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Milton Friedman: the Father of School Privatization
Milton Friedman, the father of neoliberal economics, is also the father of the school privatization movement. He initially envisioned (in 1955) using a school voucher system to incrementally privatize public schools. Under such a system, a student receives a voucher valued at the ''per pupil equivalent'' (i.e. the amount the government would pay for their public education – in the 1990s when the first voucher programs started, this was between $2,000-3,000). The child's parent then applies the voucher towards the $10,000-20,000 private school tuition.
Shortly after his election in 1980, Ronald Reagan and his secretary of education William Bennett (who coined the term ''throwing money at schools'') began an unprecedented and far reaching attack on teachers, teachers unions and school district bureaucracy. Bennett liked to refer to school boards and school districts as ''the blob.'' One of the goals of school privatization is to replace democratically elected school boards - accountable to both parents and the public - with a more efficient corporate-style board, which would meet privately and be shielded from public scrutiny and the Freedom of Information Act.
Reagan accompanied his public attack on teachers and public schools with a simultaneous 50% cut in federal Title I funding for schools in low income districts. His attempt to push voucher legislation through Congress failed, owing to concerns that the use of vouchers at private religious schools violated constitutional provisions regarding separation of church and state. At this point Reagan backtracked, promoting school choice via the creation of privately run ''charter'' schools, subsidized with state, local and federal education funds.
Enter the Right Wing Think Tanks
Bush senior restored Reagan's cuts to Title 1, though he promoted the concept of school choice and the development of voucher programs on a state-by-state basis. It was right wing philanthropists and their corporate funding think tanks who provided most of the momentum behind the charter school movement when the first charter school opened in 1991. The long list of conservative think tanks that pushed for charter schools includes the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, Black America's Political Action Committee, the Cato Institute, Center for the Study of Popular Cultures, the Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, Hispanic Alliance for Progress Institute, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and the Hoover Institution. (See http://www.counterpunch.org/weil08262009.html).
In 2011, the school privatization movement (aka the charter school movement) is no longer a movement, but a Big Business. Predictably Obama, as in the case of the Wall Street bank bailouts and ObamaCare, his corporate welfare scheme for insurance and drug companies, has come down on the side of Big Business. This means that teachers unions – under growing attack in state capitols – are Americans' last line of defense in the war against public education. And millions of American children are at great peril of losing public education as a basic democratic right.
Ignoring the Research
The so-called education reform debate is centered, as always, around low performing, mainly minority students in inner city schools. Traditionally public education has been funded by local government through property taxes. It seems totally predictable that children in wealthy districts who attend small classes with well-paid teachers would have higher achievement levels than students in poor school districts with understaffed schools and limited access to textbooks and other resources. Unsurprisingly more than fifty years of research bears this out. Nevertheless educators and political leaders who try increase funding to poor school districts are demonized for ''throwing money'' at the problem.
Neoliberal Republicans and Tea Partiers (and now Barack Obama and Department of Education director Arne Duncan) give lip service to improving achievement levels for students in inner city schools. However instead of improving funding to these struggling schools, the one intervention supported by statistical research, they continue to aggressively shift education funding from public schools to private charter schools. The other research they ignore is a recent Stanford University study showing that charter school programs don't improve achievement levels in minority students. In 2009 the Stanford University center for Research on Educational Outcomes released the exhaustive study Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States (see http://www.counterpunch.org/weil08262009.html). Here are some of the results of this investigation into 2,403 charter schools in 16 states:
17% of students showed significant gains compared to public school students.
Overall math learning in charter schools lagged by .03 standard deviations behind that of public schools.
Overall reading gains in charter school students lagged .01 standard deviations behind public school students. Black and Hispanic students (the ones specifically targeted by the charter school movement) did significantly worse in both reading and math compared to public school students.
