What Will It Mean if Trump Extends the Privatization of Public Education?

In the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch asks: When Public Goes Private (in Education), as Trump Wants: What Happens?

Privatization of our schools is not new, but many of its promoters have been obscuring its growth over the past two decades by calling it something different: “For the past fifteen years, the nation’s public schools have been a prime target for privatization. Unbeknownst to the public, those who would privatize the public schools call themselves ‘reformers’ to disguise their goal. Who could be opposed to ‘reform’? These days, those who call themselves ‘education reformers’ are likely to be hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires, not educators. The ‘reform’ movement loudly proclaims the failure of American public education and seeks to turn public dollars over to entrepreneurs, corporate chains, mom-and-pop operations, religious organizations, and almost anyone else who wants to open a school.”

Why have people been so anxious to undermine the institution, historically unique to the United States, of a system of publicly operated, publicly owned, publicly regulated schools designed to serve all of the nation’s children?  “The motives for the privatization movement are various. Some privatizers have an ideological commitment to free-market capitalism; they decry public schools as ‘government schools,’ hobbled by unions and bureaucracy. Some are certain that schools need to be run like businesses, and that people with business experience can manage schools far better than educators. Others have a profit motive, and they hope to make money in the burgeoning ‘education industry.’ The adherents of the business approach oppose unions and tenure, preferring employees without any adequate job protection and merit pay tied to test scores. They never say, ‘We want to privatize public schools.’ They say, ‘We want to save poor children from failing schools.’  Therefore, ‘We must open privately managed charter schools to give children a choice,’ and ‘We must provide vouchers so that poor families can escape the public schools.'”

Ravitch is an education historian, and her story of the growth of privatization under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama—a trend President-elect Donald Trump has promised to swell—captures the essential elements of what has happened: “The privatization movement has a powerful lobby to advance its cause. Most of those who support privatization are political conservatives.  Right-wing think tanks regularly produce glowing accounts of charter schools and vouchers along with glowing reports about their success. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing organization funded by major corporations and composed of two thousand or so state legislators, drafts model charter school legislation, which its members introduce in their state legislatures… If the privatization movement were confined to Republicans, there might be a vigorous political debate about the wisdom of privatizing the nation’s public schools. But the Obama administration has been just as enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools as the Republicans. In 2009, its own education reform program, Race to the Top, offered a prize of $4.35 billion that states could compete for. In order to be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low scores. In response to the prodding of the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools.”

Ravitch lists some of the powerful hedge-fund-backed organizations that lobby for the spread of charter schools—Democrats for Education Reform and Families for Excellent Schools.  And she implicates the role of philanthropy in subsidizing the privatization of education: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, the Bloomberg Family Foundation, the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Fisher Family Foundation, Reed Hastings  of Netflix, Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma that makes Oxycontin, and Michigan’s Dick and Betsy DeVos who made their fortune through Amway.

Ravitch’s piece is a book review of Samuel Abrams’ Education and the Commercial Mindset and Mercedes Schneider’s School Choice: The End of Public Education? These are important books, and I urge you to read Ravitch’s piece as a book review.

But the importance of this article is as an excellent, brief, historical summary of the privatization of education—interesting for all readers, but of particular value for the general reader who has not become deeply immersed in the issues of today’s education war.  The summary is accurate, and Ravitch is very clear about what is at stake.  She describes a resolution passed in October by the NAACP, “which called for a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, until they stop expelling the students that pubic schools are required to educate, until they stop segregating the highest-performing students from others, and until ‘public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.'”

Ravitch concludes: “(T)here is no evidence for the superiority of privatization in education… When there is a public school system, citizens are obligated to pay taxes to support the education of all children in the community… We invest in public education because it is an investment in the future of society… Whatever its faults, the public school system is a hallmark of democracy, doors open to all.  It is an essential part of the common good. It must be improved for all who attend and paid for by all.  Privatizing portions of it, as Trump wants, will undermine public support and will provide neither equity nor better education.”

