The Importance of Public Education and the Danger of Privatization: Remembering Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, died last week. Over the years, his writing has spoken poignantly to the civic principles that have defined our society’s commitment to public education. In today’s American ethos—defined by individualism, competition, and greed—his thinking calls us back to the values to which our society has traditionally declared a commitment. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

A short essay, “Education for Democracy,” published in Barber’s 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remains remarkably timely 20 years later.

“Although a fifth to a quarter of all children under six and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from school lunch to after-school programs is being slashed at the federal and state levels… There is nothing sadder than a country that turns its back on its children, for in doing so it turns away from its own future.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 225)

“In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred.  That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

“America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony.  Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

Barber’s  2007 warning, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, explains precisely what is dangerous about the thinking of school privatizers like our voucher-supporting Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and others who dismiss as harmless the twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools.

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

“We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber’s 1992 book about education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, feels dated, with much of it addressing the culture wars raging a quarter century ago. What’s timely today in this book is Barber’s challenge to what has become a dominant assumption among many parents that education is a zero sum game. Today, very often, parents have been taught to believe that education is a competition—a race to the top for those who can run fastest.  School choice—driven by an ethos of individualism—encourages parents to fear that, “If your kid wins, mine will lose.” Barber confronts and contradicts that assumption even in his book’s title: everyone can be part of an aristocracy of the educated.

“This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Barber articulates abstract principles, ideals we should aim for. I realized how important it is to think about these principles when— after Hurricane Katrina led to the “shock doctrine” takeover and privatization of New Orleans’ schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at a public meeting. As the keynoter described the hurricane as a opportunity to “reform” the public schools, a woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted out: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town!”

The New Orleans mother understood exactly what Benjamin Barber explains here: “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)

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False Claims and Fraud Keep on Surfacing in the Charter School Sector

The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are fans of the marketplace. Privatizing education is their thing.  That is why it is so useful to consult some experts—in this case Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, political scientists who, in their newest book American Amnesia, warn about problems with marketplace thinking:

“That markets fall short under certain conditions has been known for at least two centuries. The eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote enthusiastically about the ‘invisible hand’ of market allocation. Yet he also identified many cases where rational actors pursuing their own self-interest produced bad outcomes…. Economists have been building on these insights ever since to explain when and why markets stumble and how the visible hand of government can make the invisible hand more effective. The visible hand is needed, for example, to provide key collective goods that markets won’t (education, infrastructure, courts, basic scientific research); reduce negative spillover costs that parties to market exchanges don’t bear fully…. encourage positive spillover benefits that such parties don’t take fully into account such as shared knowledge; (and) regulate the market to protect consumers and investors….”  (American Amnesia, pp. 4-5)

Trump and DeVos extol the free hand of the market despite what we learn week after week about negative spillover costs and self-dealing when charter operators are tempted by pots of government money and inadequate oversight. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss introduces a new report from Carol Burris, of the Network for Public Education, with this bit of background: “President Trump’s first federal budget proposal seeks a $168 million increase for charter schools, which is a 50 percent funding increase from the current level set by the previous Obama administration… A 2016 audit by the Education Department’s Inspector General’s Office found that the department—which awards multi-million-dollar grants to states for the creation and expansion of charters—had failed to provide adequate oversight of some of its relationships with charter management organizations.”

Burris’s report, which Strauss then reprints in full, examines a chain of charter schools well-known for its high test scores. But, as we learn, there is something fishy going on: “One of the best illustrations of the ‘non-public’ nature of charters is the much heralded BASIS charter schools that began in Arizona, a state with extremely lax charter laws. A close look at BASIS provides insight into how charter schools can cherry-pick students, despite open enrollment laws. It also shows how through the use of management companies profits can be made—all hidden from public view.”  BASIS schools were started up by two economists in Tucson, expanded to Scottsdale, and later to Texas and Washington, D.C. Boasting a curriculum based on Advanced Placement classes and tests, they have been highly acclaimed for their rigor.

Hacker and Pierson use the economist’s term—negative externalities— for negative spillover costs or negative side-effects which are costs to society that may not be noticed or may be forgotten, whether the charter is launched by the visionary educator or by the crafty profit-maker seeking to educate children privately at public expense. The test scores of the students at a particular charter school are the yardstick society most commonly uses to judge the school, but what about the side-effects on society that may be much broader than the experiences of one group of children inside the school?  As Trump and DeVos seek to privatize more schools, what are some cautions that ought to be considered due to the negative externalities associated with the charter sector as it stands today?

