Neoliberalism Undermines the Common Good by Promoting Vouchers and Charter Schools

When you read about “neoliberalism,” do you clearly understand the term and what people mean when they talk about neoliberal education reform?  It is confusing because “neoliberal” is used to describe policies we typically think of as politically conservative, while political liberals are the people we think of as supporting programs typified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  How is it that we call the people who support school privatization through vouchers and charter schools “neoliberals?”

For those of us who are not political theorists, Robert Kuttner simply and clearly defines “neoliberalism.” Kuttner is the  co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. Kuttner hardly touches on the specific area of neoliberalism as it applies to public education, but his precise definition is invaluable for clarifying our thinking. “It’s worth taking a moment to unpack the term ‘neoliberalism.’ The coinage can be confusing to American ears because the ‘liberal’ part refers not to the word’s ordinary American usage, meaning moderately left-of-center, but to classical economic liberalism otherwise known as free-market economics. The ‘neo’ part refers to the reassertion of the claim that the laissez-faire model of the economy was basically correct after all. Few proponents of these views embraced the term neoliberal. Mostly, they called themselves free-market conservatives. ‘Neoliberal’ was a coinage used mainly by their critics, sometimes as a neutral descriptive term, sometimes as an epithet. The use became widespread in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.”

Kuttner traces the history of neoliberalism: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

“Beginning in the 1970s, resurrected free-market theory was interwoven with both conservative politics and significant investments in the production of theorists and policy intellectuals. This occurred not just in well-known conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Cato, and the Manhattan Institute, but through more insidious investments in academia. Lavishly funded centers and tenured chairs were underwritten by the Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and other far-right foundations to promote such variants of free-market theory as law and economics, public choice, rational choice, cost-benefit analysis, maximize-shareholder-value, and kindred schools of thought.”

Kuttner traces the impact of neoliberal theory on the broader economy: “By the 1990s, even moderate liberals had been converted to the belief that social objectives can be achieved by harnessing the power of markets… Now, after nearly half a century, the verdict is in. Virtually every one of these policies has failed, even on their own terms.  Enterprise has been richly rewarded, taxes have been cut, and regulation reduced or privatized. The economy is vastly more unequal, yet economic growth is slower and more chaotic than during the era of managed capitalism.  Deregulation has produced not salutary competition, but market concentration.  Economic power has resulted in feedback loops of political power, in which elites make rules that bolster further concentration… This is a story of power using theory.”

Moving closer to what has happened in the area of public education, Kuttner adds: “In addition to deregulation, three prime areas of practical neoliberal policies are the use of vouchers as ‘market-like’ means to social goals, the privatization of public services, and the use of tax subsidies rather than direct outlays. In every case, government revenues are involved, so this is far from a free market to begin with. But the premise is that market disciplines can achieve public purposes more efficiently than direct public provision.”

Kuttner skims only briefly the role of neoliberalism in various areas of public policy including healthcare, housing, incarceration, transportation and education.  Providing the direct link from neoliberal economic theory to its consequences for our nation’s public schools, last Friday, Diane Ravitch posted a commentary by Shawgi Tell, a professor of education at Nazareth College in New York, who examines the role of neoliberalism in public education policy. Tell is responding to a recent Washington Post column in which David Osborne argues: “‘Privatization’ doesn’t make charter schools bad. It makes them like Obamacare and Medicare.” Tell condemns Osborne’s column as the epitomy of neoliberalism. David Osborne is the Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Tell describes Osborne’s work: “David Osborne is one of America’s foremost neoliberal demagogues. He is a major representative of the so called ‘Third Way,’ a clever label for destructive neoliberal aims, policies, and arrangements.  His constant attacks on public right can be found at the website of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is not progressive at all…. Osborne has spent much of his life attacking the public sector and pushing for its privatization (‘reinvention’) as fast as possible.  He has long been heavily funded by wealthy private interests that support neoliberal policies in every sector and sphere of society.  In the sphere of education, Osborne has been a relentless supporter of privately-operated, low-transparency charter schools, which are notorious for being unaccountable, segregated, deunionized, and corrupt.”

Tell condemns the distortions he notices in Osborne’s recent Washington Post column: “The core and stubborn error with Osborne’s entire ‘argument’ here and elsewhere, is that it rests mainly on thoroughly and deliberately confusing the critical difference between the private and public spheres, including the very different aims, roles, and purposes of each in a modern society….  Osborne desperately wants people to believe that it is more than OK if public goods, programs, and services are operated, ‘delivered,’ or owned by the private sector. He claims that such an arrangement does not render something privatized or problematic, and that it should not really matter who runs things, as long as ‘the results’ are ‘good.'”