Arne Duncan, Social Entrepreneur, Led U.S. Dept. of Education on Long Detour

Even though Arne Duncan has left Washington and John King now heads up the U.S. Department of Education, I have continued to puzzle about exactly what went haywire on a deep level during the seven years of Duncan’s tenure. When I learned last week that Duncan has taken a new job—opening a Chicago office for the Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ philanthropy—and that Duncan will, according to Emma Brown of the Washington Post, be supporting “entrepreneurs who can provide jobs in neglected neighborhoods and… (creating and expanding) training programs that equip young people with skills they need to get those jobs,” I began to think about Duncan in the context of social entrepreneurship.

I know the idea of social entrepreneurship is trendy right now, but because I was unable precisely to define it for myself, I went to the library and checked out David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.  After all, a blurb on the cover from a NY Times review says it is “A bible in the field.”  Social entrepreneurship is best known in a global sense—the Grameen Bank and all those NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are registered with the United Nations.  Bornstein writes, “Historically, these organizations have been defined in the negative—as nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations.  Today they are understood to comprise a new ‘sector,’ variously dubbed the ‘independent sector,’ ‘nonprofit sector,’ ‘third sector,’ or, the term favored in this book, the ‘citizen sector.’ (pp 4-5)

Bornstein explains that social entrepreneurs bring characteristics of business and competition into the way “the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralized decision making and top-down, usually governmental, institutions. It has been managed a little like a planned economy.”  But, continues Bornstein, governments are often not ideal: “As in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, and lots of energy and time.  It is the kind of work that flourishes to the extent that society successfully harnesses and nurtures the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens… One of the essential differences between a planned and a market economy is the role of competition.  In the past, citizen sector organizations have been insulated from the forces of head-to-head competition.  However, as the sector continues to attract talent, competition is likely to intensify—particularly as social entrepreneurs seek to ‘capture’ the benefits of their innovations and as funders, journalists, and citizens come to demand better performance.”(p. 276)

Finally, Bornstein adds, “Historically, religious organizations and wealthy patrons were responsible for the delivery of social goods.  However, the rapid economic growth of the past two centuries allowed governments to tax private wealth to finance public goods—canals, schools, mental institutions, rural electrification, and the like.  With the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century, the fulfillment of social needs came to be seen not only as the government’s responsibility, but one of its primary operational functions.  Government, however, remained insulated from the pressures and incentives that forced businesses to continually improve their products.” (p. 274)

We can see that, as Bornstein defines it, social entrepreneurship imports the values of business into what he calls the social sector.  He castigates government as top-down and abjures centralized decision making and the engine of a planned economy.  A society of social entrepreneurs will harness the wide-ranging talents and fierce determination of millions of citizens, create new models, inspire new ideas, vision and innovation, and hone it all through competition.

Because, as Bornstein reminds us, historically, religious organizations took care of many social needs (including education, the area with which Arne Duncan was most involved as U.S. Secretary of Education), let’s consider a respected religious leader’s understanding of the roles of charity and government for providing such services—the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York’s Riverside Church: “Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always; but never as a substitute for justice.” (Credo, p. 56)

While Bornstein emphasizes the very American value of the power of the individual, government is the ultimate institutional expression of the collective in a democratic society and the essential institution for protecting the rights of citizens.  As the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan presided over a federal department historically designed to distribute Title I funds for supplying at least a measure of equity in our nation’s poorest schools, to regulate and fund services for children with special needs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to provide support for the nation’s school teachers through Title II, to oversee the protection of students’ civil rights, and a host of other functions.  Yet Duncan’s primary contribution was spawning a massive experiment in social entrepreneurship.  One example was the rapid expansion of charter schools launched by social entrepreneurs.  A serious problem with charters as a solution to America’s primary education challenges is the enormous mismatch in scale. Public schools in the United States serve 50 million children and adolescents, but, according to the National Charter School Resource Center, “As of the start of the 2015-16 school year, there are 6,723 charter schools in the United States.”

And what about diverting millions of dollars to Teach for America, a relatively small experiment in social entrepreneurship? Teach for America is supplying  8,800 active teachers in schools across 35 states this year, compared to 3.5 million teachers serving the nation’s public schools. According to a recent post by Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education… (gave) Teach for America hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone….”   What if that money had been spent on a new federal program to provide incentives to attract the most experienced teachers to work in the public schools of cities like Gary and Flint?  What if the money had been spent instead on reducing class size by hiring additional public school teachers in Newark and Oakland?  In his book on social entrepreneurship, Bornstein describes the goal of harnessing and nurturing the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens.  How better to do this in the United States than by supporting the efforts of our nation’s 3.5 million credentialed public school teachers?