One negative externality at BASIS is that the schools do not serve all children, as public schools are required to do.  BASIS schools have managed to imbalance their student populations to ensure that their students are very high test-scorers: “The proportional over-enrollment of Asian-American students and under-enrollment of Latino students at BASIS charter schools is startling. But differences in the students served do not end with race and ethnicity.  In 2015-16, (in Arizona) only 1.23 percent of the students at BASIS had a learning disability, as compared to 11.3 percent of students in the state. BASIS schools had no English Language Learners.  And in a state in which over 47 percent of all students received free or reduced-priced lunch, BASIS had none…. (I)t chooses not to participate in the free or reduced-priced lunch program… Because BASIS provides no transportation, where it places schools—along with the lack of a free-lunch program—discourages disadvantaged students from applying.”

Another  negative externality  is that the school shapes its student body by failing to admit enrollees after middle school: “The ‘rigorous’ curriculum of BASIS prevents prospective enrollees from transferring in after middle school. Students must take six Advanced Placement exams and pass at least one with a score of 3 or above in order to graduate. However, they are required to take more AP classes than that, beginning in middle school. There are comprehensive tests that must be passed or students are retained (in grade)… Even after getting into BASIS, however, there is less than a 50 percent chance the students will stay to graduate. During each successive year, students leave when they cannot keep up with excessive academic demands. Like the ‘no-excuses’ charter schools found in cities, the attrition rates at BASIS middle and high schools are extraordinarily high. Of a cohort of 85 students who began eighth grade in BASIS Flagstaff during the 2011-12 school year, only 41 percent (35) remained to enter twelfth grade in 2015-16. In the flagship school, BASIS Tucson North, a seventh-grade class of 130 became a class of 54 by senior year. The same pattern exists in every BASIS charter high school in the state.”

Burris also explains a third negative externality—the profits being made (at public expense via the tax dollars BASIS schools collect) by Olga and Michael Block, who started BASIS and then turned management over to the for-profit, limited liability company that they now own and that operates BASIS. Because the company is private, their salaries cannot be discerned, but there is some indication of profits being made. As Burris reports: “According to a 2015 study by the Grand Canyon Institute and Arizonans for Charter School Accountability, BASIS schools spent an average of $2,291 per pupil on administration while the average public district spent just $628 per pupil.”

Beyond correcting for mere side-effects of running separate systems side-by-side for educating children—the public system and then systems of charters and vouchers—there is the danger of fraud and self-dealing when privatized schools operate without adequate oversight and regulation. This week’s example is, finally after years’ of investigation, the arrest of Benford Chavis, who operated a charter chain—the American Indian Model Schools—in Oakland, California. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Chavis “faces six felony counts of mail fraud and money laundering, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco. Chavis allegedly applied for and received more than $1 million in federal grant funding from 2006 to 2012 that he said would be used for the charter schools.  The money was instead used for lease payments on properties Chavis owned… Chavis faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the three counts of mail fraud and 10 years for each count of money laundering.” Chavis has been under investigation since 2013,  is no longer associated with the schools, and now lives in Lumberton, North Carolina. He is said to have been a controversial presence in the schools he operated: “Students were often publicly humiliated and forced to attend Saturday school and detention. Chavis drew both national scorn and praise for his tactics.”

Michelle Rhee coined the attack on public school teachers and administrators—that they prioritize adult interests and fail to put students first. Benford Chavis is an example of a more common phenomenon: charter operators who put profits first. He is said to have engaged in overtly criminal behavior. But in too many cases, self-interested operators stay just inside the law or prevent adequate oversight by investing in contributions to the legislators who would have to enact regulations to prevent both negative externalities and self-dealing.

Unlike Trump and DeVos, the political scientists Hacker and Pierson believe government itself is best suited to educate our society’s children: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic and civic outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive (attracting residents, responding to voters) and the means (tax financing of public schools, compulsory attendance laws) to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.” (American Amnesia, p. 65)

Deep Concern Intensifies Over DeVos Nomination As Senate Vote Nears

The Senate’s vote on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education will be tomorrow, February 7.  Two Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have declared they will join all the Democrats to vote against Ms. DeVos. The confirmation of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General has been delayed to ensure that he can vote with his Republican colleagues to get the DeVos nomination over the bar before he quits the Senate to assume his new position leading the Department of Justice. Unless another Republican changes his/her mind, it is expected that Vice President Mike Pence will break the tie vote to confirm the DeVos nomination. This would be the first time in history that a vice president has had to break a tie on a Cabinet appointment.