Tell explains why it is so important to understand that public and private mean different things. “Public and private mean the opposite of each other… Public refers to everyone, the common good, the general interests of society.  Public means inclusive, open and non-rivalrous.  A public service, for example, is usually free or close to free so that it is accessible by all. A public good is one that benefits everyone, whether they use it or not.  Private, on the other hand, means exclusive, not for everyone, not inclusive, not shared… Private wealthy interests and the common good are not identical; they actually contradict each other… In reality, public goods, services, and programs are not commodities.  They are not ‘consumer goods’ or ‘costs.’  They cannot be reduced to mere budgetary issues. This is a capital-centered way of viewing things. They are basic social human responsibilities that must be provided in a way that ensures the well-being of society and the economy. Approaching social responsibility as a business, contract, or commodity enriches wealthy private interests and lowers the quantity and quality of services for the majority. It also increases corruption and impunity.”

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber provides the clearest definition of the distinction between public and private purposes and the central flaw of neoliberal theory: “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….  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… 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)

Teachers in Los Angeles Confront Privatization—the Heart of Today’s Neoliberal Conventional Wisdom

Almost a decade ago, I was sitting in the audience at a national meeting when a prominent Democrat endorsed neoliberalism—the idea that the private sector can do better than the government.  I might have expected this speaker to defend government services, but instead he expressed what sounded to me like the conventional wisdom as it might have been voiced at an Aspen Institute cocktail party of the so-called “theory class.”  There was no reasoning, no sense that evidence was necessary. He merely assumed we all agreed: “We can’t support vouchers,” declared the speaker, “but charter schools are OK because they  aren’t really a form of privatization.”

In their book, American Amnesia, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe how such conventional wisdom can somehow become acceptable despite plenty of contradictory evidence.  Writing about the emergence of a bipartisan neoliberal consensus beginning in the Reagan era and continuing today, they write: “These changes did not go unnoticed or occur without pushback. Yet those who sought to defend or resurrect the ideas under siege found themselves caught in what communications experts call a ‘spiral of silence.’ In such a spiral, opinions become dominant because of acquiescence as well as acceptance. Even if individuals do not agree with an idea, their sense that it is shared broadly makes them reluctant to voice dissent. In time, this anticipation can create self-fulfilling cycles—a ‘spiral’—in which conflicting ideas are pushed to the periphery. When alternative understandings are no longer voiced confidently, we collectively forget their power.” (American Amnesia, p. 198)

“Corporate school reform” is what we often call it—the idea that schools can be made more efficient by business school principles like accountability, determined through the data set of aggregate standardized test scores. Further, de-regulation will make schools more innovative and teachers will be motivated with financial incentives to work harder to raise scores. The other part of the theory is support for privatization.  When they talk about privatization of public schools, a lot of Democrats have tried to avoid offending either side—feeling safe if they can slice and dice: Tuition vouchers for private and religious schools are off limits, but it is OK to be for schools operated under charter by unregulated private contractors because the charter schools are publicly funded.

This week, striking teachers in Los Angeles have undertaken to challenge what has for too long been a bipartisan consensus supporting neoliberal education reform.  Members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles have set out to expose what school privatization has done to their schools by eating up so much money their public school district can no longer afford to protect decent class size.

Jeff Bryant captures the political irony in our confused understanding of the implications of charter school growth in the lede to his fine new analysis of the Los Angeles teachers’ strike: “This week, Republican lawmakers held a press conference on Capitol Hill to kick off National School Choice Week, an annual event that began in 2011 under President Obama, who proclaimed it as a time to ‘recognize the role of public charter schools play in providing America’s daughters and sons with a chance to reach their fullest potential.’ This year, Democratic lawmakers took a pass on the celebration. You can thank striking teachers for that.”

For The Intercept, Rachel Cohen describes the significance the Los Angeles strike as Democrats are being forced to notice that problems with charter schools are being increasingly documented: “But perhaps more notably, the teachers are also striking against school privatization. In December, the union called for a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.  Los Angeles has 224 charter schools, more than any other city in the country… The centrality of opposition to charter school growth in the LA protests has put many Democrats in an uncomfortable position. The Democratic Party has long straddled an awkward political balancing act between the charter school and labor movements, which both fund Democratic candidates, but war with each other. Today with people across the country focused on the LA teachers, most Democratic lawmakers have stayed silent, and even those who have weighed in have mostly avoided commenting on the union’s opposition to charter school growth.”

