The new favorite charity for billionaires is charter schools. What a set of fevered images this conjures up:
There are the inner city schools. They’re filled with drugs, violence, and promiscuity. The teachers barely teach, but they’re protected by unions who just want to rip off taxpayers to get their members pensions and health care. Our suburban and rural schools are not thrilling: full of not-so-bright kids who’d rather get high than study chemistry—and their teachers have unions, too.
Ah, charter schools! They’ll be like Groton and Spence, little gems, like prep schools but available to the masses. They’ll have discipline and uniforms, high standards and no damn unions so teachers can be fired at will! Shape up or ship out!
Ah, vouchers! That’s the way to do it! Put the power of the market to work. Like shoppers selecting an Internet provider—whoops, most places have a choice of one or none. Like selecting a TV set then. Schools that satisfy consumers will thrive. Unsatisfactory schools will die!
A quick reality check here.
Nobody is talking about handing out $36,000 or $37,000 vouchers (day student tuition at Spence and Groton) or $48,900 (boarding at Groton). Let alone providing endowments of $85 million (Spence) or $194 million (Groton).
They won’t even pop for the relatively discounted tuition at Mitt Romney’s alma mater, Cranbrook School: $27,500 for a day student, four-and-a-half times the average expenditure on a public school student. Romney says, “We don’t need to spend more on education.” And we won’t. Why should anyone who’s not rich have it that good?
Granted, there are all sorts of problems with public education. Which is a bit like saying there are all sorts of problems with humanity. There are some really lousy public schools. There are also many incredibly great public schools. They don’t get much publicity, partly because good news is not news and partly because we presume that’s how things are supposed to be.
There are some excellent private schools. There are many dreadful private schools. They rarely get publicized. Unless, like Horace Mann (ranked 19th on Business Insider’s The 28 Most Expensive Private High Schools In America) an otherwise great school has a history so rich in sexual abuse you’d think priests were in charge. Then it all ends up in the New York Times.
For some not yet fathomed reason, public school sex scandals tend to feature female teachers and teenage males. I know sex abuse is sex abuse and horrors are horrors. Still, I’ve yet to meet a single adult male who didn’t respond to such tales with, “Where was she when I was in school? Har! Har!” So, if you fear that your child will be sexually abused, no place is safe, but the relatively healthier choice seems to be a public school.
School privatization is high on the list of all those Tea Party governors swept in by the right wing backlash of 2010. Privatizing schools busts unions. Unions support Democrats. It’s a very simple equation.
It’s also high on the list of ALEC proposals.
ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is an organization that brings state level politicians together with corporate interests. Corporations pay large sums to participate. They get to write “model” legislation that they give to the politicians, packaged with talking points, hot button language, skewed statistics, and colorful anecdotes. For example, the Corrections Corporation of America—exactly what it sounds like—writes both model legislation on privatizing prisons and model criminal codes that keep more people in prison for longer periods of time. Nothing comes out of ALEC unless there’s profit in it.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “School districts had total expenditures of approximately $596.6 billion in 2007-08.” What a pile of money! Gotta make you salivate! Rub your hands together like Scrooge McDuck!
So who are the players? There’s Michael Milken. Remember him? He’s the junk bond king who drove the brokerage house Drexel Lambert into bankruptcy and went to prison. Now he’s running an education corporation.
His company, Knowledge Universe, like several others, offers the coolest scam in the private education racket, virtual schools. No actual buildings, no social interactions, no soccer fields, no pools. No dating, no shop classes, no teams, no bands, no Glee. No coaches, no nurses, no guidance counselors. No teachers for the blind, the deaf, the intellectually challenged. Just computer terminals. Unlimited class size, 50, 70, 100 kids. Who knows? Who can tell? Who cares? Most of these programs are set up so that the state will pay as much for a virtual education as a real one.
Privatization takes many forms. One is simply the diversion of funds. Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and Rhode Island currently allow corporations to make contributions to “scholarship funds” and deduct 75 percent to 80 percent of that money from the amount they owe in taxes. It’s a really neat way around the separation of church and state. The money can, and often does, go to religious schools, making an ellipse around the state’s actual hands, so it’s possible to pretend that it’s not government support of religious indoctrination.
There’s a nifty documentary, School Choice: Taxpayer-Funded Creation, Bigotry, and Bias, on Vimeo. Highlights include: Textbooks used in schools funded by the Pennsylvania program teach that Christians can’t accept evolution, the Loch Ness monster is a real living dinosaur, there’s no global warming, the Great Depression was exaggerated to push socialism on the United States, and the Roman Catholic Church is “a perversion of biblical Christianity.” The Catholics seem willing to live with that because the same law puts public funds into Catholic schools.
Down in Louisiana they’re using a voucher program to achieve the same ends. Now they’re freaking out because an Islamic school asked for some of it. The way the law was written, they absolutely can, because nobody thought there is such a thing as a religious school that isn’t Christian or Jewish.
Another way to go is to hire private companies like National Heritage Academies to run tuition-free schools paid for by local school boards. NHA charter schools are strict, they have dress codes, they keep longer than usual school days, they keep out unions, they teach creationism as equivalent to evolution, and the guy who owns the company doesn’t think gay people should be hired as teachers.
Bottom line, does privatization work?
To bust unions, to use public funds for religious education, to support segregation, to let a few people skim profits off the top, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”
As for education, the answer is a wimpy, “Nah.” Sure, there are some individual programs that do very well. Just as there are many public schools that do very well. But every study that compares the two, as far as possible, under equal conditions, says the answer is, nah. Not a big, huge, they’re a horrible disaster, “No!” Just, nah. But who cares, that’s not what it’s really about.
Watch School Choice: Taxpayer-Fnded Creation, Bigotry and Bias