The NY Times‘s Gail Collins summarizes succinctly just why President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos has become so controversial: “How bad do you need to be to get rejected for Donald Trump’s cabinet? We’ve got nominees who don’t really know anything about the subject they’d be overseeing. Some hatehatehate the federal programs they’d be charged with guiding. Some have messy financial issues that haven’t been resolved. But Trump’s pick for secretary of education swept the board. Trifecta!  Betsy DeVos, it’s become clear, knows very little about public schools, doesn’t like them and has minimal experience in management. Plus, she’s a billionaire whose money is in a bewildering stack of holding companies.”

Despite her ethics clearance, her conflicts of interest go way back. Not only is she invested in a chain of dubious and for-profit Neurocore brain wave therapy centers whose claim is to cure Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but she and her husband were also invested a decade ago in the online charter giant K12 Inc, whose company-reported graduation rates have been widely questioned along with those of other schools in the cyber charter sector where students study on computers from home. Here is Benjamin Herold’s report for Education Week last Wednesday: “In her written response to questions from a key Democratic senator, Education Secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos defended full-time online charter schools using graduation rates significantly higher than those used for state and federal accountability purposes. The figures and language cited by DeVos directly mirror those used in a report from K12 Inc., the country’s largest for-profit operator of cyber charter schools, in which DeVos is a former investor. According to the Ohio education department, for example, the Ohio Virtual Academy has a four-year graduation rate of 53 percent, good for an ‘F’ on the state’s accountability system. DeVos has put the figure at 92 percent.”  In her answers to questions, DeVos used K12 Inc.’s scores not only for the Ohio Virtual Academy but also for the Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma and Utah Virtual Academies, all affiliates of K12 Inc. Why does this matter so much? Well, Betsy DeVos has expressed a lifelong commitment to school choice, but in a state with a lot of tiny towns where the public schools are the only educational institutions and where opening a number of school choices through vouchers and charter schools isn’t possible, really the only way education can be privatized and profits made is through “distance” learning online. Most objective evaluations of online learning, however, such as from the pro-school-choice Walton Foundation and the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes have found that virtual schools don’t really work very well.

Strong opinion pieces have proliferated in the press this week. In Wanted: One Republican with Integrity, to Defeat Betsy DeVos, the editorial board of the NY Times declared: “There are few more telling examples of Mr. Trump’s disdain for the federal government’s critical role in lifting up America’s schoolchildren than his choice of Ms. DeVos… Betsy DeVos’s nomination is not about making public education more effective, or helping publicly schooled children succeed; it’s about blowing up the system without a clue as to what comes next.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board demanded:  Sen. Rob Portman–Stand Up and Reject Betsy DeVos.

Senator Tim Kaine was joined by retired Senator and former chair of the Senate HELP Committee, Tom Harkin expressing dismay about Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing, in which DeVos demonstrated confusion about what would be her responsibility, if confirmed, to enforce  protections for students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): “As the potential champion of all students in the country, including students with disabilities, DeVos should understand and protect the constitutional right of a child with a disability to an accessible and free public education…. DeVos’ uninformed responses about IDEA made clear there are serious questions about her ability to serve and support children and youth with disabilities across the country. The United states currently serves 6.5 million students under the IDEA….”

The most personal and moving commentary is from New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan in the NY Times: “Ensuring access to public education for every student is an issue that is personal to my family. My adult son Ben was born with cerebral palsy. Ben is bright and funny (and quite handsome, according to this unbiased source.) He cannot walk, cannot use his fingers to type and can speak only in difficult-to-understand single words. If Ben had been born a generation or two earlier, we, his parents would have been pressured to put him in an institution. But Ben was able to go to a public school in his hometown, Exeter, N.H., because of the tireless work of the advocates, educators and public officials who came before us. Ben had the opportunity to go to school and make friends in his own community—something that all parents want for their children… Instead of supporting public schools, Ms. DeVos has supported voucher systems that divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools without requirements for accountability… To use a voucher, families are sometimes forced to sign away their child’s legal rights, and the schools receiving the voucher often lack the experience or resources necessary to educate the child.”

