Donald Trump Exemplifies Plutocratic Populism Run Amok: the Implications for All of Us

The United States has become a textbook case, and I don’t mean merely a textbook case of pandemic denial, although that is also true.  Last July, two political science professors, Jacob Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson from the University of California at Berkeley, published a thorough analysis of the politics of today’s Republican Party. They explain that President Donald Trump is a mere symptom of what the Republican Party has become.

In Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson define “plutocratic populism.” They preview what we subsequently watched through the fall’s presidential election campaign, and what we were still observing this past weekend in Washington, D.C. as Donald Trump’s bullies paraded en masse, ending in a violent melee.  Here are Hacker and Pierson on the rise of Republican plutocratic populism over recent decades:

“As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged. Encouraging white backlash and anti-government extremism, the party outsourced voter mobilization to a set of aggressive and narrow groups: the National Rifle Association, the organized Christian right, the burgeoning industry of right-wing media. When and where that proved insufficient, it adopted a ruthless focus on altering electoral rules, maximizing the sway of its base and minimizing the influence of the rest of the electorate through a variety of anti-democratic tactics, from voter disenfranchisement to extreme partisan gerrymandering to laws and practices opening the floodgates to big money. And more and more, it coupled this vote rigging with even more extreme strategies to undermine the checks and balances in our system, weakening democratic accountability and strengthening the ability of powerful minorities to dictate policy. In short, Republicans used white identity to defend wealth inequality. They undermined democracy to uphold plutocracy.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4)

Hacker and Pierson explain what they call the Conservative Dilemma: “(T)his is the essence of the Conservative Dilemma: Conservative parties want to stand up for the rich when writing laws, even as the rich are increasingly outnumbered when votes are cast.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 113)  “Scholars… have long seen extreme inequality as a threat to democracy. This threat takes three forms. The first is unequal power. As Frederick Douglass famously observed, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”… The second threat extreme inequality poses is diverging interests. Democracy rests on the notion that even in large and diverse societies where fundamental disagreements are inevitable, most citizens will come to have reconcilable economic interests… The third and final threat is elite fear. There are always going to be very considerable tensions between rich and poor. A widening chasm between the interests of the wealthy and those of the less fortunate encourages the privileged to view democracy itself as a danger to their wealth and status.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 19-20) (Emphasis is mine.)

Finally: “We use ‘Conservative Dilemma’ more specifically to describe the tension facing conservative parties. A century ago, in all countries with expanding franchises, conservative parties struggled to maintain their historical defense of elite privilege in the face of electoral challenges from the masses. When suffrage was restricted, conservative parties could ignore the massive gap between the rich and the rest. But this became a losing game once the working class gained the vote. Relatively quickly, conservative parties found themselves caught between a commitment to economic elites and an expanding electorate. How, they were forced to ask themselves, do we reconcile the needs of our core constituency with the need to win elections? … Inevitably, conservative parties found they had to offer something else to voters. Outflanked on the left on economic issues, their survival depended on introducing or highlighting other social divisions… In modern societies, the list of such ‘cleavages’ is short, and their history unpleasant. There are racial, ethnic and religions divisions. There is the call of nationalism or foreign military adventures. There are sectional loyalties. There is opposition to immigration. In short, there is a set of non-economic issues—many racially tinged, all involving strong identities and strong emotions—that draw a sharp line between ‘us’ and ‘them.'” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 21-22)

After mounting a fear-based election campaign based on the sort of plutocratic populism Hacker and Pierson describe—appealing to racism and white identity, promoting individual freedom from any government restraint demanding mask-wearing in a pandemic, and exploiting conspiracy theories promoted by extreme right-wing media—the President, who lost but still attracted nearly 73 million votes, continues to rage. It also appears that a conservative U.S. Senate majority is not prepared to give up protecting the privilege of economic elites at the expense of the masses whose needs continue to be ignored.  Here are three examples:

