Public Education (Part Three)
Criticize, Demonize, Then Privatize.
Summary: This is it. The moment about seven of you have been waiting for. The dramatic conclusion to the three part series on public education that no one asked for. Oh, and it’s long. In sparing our beloved Unf*ckers a fourth part, we jammed 50 years of education policy into one hot mess of learning. To quote the estimable Manny Faces, “This iz EP last of smart edumaction.” In Parts One and Two we explored the history of education and the legal fight to ensure equality. Part Three reveals the master plan of the GOP’s libertarian strain to defund education, promote a religious doctrine and battle against the constitutional right to access public education.
Listen to the full episode here.
Step 1: Criticize
The system is broken. Our kids are failing. We’re falling behind other countries.
Step 2: Demonize
It’s the goddamn unions. And all those woke liberal teachers. We need government out of the classroom.
Step 3: Privatize
There’s a larger narrative here. One that we should probably tackle soon. We’re officially 50 years into the neoliberal era. 52 years, in fact, since Milton Friedman was elected as the chair of the Mont Pelerin Society. 51 years since Lewis Powell wrote his now infamous memorandum. 50 years since Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, winning every state but Massachusetts. And we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Heritage Foundation.
As for education, we covered something else that happened in 1973, nearly 50 years ago and that was the San Antonio v. Rodriguez decision. With Lewis Powell writing the opinion for the majority, the Supreme Court began pulling apart the hard work established by Thurgood Marshall and so many who came before him. It was a pure ‘state’s rights’ decision that paved the way for what we’re calling the fourth era of education.
The era of Privatization.
In the first episode of the series we talked about K-12 education generally to learn some of the basics of the vocation and language to align us with the field. And Part Two is where we explored the first three eras:
Expansion, where the fledgling nation placed education at the core of our national identity and each new territorial charter under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Then, Reconstruction, which was sort of the Empire Strikes Back phase of the story when southern states began pushing the boundaries of constitutionality in an attempt to deny equal access to education for formerly enslaved people.
And the third era of Desegregation, or Return of the Jedi I suppose, where figures such as Marshall, Charles Houston and Walter White successfully argued case after case in front of the Supreme Court to restore balance and equity into the system.
Expansion is best represented by Jefferson and Adams, with Jefferson writing a full constitutional amendment dedicated to education as a right and Adams writing the Massachusetts constitution with education at the heart of it. Jefferson’s bill was only struck down because the new country couldn’t muster the political or financial will to tax the citizenry. But Adam’s constitution is the framework that almost every other state constitution is based on.
Reconstruction, to the extent that anything positive happened, was best represented by Lincoln and Charles Sumner. While the southern states would spend most of the next several decades trying to weasel out of the obligations visited upon them, the fact remains that these covenants existed in the first place due to the efforts of Lincoln and the insistence of Sumner to include education for all as condition for readmission to the union.
The era of Desegregation must be given to Houston and Marshall who strung together 29 wins in front of the Supreme Court to box the court into a corner when it came time to argue Brown v. The Board of Education. Their combination of patience and brilliance cleared the way for real change in this country in the form of opportunity, equity and access to education.
Of course, our racist and classist roots are always right there, just below the surface. Ready to be exposed and spread their tentacles into our consciousness. These eras, defined by Jefferson and Adams, Lincoln and Sumner and Houston and Marshall, created a system of education that was once the envy of the world. They battled against our worst instincts to preserve the right for every citizen to access free public education. They didn’t always win, but they ensured that we always moved forward.
As we reflect back on the half century of neoliberal rule, the two people that most represent it are a wolf and wolf in sheep’s clothing. The one in sheep’s clothing is Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who must shoulder the responsibility of bringing to life the wolf’s vision for the future. And the wolf?
You know who.
Chapter Seven: Phase Four. Privatization.
Milton Friedman on school privatization:
“To people of my generation or my parent’s generation who are immigrants into this country or first generation children, we got our values largely at home at the school and elsewhere. Schools transmit values but we don’t want a monopoly on the transmission of values. We don’t want any small group of officials to have the power to say what values shall be transmitted and yet that is what is happening now in a monopoly school system and particularly as that school system has gotten more and more centralized. It used to be much better when you had local control of schools, because then you can have variety diversity. But as the control of schools has moved from the local district…from the city to the state and from the state to the federal government, increasingly, the values that are being dictated are being determined by an increasingly unrepresentative selection of the population.”
To introduce the concept of privatization and get to the core of what uncle poo-poo-pants is talking about in this segment, let’s return to an earlier series for a moment to bring another dastardly libertarian figure back into the picture. Recall that we covered Nancy McLean’s groundbreaking book Democracy in Chains for our Libertarians Are Exhausting series. McLean detailed the rise of libertarian thinking in the nation and brought good old James M. Buchanan into our consciousness.
Buchanan is a key figure in the neoliberal story and his origin story itself is directly related to our story today. Buchanan was among many conservatives in the nation who were appalled by the Brown v. Board of Ed decision. So appalled was Buchanan that when he landed in Virginia in the 1950s and founded the Center for Studies in Political Economy and Social Philosophy at UVA, he did so with the express purpose of infecting higher education with the free market principles of the Mont Pelerin Society.
He was one of the earliest neoliberals to understand the power and potential of the free market ideology to benefit white upper classes and believed the long path forward was in the halls of higher ed. Here’s McLean:
“James Buchanan, fresh from the recent Switzerland meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, privately called Eisenhower’s ‘dispatching of troops’ to Little Rock a terrible mistake. The whole mess of school segregation versus desegregation, he argued, should have been ‘worked out gradually and in accordance with local sentiment.’ He never acknowledged that this is exactly what the school board of Little Rock and those in three districts in Virginia that wanted to admit some Black students to white schools had tried to do, only to be overruled by the power elites of their states.”