If you can make time, I urge you to watch Senator Patty Murray, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, in the speech she presented in an unusual 6:30 AM session of the Senate last Friday (Murray’s speech begins at 8  minutes into the video.) as the Senate voted to move the DeVos nomination to a vote by the full Senate at the beginning of this week.  Murray describes how HELP Committee Chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, a devotee of school vouchers and privatization, railroaded the nomination of DeVos through the HELP committee, limiting debate and forcing the committee to consider the nomination despite the late arrival of a less-than-transparent Ethics Committee report on DeVos’s complicated financial holdings. Murray describes the holding companies within holding companies and multiple DeVos and Prince family trusts that are virtually impossible to untangle. And she criticizes DeVos’s poor performance in her HELP Committee confirmation hearing, a hearing that exposed DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and apparent ignorance about basic education issues: “Betsy DeVos has spent her career and her fortune rigging the system to privatize and de-fund public education… She has no experience with public schools except through her work trying to tear them down… She has committed herself for decades to an extreme ideological goal: to push students out of public schools and weaken public education no matter what. And she has spent millions of dollars in political donations and on organizations and super PACs to try and influence elections and policies to accomplish her goal.”

Please keep up the pressure on your Senators before tomorrow’s vote.  Here are links to the Senators’ phone numbers and here is an action alert from the National Education Association that you can personalize and send if you cannot get through on the phone.

New Reports Question Education Strategy Pushed by Trump Administration

Donald Trump promotes the expansion of parental choice among schools as the way to help children learn.  Parental choice in this case is defined as tuition vouchers for children to carry to private schools, more charter schools which are publicly funded but privately operated, and tuition tax credits of various sorts by which parents can apply the money they would have paid in taxes to pay for privatized education.

The thing is that private schools, on the whole, don’t do a better job than public schools.  Chris and Sarah Lubienski, professors of education at the University of Illinois discovered evidence of this when they were studying mathematics achievement as measured by test scores: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home… But after further investigation and more targeted analyses, the results held up.  And they held up… even when we used different models and variables in the analyses…  (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, pp. xvii-xviii)

In a November policy brief published by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Frank Adamson compares international test results from nations with strong public school systems like Finland, Cuba and Canada with school systems that have experimented significantly with privatization like Chile and Sweden, the Canadian province of Ontario temporarily during the 1990s, and more recently the United States. He cautions that, “While these comparisons do not provide causal evidence, they reveal compelling policy considerations about which systems are likely to provide more high-quality education opportunity to students.”

Nevertheless Adamson concludes: “This brief addresses two approaches to organizing, governing, and supporting education systems.  One approach, a high-quality public investment system similar to those in Finland, Cuba, and Ontario (today), uses equity-based processes and focuses on teacher professionalization and is often accompanied by high educational outcomes. A second approach, a market-based system of education privatization found in Sweden, Chile, 1990s Ontario, and some U.S. cities, is often accompanied by low and unequal student performance, de-professionalization of teachers, and public dissatisfaction.  The evidence of the comparison within Ontario and the between-country comparisons… demonstrate that investments in education as a public good yield higher and more equitable outcomes than other approaches, including the marketization, deregulation, and privatization of education. The findings of this study strongly support enactment of a public investment approach to address issues of inequality and low performance… rather than applying market-based approaches imperfectly to a public sector.”

A short new report on charter schools in Florida describes why school privatization is not working in that state: lack of public oversight.  The Center for Popular Democracy explains: “Over the last 10 years, Florida’s K-12 charter enrollment has increased 172 percent from 92,214 to 251,082 students.  With that increase came tens of millions of state tax dollars for charters, yet despite this substantial investment, charters have failed to live up to the state’s mandate for ‘high standards of student achievement.’  This should come as no surprise given the lack of oversight… The statutes don’t address background checks on charter applicants.  Because of the lack of guidelines, school officials in South Florida say, they do not conduct criminal screenings or examine candidates’ financial or educational pasts.  That means individuals with a history of failed schools, shaky personal finances or no experience running schools can open or operate charters.”  The Center for Popular Democracy recommends a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until the state can put some regulation in place.

In a third report, Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, is far more skeptical about even the possibility  that a state legislature can amass the political capital to regulate a privatized education marketplace. She recently visited Pennsylvania, whose state auditor general has called Pennsylvania’s oversight of charter schools “the worst charter school laws in the nation.”

In a series of interviews with school officials in Bethlehem, Burris learned that state law provides that every child who leaves for a charter school will carry her or his portable funding right out of the public school district’s budget—requiring “districts to pay the charter school a per-pupil tuition fee based on how much the district spends on its own students. In Bethlehem’s case, its per-pupil charter tuition cost per general education student is $10,635.77 and $22,886.44 per special education student.”  The same amount must be paid even if the student enrolls in an online cyber school whose costs are much less. “In the case of special education students, the charter gets the higher rate, no matter how mild the disability, and it does not have to prove that it spent the money on special education services.”