The first involves the pandemic itself as Trump and his staff have sponsored superspreader events at the White House and a mass of maskless campaign rallies that produced a surge of COVID-19 even inside the Secret Service. And a summer and autumn have passed without a second COVID-19 relief bill. The Washington Post‘s Erica Werner summarized the dilemma last week: “Congressional Democratic leaders accused Republicans on Thursday of refusing to confront the dramatically worsening coronavirus pandemic and instead acquiescing to President Trump’s false insistence that he won last week’s presidential election… As Washington has become paralyzed over the past 10 days, 1 million new people have tested positive for the virus as death numbers are climbing rapidly.  President-elect Joe Biden joined congressional Democratic leaders on Thursday and demanded a new economic relief package to address the dramatically worsening coronavirus pandemic before the end of the year… Democrats have called for a wide-ranging bill that would extend new unemployment benefits, send another round of $1,200 checks to American households, provide more small business aid, money for states and cities, and expand access to testing…. McConnell has said that third-quarter economic news showing the unemployment rate has dropped makes a case for a smaller relief package.”

The second example is a pending student loan debt crisis reported yesterday by POLITICO’s Michael Stratford: “At midnight on New Year’s Eve, President Donald Trump’s pause on student loan payments for 33 million Americans is set to expire, just three weeks before President-elect Joe Biden is slated to take over… Even though Trump said this summer that he planned to later ‘extend’ the freeze beyond Dec. 31, a White House spokesperson declined to comment on whether the president is still considering another executive action to move the expiration date… In an unusual alliance, loan industry officials are advocating alongside congressional Democrats, higher education groups, and consumer organizations, all warning that suddenly turning back on the federal government’s massive student loan apparatus—mostly frozen since March—in the midst of a presidential transition could lead to anguish for everybody involved…  Nearly 41 million federal student loan borrowers have had interest suspended on their loans since March 13…. Roughly 33 million of those borrowers have had their payments paused, and the Education Department has stopped seeking to collect from the 8 million other borrowers who were in default… House Democrats’ stimulus legislation would extend the freeze on student loan payments until next October and keep the interest rate at zero until at least that time—or longer if the unemployment rate remains high. Senate Republicans’ latest stimulus proposal did not include an extension of the benefits….”

A third example is the deep and widespread fiscal catastrophe in our nation’s public schools, a problem that grew slowly, quietly, and invisibly more serious until the Red4Ed strikes and walkouts during 2018 and 2019 taught America about the devastation of state public school budgets during the decade that followed the 2008 Great Recession, an especially serious situation in places where Tea Party legislatures had continued to cut taxes even after the recession, and as school privatization at public expense decimated state and local school budgets. From West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago, teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford—class size smaller than 37 or 40 students; enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians; fairer teachers’ salaries to enable teachers in some places even to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they are teaching; salaries to keep teachers in some states from quitting and moving to other states where salaries are higher; and salaries that would make young people interested in becoming teachers at a time when colleges and universities report fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career. Schoolteachers across striking states demanded that Americans open their eyes to the problems our collective lack of support has caused for our children.

During the campaign, President Elect Biden proposed public school policy designed to address our collective failure to support more generous services for children in the nation’s public schools.  He has especially lifted up our obligation to expand the opportunity to learn in the schools that serve children who live in poverty: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

For the first time in many years, a president elect is putting the spotlight on urgently needed investment in basic programming in the public schools that serve over 50 million children. I hope President Biden will provide leadership to to overcome the divisions that plutocratic populism has wrought: by working with Congress to address the COVID-19 health and economic crises, exerting leadership even before he takes office to encourage Congress to relieve the student debt crisis this month, and expanding learning opportunities across of our nation’s public schools.

Trump Fans Racism As He Rages Against Public High School History and Government Teachers

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump spoke at an event celebrating the anniversary of the signing of of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787.  Trump tried to turn the Constitution Day event held at the National Archives into a celebration of whitewashed American exceptionalism and an attack on how educators in our public schools teach history and government.

