Barack Obama is presiding over the beginning of a process that will inexorably result in the privatization of our school system. That doesn’t mean of course that all of our schools will be owned by big corporations; rather it means that within the next five to ten years, our largest school systems will be enmeshed with the private sector, and the regulatory framework that encourages same will be defended vociferously by a new and fierce network of rent seekers. Within a generation, “public schools” will be public only in the sense that they will rely on primarily on government money–similar in that way to the defense industry.
This is bad. Despite the neoliberal fascination with en-marketing everything to appease the Market Unicorn, competition and market forces will not “fix” education (which, coincidentally, is only broken in those places where poverty is high). It will however do these things:
(1) Inherent Decline in Quality. In order to provide the market signals necessary for competition to operate, it will reduce education to quantifiable superficialities (i.e., “high stakes testing”), undermining critical thinking and creativity, particularly in poorer communities.
(a) Commodification of Curricula It will thus give rise to a huge, and by necessity centralized, curricula development industry with a business model that incorporate rent-seeking by necessity.
(b) Institutionalizing Clout and Corruption as Market Advantage.It will encourage lobbying and market-exclusion behavior from the politically well-connected who can use political influence to design standards that benefit existing school-systems.
(2) The End of Teaching. Teaching will become de-professionalized with such rapid speed that larger school systems (big cities) will feel employment impacts for decades. Teachers enforce their professional standards through their unions. They do not have de facto cartels, like the American Medical Association or the Bar Association, or state-granted ones, such as those enjoyed by accountants or engineers. A profession that cannot be practiced solo (as with lawyers, doctors, etc.) and that also lacks some autonomy in enforcing its standards, is not a profession. Teachers within ten to fifteen years will be closer to DMV-test administrators than professional educators.
(a) Debt Peonage. My age cohort (22-36) was encouraged to go into teaching, pre-NCLB, because there was expected to be a massive retirement, and because the education we experienced was testing-light and could be extremely rewarding. This coincided with an explosion in tuition costs, however, and so literally hundreds of thousands of teachers went into a suddenly saturated and qualitatively different profession with huge debt, giving them few options.
(b) A New Source of Patronage. For the neoliberal city machines modeled after Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Machine Lite, traditional patronage was undesirable and in some cases impossible due to legal strictures. Putting that patronage at a step remove was all the rage: you didn’t have to force the Parks Department to hire your precinct captains, you just privatized Park cleaning service, gave the contract to your buddy, and he handled the rest. Charterification is precisely this. This phenomenon is invisible to Beltway and think tank Panglosses with little understanding or experience with actual big city politics besides what they’ve seen on The Wire. Teachers unions prevent this type of patronage both by enforcing standards and also by protecting teachers through contractual due process. You can’t fire a teacher because she’s campaigning openly against the Mayor’s policies. The head of one of the most influential Charter chains in Chicago, Juan Rangel, was a co-chair of Mayor Emanuel’s campaign. How likely do you think his at-will employees are to become active in their community in any way disproved of by their boss? Voila. Patronage.
c. Employment Shock and Social Immobility. Teaching, like the police force, is a major avenue to the middle class for the working class. The rich and their water-carriers in the Democratic Party see this as inherently bad, though in their conception, that is because the working class are “using taxpayer dollars” for their own selfish gain (as opposed the founders of charter chains, who are using taxpayer dollars, and paying themselves six figures and their teachers squat, because they love kids). Reducing teaching to assembly line work obliterates a tried-and-true way to move people out of poverty or working class into a more secure middle class existence. Not only this, but it does this in a particularly bad way because it is concentrated geographically. There are nearly 40,000 teachers just in Chicago. The number is in the six figures in New York City. Destroying the profession of teaching in big cities will have a profound affect. It will eliminate an important avenue out of poverty and economic insecurity for hundreds of thousands of children nationally. Given what we know about the effect of poverty on student outcomes, what do you think will more profoundly effect education? Keeping those hundreds of thousands of kids in economically insecure households? Or finally being able to fire that shallow end of the bell curve of “bad teachers” who have a small negative impact on a narrow set of students?
3. Structural Failure Rates. Competition assumes losers, and for all their bluster about not wanting a single kid who would otherwise have “made it” to fall behind because of a bad teacher/school, charter advocates are assuming that a certain number of kids should take a gamble (at a point where they have no control over it) and “consume” bad school services before moving on. This is a particularly pernicious hidden part of their thinking because what it actually means is that they don’t want to change the status quo at all, they just have an ideological obsession with competition and the mysical power of markets.
