On June 3, in an opinion column which appeared in the Washington Post and newspapers across the country, Michael Bloomberg extols privately operated charter schools and scathingly criticizes public education. Bloomberg cherry picks the research he cites and blames “failing” public schools for a massive enrollment collapse during the pandemic when, of course, we don’t yet know how the disruption of COVID-19 will ultimately affect either public school or charter school enrollment. It would appear that the story of massive charter school growth is coming from the charter school sector’s primary lobby, the National Alliance for Public Charter schools, an organization with an obvious bias.
Bloomberg’s preference for charter schools is not new. In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch described what happened in New York City when Bloomberg, as mayor, appointed Joel Klein, an attorney who had served as the chief prosecutor in a government antitrust case against Microsoft, as New York City’s schools chancellor: “Previous leaders of the school system had opposed charter schools, believing that they would drain away students and money from the regular public schools. The city had only a few of them when Klein took office. He energetically authorized new charter schools, and within a few years the DOE reached the state-legislated cap of fifty charter schools. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg persuaded the legislature and newly elected Governor Eliot Spitzer to permit New York City to open an additional fifty charter schools. During his reelection campaign in 2009, he promised to open another one hundred new charter schools, so that by 2013, 100,000 students would be in charters.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 80)
Mike Bloomberg’s support for charter schools has never flagged. Just two months ago, on April 25, 2022, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced $200 million in grants to charter schools in New York City: “Bloomberg Philanthropies today announced $100 million in support to Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy and $100 million in support to Success Academy, two leading public charter schools in New York City.”
In his recent column, Bloomberg endorses the idea that states and the federal government should expand privately operated charter schools with greater public investment: “Charter schools educate 7% of all public school students, yet they receive less than 1% of total federal spending on K-12 education. As more parents opt out of traditional district schools, that imbalance should be corrected, as charters struggle to afford the teachers they need to serve their growing student populations often in low-income neighborhoods.” Bloomberg neglects the evidence in research like the 2018, Breaking Point study by Gordon Lafer, which showed that the Oakland Unified School District in California loses $57.3 million each year in unrecoverable operating expenses to charter schools located within the district’s boundaries.
Mike Bloomberg further argues that research shows that students in charter schools do much better academically than their public school counterparts. Not only is there a mass of research showing that charter schools serve fewer disabled students and English language learners, but overall research on student achievement in charter schools shows there is a vast diversity of outcomes across the schools in the charter sector. The Network for Public Education has published a short brief showing that, on the whole, charter schools do no better at serving their students than traditional public schools.
Bloomberg’s support for school privatization has been echoed loudly across the states in recent months. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, PhD, teaches in the College of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. In an important recent column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Siegel-Hawley condemns a new report on the condition of Virginia’s public education, a report demanded by Glenn Youngkin, that state’s new governor in his very first executive order: “The Youngkin administration’s 90-day Virginia Department of Education report, required as part of the governor’s first executive order banning ‘divisive concepts’ in schools, outlines recent testing trends for our students and a blueprint for moving forward. In substance and purpose, the 90-day report harkens back to a damaging 1983 Reagan administration document. A Nation at Risk sounded alarm over the state of the country’s public school system. Presenting test scores without important context like the rapid expansion of educational access for historically un- or underserved groups, the report warned of a ‘rising tide of mediocrity’ in our schools… We… could more closely examine the context for and claims made by A Nation at Risk and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 90-day report. Each was written at the request of leaders committed to privatizing public schools, and each distorted real test trends with inappropriate data comparisons and ahistorical conclusions. What if the goal was not how to best assess public school performance but how to best erode confience in public schools?”
This year during Youngkin’s campaign for governor of Virginia and more broadly in school districts across the country, we have watched a wave of parents mobbing school board meetings with demands that they be allowed to control what their children learn about American history and a list of divisive subjects. Posted on the website of the Schott Foundation for Public Education is a short video, What’s Behind the Critical Race Theory Panic?, explicitly examining who is behind this year’s parent uprisings. The film exposes the involvement of far right organizations like the Goldwater and Manhattan Institutes in resourcing these supposedly spontaneous uprisings with the specific purpose of winning support for a wave of laws in state legislatures to expand school privatization in the form of more tuition vouchers for private schools along with more public investment in privately operated charter schools.
In his new book, The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen explores the meaning of “the public” and why citizens ought to be prepared to defend against attacks on the public from Mike Bloomberg and all the far-right groups mounting culture war attacks to undermine public education:
“In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine) even if it’s possible to do so. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all. That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around (and we should note, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be private schools or bottled water or privately produced COVID testing kits). Public control is exercised in different ways, the public tool kit includes establishing public-goods standards for public money spent on procurement, providing public services, and creating regulations and safeguards for public goods created privately. What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them. That’s how democracy should and often does work. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 7-8)