We’ll dig in more in the next chapters but the idea of privatization in education revolves around Friedman’s idea of school choice. Like all things in the neoliberal fantasy world of free market capitalism, every corner of society can be reduced to a series of transactions. Healthcare, incarceration, the military, education, sanitation, energy: All candidates for privatization in the libertarian mind. They truly believe the free market will provide better outcomes for things that involve the public good so long as friction is eliminated to the greatest extent possible.
And in their minds, the chief antagonist to the free market is government intervention. Like mystics, they believe there is an otherworldly power that controls human behavior and that left alone it will produce a proper and fair outcome. Call it the invisible hand, call it natural order, no matter the euphemism it all carries the same meaning.
In the world of education, Friedman presented his concept through the lens of what he called school choice. If schools operated like businesses in a free market system—which they’re fucking not, nor should they be—then children are customers and schools are businesses that should compete for their attendance. The more competition there is, the greater the effort to produce superior outcomes, thereby making the market the tide that lifts all boats. We’ll disassemble this logic later, but for now understand that my obsession with uncle cheese-nipple is more than just a fancy. The past 50 years have belonged almost entirely to his misguided theories.
Friedman believed that the mechanism to fuel school choice was a voucher system. Instead of tax dollars being extracted by local municipalities and the state to fund districts that provided services for local students, families would be provided with funds to pay for the education of their choice.
Not only did he see this as the foundation for a competitive framework that would enhance education through competition and produce better outcomes for customers, it would put the power in the hands of parents to decide on the type of education their children would receive. It’s a really appealing idea to Americans because it’s wrapped in patriotic words like freedom and liberty.
Taking his theory a step further, the decision as to what children would be taught would then also be in the hands of the parents who would have greater influence over schools to design curriculum, thereby stripping central governing bodies of this power. In other words, a fucking free-for-all.
And, lastly for good measure, we’ve talked before about how Friedman truly believed that this would advantage children of color in the United States more because their families would have the means to send their children to any school they wanted if they lived in a district with failing schools, as it often the case in predominantly Black and Brown communities. Again, there’s so much wrong with this thinking it’s hard to know where to begin, but we’ll get there.
In the next chapter we’ll cover the three main forms of school choice that have been established since Friedman first mainstreamed the concept. Each of the three—vouchers, charter schools and homeschooling—have accelerated in recent years and the pandemic has only deepened the commitment on the right to go even further. As Derek W. Black writes in Schoolhouse Burning:
“States like Nevada have passed legislation that authorizes the privatization of the entire public education system. Other states, like Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan—just a name a few—have not yet gone that far but have been growing their voucher and charter programs at staggering rates while public education funding falls…Other states, like Kansas and North Carolina, have exchanged the financial stability of statewide systems of public schools for tax cuts for high-income earners and corporations…New Orleans, for instance, has already lost all its public schools, operating nothing but charter schools now.”
Chapter Eight: Vouchers are stupid and racist and they don’t work.
Al Franken arguing against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos:
“Mrs. DeVos ran a political action committee called All Children Matter, which spent millions in campaign contributions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars for school vouchers. The argument was that these vouchers would allow low-income students to leave the public school system and attend the private or religious school of their family’s choice. Mrs. DeVos has described this as ‘school choice,’ claiming that it would give parents the chance to choose the best school for their children. But that’s just not how it works.
“In reality, most school vouchers don’t cover the full cost of private school tuition. Nor do they cover additional expenses like transportation, school uniforms, and other supplies. Which means the vouchers don’t create more choices for low-income families. They simply subsidize existing choices for families who could already afford to pay for private school. As it happens, we have a real-life test case we can look at to determine whether Mrs. DeVos’s argument holds water.
“Mrs. DeVos helped develop a voucher program for the state of Indiana. And guess what happened. Today, more than half of the students in the Hoosier State who receive vouchers never actually attended Indiana public schools in the first place. Which means their families were already in a position to pay for private schools—indeed, vouchers are going to families earning as much as $150,000 a year.”
We skipped ahead to a fascinating, if not terrifying moment in U.S. education history. The appointment of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary under Donald T***p. Some of you may recall the confirmation hearings where DeVos fumbled questions from committee democrats so badly that it seemed like even the most staunch Republicans would have a hard time confirming her with a straight face. In fact, Murkowski and Collins did indeed defect, which left it to Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote.
To place this in historical context, in our nation’s history there have only been nine defeated nominations and 18 nominees who withdrew from consideration for various reasons. Even in the most contentious political environments, the Senate typically allows a President to select cabinet members. It has become more fashionable in recent terms to deny appointments and most certainly to put them through their paces. But few nominees caused as much of a stir as Betsy DeVos.
Once again, the reason for this is because we do have a history of taking education very seriously in this country. But T***p’s cabinet slate was special in that so many of the people he selected had actually dedicated their careers to destroying the very departments they were tapped to serve. Like Ben Carson, who went on to gut Housing and Urban Development. Rick Perry who literally campaigned on getting rid of the Department of Energy only to go on and run it.
DeVos never went to public school. Kids didn’t either. Never took out a loan for school. Never taught a class. DeVos was one of the first nominees, other than T***p’s cast of loser appointments, to have literally zero experience in the field she was chosen to lead. In fact, she’s on record calling public education supporters “flat earthers.”
