter schools. He explained in a letter to the legislature that these schools have benefited from "the strong commitment of dedicated individuals". The governor does not only support charter schools. He financially benefits from the two charter schools that he purchased and owns. 


Although the recent bill was supported by a majority of the legislators, it lacked the two thirds vote that is required for an override. However to understand how California state government actually works it is important to realize that even if the bill enjoyed a two thirds majority to override the veto, an override would not have happened. In the last two sessions, the legislature sent to the governor bills that it approved by at least a two thirds vote. Although Brown vetoed about 250 of these bills, the legislators nevertheless made no attempt to override any of them even though they could have.  


What is going on? In short, Brown plays the flack catcher role, which allows many legislators to appear more progressive than they really are. They can tell their constituency that they voted in favor of their interests despite the opposition of the governor. Nor did the Democratic Party legislators attempt to override any veto even when the Republican Schwarzenegger was governor. The advocates of the transparency bill mistakenly thought that they lost only because the bill failed to achieve a two third majority. But the reality is that once the governor vetoes a bill the chance that it would be overridden is exactly zero. 


The problem for progressives and the public generally is coping with the combined resistance of business and government, both of whom erect barriers that are very difficult to overcome. To stand a chance of improving the odds, progressives must not only be well organized. They must be openly and consistently adversarial and outraged. And most of all, they must do whatever they can to nominate and elect a progressive governor.