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit and Laura Meckler cover the speech: “Trump, speaking before original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence… characterized demonstrations against racial injustice as ‘left-wing rioting and mayhem’ that ‘are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools’… As he campaigns for reelection, Trump has repeatedly cast education that examines the nation’s failures as a betrayal, seeking to rally his base and tap into hostility toward protesters who have taken to the streets to denounce racial injustice and police brutality. His argument casts any criticism of the United States, even of slavery, as unpatriotic… Trump’s gambit seeks to turn local schools—already beset by a global pandemic and many other problems—into another front in the culture war he champions, positioning history teachers as opponents of American greatness along with kneeling football players, police misconduct protesters and racial-sensitivity trainers.”

Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa reports that on Thursday, Trump specifically attacked something called the 1619 Project, a curriculum developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the NY Times and the Pulitzer Center: “Earlier this month, he threatened to pull federal funding from schools that use the 1619 Project as a basis for classroom curriculum—however, Trump lacks the legal authority to do this. The Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits the federal government from endorsing or sanctioning schools for using a particular curriculum. On Thursday, the president also used his speech to announce that he would create the ‘1776 Commission’ that would be used to ‘promote patriotic education.’  He also announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded a grant to fund the creation of ‘a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.'”

In her blog, the education historian Diane Ravitch wonders: “Do you think he knows that federal law prohibits any federal official from interfering with curriculum or instruction in the schools?… Federal law 20 USC 1232a prohibits ‘any department, agency officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system…'”

The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John Jackson challenges Trump’s push to censor the full implications of slavery from public school history classes: “Trump… doubles down on the notion, embraced by too many, that slavery is now over, no legacy or current injustices exist, end of conversation…  In fact it is a grave threat to our democracy to ignore—and fail to correct—the systemic racism that undergirds our nation’s public policies and practices. The violence against Blacks by the police may lead the headlines today, but the full story cannot be understood without taking a 400-year view of the legacy of slavery. The violence of law enforcement today cannot be separated from the violence that enforced slavery, laws prohibiting Blacks from learning to read and write, segregation, inequitable schools that deny educational opportunities to children, as well as redlining and real estate covenants that deny housing opportunities to families. Only by understanding the full breadth of our nation’s history can we see the common threads linking the myriad crises of today.”

When the NY Times Magazine published the 1619 Project a year ago in August, Education Week‘s Madeline Will described the kind of critical thinking the group of authors hoped the materials would inspire among high school students of American history and government: “The one full lesson plan in the curriculum is based on Hannah-Jones; essay, ‘The Idea of America.’ It asks students to consider the values stated in the Declaration of Independence and how they work—and fail—in American society today.  Then, students would read the essay and consider their own prior knowledge of slavery and the contributions of black Americans to U.S. society… There’s a list of questions for students to discuss in class, including: What did you learn about major figures in U.S. history, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and why do you think this information wasn’t included in other historical resources?  Other activities to engage students include creating a new timeline of U.S. history, starting with the year 1619 (the year the first slaves were sold by pirates to American colonists), and creating an infographic that visualizes racial inequity in the United States and its links to slavery.”

I urge you to read Hannah-Jones essay, The Idea of America, for a fascinating exploration of the origins of slavery, its history, the role of Reconstruction and its replacement by Jim Crow. Hannah-Jones challenges assumptions at the core of our national mythology, but her essay’s purpose is constructive and patriotic: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’  But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.  Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”

Not only is it fascinating to explore Hannah-Jones’ article that drives the 1619 Project, but it is essential to consider why, as we move closer to the November election and as his desperation grows, President Trump is so belligerently fanning the flames of racism.  We can turn to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, academics who just published a new book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality , on today’s political climate. In the deliberate tone one might expect from two professors in a Political Science 101 class, Hacker and Pierson explicate why Trump is alleging, without any reference to the facts, that America’s public schools are undermining white America:

