Nancy Flanagan is a Nationally Board-Certified, Michigan school music teacher, retired after a 30-year career, and a fine columnist at Education Week. In her newest column, Advanced-Stage Charter Syndrome: What ‘Maturity’ Means to the Charter Movement, Flanagan reflects on her own enchantment more than twenty years ago with the idea of helping to form a charter arts school, the lessons she and colleagues learned that caused them to abandon their dream, and how she now realizes that the collapse of the Detroit School District is bound together with the growth of charters. Flanagan’s column traces her sobering journey over twenty-five years as a teacher who has come deeply to understand the importance of “the public” in public education.
“I am well-acquainted with early-stage charterism,” she writes. “The exciting idea that public education can be tailored to individual children, instead of ‘factory model’ learning. The noble goal of giving a select group of children whose education would otherwise be unexceptional or dismal a fresh start…. No more red tape and stultifying restrictions—let freedom and flexibility reign!”
Charters may be publicly paid for, but they are always privately managed; they are an example of the privatization of public services. In a number of instances the courts have deemed them private institutions. Here is what Flanagan has learned in Michigan, (where today 80 percent of charter schools operate for-profit): “Well, I am here to testify that all the good intentions in the world cannot override the conversion of a long-established public good into a profit-making commodity.” “I no longer believe that there is a magic legislative formula that will allow ‘good’ charters to exist harmoniously with public schools. I now understand that the end game of unfettered charterism is—and probably always has been—privatization and exclusivity. I live in a state where I am surrounded by hard evidence, gathered over time, of this principle.”
Flanagan continues: “A handful of high-functioning charter schools, spread over a large city or entire state, may be shining gems that do little to upset the ecology of public education…” But “(I)n its advanced stages, charterism becomes predatory and cancerous. Building safe, functional environments for children whose (underfunded) public schools are chaotic morphs into clever ways to use public money to build edufiefdoms and line pockets. Next—local, genuinely public, efficient, and serviceable education ecologies are impacted: Funding is reduced. Schools that were once filled and thriving must be shuttered. Programming is slashed. Democratically elected school boards are forced to pit popular programs and advocacy groups against one another…. Maybe charterism is just another expression of who we are becoming, as a nation.”
The late British historian Tony Judt examined the broader implications of widespread privatization in Ill Fares the Land, a short and profound reflection, published in 2010, on economic and cultural trends on both sides of the Atlantic. Judt summarizes what has happened: “What did trust, cooperation, progressive taxation and the interventionist state bequeath to western societies in the decades following 1945? The short answer is, in varying degrees, security, prosperity, social services and greater equality. We have grown accustomed in recent years to the assertion that the price paid for these benefits—in economic inefficiency, insufficient innovation, stifled entrepreneurship, public debt and a loss of private initiative—was too high. Most of these criticisms are demonstrably false. Measured by the quality and quantity of the social legislation passed in the U S between 1932 and 1971, America was unquestionably one of those ‘good societies’; but few would wish to claim that the USA lacked initiative or entrepreneurship in those high, halcyon years of the American Century.”(p. 72) “Meanwhile, if we had to identify just one general consequence of the intellectual shift that marked the last third of the 20th century, it would surely be the worship of the private sector and, in particular, the cult of privatization…”(p. 107)
Judt summarizes the mythology that justifies privatizing public functions: “Why privatize? Because, in an age of budgetary constraints, privatization appears to save money… Meanwhile, by entering the private sector, the operation in question becomes more efficient thanks to the workings of the profit motive…” (p. 107) Judt rejects these so-called benefits as a mirage: “What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatization is inefficient. Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss…. For just this reason, such public goods were inherently unattractive to private buyers unless offered at a steep discount.” (p.109) Judt concludes: “The outcome has been the worst sort of ‘mixed economy’; the individual enterprise indefinitely underwritten by public funds.” (p. 111)
It is instructive to consider Judt’s warnings in the context of public schools—rejected as inefficient by advocates of privatization because of their dependence on well paid labor. Less regulated charters, we are told, can avoid the unions which protect salaries, benefits and due process. And charters can cut costs by experimenting with substituting computers for teachers for part of the day. And what about political pressure mounted in Albany that drove through a state law requiring New York City to provide charter schools free space or pay their rental fees in private facilities?
Judt explains how widespread privatization undermines citizens’ sense of public responsibility: “The result is an eviscerated society… This reduction of ‘society’ to a thin membrane of interactions between private individuals is presented today as the ambition of libertarians and free marketeers… There is nothing mysterious about this process: it was well described by Edmund Burke in his critique of the French Revolution. Any society, he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, which destroys the fabric of the state, must soon be ‘disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality.’ By eviscerating public services and reducing them to a network of farmed-out private providers, we have begun to dismantle the fabric of the state. As for the dust and powder of individuality: it resembles nothing so much as Hobbes’s war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poor and more than a little nasty.” (pp. 118-119)
Ultimately there is also the ethical issue of winners and losers in a competitive environment. Nancy Flanagan learned this as her first lesson about school choice. She and her fellow teachers dreamed of creating an educational experiment when they imagined a charter, but the parents with whom they discussed the plan were instead seeking an elite environment for their own children: “We were thinking about teaching and learning in new ways. The parents were thinking about screening and selecting the kids who would be their children’s classmates—a real perk since it wouldn’t cost them a penny in private school tuition.” The teachers, writes Flanagan, gave up on the idea of a charter because of inevitable considerations about who the school would serve.
In his more philosophical analysis of privatization, Judt also reflects on the incapacity of markets to consider ethical concerns and other important human values: “(M)arkets have a natural disposition to favor needs and wants that can be reduced to commercial criteria or economic measurement. If you can sell it or buy it, then it is quantifiable and we can assess its contribution to (quantitative) measures of collective well-being. But what of those goods which humans have always valued but which do not lend themselves to quantification? What of well-being? What of fairness or equity (in its original sense)? What of exclusion, opportunity—or its absence—or lost hope?… As the reader may observe, I am using words like ‘wealth’ or ‘better off’ in ways that take them well beyond their current, strictly material application. To do this on a broader scale—to recast our public conversation—seems to me the only realistic way to begin to bring about change. If we do not talk differently, we shall not think differently. In the beginning was the word.” (pp. 169-171)