Archive for July, 2014

More Evidence that Privatization Fails

July 31, 2014 Comments off

I’ve read way too many articles of late that give examples of the failings of privatized charter schools and seen way too many articles touting them as the cure-all for the failings of “government-run” schools. Two recent examples are Allie Gross’ Jacobin article “The Charter School Profiteers” describing her experiences working as a Teach For America staff member in a Detroit Charter that received glowing publicity despite its shortcomings and Jeff Bryant’s recent EducationOpportunityNetwork article “The Truth Behind the New Orleans School Reform Model” which describes how charter school profiteers “juke the stats” to “prove” that their privatized schools are performing well.

Gross’ article describes how a charismatic self-promoter, Jesse Kilgore made large sums of money through various “consulting services” he provided to schools in Detroit. Gross describes Kilgore as the “paradigmatic example” of the “education entrepreneur”, an individual who can thrive in the for-profit education word as described below:  

In the chaos of the Detroit school system, education entrepreneurs see an opportunity for experimentation, innovation, and venture capital. And the decentralized nature of charter schools works to their advantage. With little coherence across schools, the issue of serial education entrepreneurs emerges. Those with limited track records of success are able to wedge their ways into school after school, with nobody checking up on past performance.

Kilgore. like many “education entrepreneurs”, has the ability to raise huge sums of money through foundations and hedge funders and the ability to sell politicians and the public on the idea that “the market” can cure all the ills of public education. In the most telling paragraphs of her essay, Gross writes:

When we welcome schools that lack democratic accountability (charter school boards are appointed, not elected), when we allow public dollars to be used by those with a bottom line (such as the for-profit management companies that proliferate in Michigan), we open doors for opportunism and corruption. Even worse, it’s all justified under a banner of concern for poor public school students’ well-being.

While these issues of corruption and mismanagement existed before, we should be wary of any education reformer who claims that creating an education marketplace is the key to fixing the ills of DPS or any large city’s struggling schools. Letting parents pick from a variety of schools does not weed out corruption. And the lax laws and lack of accountability can actually exacerbate the socioeconomic ills we’re trying to root out.

Urban school districts were generally not well managed. Some board members and politicians rewarded loyal supporters and campaign contributors with positions in schools ranging from custodians to central office administrators and the competence and commitment of those appointees varied widely. But board members and politicians are democratically elected and an informed and engaged electorate combined with a free and open press could insist on changes and improvements. Instead of having a flawed democratic system that allows politicians to provide patronage jobs to loyal supporters we now have a flawed market-based system that encourages greedy entrepreneurs to provide patronage to equally rapacious politicians.

Bryant’s article details the way the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) manipulated reporting data in a way that SHOULD be monitored by the State Department of Education… but is standard operating procedure in today’s deregulated state department environment. In the lengthy rebuttal-to-a-rebuttal he demonstrates:

  • how the State department manipulated cut scores on standardized tests to create higher “grades” for the privatized RSD schools,
  • how the NAEP scores have remained unchanged despite the alleged “gains” made as a result of privatization
  • how pre-Katrina and post-Katrina comparisons of New Orleans are flawed because of the outmigration of a substantial number of needy students following the storm, and
  • how the notion of “choice” is virtually non-existent since the higher performing schools have no seats available for students seeking entry.

In summary, Bryant debunks every claim of success made by politicians in the state, claims of success that Bryant laments have been hailed by politicians in both national parties.

Privatization is, again, shown to be a cheap, easy, fast but BAD solution to a complicated problem that will require time, money, and hard work. In the end, cheap-easy-fast ALWAYS appeals to voters more than expensive-hard-slow…


Infrastructure Matters

July 31, 2014 Comments off

The recent flood at UCLA caused by a broken 93-year old underground pipe SHOULD be a wake up call for legislators across the country: our infra-structure is breaking and we need need to spend money to upgrade it as soon as possible. Broken 93 year-old underground pipes are a clear manifestation of the problem… but our country’s education infrastructure’s “leaks” are comparable. Many of our dilapidated schools need new roofs, new furniture, new HVAC systems, and upgraded windows and doors…. and the schools needing the greatest improvements are those located in economically deprived districts or neighborhoods. Virtually all of our schools have outmoded telecommunication infrastructures and many (if not a majority) of students do not have access to high speed internet. How can we hope to succeed in the future if we don’t invest in our facilities today? How can we expect students attending school in decrepit facilities to believe they have an equal opportunity for success when they watch TV shows illustrating the technology available in the affluent districts in our nation?

