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More Evidence that Privatization Fails

July 31, 2014

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…


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