As in other states, notably in Ohio, huge profits from the charter management organizations are being reinvested in political contributions to politicians who promise to protect the charter sector. Burris suggests that the influence and power of money in politics renders state governments incapable of protecting the public through adequate regulation of school privatization: “It is hard to understand why every taxpayer in Pennsylvania is not outraged at a legislature that repeatedly rejects sensible calls for reforms.  When cash is flush and regulations are thin, those who seek to profit appear, and they ensure reform is thwarted.”

She warns: “(W)hat I learned in Bethlehem is both simple and clear. Pennsylvania’s politicians, like those in so many states, have neither the stomach nor the will to curb the abuses of charter schools as they drain the public school coffers. America must choose either a patchwork of online schools and charters with profiteers on the prowl, or a transparent community public school system run by citizens elected by their neighbors.  A dual system with the private taking funding from the public, simply cannot survive.”

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos Push Increasingly Discredited School Policy

While public schools across the United States are the quintessential institution of the Ninety-Nine Percent, for years now public policy has been driven by the ideas of the One Percent. Nobody exemplifies this ironic contradiction better than the woman nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as our next Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. She is the founder and chair of the board of the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, and she leads the All Children Matter PAC. Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick lead the Great Lakes Education Project, the organization behind the massive growth of unregulated—and mostly for-profit—charter schools that are now known to have contributed to the financial crisis in the Detroit Public Schools. DeVos is also a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll describes the political influence of the Michigan DeVos family: “The DeVoses sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement. Since 1970, DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes—think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay-marriage and anti-tax ballot measures.”

Here is Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: “(I)t would be hard to find a better representative of the “donor class” than the DeVos, whose family has been allied with Charles and David Koch for years. Betsy, her husband Richard, Jr. (Dick), and her father-in-law, Richard, Sr., whose fortune was estimated by Forbes to be worth $5.1 billion, have turned up repeatedly on lists of attendees at the Kochs’ donor summits, and as contributors to the brothers’ political ventures. In 2010, Charles Koch described Richard DeVos, Sr., as one of thirty-two “great partners” who had contributed a million dollars or more to the tens of millions of dollars that the Kochs planned to spend in that year’s campaign cycle.”

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are One Percenters, and both are proponents of the privatization of education —vouchers by which children carry tax dollars to pay tuition at parochial or private schools, and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. States and the federal government, pushed by far-right politicians and advocates like the DeVos family, have been trying out both forms of privatization since the 1990s, long enough that there is now a body of evidence to compare the performance of privatized schools to that of the local public schools and to see how their presence is affecting the school districts in which they are situated.

For example, University of Illinois professors of education Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, researching the quality of mathematics instruction in public, private, and privatized schools, published a book (2014) demonstrating, that because public schools employ curriculum staff exposed to the best current research and because certified teachers are trained in up-to-date theory at teachers colleges, there is a Public School Advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns… held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage, pp xvii-xviii)

Even the proponents of school choice have begun raising questions. Robin Lake leads the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the organization that has made its name by promoting “portfolio school reform,” a theory that school districts ought to be managed as a business portfolio—shedding failing schools and opening new charters in an environment of perpetual market churn. Robin Lake went to Detroit in 2014 to observe how all this is working in the environment that has long been promoted by Michigan’s biggest charter school advocates—including Betsy DeVos. Here is how Lake described what she saw: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

And in Detroit, the DeVos family has helped ensure that charter schools remain unregulated.  Last May and June (2016) as the Michigan legislature worked on a plan to save the Detroit School District, made virtually bankrupt partly by the massive expansion of school choice, even Republican Governor Rick Snyder agreed to the creation of a Detroit Education Commission as part of the plan.  The Commission’s role was going to be guiding the location of any new charter schools to ensure there remain quality schools in all of the city’s neighborhoods and to help regulate the worst charter schools out of existence. It seemed the plan would be approved  by the legislature until the DeVos’s Great Lakes Education Project unleashed its lobbyists and $1.45 million in political contributions to members of the Michigan House, who then soundly eliminated the Commission from the Detroit Schools’ rescue plan.  Believing in the power of the market as the sole source of accountability, Betsy and Dick DeVos purchased the obliteration of meaningful charter school oversight in Detroit.