During her nomination it was revealed that in total her family had donated upwards of $200 million dollars to non-profit organizations dedicated to destroying public education and bringing religion into schools. One of the DeVos family’s primary strategies to accomplish this was to increase the use of vouchers to provide for school choice. Of all the dreadful and deceitful ways public schools have been attacked, there’s no bigger Trojan Horse than uncle stinkydoodoo’s concept of vouchers. And no family has worked more diligently or spent more money trying to infect the system than the DeVos family.
So, yes. Betsy DeVos was a clown. As clownish as the rest of Donald J. T***p’s cabinet, I suppose. And she did cause real damage during her tenure, but her time was interrupted by a larger and more unfortunate event.
A large scale hoax created in a Chinese lab by Anthony Fauci to sell a vaccine from Bill Gates with a microchip that tracks your every move and thought.
Let’s cap a thought on vouchers before we go back to the Obama Administration. Remember, vouchers are just one avenue of attack on public education. The way it works is that funds that would otherwise be used to support public schools are carved out to be given to families who apply. With these funds, families can then enroll their children in a private or parochial school of their choice. But as Al Franken so eloquently noted in his remarks, vouchers typically don’t cover the full cost of education and they don’t cover other important costs like transportation.
Then there’s uncle nipple-tickle’s insistence that vouchers would help create diversity in schools; let’s follow this to the logical conclusion. Private schools usually have attendance caps to keep class sizes small, but it’s not like everyone who applies for a voucher gets one, and even if they do, it’s unlikely that private or religious schools could manage to take in everyone who wanted to apply.
Then there’s travel. With only 30,000 private schools to the nearly 100,000 public schools, it’s likely that a private institution will fall outside of the public busing district. So that means additional transportation costs or parents that have to drive, which isn’t always an option.
To claim diversity is one of the reasons behind vouchers is a farce. Not to mention, private school acceptance rates hover around 85%, which means not everyone is allowed to attend. Nor are they required to adhere to the same standards for special accommodations as public schools are required to do. So if your child has learning challenges, perhaps they don’t perform well on standardized tests, don’t present well in an interview or—let’s just call it what it is—if there is bias and racism in the interview process, then they might not make it.
All of that makes sense considering vouchers were originally conceived as a way to maintain segregation in schools after the passage of Brown v. The Board of Education.
That’s right. Just as Brown v. The Board of Ed was the spark that ignited the libertarian movement beginning with Buchanan, so too did it inspire many southern states to look for ways around integration. But most failed to turn vouchers into law in the first couple of decades. Today, 21 states have a form of school choice systems, mostly in the form of vouchers, some as tax credits, but many states are still fighting the tide.
Fucking Florida. Always, Florida.
One of the earliest states to figure out a way around its own state constitution was Florida, which paved the way for other states to follow, thus normalizing the concept. Here’s Black:
“Florida then began experimenting with ways to get around the problem. It developed an alternative form of vouchers, what it called a ‘scholarship’ program. In most respects, it operated just like a voucher, paying for tuition at private schools. But rather than funding the tuition directly out of the state coffers, Florida gave tax credits to businesses and individuals who donated to a state ‘scholarship’ fund that the state then used to pay private tuition. The real farce, though, was that Florida reimbursed businesses and individuals for the full cost of their ‘donations.’”
The battle over vouchers was on more even ground prior to the Great Recession. States were able to argue credibly that existing programs showed no benefit to students and in fact many programs demonstrated negative outcomes. As the NEA notes:
“They take scarce funding from public schools—which serve 90 percent of students—and give it to private schools—institutions that are not accountable to taxpayers. This means public school students have less access to music instruments and science equipment, modern technology and textbooks, and after-school programs…Furthermore, vouchers have been shown to not support students with disabilities, they fail to protect the human and civil rights of students, and they exacerbate segregation.”
So why do it? Okay, so religious zealots like DeVos are trying to turn K-12 schools into seminaries. Fine. Fuck you. And there are real problems in underfunded districts throughout the nation that have parents searching for help. Totally reasonable. But from a public policy perspective, why the war on public education? The evidence is clear that when a district is well-funded and serves a population that has high employment, food security and well compensated teachers, the children perform better. Why would you take money away from a public system and divert it to a fractured private system with no accountability to taxpayers and negligible if not negative outcomes for children?
“The public school system, which isn’t public at all, it’s a government system owned by the teacher’s union.” -Milton Friedman
Oh, that’s right. It’s not about choice. It’s about breaking the unions.
Chapter Nine: Arne Dunks on Public Education.
“Rather than divvying it up and handing it out, we are letting states and school districts compete for it.” -Barack Obama
Like most Obama-era initiatives, school choice seemed like such a good idea to Democrats who vilified George W. Bush for No Child Left Behind—for good reason—and T***p for pushing vouchers under DeVos. Also for good reason. But they weren’t silent under Obama. In fact, they rallied behind him and his nominee Arne Duncan with great enthusiasm. In contrast to the chilly reception Betsy DeVos would receive eight years later, Duncan’s hearing is a complete blowjob.
(I mean, seriously. I’m linking the transcript along with all of his letters of support. I actually read a lot more of it than I had planned because I found it fascinating. I threw up in my mouth a bit at times, because holy shit.)
Charter schools are only mentioned four fucking times in the hearing. Four times. But once confirmed, this would be where Duncan had the greatest impact.
Like most things that are born within a particular field, charter schools started with the best of intentions. Education became a top priority for the administrations following the Second World War. K-12, higher education, medical degrees. The government viewed education in all forms as an investment into a future that looked especially bright when the United States emerged as the world’s foremost superpower. The specter of the Soviet Union and their advancements in science and technology as the Cold War developed only served to heighten the need to not just compete but to dominate.