“We see a political system in which a once-moderate party now tightly orbits the most reactionary elements of America’s emergent plutocracy. And we see a political system in which, despite that party’s embrace of unpopular economic policies, tens of millions of Americans of modest means don’t just vote for that party but have become increasingly tribal in their loyalty to it. (p. 3) “As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.” (p. 4) “What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies for reaching… voters is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize… This fateful turn toward tribalism, with its reliance on racial animus and continual ratcheting up of fear, greatly expanded the opportunities to serve the plutocrats.” (p. 117) (All citations are to Let Them Eat Tweets).

American Plutocracy and The So-Called Objective Media

For ten years Jacob Hacker, the Yale political scientist, and Paul Pierson, the Berkeley political scientist, have been tracking exploding economic inequality in the United States. In this summer’s book, Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson explicitly identify our government as a plutocracy.  And they track how politicians (with the help of right-wing media) shape a populist, racist, gun-toting, religious fundamentalist story line to distract the public from a government that exclusively serves the wealthy.  In a new article published in the Columbia Journalism Review, Journalism’s Gates Keepers, Tim Schwab examines our plutocracy from a different point of view: How is the mainstream media, the institution most of us look to for objective news, shaped increasingly by philanthropists stepping in to fill the funding gaps as newspapers go broke and news organizations consolidate?

In their 2010 classic, Winner-Take-All Politics, Hacker and Pierson present “three big clues” pointing to the tilt of our economy to winner-take-all: “(1) Hyperconcentration of Income… The first clue is that the gains of the winner-take-all economy, befitting its name, have been extraordinarily concentrated. Though economic gaps have grown across the board, the big action is at the top, especially the very top… (2) Sustained Hyperconcentration… The shift of income toward the top has been sustained increasingly steadily (and, by historical standards, extremely rapidly) since 1980… (3) Limited Benefits for the Nonrich… In an era in which those at the top reaped massive gains, the economy stopped working for middle-and working-class Americans.”  Winner-Take-All Politics, pp. 15-19) (emphasis in the original)

Hacker and Pierson’s second book in the recent decade, the 2016 American Amnesia explores America’s loss of faith in government, our massive forgetting about the role of government regulation and balance in a capitalist economy: “(T)he institution that bears the greatest credit often gets short shrift: that combination of government dexterity and market nimbleness known as the mixed economy. The improvement of health, standards of living, and so much else we take for granted occurred when and where government overcame market failures, invested in the advance of science, safeguarded and supported the smooth functioning of markets, and ensured that economic gains became social gains.” (American Amnesia, p. 69)

In their new Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson no longer avoid the label. They now call America a full blown plutocracy: “This is not a book about Donald Trump. Instead, it is about an immense shift that preceded Trump’s rise, has profoundly shaped his political party and its priorities, and poses a threat to our democracy that is certain to outlast his presidency. That shift is the rise of plutocracy—government of, by, and for the rich.  Runaway inequality has remade American politics, reorienting power and policy toward corporations and the super-rich (particularly the most conservative among them)… The rise of plutocracy is the story of post-1980 American politics. Over the last forty years, the wealthiest Americans and the biggest financial and corporate interests have amassed wealth on a scale unimaginable to prior generations and without parallel in other western democracies. The richest 0.1 percent of Americans now have roughly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined. They have used that wealth—and the connections and influence that come with it—to construct a set of political organizations that are also distinctive in historical and cross-national perspective. What makes them distinctive is not just the scope of their influence, especially on the right and far right. It is also the degree to which the plutocrats, the biggest winners in our winner-take-all economy, pursue aims at odds with the broader interests of American society.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 1-2)

