Almost a decade ago, I was sitting in the audience at a national meeting when a prominent Democrat endorsed neoliberalism—the idea that the private sector can do better than the government. I might have expected this speaker to defend government services, but instead he expressed what sounded to me like the conventional wisdom as it might have been voiced at an Aspen Institute cocktail party of the so-called “theory class.” There was no reasoning, no sense that evidence was necessary. He merely assumed we all agreed: “We can’t support vouchers,” declared the speaker, “but charter schools are OK because they aren’t really a form of privatization.”
In their book, American Amnesia, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe how such conventional wisdom can somehow become acceptable despite plenty of contradictory evidence. Writing about the emergence of a bipartisan neoliberal consensus beginning in the Reagan era and continuing today, they write: “These changes did not go unnoticed or occur without pushback. Yet those who sought to defend or resurrect the ideas under siege found themselves caught in what communications experts call a ‘spiral of silence.’ In such a spiral, opinions become dominant because of acquiescence as well as acceptance. Even if individuals do not agree with an idea, their sense that it is shared broadly makes them reluctant to voice dissent. In time, this anticipation can create self-fulfilling cycles—a ‘spiral’—in which conflicting ideas are pushed to the periphery. When alternative understandings are no longer voiced confidently, we collectively forget their power.” (American Amnesia, p. 198)
“Corporate school reform” is what we often call it—the idea that schools can be made more efficient by business school principles like accountability, determined through the data set of aggregate standardized test scores. Further, de-regulation will make schools more innovative and teachers will be motivated with financial incentives to work harder to raise scores. The other part of the theory is support for privatization. When they talk about privatization of public schools, a lot of Democrats have tried to avoid offending either side—feeling safe if they can slice and dice: Tuition vouchers for private and religious schools are off limits, but it is OK to be for schools operated under charter by unregulated private contractors because the charter schools are publicly funded.
This week, striking teachers in Los Angeles have undertaken to challenge what has for too long been a bipartisan consensus supporting neoliberal education reform. Members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles have set out to expose what school privatization has done to their schools by eating up so much money their public school district can no longer afford to protect decent class size.
Jeff Bryant captures the political irony in our confused understanding of the implications of charter school growth in the lede to his fine new analysis of the Los Angeles teachers’ strike: “This week, Republican lawmakers held a press conference on Capitol Hill to kick off National School Choice Week, an annual event that began in 2011 under President Obama, who proclaimed it as a time to ‘recognize the role of public charter schools play in providing America’s daughters and sons with a chance to reach their fullest potential.’ This year, Democratic lawmakers took a pass on the celebration. You can thank striking teachers for that.”
For The Intercept, Rachel Cohen describes the significance the Los Angeles strike as Democrats are being forced to notice that problems with charter schools are being increasingly documented: “But perhaps more notably, the teachers are also striking against school privatization. In December, the union called for a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Los Angeles has 224 charter schools, more than any other city in the country… The centrality of opposition to charter school growth in the LA protests has put many Democrats in an uncomfortable position. The Democratic Party has long straddled an awkward political balancing act between the charter school and labor movements, which both fund Democratic candidates, but war with each other. Today with people across the country focused on the LA teachers, most Democratic lawmakers have stayed silent, and even those who have weighed in have mostly avoided commenting on the union’s opposition to charter school growth.”
Prominent Democrats who have supported charter schools include not only President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, but also Bill and Hillary Clinton, and some candidates today considering running for President in 2020, including most prominently New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. For the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss explains, “Duncan and Democratic supporters, including the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, got behind charters and the people who wanted to expand them. Democratic hedge fund operators and Democratic philanthropists, including Bill Gates, collectively donated billions of dollars to the cause. Billionaire Eli Broad, who has long held allegiance to the Democratic Party, was the prime mover behind a 2015 plan that would have transformed the Los Angeles school district and would have led to nearly half of its students being enrolled in charters… In California, the very Democratic Jerry Brown opened two charter schools when he was mayor of Oakland and, as governor, opposed serious efforts to strengthen oversight.” Strauss adds, however, that the public may be rethinking support: “Two Democrats ran last year for superintendent of public instruction (in California). One was backed by charter school supporters. The other wasn’t. The one who wasn’t, Tony Thurmond, won, although his opponent, Marshall Tuck, raised a lot more money.”
Charter schools are now over twenty years old. While support for charter schools has enjoyed bipartisan cachet, a wide body of academic research has increasingly demonstrated problems. In New Jersey, Rutgers professor Julia Sass Rubin and Mark Weber document that charter schools draw away public money at the same time they strand public school districts with the cost of educating the students with the greatest needs: “New Jersey charter schools enroll a fundamentally different student population than the districts where their students reside: New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. The special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have less costly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools… (M)any charter schools continue to enroll fewer at-risk students than their sending district public schools.”
Major studies also document that diversion of public school funding to privatized charter schools is fiscally devastating for the public school districts where the charters are located. While the Los Angeles Unified School District is not among the California school districts studied in a report earlier this year, political economist Gordon Lafer analyzed the impact of charter schools in several other school districts in California: “In 2016-17, charter schools led to a net fiscal shortfall of $57.3 million for the Oakland Unified School District, $65.9 million for the San Diego Unified School District, and $19.3 million for Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District. The California Charter School Act currently doesn’t allow school boards to consider how a proposed charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter school, their pro-rated share of funding leaves with them, while the district remains responsible for many costs that those funds had supported. This intensifies fiscal pressure to cut core services like counseling, libraries, and special education, and increase class sizes at neighborhood schools.” Lafer’s report confirms the findings of earlier academic research by Rutgers’ school finance expert, Bruce Baker, and researchers at Roosevelt University in Chicago—that charter schools operate as parasites sucking the life from their host public school districts.
The late British historian Tony Judt described the emergence of a neoliberal consensus in Britain and the United States in the book he published shortly before his death in 2010, Ill Fares the Land: “(I)f we had to identify just one general consequence of the intellectual shift that marked the last third of the 20th century, it would surely be the worship of the private and, in particular, the cult of privatization… What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage.” After demonstrating that privatization has not improved the efficiency of the institutions which have been privatized, and showing that all of the formerly public institutions were “inherently the sort of activity that someone has to regulate—that is why they ended up in public hands in the first place,” Judt describes the loss of the understanding of the meaning of “the public”: “The result is an eviscerated society. From the point of view of the person at the bottom… it is no longer to the state, the administration or the government that he or she instinctively turns. The service or benefit in question is now often ‘delivered’ by a private intermediary. As a consequence, the thick mesh of social interactions and public goods has been reduced to a minimum…. Governments that are too weak or discredited to act through their citizens are more likely to seek their ends by other means: by exhorting, cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them. The loss of social purpose articulated through public services actually increases the unrestrained powers of the over-mighty state.” (Ill Fares the Land, pp 107-119) (Emphasis in the original.)
In an article last spring about the meaning of the teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other states, a commentary that directly speaks to the current Los Angeles teachers’ strike, Henry Giroux agrees with Tony Judt: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy. Moreover, they symbolize the centrality of education as a right and public good whose mission is to enable young people to exercise those modes of leadership and governance in which ‘they can become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.‘ Rejecting the idea that education is a commodity to be bought and sold, teachers and students across the country are reclaiming education as a public good and a human right, a protective space that should be free of violence and open to critical teaching and learning.”