But as the decades wore on, it became clear that the primary and secondary schools were failing in certain parts of the country, most notably in the cities and rural areas. It was thought that the system had grown too large to innovate and so a new field of education emerged and new schools of thought were being tested, but with marginal success.
The idea of a charter school started in the 1970s as divisions with the public school system that would be free of state and federal curriculum mandates so new strategies could be tested and then ultimately mainstreamed into the larger systems. But this proved to be a challenge to institutional authority and school norms so advocates pushed for separate facilities to be chartered and built as proving grounds. In theory, if these schools created and implemented successful new teaching modalities, they could use this research to bring these strategies back into the individual districts.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a handful of states passed legislation that allowed for the creation of charter schools to serve this purpose. And there were early signs of success, though not enough to warrant full-scale overhauls.
Clinton Opens the Door
You’ll recall from our Clinton series that the New Democrats under Clinton seized the mantra of charter schools but with a twist. Instead of serving as a laboratory for innovation that could be brought into public schools, the Clinton administration saw this as an opportunity to promote its privatization agenda. To treat charter schools as separate and apart from the public system. In their estimation, this was a free market solution to the problem of failing schools. Here’s Slick Willy:
“Charter schools are innovative public schools started by educators, parents and communities, open the students of every background or ability. But they’re freer of red tape and top-down management than most of our schools are. And in return for greater flexibility charter schools must set and meet the highest standards and stay open only as long as they do. Also charter schools don’t divert taxpayer dollars from our public school system instead they use those dollars to promote excellence and competition within the system and in so doing they spur all our public schools to improve.”
Actually, Bill. Charter schools, by definition, divert funds from public schools and they do not promote competition because the nature of competition is that there are winners and losers. Or, in the worst case scenario, funding and attention is spread so thin that everyone loses a little. And that’s exactly what happened. But like every other free market reform implemented by the Clinton administration, they were less interested in the hard data and lousy outcomes of their programs and more interested in deregulation, privatization and promoting free market solutions. Whether they worked or not.
Bush Doubles Down
When it was W’s turn at the wheel, a new twist occurred. In addition to providing an enormous amount of new funding for the construction and development of charter schools, Bush passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which introduced what education historian Diane Ravitch called a “punitive regime of standardized testing on the schools.” She continues, saying:
“NCLB was passed by Congress in 2001 and signed into law in 2002. NCLB law required schools to test every child in grades 3-8 every year; by 2014, said the law, every child must be ‘proficient’ or schools would face escalating sanctions. The ultimate sanction for failure to raise test scores was firing the staff and closing the school.”
Teachers were on the hot seat and unions appeared powerless in the face of a national wave of support for vouchers, charter schools, teacher metrics and accountability and teaching to the test instead of the child. No one was looking at the data or drawing the logical conclusion as to what would happen when resources were taken from the public system to build out adjacent systems with less accountability and oversight.
It was a multi-pronged attack that overwhelmed administrators who now had to fear for their funding and jobs based on standardized tests. Do more with less or even more gets taken away from you. That was the message from the administration. On this approach, there was and still is remarkable alignment between the two major parties in the nation.
Obama Drives it Home
The hope and change that educators were looking for in Obama would soon turn to despair and more of the same under Arne Duncan. Duncan immediately sought to eliminate caps on the number of charter schools and warned states that artificial caps would jeopardize federal funding. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
In the face of a global financial crisis, states were losing tax revenues at alarming rates. As Black notes:
“Desperate for federal funding to ease the pain of plummeting tax revenues, states that had long limited charter schools quickly changed their laws. Duncan’s support helped double the charter school population during his tenure and cement a way of thinking about education that is now proving hard to control or unwind. Duncan also helped fuel a war on public school teachers, requiring states to hire, fire, and retain teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores.”
The Big Funding Squeeze
While public schools saw their budgets slashed from declining local tax revenues and state support, charter schools had the opposite experience during the Great Recession. Their budgets went through the roof.
After the recession only 18 states made an effort to increase funding for public education to former levels. Meanwhile, transportation, wages, benefits all rose leaving public budgets squeezed. Funding per student during the recession fell 35% in Arizona, more than 20% in Florida and Alabama, 15% in Texas, Oklahoma, Utah and so on down the line. Under the cover of the recession, public officials then took aim at the unions. Again, Black:
“Across the nation, states made major changes to teachers’ collective bargaining agreements, salary structures, overall benefits, and teaching expectations without giving teachers anything in return. One of the first salvos was in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker made it his mission to break teacher unions…Walker exempted police, firefighters, and state troopers from the collective bargaining changes, leaving teachers as the primary group to see its rights change.”
That was the big tell in Wisconsin especially. Cops and firefighters were untouched. It was the teachers they went after. Easy prey. Fuck ‘em. To pile on even more, Duncan ushered in a wave of reforms designed to chip away at teacher protections, measuring teacher performance to the test scores of the children. Okay, merit based compensation and review. Welcome to the world, right? That’s how a lot of people feel and I get it.
Here’s the problem. We weren’t testing every subject. So a social studies teacher would be rated on how well kids performed in math and reading. Moreover, if a teacher had a particularly good crop of students who performed well one year but the next year’s crop shit the bed, the teacher was left hanging. Same teacher. Same curriculum. Different outcome. Again, fuck ‘em.
And that’s the problem with free market ideology. It never considers the externalities that affect real life behavior and events. Just like you can’t account for greed in the financial markets, you can’t account for externalities like food insecurity, bullying, tragedies, impact of social media, and the countless influences on our children. Humans aren’t standard.
