Conservatives seem to have a thing for fast food. The founder of what would eventually become the country’s largest private prison corporation, CoreCivic (formerly CCA), once declared, “You just sell [private prisons] like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers." More recently, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization founded by Jeb Bush that has lobbied for its corporate funders, including the world’s largest education corporation, Pearson, wrote that public schools should be thought of as fast food restaurants.
But providing public goods and services is nothing like selling hamburgers. In a democracy, human beings should control the public schools, infrastructure, and social services in their communities. Fast food customers vote individually with their wallets, which means they really have very little say. Does anyone really want a handful of corporations, the likes of McDonalds and Burger King, teaching children and locking people up in prison?
This point is especially true of public education, and is driven home by a report In the Public Interest released last week authored by Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon. Lafer found that taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on charter school buildings in California, yet the state has little to show for it. In the past 15 years, charter schools, which are privately operated, have received $2.5 billion in tax dollars or taxpayer subsidized financing to lease, build, or buy facilities. Yet much of this investment has gone to schools built in neighborhoods that don’t need them and schools that perform worse—according to charter industry standards—than nearby traditional public schools. Taxpayers have provided California’s underperforming charter schools—an astounding three-quarters of all the state’s charter schools!—with an estimated $750 million in direct funding.
Public support has even gone to California charter schools that discriminate against students with poor academic records, limited English-speaking skills, or disabilities. Taxpayers have given a collective $195 million to the 253 schools found by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) in August 2016 to have discriminatory enrollment policies.
Most alarming is the fact that much of the funding has gone to a handful of large charter school chains, and some have used the money to purchase private property. In Los Angeles, for example, the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools network of charter schools has used subsidiary corporations to build a growing empire of privately owned real estate now worth in excess of $200 million. State and federal taxpayers have given Alliance more than $110 million in support, yet, because of a loophole, the schools built with these funds will never belong to the public.
Simply put, California’s leaders are treating schools like fast food restaurants. Local school boards, who are democratically elected, have little say in whether a new charter school is good for their community’s students. The boards charged with authorizing new charters aren’t allowed to consider the impacts on existing public schools—or whether a school is even needed. On top of that, state and federal taxpayers are subsidizing failing and discriminatory charter schools to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Unfortunately, the costs are being borne out on students. Like many across the country, California’s public school districts need more resources—for things like classroom supplies, safe buildings, and training for teachers. But due to a severe lack of regulation, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have gone to school buildings we don’t need, schools that discriminate, and charter school chains that are fattening their bank accounts. The millions of tax dollars that have gone to Alliance sure could have helped the public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which is facing an ongoing financial crisis.
Of course, fast food is a symbol for a much broader and deeper shift in the role of American government. For five decades, conservative think tanks, business leaders, and free market economists have led an all-out assault on the public sector. In fact, the idea of “school choice,” i.e., charter schools and private school vouchers, comes from economist Milton Friedman, who in 1973 compared teaching children to selling groceries. “The way to achieve real reform in schooling is to give competition and free enterprise greater scope,” he wrote. Under the guise of “smaller government,” Friedman and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation have argued that citizens are consumers and the market, not democracy, is the best way to provide public goods and services.
Donald Trump’s education secretary, the billionaire Betsy DeVos, is pushing this view. Despite having never taught in, managed, or even attended a public school, DeVos, who once sat on the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s board, has said, “We must open up the [public] education industry—and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry—we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators.”
The result hasn’t been smaller government or innovation but a corporate takeover. As faith in government has dwindled, more and more taxpayer money has gone to corporations operating prisons, water systems, and other public services. At the federal level, the number of civilian executive branch jobs has remained about the same over the last fifty years, yet the U.S. population it serves has doubled. Outsourcing has made up the difference—more than half the Pentagon budget goes to private contractors. In states like Texas and cities like Chicago, public infrastructure like roads and parking meters has been handed over to corporations and Wall Street to turn a profit.
What “school choice” is really about is taking public education from communities, teachers, and education professionals and putting it in private hands. By replacing democracy with the market, charter schools fit squarely within the decades-long corporate takeover of government.
California needs common sense regulation that returns decisions about charter schools to local school districts. Short of that, the state is slowly handing the keys to its public education system over to the charter school industry and the likes of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.