Monday, April 28, 2014

Cowbirds, the Gold Rush, and Charter Schools

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

The World’s Longest and Quietest Coup d’Etat

I woke up with a start this morning.  “What is it, Ace?” asked Patty.

“I don’t know,” I muttered sleepily.  “There’s something different.”  I looked around.  “I just can’t put my finger on it.”

“Different how?” she asked.  “Different good or different bad.”

“Good, it feels good.”

Her eyes swept the room, and then she gave a little laugh.  “It’s sunshine, Ace.  With daylight savings time, and after that long stretch of gray days and white snows, it’s really spring!  We’re waking up to sunshine!”

So I was feeling pretty chipper after I’d had my bacon and eggs and cereal and banana and orange juice and was on my way to work.  And there, just leaving the house down the block was my neighbor’s foreign exchange student.

Why not?  Feeling expansive, I gave a beep of the horn.  When he looked back at me, I rolled down the window and yelled, “I’m going your way.  Come on, I’ll give you a ride.”

He trudged over, as loaded down as a prospector’s mule.  “Good morning, sir,” he said.  “Thank you for stopping.  I would welcome a lift.”

“You’re always carrying a heap of books, Abdul,” I said, “but you might have broken the record this time.”

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “my name is Aadil, not Abdul.”

“Oh.  Sorry about that,” I apologized.  “It’s hard to remember strange combinations of letters that don’t mean anything.  It’s like those tests where they ask you to memorize a list of nonsense words.  They go in one ear and out the other.”  

“Yes, I am familiar with such experiments,” he said carefully.  “In Arabic, my name means ‘honorable’ or ‘just,‘ but of course it is alien to your culture.”

“Why all the books?  Got a big test coming up?”

His face lit up.  “No, no test,” he said.  “I have changed the direction of my research, and there is so much background I must master in a very brief time.  But this is truly an exciting opportunity for me.”

“How so?” I said.  “What’re you working on?”

“My dissertation is an attempt to statistically verify the proposition that democracy in government is directly proportional to the degree of income equality.”

“Could you break that down to ordinary English?” I said.

He paused.  “The idea is that the more evenly the wealth of a country is shared, the more it operates democratically.  And the more unevenly the wealth is divided, with more and more of the wealth going to fewer and fewer people, the less it operates democratically.”

“Ah, I get it,” I said.  “The more equal the incomes, the more democracy.  The less equal the incomes, the less democracy.  So what’s the new direction in your research that has you all fired up?”

He hesitated.  “The coup d’état of April 2,” he said finally.  

“Coup d’état?” I said. “Where?”

“Where?” he said, looking puzzled.  “In the United States.  Surely as a newsman, sir, you have been following a story of such magnitude closely.”

“A coup d’état in the United States?” I said, as we got caught by a red light.  “What are you talking about?”

  “The conversion of your form of government from a democracy to an oligarchy.” he explained.  “The coup that culminated just two weeks ago when your Supreme Court took the final step in overthrowing your democracy.”

A cloud must have drifted overhead.  The bright sunlight of a few minutes ago was dimming.  “Overthrowing our democracy?” I said.  “I haven’t heard anything about it.  Are you sure?”

“I’m afraid so, sir.  Of course this has been a long time unfolding:  the world’s longest and quietest coup d’état!  It had none of the usual trappings.  No troops rolling into the heart of the capital in tanks, no gunfire, no generals making announcements that they would be ruling until a new civilian leader was installed, no new figurehead promoted to head of state.  With its lack of dramatic video footage, the coup simply wasn’t made for TV.”

I was starting to feel dizzy.  “The Supreme Court did that?” How?”

“With the McCutcheon versus Federal Election Commission ruling they delivered on April 2,” he said, as if he expected me to know what he was talking about.  “It follows their earlier Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission of January, 2010.  You may remember our conversation about that decision last fall.”

“Now that you mention it, yes,” I said, and my head was still swimming.  Or was it the world around me that was swirling, at the same time it seemed to be growing darker and darker?

“All it required was the votes of five of your Supreme Court justices, as they are called.  Are their titles not ironic, sir?  They formally withdrew control of your government from the people in common and ceded it to a wealthy few.  The Court’s latest decision was simply the crowning act, if you will, bestowing constitutional blessing on the coup.”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” I said, shaking my head to clear it.  “Why is it so dark?  Is an eclipse taking place today?”