Let Them Eat Tweets is about American plutocracy, the growing conservatism of the GOP, and politicians’ use of racism, right wing media, the NRA, and religious fundamentalism to win elections by distracting the masses from noticing that they are benefiting not at all from America’s plutocracy.  The book is a wonderful guide to what we are all living through as we watch the evening news—the strategies underneath Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

But there is another hidden element of the power of plutocrats. Philanthropies led by the wealthy make charitable gifts which subtly shape news reporting itself.  And the subject here is not merely Fox and Breitbart and the other right-wing outlets. Tim Schwab’s important report from the Columbia Journalism Review is about one of America’s powerful plutocrats, Bill Gates. Schwab explores, “a larger trend—and ethical issue—with billionaire philanthropists’ bankrolling the news.  The Broad Foundation, whose philanthropic agenda includes promoting charter schools, at one point funded part of the LA Times‘ reporting on education. Charles Koch has made charitable donations to journalistic institutions such as the Poynter Institute, as well as to news outlets such as the Daily Caller, that support his conservative politics. And the Rockefeller Foundation funds Vox‘s Future Perfect, a reporting project that examines the world ‘through the lens of effective altruism’—often looking at philanthropy.  As philanthropists increasingly fill in the funding gaps at news organizations—a role that is almost certain to expand in the media downturn following the coronavirus pandemic—an unexamined worry is how this will affect the ways newsrooms report on their benefactors.”

Those of us who have been following public education policy over two decades know that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in policy itself—funding think tanks like the Center on Reinventing Public Education—which brought us “portfolio school reform” charter school expansion—which led to Chicago’s Renaissance 2010— which led to Arne Duncan’s bringing that strategy into federal policy in Race to the Top.  We know that the Gates Foundation funded what ended up as an expensive and failed small high schools initiative, and, after that failed—an experiment with evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores—and later experimenting with incentive bonuses for teachers who quickly “produce” higher student scores.  We remember that the Gates Foundation brought us the now fading Common Core. And we remember that Arne Duncan filled his department with staff hired directly from the Gates Foundation.

What we too often forget is that the Gates Foundation has also invested in creating a positive climate for the reception of the Foundation’s policy initiatives—a positive climate that has been uncritical until years later when the experiments failed—sometimes leaving behind millions of dollars in costs to be paid, for example by the school district in Hillsborough County, Florida, and leaving public school districts to undo complicated restructuring and restore comprehensive high schools.

Schwab shows how the Gates Foundation has been able to shape reporting on its policy experiments: “I recently examined nearly twenty thousand charitable grants the Gates Foundation had made through the end of June and found more than $250 million going toward journalism.  Recipients included news operations like the BBC, NBC, A1 Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting; charitable organizations affiliated with news outlets, like BBC Media Action and the New York Times‘ Neediest Cases Fund; media companies such as Participant, whose documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ supports Gates’s agenda on charter schools; journalistic organizations such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Press Foundation, and the International Center for Journalists; and a variety of other groups creating news content or working on journalism, such as the Leo Burnett Company, an ad agency that Gates commissioned to create a ‘news site’ to promote the success of aid groups. In some cases, recipients say they distributed part of the funding as subgrants to other journalistic organizations—which makes it difficult to see the full picture of Gates’s funding into the fourth estate.  The foundation even helped fund a 2016 report from the American Press Institute that was used to develop guidelines on how newsrooms can maintain editorial independence from philanthropic funders… Notably, the study’s underlying survey data showed that nearly a third of funders reported having seen at least some content they funded before publication.”

Schwab evaluates exactly what kind of influence Gates’ investment has purchased: “In the same way that the news media has given Gates an outsize voice in the pandemic, the foundation has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture—a level of influence that has landed Bill Gates on Forbes‘s list of the most powerful people in the world.”  “Gates’s generosity appears to have helped foster an increasingly friendly media environment for the world’s most visible charity.  Twenty years ago, journalists scrutinized Bill Gates’s initial foray into philanthropy as a vehicle to enrich his software company, or a PR exercise to salvage his battered reputation following Microsoft’s bruising antitrust battle with the Department of Justice. Today the foundation is most often the subject of soft profiles and glowing editorials describing its good works.”

