Twice in the past couple of weeks, President Donald Trump has been out promoting school choice as the civil rights issue of our times.
Trump went to Dallas,Texas, supposedly to discuss the recent tragic police killings of unarmed African Americans. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes what happened: “At Gateway Church in Dallas, Trump met with law enforcement officials, pastors and business owners and talked about his four-point plan to ‘build safety and opportunity and dignity’ for communities of color. He did not discuss why the police chief, sheriff and district attorney of Dallas—all of whom are African Americans, were not invited to the event focused on injustice and policing. Trump bashed public schools, calling them ‘bad government schools’ in which African Americans get ‘trapped’—although Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams said at the same event that it was important for schools to reopen safely as soon as possible.”
Then last Tuesday, The Hill‘s Brett Samuels reported that in remarks at the White House Rose Garden, Trump once again mentioned school choice: “We’re fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights (issue) of all time in this country… Frankly, school choice is the civil rights statement of the year, of the decade and probably beyond because all children have to have access to quality education.”
I certainly agree with the President that all children must have access to quality education, but I also appreciate what Samuels noticed: “The comments describing school choice as the preeminent civil rights issue of the day appeared out of place as the nation is gripped by protests over the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement.”
Perhaps the President has recently turned to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to help him define primary themes for his reelection campaign. If so, some reminders are in order.
At the most basic level, the cost of school privatization is prohibitive in the midst of this COVID-19 recession we are all experiencing. While many states are in essence supporting three kinds of schooling—traditional public schools, charter schools, and tuition vouchers for private and religious schools—in data released last week, the National Education Association demonstrates that unless Congress appropriates a large infusion of federal HEROES Act spending to prop up state budgets over the next three years, there will likely to be a loss of 1.9 million teachers and other school staff—about one-fifth of the public education workforce across the United States (see here and here).
For Shawgi Tell, a professor at New York’s Nazareth College, it is obvious why Trump’s idea of expanding school privatization is financially unsustainable: “Now is not the time to divert even more public funds to private businesses like charter schools… The nation’s public schools have been suffering budget cuts for years, and now with the “COVID Pandemic” they will experience deeper funding cuts. Yet the federal government and state governments continue to funnel huge sums of public funds to segregated non-profit and for-profit charter schools that operate without transparency and (that) close regularly… Society needs a public authority that provides the human right to education with a guarantee in practice, which means fully funding all public schools and making sure high quality public schools are available to all for free in every neighborhood. Funding ‘free market’ arrangements in education while letting the nation’s public schools go underfunded is especially absurd given the repeated failure of the free market to produce stability and success for all.”
Political economist Gordon Lafer explains definitively why charter schools are fiscally unsustainable—robbing the Oakland Unified School District in California of $57.3 million each year that could be spent on the needs of the city’s public schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”
Indigo Oliver reports for In These Times, that as a recession threatens public school budgets, one of the biggest private, for-profit, online charter school companies is positioning itself to profit: “On its most recent quarterly earnings call, Timothy Medina, chief financial executive for virtual charter school operator K12Inc., said, ‘We believe the effects of Covid-19 will be a lasting tailwind to online education.’ The company was founded in 2000 by former Wall Street investment banker and McKinsey & Co. consultant Ron Packard…. Since then, K12 has grown into one of the largest for-profit education companies in the world, with revenue topping $1 billion last year. Now, amid uncertainty about the future of in-person education, the company sees an opportunity to extend its reach even further. K12 has been involved in targeted lobbying campaigns through the American Legislative Exchange Council for nearly two decades, and company executives suggested during the earnings call that they have been working with state legislators and school districts to expand the market for online learning this fall. They’ve also worked with the Heritage Foundation… to draft policy recommendations on Covid-19 Recovery efforts. K12 operates more than 70 online schools, the majority of them tuition-free and publicly funded through partnerships with school districts. K12 tuition-free online public schools account for nearly 30% of all virtual school enrollments in the country.”
Over the weekend, Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen attacked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for failing to lead the U.S. Department of Education as citizens have a right to expect—to provide guidance for getting the nation’s 98,000 public schools up and running in the fall: “The Education Department… is all but silent, issuing little in the way of guidance…. It’s not that DeVos isn’t hard at work—it’s just that she’s not devoting her efforts to what we would assume a federal education head should be prioritizing. For DeVos, the pandemic is no obstacle to pushing her long crusade for charter schools and ‘school choice’…. She’s attempted to reroute a portion of the $13.5 billion in the CARES Act dedicated for K-12 funding needs—money that’s supposed to be distributed based on poverty and need formulas—to independent and religious schools.”
Professor Tell concludes: “Treating education as a commodity or consumer good… is not the way forward… Social responsibilities must not be outsourced to private interests and subjected to the inhumanity of the ‘free market.’… Thousands of families have already been abandoned by… charter schools that have closed over the years for financial malfeasance and poor academic performance.”
Privatized educational alternatives like charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition not only extract public funds needed in the public school system to serve 50 million American children, but they also undermine our rights as citizens and our children’s rights. Only in the public schools, which are governed democratically according to the law, can our society protect the rights of all children.
The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, warns about what we all lose when we try to privatize the public good: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)