Pimping for Privatization
By Steve Miller, a longtime Oakland public school teacher.
The privatization of public education has developed characteristics of both tragedy and farce. Suddenly Plainfield Asset Management, a hedge fund that has been trying to privatize New York City’s Off-Track Betting operations, is concerned about the achievement gap between African-American and Anglo-American students!
So they “donated” $500,000 to the Education Equality Project! Here’s the background:
“The Rev. Al Sharpton and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein stunned the education world last June when they joined forces to reform the nation's public schools.
“They called their ambitious venture the Education Equality Project, and they vowed in a Washington press conference to lead a campaign to close the decades-old achievement gap between white and black students.
“What Klein and Sharpton never revealed is that the National Action Network, Sharpton's organization, immediately received a $500,000 donation for its involvement in the new effort.” (Juan Gonzalez, NY Daily News, April 1, 2009)
Such awesome generosity is typical of the corporations and their henchmen who are going all out to privatize the public schools of the United States! They have long experience is buying spokesmen to extol their corporations.
The Basic Premise
Now that these forces are out of the closet at last, we can examine their central premise, first articulated by that champion of civil rights and equality, right-wing economist, Milton Friedman.
Friedman demanded the total privatization of schools. He claimed that the so-called “free market” is the best guarantee of efficiency, quality education and equality (not to mention modernizing the system) because it introduces competition, which provides “choice” for parents.
This is in essence the corporate model for education. It is being sold across the country to parents, especially minority parents, who are quite clear that the public schools are more segregated than ever, and who are desperate for something different. Nationally, a gaggle of reactionary billionaires (the Walton family, of Wal-Mart, Eli Broad, of KB homes and AIG Retirement, and Donald Fisher of the Gap) have suddenly become champions of equality and are pushing charter schools as the solution.
So let’s examine how valid these assumptions really are.
People were shocked when the extreme right-winger, Grover Norquist made his famous call to shrink the government to the size where “we can drown it like a baby in the bathtub”. But this is exactly what has been happening for the last eight years. It is well known that the Bush Administration outsourced the war in Iraq to private contractors. He attempted to also privatize the Iraqi government.
The government’s pitiful and criminal response to Hurricane Katrina tells us a lot about privatization, because the relief effort was also privatized. Naomi Klein shows in her great book, The Shock Doctrine, how Bush privatized many of the federal governments functions by out-sourcing these to private corporations. Even the Bail Out is outsourced, with the law firm of Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett winning the contract to oversee distributing billions to corporations that are its own clients!
The government is getting out of the business of governing. So it should be no surprise that privatization is being forced on school systems across the country. The United States really has two highly segregated school systems. Suburban schools are the best in the world; urban schools are among the worst. Privatization is being forced on urban school districts alone.
Since the upsurges of the ‘60s, government at all levels has been forced to address the public demand to provide an equal and quality education to all students, regardless of race, nationality or class. What happens, then, when the government no longer handles public education? It is then absolved of this essential responsibility.
The next step then is to make the responsibility for the quality of education a personal one. Just like health care, “you get what you pay for”. The big ideological push for a decade now is to make everything personal responsibility. Then it’s your fault if something goes wrong. Government no longer is even expected to provide equal access.
Is this really what we want? To terminate the social demand of decades that the government makes good on its promise, without discussion? Ask yourself – when exactly was it that this was taken off the table?
When was it that the problem started being described, as in the article above, as “the achievement gap” rather than the refusal of government to fulfill the historical demand for real equality? Why do we now just assume that corporations are somehow going to do this better for us and let governments off the hook? Where were these discussions held?
These questions have answers. When you ask the privatizers these questions directly, they simply talk about something else.
Enter the Odd Couple.
Joel Klein is Chancellor of the New York public school system, the country’s largest. He is famous for stating that every school in New York should become a charter. He is also on of the signees of the notorious report, Tough Choices in Tough Times, which calls for ending local community control of schools, ending high school in the 10th grade, and replacing all public schools with “contract schools”. These schools would have total authority to determine what is taught and how it is taught. This removes the power over public schools from parents through their elected school boards.
Al Sharpton is an erstwhile “civil rights leader” who has inserted himself as a champion for the equality that the United States has never provided African Americans.
Both are now proponents of the corporate model for providing equality. Can this really be done?
Here is Barney Frank’s take on the question. Frank is the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee that “supervises” the $ 9 trillion in Bail-Outs so far to Wall Street.
