Benjamin Barber is a political philosopher, and his observations are usually pretty abstract, which is why is it so fascinating to observe what his words mean in the real life drama of everyday politics—a drama that turned to tragedy this week in the Ohio legislature as the bill to regulate charter schools and their sponsor-authorizers collapsed and went on life support, though it hasn’t quite died.
Consider Barber’s reflection on the way privatization undermines the common good: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power…. 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….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)
Here is what happened earlier this week as Ohio’s public governing body left on break before reigning in the for-profit, privatized charter management sector, according to Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter: “The Ohio House will head off on summer break without voting on the new accountability and financial reporting rules for Ohio’s $1 billion charter school industry that have been in the works for months. House leaders skipped a vote on the package late last week and have left it off the schedule for Tuesday, the last session before leaving for recess. Brittany Warner, spokesperson for Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, confirmed today that there will be no vote before break… Warner said that leaders want more time to study some of the changes and that differences between the House and Senate versions should be sorted out in a conference between leaders of both houses.” O’Donnell concludes: “Republican leaders say the delay is to clear up some issues with the just-revised bill. Others call it an attempt to buy time to water down the bill to please charter school operators who donate to Republican candidates.”
Here is the meaning of the delay, according to an e-mail on Monday afternoon from Stephen Dyer, former member of the Ohio House and former reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal: “It looks like the Ohio House won’t take up the charter reform package that cleared the Ohio Senate last week before the end of business tomorrow (Tuesday). So now, it’s being slow walked, which means at best we wait until mid-July…. We know that the powerful Ohio poor performing charter operator lobby would love for both chambers to bog this bill down so nothing changes.”
The Plain Dealer’s report quotes the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. Teresa Fedor, who is more blunt: “They never will call a vote, which means the tax dollars will continue on the ripoff train.”
Charter schools have always been conceptualized, to use Benjamin Barber’s language, around “the lure of private liberty and particular interest.” They were designed to be free of the regulations (described as the constraints of bureaucracy) that, some believe, limit innovation in the traditional public schools that are held to particular standards and required to provide sufficient and appropriate services for all kinds of children. The idea was to free up charters, and Ohio did just that, so much so that even charter advocacy organizations have condemned the academic malpractice and financial malfeasance that have been documented again and again.
Last December the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a study of the academic effectiveness of Ohio’s charters (as measured by standardized test scores). CREDO has been a charter supporter, but its Ohio report is scathing: “First, recent efforts across Ohio to improve the quality of charter school performance are only dimly discernible in the analysis. Overall performance trends are marginally positive, but the gains that Ohio charter school students receive even in the most recent periods studied still lag the progress of their traditional public school peers… Despite exemplars of strong results, over 40 percent of Ohio charter schools are in urgent need of improvement: they both post smaller student academic gains each year and their overall achievement levels are below the average for the state. If their current performance is permitted to continue, the students enrolled in these schools will fall even further behind over time.” “Compared to the educational gains that charter students would have had in a traditional public school, the analysis shows on average that the students in Ohio charter schools perform worse in both reading and mathematics.”
Margaret Raymond, director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), followed up by coming to speak at the Cleveland City Club, where she announced that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”
The legislation that the Ohio House declined to vote on this week was already so watered down that it would have addressed only a few of the most serious academic and financial problems across Ohio’s charter sector. Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch explains that last week the Senate did add provisions to strengthen transparency and oversight: “Key Senate additions… include giving the Department of Education more effective authority to oversee charter school sponsors, more transparency of operator spending, and a stronger provision aimed at preventing sponsor hopping, where a poor-performing school quickly seeks to re-open under a new sponsor to avoid being closed… The bill also seeks to improve the way the state evaluates charter sponsors, nix the potential conflicts of interest that exist between schools and sponsors, and provide more assurance that sponsors are actually spending state money on their school oversight role. New additions also would require online e-schools to keep more accurate attendance records, implement annual sponsor ratings with consequences for low scores, and establish stronger contracts between the state and the sponsors.”
Here, however, is some of what Ohio’s legislature entirely neglected to address—even in the proposed legislation that has now been hopelessly delayed. Doug Livingston, in the Akron Beacon Journal, reported last week that the state, “has removed all test scores for online and computer-based dropout recovery high schools when grading sponsors. These are the lowest-performing types of charter schools… Though there are only 24 online schools among the more than 380 charter schools in Ohio, they receive nearly one in three state dollars set aside for charter schools, or $267 million… The two largest—the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and Ohio Virtual Academy—received $185 million in state funding… Two are run by influential for-profit companies: White Hat Management, which operates Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy founded by Akron industrialist David Brennan; and Altair Learning, which operates ECOT and is owned by Bill Lager. Brennan and Lager have given more than $1.4 million in political contributions to state lawmakers since 2009…. In addition to his online school, Brennan’s Life Skills dropout recovery schools also are not included—at least this year—in sponsor ratings.”
It is worth noting that Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder—when he was term-limited out in January of this year and revolved directly into a lobbying job—took on a very powerful and influential client: William Lager and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.
Ohio is the exemplar of Benjamin Barber’s critique: “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 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….”