Home > Uncategorized > When Charter Schools Compete in an Unregulated Marketplace, Cash Incentives Unsurprising

When Charter Schools Compete in an Unregulated Marketplace, Cash Incentives Unsurprising

May 26, 2018

Intercept writer Rachael Cohen published an article last week describing the KIPP Charter Chain’s practices of issuing cash incentives to parents who enrolled in Southern California’s schools. In keeping with the Intercept’s standards, Ms. Cohen’s essay was well researched and alarming. In the introductory paragraphs she writes:

…In recent years, some charter schools have discreetly turned to a controversial recruitment strategy: offering low-income families cash stipends or other prizes in exchange for drawing new students into their schools.

The practice is a not-much-discussed part of the school choice debate, and it’s not well-known how widespread it is either. This is in large part because schools are typically under no obligation to report it. Critics say these incentives amount to unethical bribes targeting primarily low-income families, though defenders say they’re just shrewd marketing techniques.

The article does not link the bottom line on this issue: that “shrewd marketing techniques” are only needed when public schools are thought of as commodities instead of public goods. Police departments and fire departments, for example, do not worry about the need for “shrewd marketing techniques”because SO FOR no one has advocated that they “compete” in an open market. But the relentless message that “schools are failing” combined with the message that “competition is the solution” is resulting in a mental formation among voters that the only way to “fix” schools is to conceive of them as a commodity that can be marketed and sold. And the results, especially when transparency disappears as it does in the private sector, is unwholesome. Ms. Cohen concludes her article with a quote that underscores this reality:

Sarah Butler Jessen, an education professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service and co-author of a new book, “Selling School: The Marketing of Public Education,” told The Intercept that she’s never heard of schools offering families cash incentives for recruitment, but that she’s not surprised, either.

“Part of the reason this doesn’t surprise me is because there isn’t a lot of transparency with these activities. There is no requirement that schools report practices like this,” she said, adding that charters, as privately managed organizations, are generally subject to different public reporting guidelines.

“It can be really difficult to get the inside information, even from teachers and certainly from administrators who would be able to speak to these larger policies,” Jessen said. “It’s just hard to track.”

When schools ever the marketplace, they are no longer required to retain the openness that accompanies democratic oversight… and profiteering and outright bribery follows closely behind.

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