We had Patty’s folks over for a cookout last night. Patty’s dad taught high school biology for 35 years, God bless him, and while we were grilling the veggie-burgers, I asked him about charter schools. “They seem to be popping up everywhere,” I said. “They must be doing a bang-up job. Are they going to replace public schools?”
He took his time. Walt knows his own mind. He’s a pessimist, but usually a cheerful one.
“I spent my whole career in public schools, of course,” he began. “So maybe I’m biased. I know you can find dedicated, passionate, effective teachers in all kinds of schools--public, religious, charter, private, what have you. So I’m not going to knock teachers anywhere who love kids and pour everything they’ve got into teaching. But if we’re talking about a system rather than teachers in it, I’m opposed to charter schools.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Why’s that?”
“The thing about charter schools is that they’re public schools, in one sense, because they operate with public money,” he said. “But they’re private in the sense that they’re not staffed or managed or operated by the public. I think you need to begin by asking yourself why these different schools exist.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “They’re all there for the same purpose, aren’t they? To teach kids?”
“Not quite,” Walt said. “The public schools that took shape after John Dewey--the kind I was a part of--had two reasons for existing: to help kids develop their interests and abilities as far as they could go, and to prepare them to be informed and active citizens in a democracy. Those two things go together. When all kids have the chance to chase their dreams, democracy is promoted and energized. Good public education really is the cornerstone of democracy. Or at least it was before unequal funding, the explosion of private schools following desegregation, and that test-driven No Child Left Behind abomination.”
“And you’re saying charter schools are different?”
He started flipping the burgers over. “I’m sure there are some charter schools operated by intelligent and well-meaning people who are doing their best to provide a great education for kids. Those are a minority, and I’m not talking about them. The bulk of charter schools are corporate creations. They exist to make money. To be fair, some of them are run as non-profits. But even then, some that are technically non-profits are actually hooked up with corporations that supply materials and equipment. Those corporations do make a profit--and they’re owned by the same people who operate the supposedly non-profit schools.”
“So the corporate operators make some money. What’s the problem?” I asked. “Teachers and principals and school secretaries and cooks and janitors--they don’t work for nothing. I don’t mean to step on your toes, but you drew a paycheck.”
“I didn’t exactly get rich,” he said ruefully. “If I had, we’d be grilling filet mignon instead of veggie-burgers. You’re right, but you’re missing something.”
“I’ve been told that all my life,” I said. “I’m beginning to think there’s more of me missing than is actually here. What is it this time?”
Walt laughed. “In both charter schools and public schools it’s tax money footing the bill. When the money goes to real public schools, 100% of it goes to provide education. But these charter school corporations are looking for say a 10% to 15% return on their investment. So only 85% to 90% of the money they get goes to provide education. The rest goes into corporate executives’ or shareholders’ pockets as profit. For school systems of any size, that’s millions skimmed off that could have been spent to benefit kids.”
“A lot of these charter schools are businesses. Just keep reminding yourself of that. Whatever pretty face they put on it, making money is why they were created. That’s the nature of business, right? It’s profit driven. So by their very nature, kids and everything else take second place. And I can pretty much guarantee you that their corporate goals don’t include nourishing democracy.”
“Okay, I get it. They’re businesses. So?”
“So what do you as a taxpayer want? A system that has profit as its primary motive or a system that has education as its primary motive? Do you want a system where 10% or 15% of your education budget gets siphoned off, or one where 100% of it goes toward educating kids?”
“Well, it’s probably not that simple,” I countered. “The charter schools may just operate more efficiently, and deliver a better product for less money. That’s the beauty of private enterprise.”
“That’s always the claim, isn’t it, for these privatizers?” Walt asked--a little testily, I thought. “They don’t deliver a better product. In study after study, regular public schools do just as well as charter schools or actually outperform them. But charter school promoters ignore actual outcomes and keep on claiming they can deliver superior results You seem to have bought into it. Do you want me to tell you what their ‘efficiency’ actually consists of?”
“I’m not sure I could stop you,” I joked.
“These things are about done,” he said, poking a fork into a couple. “Hold that platter and I’ll start pulling them from the grill.” Without breaking conversational stride he said, “Their so-called efficiency comes down to three things.” He jabbed the fork sharply into a patty and threw it on the platter.
“One,” he said. “Do less. Focus on math and reading, because those are the be-all and end-all of test scores. To hell with art and music and history and civics and phys ed.” He angrily speared another patty.
“Two,” he bellowed. “Staff less! Set kids in front of computers part of the day and run them through drills and online programs. Computers are cheaper than teachers. They don’t unionize, and you don’t have to pay into Social Security, unemployment insurance, and teachers retirement funds for them.”
He was getting red in the face. “Three!” he bellowed, running the fork clear through a patty and splitting it in two. “Pay less! Get the cheapest staff you can! If you’re lucky, you’ll get some idealistic teachers who want to be part of something new that will help kids. But a lot of the staff you get will likely be young or desperate, inexperienced or under-qualified. Whoever will work for bottom dollar!”
“Calm down there, Walt,” I counseled him, “or we’re not gonna have enough burgers to go around.” He took a deep breath, like a basketball player at the foul line. “You know, there’s something about what you’re saying that sounds familiar,” I told him, scratching my head.
“It ought to,” he said. “Whether it’s schools or private prisons or all these military contractors or private water corporations or the prescription drug program, it’s the same strategies and the same pitch: ‘Anything public is bureaucratic and second class. We can do it better for less.’ Charter schools are a way of throwing in the towel on public education. They divert money and energy and attention away from solving real problems in public schools and into corporate executives‘ pockets. At worst, they’re part of a deliberate attempt to discredit and undermine public institutions and the unions that have traditionally been associated with them.”
“You’re claiming charter schools are part of a broader movement?”
“Sure. There’s no government service too good for privatizers to screw up while they’re making a buck. They’re like cowbirds, always looking for another public nest to parasitize, always croaking the same tune. Public money is the new frontier for entrepreneurs. We’re living a modern version of the destruction of the commons. It’s like a gold rush to loot public funds.”
“Hey, I’m getting swamped with similes and metaphors,” I complained.
“When you’re driving a nail into hard wood, you have to hit it more than one time,” he said.
© Tony Russell, 2014