You Get What You Pay For
Then there’s the cold reality that charter schools, which have now been around in earnest for three decades, don’t outperform public schools. According to the first comprehensive study conducted between the Department of Education and Stanford University:
“Roughly 80 percent perform the same as or worse than traditional public schools. The evidence on vouchers is no better. Students tend to fall behind and stay there when they transition from public school to private.”
The budget hawks and free market advocates all focus on the lack of accountability among teachers because of their damn unions. But they’ll completely overlook the utter lack of accountability in the charter system, which is owned by private companies. Here’s Ravitch again to provide a few key examples:
“Businessman Ron Packard, with experience at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, saw a chance to use federal funds to help build the highly profitable K12 Inc. online charter chain (now called Stride), which gets dismal academic results but paid him $19 million during a four-year period.”
“J.C. Huizenga, the Waste Management heir, used federal CSP dollars to launch his for-profit National Heritage Academies, which helped him amass a real estate empire.”
“Marcus May, now serving time in prison for massive fraud, got substantial funding from the feds for his New Point Education Partner charter schools, some of which he used to buy a yacht and enjoy extravagant vacations.”
How about these gems? 12% of the schools that got federal dollars never opened. And 25% closed within just a few years. And the owners of these schools just kept the money.
The system has been so junked up by bureaucratic nonsense, ironically ushered in by supposed free market idealists, that it’s buried in bullshit. Public schools are losing funding in favor of vouchers that go to middle and upper income families to offset payments to private schools. And losing federal and state funding to charter schools that take kids and teachers away from them. The public school teachers are held to proficiency standards that ignore real life influences and don’t even test half of the subjects that are taught in schools, even though their compensation depends upon it. And when a charter school fails, private companies pocket the federal funds and just move on.
The cherry on top of the icing of this shit cake is homeschooling, which also flourished during the pandemic. Online companies have popped up all over the country with the promise that they can provide accredited online schooling and states are lumping these programs in with charters and vouchers as valid forms of education. Spoiler alert: They’re not. Not even close.
A New York Times article titled “Online schools score better on Wall Street than in classrooms” offers a glimpse into the world of online schooling that the carnival barker companies that offer programs behind doors number one, two or three. Dig this:
“During a presentation at the Virginia legislature this year, a representative of Connections explained that its services were available at three price points per student:
“Option A: $7,500, a student-teacher ratio of 35–40 to 1, and an average teacher salary of $45,000.
“Option B: $6,500, a student-teacher ratio of 50 to 1, with less experienced teachers paid $40,000.
“Option C: $4,800 and a student-teacher ratio of 60 to 1, as well as a narrower curriculum.”
The article continues with the insults:
“Despite lower operating costs, the online companies collect nearly as much taxpayer money in some states as brick-and-mortar charter schools. In Pennsylvania, about 30,000 students are enrolled in online schools at an average cost of about $10,000 per student. The state auditor general, Jack Wagner, said that is double or more what it costs the companies to educate those children online.”
So, yeah. Arne Duncan oversaw the explosion of charter schools, championed vouchers and refused to support devastated public school districts if they didn’t go along with his free market plan to fundamentally alter the landscape of public education. All while his Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate peppered him with questions about his jump shot and if he ever goes one-on-one with the President. This asshat made Betsy DeVos’s job destroying public schools so fucking easy and set the table for the backlash against teachers during the pandemic.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering where Duncan wound up. He’s currently employed by the University of Chicago.
Chapter Ten: The Propaganda Machine in Full Swing
Ideas and concepts are everywhere. Some take root organically. Some are thrust into public consciousness by happenstance. And some are sold to us. Ideas that are proposed. That circulate. That spark wonder and research. Ideas that are altered by each new input. Like a game of telephone, sometimes these ideas wind up sounding very different by the time they reach the end of the circle. For example, how charter schools started as an idea to form independent divisions within public schools to test new modalities that could be mainstreamed into a curriculum. A bad game of telephone if ever there was one.
Then these ideas are tested. And vetted. And pieces will turn into policy. As they’re adopted, they become normalized. Over time, we can’t remember why or how they started. We simply say, ‘I don’t know. That’s just the way we do it.’
Early on we talked about the rise of the think tank in America and how ideas from figures like James Buchanan and Milton Friedman made their way into research papers published by these organizations. How they would circulate through the media to be normalized, oftentimes through interviews with the writers of these papers that weren’t subjected to peer review or trials. Their word alone became gospel that was sold on television, radio and eventually podcasts and videos. Political action groups would craft model legislation based on the research and pollsters would push poll the ideas during elections; ideas that sounded familiar because voters had heard them on television, radio and eventually podcasts and videos.
Privately funded foundations would pump millions of dollars into candidates and elected officials to promote the legislation for these new, groundbreaking ideas while siphoning budget money from the old ideas to ensure their failure stood in stark contrast to the possibility and potential of the new unproven ones.
Foundations like the Bradley Foundation in Wisconsin. Here’s an excerpt from one of their promotional videos explaining their work:
“We further outstanding research, teaching and scholarship, and advance alternatives to K-12 public education monopolies. Bradley promotes the teaching of American Exceptionalism, encourages vocational training and other alternatives to university-based education and supports education for gifted students.”
In an August 2021 New Yorker magazine article, Jane Mayer wrote that the Bradley Foundation “has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules—a tactic once relegated to the far right and funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years.”
If Jane Mayer is writing about them, then we should pay attention. The Bradley Foundation moves opinions and puts money in very influential places. And if election fraud conspiracies are any barometer, it appears they’re pretty good at this. But destroying public education is their top priority.
Let’s examine the language from this brief but telling excerpt.