Of course, the PBS NewsHour discloses Gates Foundation funding when Bill Gates is invited to comment on the coronavirus pandemic as though he is not merely a funder of world health initiatives but is instead himself a world health expert. But Schwab doesn’t believe the ubiquitous disclosure statements solve the problem: “Even perfect disclosure of Gates funding doesn’t mean the money can’t still introduce bias. At the same time, Gates funding, alone, doesn’t fully explain why so much of the news about the foundation is positive. Even news outlets with no obvious financial ties to Gates—the foundation isn’t required to publicly report all of the money it gives to journalism, making the full extent of its giving unknown—tend to report favorably on the foundation. That may be because Gates’s expansive giving over the decades has helped influence a larger media narrative about its work.  And it may also be because the news media is always, and especially right now, looking for heroes.  A larger worry is the precedent the prevailing coverage of Gates sets for how we report on the next generation of tech billionaires-turned-philanthropists, including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.”

The Washington Post appears independent and at this point seems merely to reflect its current owner’s laudable belief, proclaimed every morning on the newspaper’s masthead, that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  But we ought to consider how Jeff Bezos’s generous purchase of The Post affects our objectivity as we try to evaluate the role of AMAZON in our economy.  How is Bezos’s generosity subtly undermining our own objectivity?

In Let Them Eat Tweets, two prominent political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pearson have now explicitly identified our government as a plutocracy. Tim Schwab expands the analysis: warning about the plutocratic purchase of how we understand our world even if we shun the extremist press and get our news straight from the mainstream media.

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)

What the Washington Post’s Editorial Promoting School Privatization Neglects to Consider

In an editorial earlier this week, Fred Hiatt the editorial page director of the Washington Post, endorses marketplace school choice along with Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. Trump and DeVos are both strong supporters of private school vouchers and the rapid expansion of unregulated charter schools. Hiatt writes from the point of view of individual parents and endorses the ethos of the American Dream, the individualistic notion that school choice should not be merely the privilege of the rich who can afford to move to exclusive suburban school districts or to enroll their children in private schools.

Advocates for school choice like Hiatt propose to reward poorer parents who demonstrate gumption by searching for a school, filling out what may be a complex application, and then, in many cases providing their own transportation to a distant school or letting their children ride the subway. Embodying America’s ethos of individual success, school choice is designed to reward strivers. But such a plan also concentrates, in what quickly become schools of last resort, the children in families who are doubled up or moving from shelter to shelter and isolates these children in even poorer public schools. Are these children less worthy than the children of the parents who have the time and stability to enter the school choice marketplace?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson identifies the primary flaw in school choice: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  Marketplaces are races—competitions to see who can get a place. Races and competitions reward winners and leave the losers behind.  These days as states evaluate (and even close schools) according to the test scores their students produce, the schools themselves have an incentive to steer away (sometimes reject and sometimes quietly counsel out) students who struggle academically and children with behavior problems. It has been demonstrated again and again that in many places the charter schools that are a central part of the school choice movement, serve fewer students with serious disabilities—blindness and autism, for example—and fewer English language learners.

In cities where school choice has been in place for a while, such expensive-to-educate children have become concentrated in the traditional public schools, even as more and more money has flowed out of these districts to follow children through vouchers and to charter schools.  In Chicago and Detroit, where charters have been rapidly expanded, there is evidence that the parasite charters are killing the host school district. As schools compete for students and low scoring schools are closed, some neighborhoods in both cities have found themselves without, for example, a comprehensive high school ready to serve all the adolescents who live in the area.  For this very reason, in the November election when data were made public to demonstrate the likely fiscal impact on the Boston Public Schools of Massachusetts Question 2—the ballot issue to lift the cap on the authorization of new charter schools—the voters definitively blocked the expansion of school choice.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, explains what happens, even when the consequences are unintended: “(P)rivate choices do inevitably have social consequences and public outcomes. When these derive from purely personal preferences, the results are often socially irrational and unintended: at wide variance with the kind of society we might choose through collective deliberation and democratic decision-making.” (Consumed, p 128)