Will Bunch, writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, has watched as the School District of Philadelphia has been undermined by the rapid expansion of charters, just as Detroit has suffered.  He explains: “Take a look at Detroit — Ground Zero for education reform in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, where the heiress has pumped millions into the political system to boost what advocates call “school choice.” The result is a broken urban school system where charter-school privateers have made big profits — aided by the failure of a charter oversight bill that the DeVos family spent $1.45 million to fight — and low student achievement has been locked in. Federal auditors discovered last year that an “unreasonably high” number of charters were among Michigan’s worst 5 percent of schools… The president-elect’s endorsement of a radical “school choice” agenda comes as the Philadelphia School District struggles to find equilibrium after a two-decade charter-school exodus that created massive budget holes and devastated dozens of fading neighborhood schools. During his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to re-purpose some $20 billion in federal dollars for school choice spending, to be administered by the states through block grants. Now, DeVos will be the high-profile point person for getting that done.”

Even the bond ratings agencies have begun to consider the impact of the rapid growth of charter schools in big city school districts where rapid expansion of privatized charter schools has sucked money out of the traditional public schools that serve the vast majority of children, and especially children in extreme poverty and those with expensive special needs.  Chicago and Detroit are two of the districts where bond ratings have recently been lowered, but more recently Moody’s has been writing about Massachusetts, where, on November 8, voters defeated a ballot measure that would have expanded charters. In a new report, Moody’s celebrates the statewide defeat of Massachusetts Question 2 and in doing so expresses concern about the kind of school privatization that President-elect Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Education have announced as their priority.  Shira Schoenberg describes Moody’s new report for the Springfield Republican: “Charter schools tend to proliferate in urban areas where school districts already reflect a degree of underlying economic and fiscal stress that can detract from a city’s ability to deliver competitive services and can prompt students to move to charter schools; this growing competition can sometime create a ‘downward spiral,'” the report stated. “A city that begins to lose students to a charter school can be forced to weaken educational programs because funding is tighter, which then begins to encourage more students to leave which then results in additional losses.”

Betsy DeVos has not always limited her school privatization activity to what is legal. Back in 2006, she helped David Brennan, owner of the notorious, privately held, for-profit, White Hat Charter School management empire to make an illegally large donation to the campaign coffers of Ohio legislators. On his personal blog, Steve Dyer, former Akron Beacon Journal reporter and former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, describes what happened: “DeVos has a bad history here in Ohio. In 2006, she allowed David Brennan to launder campaign cash through her All Children Matter PAC. That led to the largest fine ever levied against a candidate or PAC by the Ohio Elections Commission — $5.2 million. By all accounts, that fine was larger than all fines put together.”

The Betsy DeVos nomination has received wide coverage by knowledgeable reporters. For excellent summaries, check out Kate Zernike in the NY Times, and Emma Brown and Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

Social Impact Bonds (Pay for Success): Yet Another Privatization Scam

For those of us who know more about public education than Wall Street investment schemes, Valerie Strauss and Kenneth Saltman (education writer and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth) did us a favor last week. In her Washington Post column, Strauss published a column by Saltman explaining simply and clearly what Social Impact Bonds are, how they are now privately funding education projects at public expense, and problems with these investment instruments.

In her introduction to Saltman’s column, Valerie Strauss’s describes the use of Social Impact Bonds for funding education projects: “Within the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, the K-12 education law that replaced No Child Left Behind, is a provision that provides for the use of federal funds by states and school districts for something known as ‘Pay for Success.’ The Obama administration has actually been funding Pay for Success programs in education and other areas for years, and Congress likes the concept… According to the Corporation for National & Community Service: ‘Pay for Success (PFS) has emerged as a new approach for government to partner with the private sector to fund proven community-based solutions. PFS is an innovative contracting and financing model that leverages philanthropic and private dollars to fund services up front, with the government, or other entity, paying after they generate results.  This strategy has gained strong bi-partisan support in Congress, as a strategy for increasing return on taxpayer dollars while improving the quality of services provided in our communities.’ If it sounds as if it’s a way for the private sector to make money off investments in pubic education, that’s because it is.”

Strauss provides an example of the use of Social Impact Bonds: “A Pay for Success program in Utah funded by Goldman Sachs earned a profit for the global investment bank for every student who went through an early-childhood program and was not referred for special education. According to the New York Times: ‘Goldman said its investment had helped almost 99 percent of the Utah children it was tracking avoid special education in kindergarten  The bank received a payment for each of those children.'”