What about government’s regulatory function?  Only government has the capacity to protect the investment of taxpayers.  And surely the federal government is responsible for ensuring that public schools and the specific programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education serve the needs and protect the rights of the nation’s children.  Here are just two examples of the regulatory failure that was a hallmark of Duncan’s Department of Education.

  • In June of 2015,  the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cited a 2012 audit by the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG)  that “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.  The OIG’s 2012 audit discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.”  The Alliance’s report explains that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement did not maintain records of the charter schools funded through grants to states and lacked internal controls and adequate training in fiscal and program monitoring.
  • In the fall of 2015, the federal Charter Schools Program awarded a grant of $71 million to Ohio to expand charter schools. The grant was put on hold only after Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and newspapers across the state demanded that the U.S. Department of Education insist that Ohio do a better job of regulating its charter schools before the U.S. Department of Education spends millions of dollars expanding what has been a mismanaged and unregulated program.

What about the Department’s failure to invest in expanding the essential, but chronically underfunded, public school programs that are the very reason for the existence of the U.S. Department of Education—Duncan’s failure to run government itself with vision? Under Arne Duncan, funds were diverted from the Title I formula to the competitive Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant programs.  While Title I awards funds by formula for educational enrichment in schools that serve a large number and high concentration of very poor children, Duncan’s competitive grant programs diverted money to states with winning grant proposals, reducing funds available to schools serving poor children in states that lost the competition. And too often, because one-time grants cannot be used to hire long-term teachers, the funds were spent on consultants.

It is surely a very good thing for Arne Duncan to take a job as a social entrepreneur with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. Emma Brown reports that he “hopes that creating new pathways to jobs will help stem the violence that has wracked Chicago, especially its impoverished neighborhoods on the West and South sides.”  He is reported to have told the Washington Post, “The thesis is, if we can help young men and women get real skills that will lead to real jobs and pay them to gain those skills, then you give them a reason to not sell drugs and not get caught in the violence.”  I wish him well in this endeavor as he returns to Chicago.

The problem is that during his stint as U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan thought about policy as though he were a social entrepreneur instead of using the power at his disposal to ensure that government could fulfill its most basic obligations. There is a role in our society for social entrepreneurs.  There is also a desperate need for well functioning government.  In Fire in the Ashes, a retrospective book about his years’ writing about children and schools, Jonathan Kozol affirms the need for charity at the same time he distinguishes the purpose of charity from the role of government: “Charity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education… The public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give every child the feast of learning…. Charity and chance… are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” (p. 304)

New York’s Alliance for Quality Education Urges Cuomo to Invest in Public School Equity

These days, by blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, and pushing privatization, politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the very real problems that affect achievement at school—problems of child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in state budgets.   This situation is widespread across the states—in Pennsylvania—in New Jersey—in Michigan—in Ohio—in Wisconsin—in Kansas—in Florida—in Georgia.

But nowhere is it more evident than New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat beholden to Wall Street hedge fund interests, has been attacking school teachers, teachers unions, and “government monopoly” schools.  In late October at a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, Cuomo pledged, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies—and that’s what this is.  It’s a public monopoly.”  The key is to institute “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”  He also made a commitment to increase the use of incentives and sanctions to make teacher evaluation more rigorous.

In his State of the State address today Governor Cuomo, who just won a second term as Governor, is scheduled formally to announce his priorities for 2015, including his plans for public education.  Here is how the NY Times describes the lead-up to Cuomo’s scheduled speech: “In speeches, interviews and a letter over the last few weeks, the governor has said that he thinks New York State’s teacher grading system, only in its third year, is too easy to pass, making it too difficult to fire underperforming teachers. He has suggested that a current limit on the number of charter schools needs to be raised or eliminated. He has also expressed support for a tax credit for people and companies donating money to public schools and private school scholarships.  All of those positions are opposed by the teachers’ unions, and they, along with advocates of charter schools and other groups that back those changes, have already committed hundreds of thousands of dollars this month to television advertisements in New York City and Albany, leading up to Mr. Cuomo’s State of the State speech….”