In his recent editorial, Fred Hiatt correctly identifies a serious problem with today’s de facto school choice, the byproduct of America’s explosive inequality. Parents with money—who choose the expensive private schools they can afford and wealthy exurban school districts—have driven the acceleration of income-based housing segregation across America’s metropolitan areas, with the mass of poor children concentrated in cities and inner-suburban schools while their wealthy peers grow up in exclusive enclaves. Here is Barber’s observation (describing the consequences of urban flight by the wealthy as well as their retreat to private schools): “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…. Certainly that is not what we opt for when we express our personal wants with respect to our own kids. 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)

There are a number of reasons, however, why expansion of marketplace school choice is not the solution to today’s economic and educational inequality. Charter schools were designed to be free from bureaucratic regulation and free to innovate.  Public schools, regulated by law and overseen by democratically elected boards, can be required to protect the rights of the public and the civil rights of the students. We are all familiar with the disastrous lack of regulation of charter schools in many places. In Ohio, for example, thanks to generous political contributions, the legislature has refused even to regulate attendance to ensure that the state is paying tax dollars for the students who are present at online charter schools for at least five hours per day. The state education department is set to claw back $60 million in over-payments (due to inflated attendance reporting) from  one online charter school last year alone, but the legislature has refused to crack down. The political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson bemoan our fading understanding of the role of government oversight to correct the excesses of the marketplace: “It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to the school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends. But there’s no getting around it: Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p 1)

Barber also confronts the failure of the marketplace to provide oversight on behalf of the public: “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.” (Consumed, pp 143-144)

Hacker and Pierson are explicit in defining education as a public function: “(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.” (American Amnesia, p.65).

Finally, universal public education—not a fragmented education marketplace—is important because our public schools define our society’s highest ideals. Here is John Dewey, from The School and Society in 1899: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  Public education represents our commitment to community, not merely to rugged individualism.

U.S. Department of Education Fails Utterly In Its Responsibility to Oversee Charter School Sector

On Saturday, the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown reported that Carl Paladino, a Buffalo, NY real estate developer and surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, went to the annual meeting of the Council for the Great City Schools and told the leaders of the nation’s largest school districts that a President Donald Trump, “would seek to do away with ‘corrupted, incompetent’ public school systems in America’s cities, replacing them with charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Such an approach would ‘encourage competition in the marketplace and eventually dismantle the corrupted, incompetent urban school districts that we have in America today.'” One can imagine that—while such words would impress Jeb Bush and others who love vouchers and would please Arne Duncan and our current Secretary of Education John King, who have promoted of the explosive growth of charter schools—Paladino and Trump’s market-based vision of education was poorly received in a room filled with big city school superintendents.

While we can hope that after November 8, we will not have to take seriously the threats of Donald Trump, attacks on government and prescriptions for privatization remain at the center of our political rhetoric. These days market-based education strategies dominate the public policy of both political parties.

In their recent book, American Amnesia, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker and Berkeley political scientist Paul Pierson remind us of what we have forgotten during the past forty years—the important role of government: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion… We live in an era of profound skepticism about government.  Contemporary political discourse portrays liberty and coercion as locked in ceaseless conflict.  We are told that government is about ‘redistribution’ and the private sector about ‘production,’ as if government only reshuffles the economic deck rather than holding many of the highest cards… We suffer, in short, from a kind of mass historical forgetting, a distinctively ‘American Amnesia.'” (p. 1-2)