“You didn’t notice the coup, sir?” he asked.  “According to my preliminary polling, that is one of its most remarkable aspects.  Few of your citizens are even aware of what has happened.  Yet with the Court’s decisions, the democratic legitimacy of your government was destroyed.  Your elections have been replaced by selections.”

The dizziness was back.  “Selections?  Instead of elections?”

“The wealthy few will now have carte blanche to select candidates, spend as they wish on campaigns, and usher their choices into office.”  

This guy was a raving lunatic, I thought, wondering if it was safe to be in the car with him.  “Don’t be absurd,” I told him.  “It will never come to that.” 

He just looked at me, a little sadly, then reached into a folder and pulled out several sheets of paper.  “It is already happening, and from now on it will become the norm.  Please take a look at this material I printed from the Internet a few days ago,” he said, and handed it to me.  

I pulled over to the curb, and he sat quietly, looking out the window, while I turned on the dome light and read it.  It was a report on a four-day retreat for Republican donors, hosted by Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas multi-billionaire who made his fortune with gambling casinos.  He spent $100 million backing Republican candidates in 2012, and plans to spend more the next time around.  He had summoned several GOP presidential prospects to audition in front of his guests and himself--including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Scott Walker.

“The guy summons potential presidents to his conference as if they were auditioning for the lead in a play he’s producing?” I said, incredulous.

“As you can see,” he said.   “Here is some more information you may have missed.”  He handed me more papers.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with this dome light,” I said.  “That’s not bright enough to read by.  Reach under your seat and get me the flashlight, will you?”  He looked at me oddly, and then pulled out the flashlight and handed it to me.

I skimmed the articles.  The Koch brothers and their ally Art Pope, a millionaire discount department store owner whose chains include Roses, Maxway, Super Dollar, Treasure Mart, and Value Mart stores, had financed a takeover of the North Carolina state government by the most far-right elements of the Republican Party.  The Koch-Pope-financed governor, Pat McCrory, had then put Pope in charge of the North Carolina state budget.

“They flipped the government of an entire state by only spending a few million dollars?”  I asked.  I was starting to sweat, although it was growing colder and even darker outside.

“Your state governments seem to be relatively easy to purchase,” Aadil replied.  “But now that money is no object, the federal government will likely be just as simple to take over.  The money it will take to do it may seem like a fortune to people like ourselves, but it is a pittance to people at the top of the income ladder.”

“What in the world was the Court thinking?” I wondered.

“They believe that spending your money to support a candidate is a form of free speech,” he reminded me.

“And people who don’t have any money?  Who are broke?”

“Obviously they can’t speak--at least through TV ads, mailings, phone banks, and all of the other expensive mainstays of modern political campaigns.  If one’s home is being foreclosed on, or if one has huge medical bills, or works for minimum wage, or is out of work, or any of a number of other possibilities, one simply doesn’t have the money to ‘speak’ in the political arena.”

“And people who have a lot of money?”  

“They are able to talk nonstop.  And pass it on to their children, who will be able to speak even louder and longer.”

“B-b-but that’s unfair,” I sputtered.

“Oh, no doubt,” said Aadil.  “And also undemocratic.  As I said, it’s oligarchic.  Your court’s rulings have swept away any pretense of equality in the electoral process.”  

“You sound happy about it,” I said, with some bitterness.

“Oh no, sir,” he said.  “Please forgive me if my scholarly zeal has left that impression.  The death of your democracy saddens me greatly.  But for a poor student like myself, to be given this opportunity, to be here on the scene at the moment this has occurred--it is an unexpected blessing.  Praise Allah that I have been put here to witness and chronicle these events.  I pray I may be worthy of the task.”

“Listen,” I said, “I’m feeling a little strange, and it’s getting so dark.  I hope you don’t mind walking the rest of the way; you can keep the flashlight.  And would you mind calling me a taxi with your cellphone?”

“Oh sir!” he exclaimed, as I swayed in my seat.  “Please forgive me!  I had no idea that shining the light on your nation’s affairs would lead you into such darkness.”

© Tony Russell, 2014