They refer to public K-12 schools as “monopolies”. Talk about actually teaching “American Exceptionalism.” Promote “vocational training,” another popular aspect of their ideology that smells of freedom but really stinks of economic suppression by another name. And, of course, providing opportunities for so-called “gifted students.” Fuck the learning impaired, persons with disabilities or the marginalized, food insecure or perhaps homeless children. Let’s somehow identify gifted students by some vague, subjective and unwritten metric and give them the money to succeed in schooling and life.
Here’s what the vaunted Cato Institute thinks about a post-COVID education landscape brimming with opportunities for children:
“Potentially far more valuable than giving districts autonomy is fundamentally changing the education structure by having the money follow children and giving educators autonomy to run schools and teach as they think best. This would create a system that is more flexible and innovative—with smaller schools able to more quickly respond to threats—and empower educators to try new things. That empowerment is key to getting more of the sorts of platforms, such as Google Classroom and Duolingo, that have enabled online education to become increasingly enriching. It is also crucial to enabling parents to find providers that will efficiently furnish education commensurate with families’ tolerance for risk.”
What the actual fuck? Listen to the language here. Empowerment. Innovative. Tolerance for risk. Kids aren’t a venture capital based tech startup. Duolingo? Seriously? We’ve used Duolingo and other apps for fun to brush up on subjects in our house, but if you think a fucking app is going to teach your child a new language you’re seriously mistaken.
Cato doesn’t end there. Far from it. They also believe that states should “open the doors wide to virtual charter schools.” Hey, the real life charter schools are no better than public schools so why not make them even less productive by putting them online?
The same asshats who railed against school closures saying kids need to be in class are now advocating for kids to stay home and sign up for option A, B, or C and Duo-fucking-lingo.
Education Savings Accounts
They want to accomplish this, by the way, through Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs; private accounts that are funded by non-profits and the state for parents to use at their discretion. Like how George W. Bush and Paul Ryan wanted to privatize Social Security through private savings accounts that retirees could invest in the stock market. Or how every Republican dickhead today wants to create medical savings accounts to do away with Medicare and Medicaid.
It’s always the same horrible fucking idea designed to take money from government programs and give them to unaccountable private enterprises and Wall Street.
The grandaddy think tank of them all, Heritage Foundation, says “In the modern era, America has never been closer than it is today to realizing Milton Friedman’s vision for universal education choice through education savings accounts.”
They even have an “Education Freedom Report Card” that ranks Florida and the best state in the country for “education freedom” with Arizona coming in second. Forget that the K-12 standardized test results—for better or worse—rank them 16th and 47th respectively.
A recent Salon piece dug into the report and offered this take:
“In the Heritage Foundation's inaugural ‘Education Freedom Report Card,’ the think tank is grading according to a different metric entirely: not things like average student funding, teacher salary or classroom size, but how easily state legislatures enable students to leave public schools; how lightly private schools and homeschooling are regulated; how active and welcome conservative parent-advocacy groups are; and how frequently or loudly those groups claim that schools are indoctrinating students.”
Other metrics include things like:
If ESA accounts are readily available.
Whether there are anti-critical race theory laws on the books.
How many groups like the Koch-backed Parents Defending Education groups there are.
Or if discussions of gender and sexuality are prohibited in the classroom.
The Conservative Long Game
It’s helpful to peruse the universe of libertarian think tanks to uncover their long-term plans. Here’s one that calls back to our second episode: Calling compulsory education unconstitutional. Surprise, surprise.
Here’s an excerpt from an unremarkable think tank called the Future of Freedom Foundation, only notable to an extent because its founder Jacob Hornberger ran to be the Libertarian presidential candidate in 2020. Fun fact, he lost to Jo Jorgenson and barely—and I mean barely mustered enough support to edge out this third candidate in the primary.
None other than 99’s favorite perennial candidate…Vermin Supreme.
That’s right. Vermin Supreme managed to get 206 votes at the convention to Hornberger’s 285 on the promise that every American would get a pony.
Anyway, here’s an excerpt from an article on the foundation website titled Compulsory Education - The Bane of Learning and Freedom:
“Compulsory education violates the liberty of all citizens – taxpayers and students alike, not only by forcing parents to subject their children to a state education but also with the coercive funding (i.e., taxation) used to force children’s attendance.”
Remember. This is where all this shit starts. On the think tank level. They sound a bit wacky at first, but hey, they’re from a think tank so you never know.
They might start by attacking truancy laws. It’s a fair place to start. That’s the ability to literally lock up parents and send children to juvenile detention for not attending school. They might attack state criteria for homeschooling and what passes for graduation standards. They might attack the legitimacy of district level funding mechanisms. None of these is an original thought.
These are all ideas that exist in the corners of the Libertarian and dark money sphere and they’re working their way into the mainstream through the language of choice and freedom. Every attack on critical race theory at a school board meeting, every mandate to loosen the cap on the number of charter schools, every mask mandate protest, every attack on collective bargaining, every dollar allocated to private and homeschooling vouchers. Every one of these is subterfuge for the larger dual agenda of the right wing hellscape of think tanks and money. To dumb down the electorate and to stop funding education with tax dollars.
So that’s the one-two punch from the Foundation and the Think Tank. But, as we covered, a successful propaganda campaign means you have to sell it to the public. And right on cue, here’s PragerU to tell us how schools should operate just like a business:
“What if schools had to compete for students in the same way that businesses have to compete for customers? Would schools get better or worse? There’s no need to guess. In almost every state and city where there is competition today, educational outcomes improve—often dramatically. This competition is called school choice, and many states and cities now embrace it. With the old model, under which most American children still live, the government—not the parent—decides which school children will attend. Now, here’s how school choice works: The money follows the student. Every child receives funding that their parents can direct to the school of their choice—public, private, charter or even homeschool.”