Last week the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), in collaboration with the Public Policy and Education Fund, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Opportunity Action, released Record Setting Inequality: New York State’s Opportunity Gap is Wider than Ever, a report that accuses Governor Cuomo, through the budgets he has signed, of widening the gap in investment between wealthy and poor school districts, despite a promise at the beginning of his first term to make school funding more equitable.

AQE reports that as the centerpiece of the remedy in a 2006 ruling in the school funding equity lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs. New York (CFE), the state agreed to add $5.5 billion in new Foundation Aid over the next four years.  The state honored its commitment in  2007 and 2008 but between 2009 and 2013,  the state froze funding and cut school aid.  Inadequate state budgets resulted in the loss of almost 40,000 educators and other staff and in widespread reductions in curricular offerings in New York’s poorest school districts.

While as a candidate in October of 2010, Cuomo declared, “I think the inequity in education is probably the civil rights issue of our time.  There are two education systems in this state. Not public private. One for the rich and one for the poor and they are both public systems.”  Despite these words, according to the new AQE report, during Governor Cuomo’s first two years in office the gap in spending between poor and wealthy school districts, “shot up from $8,024 per pupil to $8,733 per pupil. The gap of $8,733 per pupil is the largest educational inequality gap in New York State history.  Tragically the money that was promised in 2007 to keep closing this gap was only delivered for two years and then Governor Cuomo led the legislature to stop funding CFE and the gap widened again.”

Examining one measure of unequal outcomes for students in poor and wealthy districts, AQE tracks high school graduation and notes that from 2005 to 2014, the disparity in graduation rates between the poorest and the wealthiest school districts has hovered consistently between 25 percent and 27 percent. AQE declares, “While there are many factors that contribute to unequal outcomes—particularly the contrasting impacts of poverty and wealth on every aspect of children’s lives—educational resources are the essential ingredients schools provide to close the gap in educational outcomes.  These resources include pre-kindergarten, smaller class sizes, a rigorous curriculum including art, music and physical education as well as core academic subjects and advanced courses, mentoring and supports to strengthen teachers, programs for English language learners, and social, emotional and health supports to meet the diverse needs of students.”

AQE recommends that Governor Cuomo and the state of New York improve public schools through five measures: fulfill the commitment to universal full-day pre-kindergarten; make a serious commitment to community schools; focus on high quality curriculum for all students, not testing; meet the needs of English language learners; and close the inequality gap by fully funding schools. The report concludes: “New York’s wealthiest districts are able to offer tremendous curricula with course offerings that include Tournament Debate, Advanced Placement Art History, Advanced Placement Chinese, Computer Integrated Manufacturing, Wall Street: How to Become a Millionaire, and Personal Law (complete with mock trials).  These same districts often offer dozens of options in arts, music and performing arts.  Meanwhile students in poor communities are fortunate to have a few options for AP courses, are lucky to have more than one foreign language offered, and have seen cutbacks in their limited offerings of art, music, and high school electives.”

The battle over educational equity in New York is a microcosm of what is happening across many states and at the federal level as Congress debates a strategy to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.  In New York the battle lines are clearly drawn. Should our society strengthen opportunity by investing in improving the public schools that continue to serve the vast majority of our children?  Or should we pretend, as Governor Cuomo seems to do, that we can base education policy on making tougher the evaluation of teachers and creating more charter schools so that some children can escape?

Fight Heats Up in New York Over Politically Connected Charter Schools

I wonder if you have ever been to a hearing at your state capitol when the charter school lobbying armies come to town?  I have, and I must say I found it very intimidating to testify in a room where I was one of only half-a-dozen people speaking for public school funding among hundreds wearing matched t-shirts and trying to protect their particular charter. Can you imagine what people would say about the waste of tax dollars if a public school district closed school for the day and bused all the parents, children, teachers, and school administrators to storm the legislature?