Saltman begins his piece by explaining who is pushing Pay for Success as a way to reform education: “Pay for Success, also known as Social Impact Bonds, is being heavily promoted by power corporate entities and politicians as a solution to intractable financial and political problems facing public education and other public services. They include investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and J.P. Morgan; philanthropies such as the Rockefeller Foundation; politicians such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Massachusetts former governor and now Bain Capital Managing Director Deval Patrick; and professors at elite universities such as Harvard University.”  Saltman adds that Social Impact Bonds were imported from the United Kingdom in 2010, originally advocated by McKinsey Consulting, the Center for American Progress, and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard: “Jeffrey Liebman went from Obama’s Office of Management and Budget to… the Government Performance Lab in the Kennedy School of Government dedicated to expanding Pay for Success.”

Why are Social Impact Bonds being heavily promoted? “In these schemes, investment banks pay for public services to be contracted out to private providers and stand to earn much more money than the cost of the service… Pay for Success is promoted… as an innovative financing technique that brings together social service providers with private funders and non-profit organizations committed to expanding social service provision.  In theory, Pay for Success expands accountability because programs are independently evaluated for their success and the government only pays the funder (the bank) if the program meets the metrics… Politicians (especially rightest Democrats) love Pay for Success because they can claim to be expanding public services without raising taxes or issuing bonds and will only have the public pay for ‘what works.'”

Saltman examines five claims made by supporters of Pay for Success and systematically rejects each of them.  I urge you to read his analysis carefully.  Here are merely some highlights.

Supporters of Pay for Success claim that Social Impact Bonds transfer risk from the public to the private sector for programs that may be controversial or risky. Chicago, for example, has used Pay for Success investment to add a pre-Kindergarten program for 2,600 public school children: “However, critics of Pay for Success point out that in reality there is little risk for investors of losing that nearly $17 million because the investors select already proven projects…. (I)nvestors make not only big profits but additionally receive positive public relations, good will, and image boosting… Risk is also mitigated for the banks by philanthropies such as Rockefeller or Bloomberg that guarantee repayment of the money the banks invest.”

Proponents of Pay for Success claim that private investment is necessary to motivate experimentation with public policy for which there does not exist the political will for change.  Saltman responds that polling indicates widespread public support for improvements in infrastructure and for investments in education, health and social service programs: “Parents and community members are not the ones who lack the political will.”

Programs paid for with Social Impact Bonds are said to be accountable because their very being depends on measurable proof that must be provided before investors can be repaid. But what about the manipulation of data and misuse of measures? (Even though I know about extensive educational research confirming the benefit of quality preschool programs, for example, my own central question when I read about the Utah preschool program, supported by Goldman Sachs Social Impact Bonds, that prevented children from being later diagnosed for special education is how it could have been known and measured even before preschool children entered the program whether they were likely later to be referred to services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And how could it be proven mathematically that the particular Pay for Success program prevented such later diagnosis?) In education there are enormous questions about the advisability, validity and reliability of measurement—quantitative assessment—of what is a qualitative process.  What about the underlying assumption of the whole scheme—that we have the capacity accurately to measure school quality?   William Mathis and Tina Trujillo, academics writing on behalf of the National Education Policy Center, recently questioned our tendency these days to trust only quantitative evaluation in education: “The problem is in defining what should be measured, how it should be tallied, and how multiple scores can be combined into one… The challenge is that schools have many purposes and each would lend itself to a different way of measuring and weighing… The companion difficulty is trying to validly represent an important feature with an imperfect measure….  Such decisions are central but are not empirical. They are based on our underlying values.”

Like Mathis and Trujillo, Saltman rejects the assumptions made by proponents of quantitative, test-based school accountability and those who support Social Impact Bonds that pay off only when a program can demonstrate measured success: “The message… is that the government spends billions of dollars on public services that are not measured and hence has ‘little to show for it.’  Implicitly here is an assumption that that which cannot be immediately measured quantifiably also cannot be justified as a public expense.  This presumes that the kinds of subjects that are less quantifiably measured such as the humanities or abstract sciences are less valuable and that funding in the future ought only to follow that which can be justified.”

Finally there is the whole contention of Pay for Success supporters that Social Impact Bonds will guarantee cost savings even as private actors ultimately make enormous profits: “The private sector project of Pay for Success is not merely one that involves the private capture of public wealth but also the public reframing of symbolic meanings that make such wealth capture possible, remaking common sense in ways that suggest that only the rich can promote just social change by pursuing their financial interests. Such ideologies suggest that the very private forces responsible for draining and weakening the public are in fact saviors for the public, that there is no alternative to markets in every social realm, that public citizens are nothing more than economic actors, and that these projects are apolitical rather than representing the interests and perspectives of capitalists over workers and most citizens.”