Efficiency is the Enemy Redux

July 30, 2014 Comments off

Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University, has a powerful essay in today’s NYTimes. The title, “Detroit’s Drought of Democracy” could just as easily been “Efficiency Undercuts Democracy”, for his primary argument is that the decision of MI lawmaker to appoint an “emergency manager” with dictatorial powers is based on the premise that efficiency can only be achieved by assigning unquestioned authority to one individual. While there are other factors at play (e.g. the racism that exists in MI that is manifest in the demographics of communities in that state), Stanley focuses on the creed that efficiency is good… and shatters it completely. Stanley uses the emergency manager’s decision to shut off water to Detroit residents as the example of how efficiency does not result in public well being… but the same logic applies to the takeover of public schools, as noted in my comments to several quotes I gleaned from the essay:  

The discretion inherent in executive power is being exercised to maximize financial efficiency. But there is no obvious connection between financial efficiency and the public good.

The use of part-time staff by McDonalds and Walmart are financially efficient… but not serving the public well. The practice of inversion as noted in earlier posts is financially efficient… but not at all connected to the public good. Privatized schools that hire untrained and low wage teachers to prepare students to do well on standardized tests are financially efficient… but do nothing to help the public good.

The 19th-century French political philosopher Benjamin Constant worried that appeals to the common good were often not made for democratic purposes, but rather served to “supply weapons and pretexts to all kinds of tyranny.” One may suspect Michigan’s appeal to financial efficiency has a similar purpose.

The “reformers” civil rights arguments are an appeal to the common good that are used to justify the privatization of public schools and the governance of those schools by shareholders instead of elected school board.

Singapore is a state that values efficiency above all. But by no stretch of the imagination is Singapore a democratic state. A society ruled by technocrats who make decisions on behalf of the masses is, since Plato’s time, regarded as a system that is opposed to democracy, rather than one exemplifying it.

The technology CEOs value the wisdom of technocrats over the wisdom of practitioners and virtually all CEOs value the fast decision-making that comes from top-down leadership over the messy, plodding deliberations that are a part of democracy.

This is not to deny that the Detroit emergency manager’s policies are efficient for some people. For example, they are efficient for the banks that are being paid back for what look to be ethically dubious loans, as well as for those who stand to benefit from the potentially huge profits of privatizing one of the world’s great freshwater supplies at a time of increasing global water scarcity.

The banks may not benefit from the privatization of schools, but there ARE huge profits that could be made from making schools “financially efficient”… and when the “financially efficient” profit motive trumps the public good, our country is wasting one the world’s greatest untapped resources: our students.

It is simply no surprise at all that a democratic state can be less efficient than some nondemocratic states. In a democracy, someone who would be a good doctor is allowed to be a bad lawyer. Autonomy cannot be subsumed to efficiency in a democracy.

A democratic state accepts some messiness and some inefficiency as a trade off for allowing everyone to have stake in determining the direction the government is taking. And here is the most telling quote:

The chief values of democracy are freedom and equality. The  willingness to subsume freedom to claims of efficiency is one sign of an undemocratic culture.

I drew on this quote in making a comment I wrote, noting the parallel between what is happening in Detroit and what is happening in public education:

This article describes the rationale used by “reformers” to privatize public education. By using standardized tests as the basis for determining which schools and districts are “failing” states proclaimed the existence of an “emergency”. The states and/or mayors then took the authority to govern schools away from locally elected officials and shifted it to mayors and governors many of whom, in turn, gave authority to unelected shareholders of privatized schools. Jason Stanley writes: “The chief values of democracy are freedom and equality. The willingness to subsume freedom to claims of efficiency is one sign of an undemocratic culture.” The willingness to ignore inequality is another sign… and our decision to ignore the impact of poverty on schools and undercutting locally elected is corroding our democracy and not helping our children.

If taking power away from locally elected officials (e.g. school boards) made a difference, Newark NJ, Chester and Philadelphia PA, and Chicago IL schools would be outperforming all schools in the country. By ignoring the inequality of wealth between those urban areas and the surrounding suburbs and exurbs and emphasizing the need for “financial efficiency” we’ve delivered two blows to “the chief values of democracy”.