That is what Eva Moskowitz, the proprietor of the Success Academy Charter  Schools did on Tuesday in New York.  The NY Times reports that Moskowitz closed 22 of her schools for the day so that children and parents could be transported to Albany.  Moskowitz was well connected during the Bloomberg era.  The new Mayor, Bill deBlasio, has accused Moskowitz of manipulating NYC politics to deprive the 1.1 million children in New York City’s public schools of funds intended for the public system.  Moskowitz’s $475,000 annual salary is more than double the salary of the school district’s chancellor.

Mayor deBlasio has openly challenged Moskowitz’s power.  “And another thing that has to change starting January is that Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place,” the NY Times quotes deBlasio as having announced at a rally last year.  “I have had a lot of contact with Eva over the years and this is documented.  She was giving the orders and chancellors were bowing down and agreed.  That’s not acceptable.”

The new mayor campaigned on the promise that under his watch the city would stop giving well-heeled charter schools free rent when charters co-locate in buildings that house the city’s traditional public schools.  And last week, while deBlasio and his new chancellor of schools, Carmen Farina, approved several of Moskowitz’s schools for next fall, they denied Moskowitz the right to open three schools because these particular plans would co-locate children in the primary grades into spaces in high schools where Farina believes safety issues could arise or would displace programs for children with special needs.

Moskowitz has been able to manipulate political power on behalf of her charter schools for some time.  For example, back in the summer of 2012, the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Committee granted a 50 percent increase in the tax-generated per-pupil management fee to Success Academy Charter Schools despite that the Success Network had posted a year-end surplus of $23.5 million and spent nearly $883,119 on publicity and student recruitment in the last year including fees of $243,150 to SKD Knickerbocker, a New York pubic relations firm, and $129,000 to a Washington, D.C. consulting firm.  Moskowitz’s well funded schools have resulted in bitterness among parents in the traditional schools where the charters have been co-located, because the public schools lack money to purchase the kind of equipment and programming Moskowitz’s schools provide—right in neighboring classrooms.

Serious questions have been raised over the years about attrition at Moskowitz’s Success Academies as one reason the schools have been able to post high test scores.  It is suspected that children who struggle are being counseled out of school as they move toward the upper grades.  What is known is that the Success Academies serve fewer students with special needs and children learning English.  The NY Times reports that Chancellor Farina recently raised these concerns: “Chancellor Farina said on Tuesday that while some charter schools ‘do great work’ in helping children with special needs, or those with limited English proficiency, Ms. Moskowitz  ‘makes it clear these are kids she cannot help, necessarily, because she doesn’t have the resources for them.'”

Eva Moskowitz clearly has one prominent supporter.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo showed up at Moskowitz’s Albany rally where he is reported to have declared, “We are here today to tell you that we stand with you.  You are not alone.  We will save charter schools.”

Mayor deBlasio attended another Albany rally instead, a rally of supporters for his proposal for universal pre-kindergarten for all of New York City’s children and for after school programs for pre-adolescents in the city’s middle schools. Governor Cuomo was not in attendance at this rally.

New Ravitch Book to Be Released September 17; The Progressive Launches Public School Shakedown Website Now

Diane Ravitch’s new book will be released on September 17.  Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, published by Knopf, will dispel the myths of the school reform movement, connect the dots in today’s very confusing school reform conversation filled with rhetoric and Orwellian language, and suggest what needs to be changed to improve the lives of our poorest children and preserve public education as an essential social institution.

Ravitch will be on the speaking circuit this fall.  Here is the itinerary and schedule she has sent out.  If she comes to your town, I assure you the lecture will be worth hearing.

In conjunction with the release of Ravitch’s book, The Progressive has launched a new website, Public School Shakedown to expose “the behind-the-scenes effort to privatize public schools and connect public school activists nationwide.”

The Progressive has announced, “On our brand new web site, www.publicschoolshakedown.org, we are pulling together education experts, activists, bloggers, and concerned citizens around the country…  Teachers understand that the attack on public education is an attack on the very heart of our democracy. Yet the “school choice” movement has succeeded in setting the terms of the conversation. To the layperson, “school choice” and “education reform” sound like benign policy goals that aim to improve children’s access to high-quality education. The time is right for a journalistic platform like The Progressive to put the pieces together.”

I urge you to read Reign of Error and also add the Public School Shakedown website to your favorites and check it regularly.