The Peer Teaching/Tutoring Approach to Reform
The other research neoliberal conservatives like to ignore relates to the most cost effective approach to educational reform - one that doesn't require additional funding - namely the wide scale adoption of peer teaching/tutoring protocols, in which students themselves become part of the teaching team. Twenty years of peer reviewed research (links provided below) demonstrates that this is the most economical and easiest type of reform to implement, as well as vastly more effective in improving achievement than computer-assisted instruction, reduced class size, extended school days and other perks promised by many charter schools.
Links to Peer Teaching/Tutoring research and manuals:
The Charter School Industry
(March 24, 2011)
''Charter schools were a movement, but now charter schools are an industry. They have lobbyists -- they walk around in thousand-dollar suits, some of them.'' Dan Gaetz, Florida freshman senator (R) and former Okaloosa school superintendent (see “Neo-liberalism: the leveraging of charter schools with public and private funds” in the November 2009 Dissident Voice)
No Child Left Behind
George W. Bush was the first to authorize federal funding to stimulate charter school development in the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB also strengthened requirements for states to implement minimum standards testing to qualify for federal education funds. Unbeknown to most Americans, this policy was actually initiated by Clinton, though not stringently enforced. As attorney and progressive education reformer Danny Weil (*see below) points out, the true purpose of NCLB wasn't to improve the performance of low income minority students - or it would have made some effort to guarantee their school districts more equitable funding. Its main purpose was to use standardized tests to massively highly the poor performance of these schools - to further bolster support for the burgeoning school privatization movement.
Bush junior wisely left responsibility for school voucher programs to the states. Uptake of school vouchers by low income minority parents has been spotty. This is really no surprise, given that vouchers (limited to the ''per pupil equivalent'') cover only a fraction of the tuition charged by private schools.
''Throwing Money'' at Charter Schools
The low per pupil equivalent - which ironically highlights progressives' claims of serious underfunding - has also been a major problem for the charter school movement. According to the Education Policy Studies Laboratory http://www.lwvny.org/advocacy/education/charter_sch_bib032307.pdf no charter school is likely to succeed without substantial for-profit or non-profit funding to supplement meager per pupil funding limits. What I find even more ironic, in view of the conservative rallying cry of not ''throwing money'' at public schools, is the vast amounts of private sector money being invested in publicly subsidized schools.
Make no mistake, charter schools are big business. Large charter school chains like Green Dot, KIPP, Alliance Schools and YES Prep Public Schools are squeezing out many of their community-based competitors. Moreover, owing to generous support from the US Department of Education, the non-governmental financing sector for charter schools has grown by leaps and bonds. Presently twenty-five private, non-profit organizations collectively provide over $600 million in direct financial support to charter schools. In addition, Standard and Poor and Moody's list over seventy rated charter school bonds totaling over $1 billion.
These private funding sources leverage a variety of federal monies to supplement low state and local ''per pupil equivalents.'' In addition to Title I funding, the US Department of Education has awarded $50 million of grants through two programs administered by the Office of Innovation and Improvement: the Credit Enhancement for Charter School Facilities Program and the State Charter School Facilities Incentive Grants Program. This supplements four federal programs administered by other federal agencies that charter schools can access for their facilities needs: the Public Assistance Grant Program (administered by FEMA), the New Markets Tax Credit Program and the Qualified Zone Academy Bond Program (both administered by the US Treasury), and Community Programs (administered by the Department of Agriculture).
Should We Allow Conservative Philanthropists to Run Our Schools?
A final source of charter school funding is the New Schools Venture Fund created in 1998, which hosts funding by conservative-leaning mega charities, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walmart Foundation.
Why do millionaires and billionaires donate hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools? Danny Weil calls it priming the pump. Neoliberals have strong ideological reasons for seeking to dismantle traditional public education. They know that the charter school movement has the potential to capture billions of public education dollars for profit-oriented ventures. However owing to the low per pupil equivalents for disadvantaged students, new privately run charter schools are unlikely to succeed without outside support. And despite claims to the contrary, corporate donors know that ''throwing money at schools'' allows them to attract and retain the best teachers - and in the long run, improve student achievement.