Again, I know it’s gauche to quote oneself. But, fuck you, PragerU.
Chapter Eleven: Bring it home, Max.
The choice isn’t whether or not individuals can and should choose what type of schooling they want. Children aren’t customers. Education isn’t a marketplace. It’s foundational and hopefully we’ve demonstrated that it is indeed fundamental. We can quibble over curriculum, standards, teaching to tests, open classrooms, constructivism versus behaviorism, mindfulness, experiential learning and other aspects of education.
The real choice is whether or not we’re going to take our investment into children and education seriously and treat it as a fundamental right.
Will we continue to make the choice to fund our schools and provide for our children? If every district was properly and equally funded, teachers were honored and compensated fairly, and resources were made available for all children and not just ones deemed gifted by some subjective standard, then outcomes would improve for everyone and not just a precious few who have the ability to navigate a system.
Why not make all schools excellent?
The idea that competition breeds efficiency and improves all stakeholders is folly. Think about this for a second. This is important. Competition breeds winners and losers. That is the nature of competition.
Here’s Derek Black again from Schoolhouse Burning:
“Rather than fundamentally change our democracy, they try to borrow democratic language and bend it toward their own ends. For instance, they frame charters, vouchers, and school choice issues as educational civil rights. They tap into natural sympathies toward seemingly powerless parents and claim the goal is to allow disadvantaged families to exercise the same choices as wealthy families. They tap into our constitutional commitments to parental autonomy and religious freedom by framing charters and vouchers as issues of personal liberty and religion. They even evoke the nation’s constitutional commitment to a right to education as they blur the lines between private and public education.”
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this series. Nothing I’ve said is intended to imply that we don’t have real world problems within the public school system. The problems that existed and were exacerbated by the pandemic. As a recent New York Times article on pandemic learning loss notes:
“The national test results capture both the initial academic declines and any recovery, and they offer some nuance. While there was a notable correlation between remote learning and declines in fourth-grade math, for example, there was little to no correlation in reading. Why the discrepancy? One explanation is that reading skills tend to be more influenced by parents and what happens at home, whereas math is more directly affected by what is taught in school.
“So remote learning does not explain the whole story. What else does? In a sophisticated analysis of thousands of public school districts in 29 states, researchers at Harvard and Stanford Universities found that poverty played an even bigger role in academic declines during the pandemic.”
Listen. There are bad teachers. In fact, there are many more now as a percentage of the teaching population because we’ve driven so many quality teachers from the profession. There have always been bad teachers. That’s true of any profession, mind you. We can all remember the ones that made us feel bad or stupid. Fuck, I remember a teacher slapping the shit out of a friend of mine while smoking a butt in the teacher’s lounge. (We were in the third grade.) But hopefully many of us remember the great ones who helped shape and guide us. Like my high school social studies teacher who ignited my passion for history and debate.
Teaching is part science, part art and entirely social and human. We cannot expect teachers to endure attacks from parents, school boards, administrators, media pundits and the wealthy libertarian class determined to tear down public education in service of their mission to dumb down the electorate.
But as the Harvard and Stanford study and myriad others have demonstrated over the years, there is a direct correlation between economic conditions and education outcomes.
It’s hard to learn when you’re hungry.
It’s hard to learn when you are sleep deprived.
It’s hard to learn when you live with the stresses of poverty that manifest in so many ways.
And it’s hard to teach when you don’t have science labs, instruments, gym equipment and textbooks.
When a school’s funding is dependent upon the tax base of its district and the state continues to cut funding; when students show up to class tired, stressed and hungry—maybe even sick; when teachers are attacked by parents who have direct lines of communication to them day and night; when their compensation is tied to artificial test results that are benchmarked against district with far fewer issues; when collective bargaining is gutted, contracts and raises are stalled and professional development is eliminated; the outcomes are inevitable and so is our response to them.
Throughout the expansion phase, the founders of this nation held close the sanctity of public education. Of course, this only extended to the privileged class of whites. The reconstruction phase sought to right this wrong and bring everyone into the fold and heroes such as Charles Sumner emerged to remind us of what we fought one another for. Of course, he didn’t get everything he wanted and while education was universal, it was separate and wholly unequal. Champions such as Houston, White and Marshall fought tirelessly to break down the barriers between us and succeeded well beyond what half of this country was ready for.
Now, in the era of privatization where Milton Friedman’s idea of vouchers gets even more perverted by libertarian advocates and big money donors in the worst game of telephone, we think private industry is coming to the rescue. For profit institutions with no accountability pocketing federal dollars and closing up shop. You think billionaires have the answers to public education?
Ask Bill Gates how that went.
Vouchers for private and parochial schools are cover for segregationist policies that mask our racist roots.
Remember how the attack started. With James Buchanan’s outrage over Brown v. The Board of Ed. That’s the anger that fuels the movement behind school choice. Arne Duncan, perhaps the most qualified candidate on paper to ever lead the Department of Education was no better than Betsy DeVos in practice.
And for that matter, since the Clinton era, Democrats have served as useful idiots to the school choice crowd. Shit, Republicans know the free market doesn’t work to benefit the public and lift people out of poverty. They know competition doesn’t breed success across the board, it creates winners and losers. Only Democrats still seem to believe in the promise of the free market to cure societal ills.
It was Clinton who took the white papers and ran with them, turning them into policy. This opened the door for Bush to double down with standardized testing and punitive measures against teachers, unions and children themselves. But it was Obama who attacked public education from all sides and paved the way for the likes of T***p and DeVos to gut as much faith in educators and the system as possible, particularly when the pandemic hit.