While Hacker and Pierson’s book does not examine the history of the vast privatization of education that has expanded right along with attacks on government more generally, the lessons of this profound book speak directly to many of the problems with school choice. For example, Hacker and Pierson explain, while modern societies are complex, the market fails to inform citizens accurately and adequately: “(W)here informational demands are high, the sources of market failure grow.”  Behavioral economics has identified the problem of “consumer myopia,” a widespread inability of people to discern their own best interests—and something that the marketers of charter schools know how to manipulate as parents look for schools: “We are easily distracted by shiny objects and thus vulnerable to being ‘primed’ to attend to particular aspects of a choice situation… We are overconfident, typically expecting our own experience to be better than average… We are biased toward avoiding losses rather than achieving gains. We are very bad at assessing risks… We are prone to inertia.” (p. 81)

How should we expect government to correct for this widespread problem? “In a culture that celebrates freedom of choice, the overwhelming evidence of gigantic, systematic lapses in judgment carries uncomfortable implications… Think of a whole series of consumption choices that might be categorized as investments: in your health, in your education and skills, in your savings for retirement.  Research results are clear: On their own, citizens will underinvest in all these areas.  And this underinvestment is on top of the underinvestment that occurs because people don’t take into account the social benefits of their individual choices… (W)e need government nudges, or even firm pushes, to make sound long-term decisions. (p. 82)  Government’s role? “It’s about setting up basic rules, institutions, and policies that correct the market’s most serous failures… Moreover, government has sources of expertise (scientists, statistics, specialized agencies) that become more capable as societies become more complex. Increased complexity and interdependence make the case for a capable, informed public sector, not for letting markets alone deal with these challenges…” (p. 86)

We take for granted that public schools, owned and operated by government, are regulated to meet the needs and protect the rights of all children, and we demand careful stewardship of public dollars.  When parents or citizens believe these important protections are being violated, they have a legal right to demand redress. But what about charter schools?

Here is what has been happening at the federal level. The coercive power of government has been utterly lacking in the federal Charter Schools Program, which has been granting billions of dollars for states to expand the number of privately managed charter schools. Swept away by the myth of the power of markets, first Arne Duncan and now John King have led the U.S. Department of Education to define its role as promoting innovation but have utterly failed to provide the kind of oversight of charter schools that government is expected to exert. The Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General has repeatedly castigated the management of this program because neither the Department of Education nor the state departments of education which have received the grants have been required even to keep accurate records. The Department of Education has failed to protect each child’s right to an education and to prevent conflicts of interest, fraud and waste. Last year the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a group of national educational and labor organizations, asked Arne Duncan impose a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until the Department of Education establishes adequate regulation and oversight.

Last week U.S. Secretary of Education John King, whose tenure will, thankfully, end as a new president appoints (we hope) a stronger Secretary of Education, tried to pass the buck, by insisting the states themselves do a better job of vetting charter school quality.

King was responding to a recent action by the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization which, on October 15, joined critics who have raised concerns about the federal government’s and the states’ widespread failure to regulate the charter school sector. The NAACP ratified a very strong resolution calling not only for more regulation but also for protection of the rights of students in charter schools and for steps to ensure that rapid expansion of charters stops destroying the big city public school districts that have continued to serve the very poor, immigrant, and disabled students who are expensive to educate. The NAACP demands  a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools until: “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools. Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the pubic school system. Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate.  (And charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest-performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

In their academic analysis of the role of government and the damage wrought through decades of ideological attacks on government, Hacker and Pierson call for a correction, not for cynicism and paralysis.  Like the leaders of the NAACP, they seek to strengthen government’s capacity to do what is required: “Government often performs tasks less well than it could or should. That doesn’t mean, however, that we would be better off without government performing those tasks… We should be critical of government performance when it falls short… But we should be appropriately critical. Government sweats the big stuff: the hard challenges that decentralized private action can’t solve, the essential investments that market actors won’t make, the vexing choices that individual minds don’t handle well.” (p. 367)

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