Privatizing Primer

There are many threads to the reformy movement in education, but perhaps the most predominant one is the push for privatization. Many folks look at education and they just see a gigantic pile of money that has previously gone untouched.
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Canvas money bag with dollar symbol is overflowing with dollar bills
Canvas money bag with dollar symbol is overflowing with dollar bills

Every once in a while I try to take the many complicated and twisty threads, back up, and tie them into a bigger picture. Think of this as the kind of post you can share with people who don't read blogs about education every single day (no kidding -- there are such people, and they're too busy doing the work to spend time reading about doing the work).

There are many threads to the reformy movement in education, but perhaps the most predominant one is the push for privatization. Many folks look at education and they just see a gigantic pile of money that has previously gone untouched. To them, education is a multi-billion dollar industry that nobody is making real profit from.

Many of the aspects and features of what I'm about to lay out appeal to other sorts of folks for other sorts of reasons, but here is how they fit into the agenda of privatizers.

Step One: Create Failure

Use metrics for measuring school success that will guarantee failure (that's where Common Core testing fits in). For instance, base the measure of school and teacher success on bad standardized tests that don't actually measure academic achievement as well as they measure poverty. These tests will also narrow the definition of success so that fewer students will fit through the eye of the needle (a brilliant musician who tests poorly in math and English will be counted as a failure). Norm these tests around a curve, so that somebody will always be on the failing end.

The testing will create the appearance of failure, but policy can also create actual failure by stripping resources from schools. Every voucher and charter system drains money away from public schools; in some states (e.g. Pennsylvania) there are even caps on raising taxes so that local districts couldn't replace the shortfall even if they wanted to.

Concentrate these efforts on non-white, non-wealthy districts, which are both the most vulnerable and the least "protected" because their community has little political clout.

Use stack ranking so that whatever your metric, somebody is always in the bottom X percent of the spread (5 percent has been a popular number).

If it seems as if your state has instituted policies that will force schools to fail, this is why. If there are no failing schools, there's no crisis, and if there's no crisis, there's no trigger for step two.

Step Two: Consolidate Power

Once there's a crisis from the proliferation of failing schools, it's time to step in.

You may hear the terms "turnaround" or "rescue" or even "takeover," but the basic process is the same -- the end of local control. Currently rising in popularity is the Achievement School District model, based on the Recovery School District of New Orleans and most fully attempted in Tennessee.

The basic principle is simple. These schools are failing, therefor the state must take them over. The state will put somebody, or a board of somebody's, in charge of the district, and the new boss will answer only to someone in the state capitol. The local school board is out. The new school boss will be given the power to do whatever is necessary.

Step Three: Cash In

"Whatever is necessary" will never turn out to mean "invest in public schools." Because, remember, they are failing.

Charter schools will be set up to compete with the public school (further stripping it of resources). Or charter schools will be brought in to replace the public schools, or to take them over. The system may be called a school choice system, but it will be the schools that get to choose, so that they can select those students who are profitable. The students who are too expensive to work with (aka not good revenue generators) or who can't be made to generate "successful" numbers will be left in the public schools.

Note: It makes no difference whether the charters bill themselves as for-profit or non-profit. They are always profitable. Non-profits know many tricks for still turning a profit (eg, hiring themselves to run the school, or leasing the building back form themselves). A non-profit charter is just a for-profit charter with a money-laundering department.

These schools may operate under their own set of rules which do away with teacher job protections or school code requirements for seniority considerations. The majority of special rules are designed to allow school operators to control costs so that their school-flavored business can remain profitable.

Epilogue: The Long Term

You may wonder how this is sustainable. It isn't, and it isn't meant to be. Charters routinely drop out of the business, move on, dissolve and reform under new names, getting out of Dodge before they have to offer proof of success. This churn and burn is a feature, not a bug, and it is supposed to foster excellence. To date, there is no evidence that it does so.

But in the long term, we get a two-tier system. One is composed of private, profit-generating school-like businesses that will serve some of the students. The other is a vestigal public system, under-funded and under-served, but still serving as "proof" that public schools are failure factories and so we must have a state-run system.

Discussion: But Is This a Bad Thing?

"I realize," you say, "that for some people turning schools into profit-generating businesses is automatically repulsive to some folks, but if they get the job done, isn't this a win?"

Here's the short form for why I think the privatization of education is a bad thing.

First, all the numbers show that charters are, as a group, no more "successful" than public schools. Furthermore, what success they have is often simply the result of being careful and selective about their student body. How they do this is a whole other discussion, but the short answer is 1) they mostly don't do any better than public schools and 2) public schools could also "improve" if they were allowed to get rid of problem students. In other words, we're not talking about a new way to do public school -- we're talking about a new definition of what a public school is supposed to be.

Second, the privatization machine involves the end of local control. It is the end of any democratic control and accountability in a fundamental community institution. This is doubly troubling because so far, the people who are having democracy stripped away are mostly black, brown, or poor.

Third, turning education into a business means that business concerns will take precedence over student concerns. The purpose of a public school is to educate students. The purpose of a business is to make money. That does not make a business evil, but look around the rest of the world and ask yourself if businesses make money primarily by devoting themselves to creating the most excellent products. Operators of a school-flavored business will always have interests that are in conflict with the interests of their students. That cannot be good for education.

We are looking at a movement to change schools from a public good, a service provided by communities for their members, into a profit-generating business. Maybe that's a change we want as a society, and maybe a public discussion about such a transformation would lead us to that conclusion. I hope not, but maybe it's so. But we're not having that discussion. Instead, some folks are making changes in policy and regulation to create that transformation without anybody having a chance to object. That is not okay; it's a discussion we need to have whether some folks want us to have it or not.

Originally posted at Curmudgucation

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