All of the information we need can be found in the think tanks. They’re putting it out there for everyone to see and even though it has taken decades, they’re winning the battle for hearts and minds. And we’re moving further from what those in the profession - the educators and administrators on the front lines who deal with systemic issues day in and day out—further from what they’re begging us to do. And that’s to protect our children.
So we know where to look for what’s next. It’s why I spent so much time on constitutionality. As sure as you’re listening to this series is as sure as they’re going to attack the fundamental nature of compulsory education. It’s the last step for them. The absolute way to dismantle the underpinnings of a system the founding fathers themselves wanted for this nation.
For all of their faults, they recognized that the United States of America could only succeed and prove that a democratic system could endure if it had an educated citizenry. They had the answers. What they didn’t have was the money. But we do now. The only problem is, we have all the money we need but we’re looking to the wrong people for how to spend it.
If we allow ourselves to dream a bit, and think big, we would make a wholesale change to the funding of the education system and strive for a more balanced and equitable equation. That’s how we ensure no child is left behind.
If you were to draw up a plan today there would be no district level property taxes to fund schools. There would be a universal tax in this country to fund education evenly across the board. Let’s say, for example, we funded every student at the same rate as Massachusetts—the state with the best and most consistent public education outcomes in the nation - and awarded that to districts evenly. That’s one of the highest per student spending, by the way.
The annual budget impact would be about $862 billion dollars, which would include all K-12 and charter school kids. It was always a mistake to fund schools through the local tax base because it baked inequality into the system. It guaranteed disparities in salaries and infrastructure and resources for students.
And, by the way, nothing would prevent states from filling in gaps where they felt it was warranted. States could maintain their own constitutions so long as they’re in alignment with the federal constitution, and also levy taxes to bolster funding. Or add early childhood education, and yes, even innovation centers within districts as charters were originally conceived.
Local districts would be able to hold fundraisers, solicit donations from organizations and parents to augment programs. Local districts would still retain budget authority over the use of funds for hiring, maintenance and programs. Would this work? Could this work? I don’t know, let’s ask these countries that outrank us we’re ranked number 16 among OECD countries in performance) and are predominantly or to a great extent funded by central authorities:
New Zealand - #4
The United Kingdom - #6
Ireland - #7
Austria - #8
France - #11
The Czech Republic - # 15
Also above us are countries that have a mixed formula like Canada, Australia, Belgium and Switzerland. Meaning they use a combination of federal tax and regional dollars with supplemental funds from local districts. Sort of like the United States, but upside down in terms of the levels of funding.
Then there are the nations that outrank us but draw funding for education entirely from local sources. Finland. Sweden and Norway. What’s the big difference here? Why are they better at it than us if we have the same funding model?
Because they don’t have such tremendous income inequality; they're starting from a more egalitarian baseline everywhere in the country.
This type of thinking might be too big. When the United States moves in a progressive direction, it’s always incremental. Which is why—once again I cannot believe I’m saying this—the Biden administration has signaled a shift in mindset that portends good things. Like many other initiatives, it’s not enough. But this administration is moving in a positive direction.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has been highlighted for his role in pausing and forgiving college debt. We’ve covered this in some detail. But what doesn’t make the headlines is what he’s done at the K-12 level to restore some sanity. Cardona has pushed the administration to allocate billions of dollars to mental health support and students with disabilities.
Moreover, as reported in EdWeek:
“The Biden administration last month announced proposed regulations that would require charter schools seeking federal funding to demonstrate widespread community interest in the program with the help of a survey and data showing over enrollment in local public schools. The proposal would also require private charter providers to partner with at least one local public school district on developing curriculum, professional development opportunities, behavioral interventions, or practices to help struggling students. For-profit operators would be barred from the federal grant program, which totals $440 million in Biden’s proposed education budget.”
The next two years will be a repeat of prior intractable and ugly stalemates in Congress. So we’ll be reliant on the powers vested in the Department of Education to manage policies and funding related to privatization efforts. We can only hope that the department is filled with well-meaning wonks who have studied the data and recognize the dangers lurking around the corner, in every think tank boardroom and in state legislatures that have been historically opposed to federal authority in education.
For now, we can do our part. And that starts with lifting up our educators and listening to the experts. By dialing back the vicious attacks on teachers. Supporting collective bargaining. Sounding the alarm in conversations and online when you hear euphemisms like choice, freedom and vouchers. Share positive experiences and interactions with school teachers. Attend local school board meetings and drown out the racists and homophobes.
Education is a fundamental right.
School choice is rooted in racism.
Hug a teacher.
Here endeth the lesson.
National Center For Education Statistics: Results from the NAEP 2022 Mathematics & Reading Assessments at Grades 4 & 8
National Foundation for Educational Research: OECD Funding Models
Peter G. Peterson Foundation: How Is K-12 Education Funded?
Resilient Educator: Your Guide to Education Lingo
Pew Research Center: Religion in the Public Schools
Salon: Florida ranked No. 1 for “education freedom” — by right-wing group that wants to privatize it all
Heritage Foundation: Education Freedom Report Card
The New York Times: Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools
NY Daily News: Fix this wasteful federal charter-school fund
The Nation’s Report Card: Student Performance Across Subjects
EdWeek: Lawmakers, Education Secretary Clash Over Charter School Rules
Teaching Certification: Education Spending by State – How does your state compare?
Howard Gardner: Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences
Nelson Lichtenstein: State of the Union: A Century of American Labor
Derek W. Black: Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy
Nancy McLean: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America