Prominent Democrats who have supported charter schools include not only President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, but also Bill and Hillary Clinton, and some candidates today considering running for President in 2020, including most prominently New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. For the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss explains, “Duncan and Democratic supporters, including the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, got behind charters and the people who wanted to expand them. Democratic hedge fund operators and Democratic philanthropists, including Bill Gates, collectively donated billions of dollars to the cause. Billionaire Eli Broad, who has long held allegiance to the Democratic Party, was the prime mover behind a 2015 plan that would have transformed the Los Angeles school district and would have led to nearly half of its students being enrolled in charters… In California, the very Democratic Jerry Brown opened two charter schools when he was mayor of Oakland and, as governor, opposed serious efforts to strengthen oversight.”  Strauss adds, however, that the public may be rethinking support: “Two Democrats ran last year for superintendent of public instruction (in California). One was backed by charter school supporters. The other wasn’t. The one who wasn’t, Tony Thurmond, won, although his opponent, Marshall Tuck, raised a lot more money.”

Charter schools are now over twenty years old.  While support for charter schools has enjoyed bipartisan cachet, a wide body of academic research has increasingly demonstrated problems.  In New Jersey,  Rutgers professor Julia Sass Rubin and Mark Weber document that charter schools draw away public money at the same time they strand public school districts with the cost of educating the students with the greatest needs: “New Jersey charter schools enroll a fundamentally different student population than the districts where their students reside: New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. The special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have less costly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools…  (M)any charter schools continue to enroll fewer at-risk students than their sending district public schools.”

Major studies also document that diversion of public school funding to privatized charter schools is fiscally devastating for the public school districts where the charters are located.  While the Los Angeles Unified School District is not among the California school districts studied in a report earlier this year, political economist Gordon Lafer analyzed the impact of charter schools in several other school districts in California:  “In 2016-17, charter schools led to a net fiscal shortfall of $57.3 million for the Oakland Unified School District, $65.9 million for the San Diego Unified School District, and $19.3 million for Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District. The California Charter School Act currently doesn’t allow school boards to consider how a proposed charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter school, their pro-rated share of funding leaves with them, while the district remains responsible for many costs that those funds had supported. This intensifies fiscal pressure to cut core services like counseling, libraries, and special education, and increase class sizes at neighborhood schools.” Lafer’s report confirms the findings of earlier academic research by Rutgers’ school finance expert, Bruce Baker, and researchers at Roosevelt University in Chicago—that charter schools operate as parasites sucking the life from their host public school districts.

The late British historian Tony Judt described the emergence of a neoliberal consensus in Britain and the United States in the book he published shortly before his death in 2010, Ill Fares the Land: “(I)f 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 and, in particular, the cult of privatization… What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage.”  After demonstrating that privatization has not improved the efficiency of the institutions which have been privatized, and showing that all of the formerly public institutions were “inherently the sort of activity that someone has to regulate—that is why they ended up in public hands in the first place,” Judt describes the loss of the understanding of the meaning of “the public”: “The result is an eviscerated society.  From the point of view of the person at the bottom… it is no longer to the state, the administration or the government that he or she instinctively turns. The service or benefit in question is now often ‘delivered’ by a private intermediary.  As a consequence, the thick mesh of social interactions and public goods has been reduced to a minimum…. Governments that are too weak or discredited to act through their citizens are more likely to seek their ends by other means: by exhorting, cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them. The loss of social purpose articulated through public services actually increases the unrestrained powers of the over-mighty state.” (Ill Fares the Land, pp 107-119) (Emphasis in the original.)

In an article last spring about the meaning of the teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other states, a commentary that directly speaks to the current Los Angeles teachers’ strike, Henry Giroux agrees with Tony Judt: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life.  They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy. Moreover, they symbolize the centrality of education as a right and public good whose mission is to enable young people to exercise those modes of leadership and governance in which ‘they can become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.‘ Rejecting the idea that education is a commodity to be bought and sold, teachers and students across the country are reclaiming education as a public good and a human right, a protective space that should be free of violence and open to critical teaching and learning.”

This blog has previously covered the Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike here and here.