Saltman adds that privatization schemes like Social Impact Bonds also undermine the democratic process: “As with venture philanthropies, the public ends up not only financially subsidizing private banks but also subsidizing the loss of public control over public governance for public services.  With venture philanthropies, the subsidy takes public revenue in the form of tax breaks for rich donors and corporations. With Pay for Success, the public pays a premium for services that could have been provided directly through the government, and loses democratic governance control over the service.”

Uganda Will Close For-Profit Schools Pushed by Gates, Zuckerberg, US, UK, and World Bank

In a statement to the Ugandan parliament last week, Hon. Janet Museveni, Ugandan Minister for Education and Sports, explained that the ministry will close 63 private primary and nursery schools at the end of the term due to problems with licensing, safety and sanitation.  The schools are operated by one of the world’s largest private, for-profit education companies.

As this blog reported in April, Bridge International Academies is funded by the World Bank; American venture capitalists, New Enterprise Associates and Lean Capital; and philanthropists including the Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Pierre Omidyar.  Bridge is associated with the publishing and testing giant, Pearson.  It has also been supported by the United Kingdom Department for International Development.  Justine Greening, a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament who headed up the Department for International Development before being appointed earlier this year as British Secretary of State for Education, has been influential in promoting Bridge Academies.

According to its website, Bridge International Academies has expanded rapidly in Africa.  It opened its first school in Nairobi, Kenya in 2010 and operated 130 schools in Kenya by 2013.  In 2014 it prepared to expand into Uganda and Nigeria—operating seven academies in Uganda by February, 2015. Bridge currently operates 63 schools in Uganda. Now it is expanding into Liberia and India.

The Global Campaign for Education and a number of international education and human rights organizations released a statement at the end of last week supporting Ms. Museveni’s decision to close all Bridge International Academies in Uganda.  Respecting Ms. Museveni’s decision to close the schools based on immediate problems with licensing and hygiene, these international advocates for public education as a human right examine much deeper problems in the schools: “Bridge International Academies is a for-profit commercial chain of low-cost private schools backed by investors such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Pierre Omidyar (eBay), as well as the World Bank, and the U.S. and British Governments. It aims at providing education to 10 million pupils by 2025 and already runs over 450 schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and soon Liberia and India. The company has been particularly criticised for using a non-transparent system of entirely scripted and standardised curriculum mostly designed in the USA, delivered by untrained teachers reading the script from a tablet, while selling this scheme as ‘world-class education’ to poor people in developing countries in a bid to seek profits.  The decision to close BIA schools (in Uganda) follows several statements from United Nations (UN) human rights bodies as well as a report from a UK parliamentary watchdog that criticised BIA, suggesting that the development of these schools may lead to human rights breaches.”

The Global Campaign for Education’s press release quotes Frederick Mwesigye, Executive Director of the Forum for Education NGOS in Uganda: “The Ugandan education system suffers from many shortcomings. However, it does not mean that any investors can come in and make profit out of the situation by delivering low-quality education while disregarding national authorities and standards.”

Bridge International Academies released its own statement responding to the Ugandan government’s plan to close its schools.  In the statement Bridge declares that it will continue to operate through the semester, as Ms. Museveni has said the Ugandan government will permit.  During that period the company plans to, “work with the relevant educational authorities to uphold our commitment to our parents and communities to provide a world-class education to their children.”  Clearly the company hopes to be able work out its problems with Ugandan regulatory agencies.

In her  2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the response of the global marketplace to natural catastrophes and any kind of widespread failure of government services in the developing world: “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (p. 6)

Klein argues that rapid expansion of privatization worldwide, like the emergence of Bridge International Academies—supported by the World Bank, the U.S. and British governments, and venture philanthropists like Gates and Zuckerberg—is a form of colonialism that perfectly exemplifies neoliberal ideology:  “(T)he ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities. (Milton) Friedman called himself a ‘liberal,’ but his U.S. followers, who associated liberals with high taxes and hippies, tended to identify as ‘conservatives,’ ‘classical economists,’ ‘free marketers,’ and, later, as believers in ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘laissez-faire.’  In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as ‘neoliberalism,’ but it is often called ‘free trade’ or simply ‘globalization’….  All these incarnations share a commitment to the policy trinity—the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending….” ( pp. 14-15)