Our current schools do fail kids all the time, and that is unacceptable. Charters won’t solve this problem at all. The idea of charters is that they introduce “competition,” that subsequently allows parents to choose from a menu of schools based on some as-yet unknown set of market signals (presumably, mean test scores, total graduation rates, and college achievement). Besides the fact that charters are eminently capable of (and have clearly been) fudging these stats in the same way every advertiser lies to you, the reality is that parents will never have perfect choice. They will be limited to schools that are reasonably close geographically, will keep their kids once sent, and who don’t charge myriad fees and fines. In other words, as with everything else, those with resources will actually have choice (which they already have, given selective enrollment, magnet, and private options) and those with less will have limited choice, and you can bet that choice will be limited to the overall poorest performing schools. In other words, besides the problems we see above, privatization will not achieve anything.
How & Why
How this has happened is pretty straightforward. An originally far-right idea, that the government had no business running anything, including schools, worked its way into the Democratic Party consensus at precisely the rate that the left-wing, as represented by autonomous labor unions and working-class advocates were pushed out (i.e., the rise of the “left neoliberals”).
More specifically, those industrialists and Randite funders of school privatization efforts–in the form of vouchers originally, and eventually charters–created alliances with big city Democratic Party institutions. Here was an issue where the market-logic obsession could be easily masked by concern for “the children,” which is not necessarily insincere. Mayors like Daley, Bloomberg, Fenty and others loved this new alliance because it played into the big media obsession–Democrats who were weren’t stuck in “special interest” politics, who subscribed to the New Economy/Silicon Valley ethos that venture capitalists and their hired gun technocrats could solve every problem, whereas working class people representing themselves were too dumb/myopic to actually affect change (besides, if they’re so smart, why aren’t they rich!?)
A hop, skip, and a jump. In Chicago, the Democratic Party establishment absorbed this ethos by Mayoral fiat. Chicago’s Democratic Party infrastructure was dissimilar from past “Machine” iterations because it was hard-wired through the person of the Mayor; his mid-90s rapture into the VC/technocrat stratosphere trickled down to those in the party who had ambitions outside of Cook County politics. People like Barack Obama, whose institutional ties to the University of Chicago, where he lectured and which he represented (in a sickeningly self-gerrymandered district) almost required those kinds of allegiances.
Bashing teachers unions has a pedigree among black nationalists that made it ideal for Machine Lite-style politics. For big city Mayors it was great; and for state Senator Barack Obama, it was perfect. He could deepen his ties to major identity-focused organizations like UNO and The Woodlawn Organization that supported charters and attend fundaraisers and cocktail parties with the Steans’ of the world. Noted career failure Arne Duncan grabbed hold of his coattails, and you have the Chicago model ascending to the national stage: privatization justified by identity politics.
Race to the Top is pernicious because it places immense pressure on states to undercut the integrity of purely public school systems without even giving them anything in return; only a chance at a grant. (It’s interesting to see, isn’t it, how competition works sometimes.) As a result, you have states across the country drastically changing the nature of their educational systems at a chance at grants they more likely than not will not get.
Changes like abolishing prohibitions against linking high-stakes tests to individual teacher evaluations, removing prohibitions on charters, and other stealth privatization measures. It reminds me of when you’re a kid and the first time you fall for your parents’ “See who can stay quiet the longest game” trick. The feds tell you if you conform to their guidelines maybe you’ll get something, and at the end of it you’ve given something up and gotten nothing, and you’re told it’s good for you.
But why? Well, the how and the way are really the same. State Senator Obama knew that toadying up to the wealthy funders of these initatives was his only shot at becoming Senator, and beating up on teachers in particular was an easy and cheap way to kill two birds with one stone: look like a “non-traditional Democrat,” and deepen his ties to wealthy funders who love hearing about how stupid and greedy the working classes are. In other words, like most everything else he’s done, it was for self-serving and cynical reasons. There was no empirical data suggesting that privatization was a good enough idea that it justified critically undermining public education back when he was first advocating it and despite more research there’s even less supportive evidence now, other than the supposedly “commonsensical” gut feelings about competition and market magic, and facile analogies. It’s a political necessity, not a sound policy choice.
So in other words, a supposedly “progressive” is eradicating a profession, critically weakening the labor movement in major cities, and fatally undermining one of America’s last major public institutions in order to further a political career, the lasting “progressive” legacy of which is health insurance reform that included creating and enforcing a captive market for health insurers.
“Left neoliberalism” in action.