Moreover in a number of cases, these donors have been invited to serve as board members on charter school chains with major governing responsibilities - offering them an extraordinary amount of control over curriculum, textbooks and potentially the ideological bent of the schools they oversee (e.g. whether they teach evolution or its fundamentalist Christian alternative Creative Design).
For-profit Companies Circle Like Sharks
The massive growth in charter schools and the funding to support them has also led to a burgeoning industry that applies for and distributes grants, as well as hundreds of companies that sell ''educational products and services.'' And although technically all charter school financing schemes are non-profit -- they generate a phenomenal number of for-profit contracts for companies marketing curriculum and textbooks, computers, software and administrative, clerical and security services.
One example is Ignite, an educational software company founded and run by the former president's brother Neil Bush. It sells its wares to Florida charter schools, courtesy of another brother, ex-governor Jeb Bush.
Obama’s Neoliberal Stance on School Privatization
Of the last five presidents, Barack Obama is clearly the staunchest ally of the school privatization movement. In addition to pushing generous increases to charter school funding, the Obama administration also included a provision in the 2009 stimulus package forcing states to liberalize and/or expand their charter school programs or miss out on $100 billion in public school stimulus funding. Many states, which are already closing schools and laying off teachers, have a cap on charter school formation because they can't afford further decreases in their public school budget. Due to the failure of charter schools to improve achievement scores (see previous article ''The War on Public Education''), they can't make the case to voters for establishing more of them, given the additional cuts this would impose on public schools. Others, in Ohio, for example, have had serious problems (owing to lack of public oversight) with fraud and corruption in privately run charter schools. Nevertheless thanks to Obama, all states must authorize the formation of charter schools – without funding caps – or miss out on badly needed stimulus funding.
Arne Duncan's Record in Chicago
Obama's appointment of Arne Duncan, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools to head the Department of Education, suggests states will continue to be under enormous pressure to de-fund public schools - and that many more will close. While running Chicago schools, Duncan - in collaboration with Mayor Daley's office and Chicago's corporate elite - pursued an aggressive school privatization agenda. In 2004, this included an attempt to close twenty out of twenty-two schools in a low income minority community. The effort was clearly linked to the mayor's and property developers' efforts to ''gentrify'' the neighborhood - to force out minority residents and glam up their properties for re-sale to white upper middle class professionals. Closing their neighborhood schools would leave low income residents no choice but to leave.
Fortunately residents’ militant protests stopped the arbitrary school closures. Duncan responded with a draconian decree under No Child Left Behind ordering immediate closure (with no probationary period) of schools where students failed to pass standardized tests. He simultaneously paved the way for the schools to be turned over to private charter school operators funded by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Walmart Foundation).
The Role of the Corporate Media
It should also be no surprise that the corporate controlled media is beating the drums for the neoliberal agenda to privatize schools. As Danny Weil outlines in ''Corporate School Hype and How It's Managed,'' NPR, CNN, PBS, 20/20 and Oprah Winfrey are all guilty of staging free ''informercials'' promoting charter schools and school privatization as a solution to the ''crisis'' in public education. No pro-public school advocates are invited to challenge the assertions presented, and there is no disclosure of ideological or financial (as in the case of controversial civil rights leader Al Sharpton) ties to right wing think tanks and school privatization proponents (see http://www.counterpunch.org/weil08262009.html).
*Danny Weil is the author of the groundbreaking 2009 expose The Charter School Movement: a Reference Manual. He has published several eye opening chapters from the book in Counterpunch and Dissident Voice.
The Private Prison Industrial Complex
(November 22, 2011)
I first became concerned about America 's growing prison industrial complex as a private practice psychiatrist in California and Washington between 1978 and 2002. What I witnessed, in essence, was closure of most US mental hospitals in the late seventies and early eighties, which culminated in the de factor transfer of tens of thousands of mentally ill Americans from hospitals to prisons.
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