Frank, a self-described capitalist and liberal, stated in a House Financial Services meeting, on Wednesday, July 16, 2008, “No one expects equality, equality is not a good thing. You can’t have an economy that works if everything is equal.”
Frank has emphasized this before. In Business Week, February 2006, Frank wrote, “Inequality is not a bad thing in a free market economy; indeed, it’s essential if we’re to benefit from the incentives and efficiencies that make the market so effective a producer of wealth.”
Turning a public good, provided by the government, into a private service, provided by corporations for profit will do exactly what Frank describes. We are witnessing this with the Bail Outs, which are shrouded in secrecy and lack any public control or oversight. If we have trillions for banks, imagine how war a mere $100 billion would go to create a real system of equal, quality education, free for all.
If they are so sincere about addressing the history of inequality in this country, how would Klein, Sharpton and the privatizers address these issues?
The idea of school choice is another “get rich quick scheme” that sounds good until it is examined. What happened in America that should we even have to choose at all
In 1999, David Hughes and others wrote Trading in Futures. Why Markets in Education Don’t Work. In it they concluded, “in effect education markets trade off the opportunities of less privileged children to those already privileged.” (p 2).
Other books document the same effects: Michael Appel’s Educating the “Right” Way, Helen Ladd’s introduction in Choosing Choice, Joycelyn Berthelot’s Education for the World, Education for All. Alfie Kohn also provides abundant material.
Data from countries like Chile, Britain under Thatcher, New Zealand, Sweden and other countries all show the same result. Schools push out the students who take more time and resources to educate. Once privatized, schools compete for the “good” students. Middle-class parents, who have the time and know-how to work the system, get their kids into the “right” schools. Parents from poorer families generally lack these resources and usually wind up taking whatever they are given.
To paraphrase… the law, in all of its magnificence, allows poor parents, as well as rich, to drive their students across town twice a day in their Porsche SUVs to insure their kids are receiving a quality education. “Choice” benefits parents who have the resources to choose. It simply does not carry the same guarantees as a “right”.
New Orleans all but privatized its school system. What do we see there? Boutique schools for well-off families and poorly supported charters for the poor. How’s that for “efficiency, quality education and equality”?
The End of Equality?
The idea that the so-called “free market” can solve social problems is a scam and a fraud. For 40 years, the US has pushed the economics and politics of Neo-Liberalism on countries from South America to Asia and Africa every time there has been an economic crisis. Now that we are beginning to live through what clearly is the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, these policies are being forced on the American people.
Back in the ‘90s, Edward Luttwak, a champion of the “free market” described their agenda this way. He could be describing our current public school policy:
“At present, almost all the elite Americans, with corporate chiefs and fashionable economists in the lead are utterly convinced that they have discovered the winning formula for economic success – the only formula – good for every country, rich or poor, good for all individuals willing and able to heed the message, and of course, good for elite Americans: PRIVATIZATION + DEREGULATION + GLOBALIZATION = TURBO-CAPITALISM = PROSPERITY”. (Thomas Frank, One Market, Under God, 2000. p 17)
We are now living out the results of “Turbo Capitalism”. It ain’t prosperity that’s for sure. Markets have never solved social problems. They create them.
All we have to do is look around to find the answers. The “free market” Bailouts are creating social problems in all directions, not eliminating them. This is the inevitable result of turning the responsibility for public problems over to private forces. The privatizers are all about deregulating public schools by eliminating public control.
Markets are designed for profit making. Remember when Bill Clinton told us that corporations were the best institutions to tackle the national health care disaster? HMOs have made things much worse, producing the worst health care for the highest price in the industrial world – and – completely outside public control. Sharpton and Klein support the domination of EMOs (Educational Maintenance Organizations) and the elimination of the responsibility of government to address the concerns of society.
In a ironic fashion, the “free market” imposes an equality of sorts on all the peoples of the US. This is the equality of poverty and its misery. This is not the concept of equality that drove this country forward for the last 60 years to say the least. If not deregulation, privatization and the market, what is the alternative?
The only counter to privatizing and ending the control of the public is to de-privatize and extend the control of the public. Who says that everything we fought for 60 years is off the table? Why are we supposed to settle for this scam? It’s not time to let government off the hook. If a privatized government cannot guarantee a free, equal, and quality education for everybody, and maintain education as a public good, then the public must replace the government.
April 9, 2009
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