Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Geoff Berne & the Privatization of Public Education

In his new piece for CounterPunch, Geoff Berne explains how the privatization of public education was conceived and is actively being helped along by the Obama administration and Arne Duncan.

As with military manufacture, military contracting, and prison management, the federal government's education agenda under the leadership of Sec. of Education Arne Duncan is dead set on a policy of transferring the administration of public schools to private businesses. The Secretary has given evidence that his chosen means for accomplishing this handover is through putting mayors at the helm of entire (mainly urban) school systems, allowing them to replace elected school boards with appointed councils of businessmen and retired military that then go on to bring in for-profit corporations to manage the schools, drawing on budgeted money previously intended for public systems.

Duncan’s Race To The Top, a strategy of having states compete in a horse race for funds for education reform, makes clear that only states making concrete efforts toward privatization will get the coveted funds…

In these initiatives Duncan has set for himself the roles of midwife, epigone, and chief factotum for the privatization doctrines first laid out by the “father of modern school reform,” fellow-Chicago luminary Milton Friedman in a 1955 essay that he later incorporated into his landmark book Capitalism and Freedom in 1962. Friedman called for a wholesale “denationalization” of public education: instead of public funds going to school systems parents would receive vouchers on these funds to pay for “educational services” for their children at for-profit and not-for-profit schools that would be operated by entrepreneurs and managers who’d be free to set teacher compensations as low as a dog-eat-dog market for teaching jobs would bear.

In true survival-of-the-fittest purism, Friedman believed that parents should, if they decide to have children, be prepared to pay for their education.

In a prescient prophesy of the state of education today, Friedman depicted that the downfall of public schooling would be smoothly accomplished by being brought in a piecemeal fashion, with the mushrooming privatized sector coexisting with the shrinking and declining public sector for a transitionary [sic] period of time. “Since governmental units . . . would continue to administer schools, the transition would be gradual and easy.” An educational regime change would be accomplished before people realized it had happened.

Though at present only 20 states have established vouchers-type subsidies for private schools, Friedman smelled victory for his idea of free-market education reform in an interview conducted for Reason Magazine in 2005 on the 50th anniversary of his 1955 vouchers essay, and two years prior to his death, stressing as proof that the tide has turned in privatization’s favor the capitulation of the teachers unions. Their “dam is buckling,” he waxed proudly, “and will shortly break . . . The basis of the National Education Association's and the American Federation of Teachers' power is crumbling.

At present, the privatization process, with its union-disabling subtext, is being promoted to the public as a rescue effort to “turn around” schools in impoverished and struggling urban neighborhoods, ASAP. States are being pressed, as in Wisconsin, to give mayors of major urban centers powers to effect the same transformation Duncan presided over in Chicago, where mayoral control under Richard Daley Jr. has existed since 1995 and where Duncan made a name for himself by closing 75 schools and replacing them with smaller, business-run schools shorn of union contracts and community governance…

In this way, state adoption of mayoral control for just the main urban school districts is used as a wedge and foot in the door for what American business and the foundations that speak for them hope will be the privatization of all of American education. For when mayors need management for the schools that have been put under their direction, they make appointments from the business community and/or turn to ready-made education management corporations that are there waiting for their call. Why should what works for the urban schools not work for suburban, small-city, and rural schools?...

In other words, education privatization is not just about mayors “turning around” underperforming urban districts. It’s about opening, ultimately, the whole education sector to for-profit management. However, first the public has to be sold on the need for “turn around.” First the public has to be whipped into a frenzy over a crisis in the schools, that is, the urban schools, a crisis requiring urgent “reform.” And then in the name of reform, the way is paved for business to be brought in on a white horse as reformers.

In the guise of reformers, celebrity tycoons from the world of business, opportunistic social advocacy personalities, and ambitious officials seeking to make a name for themselves as advocates for corporate interests have been the leading players in the new world of investment and career opportunity in privatized education.

Regardless of having no professional training as pedagogues or published works or other credentials as education theorists, researchers, or analysts, barons of finance for no discernible reason other than their Brobignagian wealth have been elevated to the status of venerated education mavens and saviors of our children's futures.

Prominent in this category are entrepreneurs like Microsoft's Bill Gates who, notwithstanding his record of epic business success, happens to have dropped out of college (Harvard) in his sophomore year rather than go to the top of the educational stepladder that is held out as model and paradigm for America’s schoolchildren. Secretary Duncan, an administrator whose advancement came from endearing himself to Chicago’s corporate community by his policy of shutting down public schools and opening charter schools, has no hands-on experience as an educator other than a period of time spent working in his mother’s tutoring school. Charter school minority advocate Al Sharpton, whose "action organization" has been the beneficiary of generous residuals he has received for his public appearances at the White House and around the country in support of opening charter schools that would supposedly put minority children on a college prep track, himself dropped out of Brooklyn College in his sophomore year.

Two illustrious business names who have been ceded a national megaphone on the subject of education in spite of having zero credentials in education are former financier Michael Milken and real estate-nursing home entrepreneur Eli Broad.*

As is now all but forgiven and forgotten, Milken parlayed a career of reaping high returns from low-yield junk bonds, and from buyouts that created almost a one-man recession by throwing whole workforces of “bought” companies out on the streets, into a fortune that has made him, today, the 458th richest man in the world. Still his only experience as an educator came in three years of community service teaching math to minorities in Los Angeles in fulfillment of a ten year sentence for securities and financial reporting felonies of which he served 22 months in federal prison.

By 1999, only three years following his release from prison, Milken had amassed an empire of companies catering to every possible facet of the education industry that looked as though it might someday rival his former scale of operations as a financier. Today he heads a foundation purporting to set the standard for the training of quality K-12 teachers, all armed with math skills and fluent in the use of computer technology, and dispensing money incentives for recruitment of teacher talent. Yet other than the conferences his foundation sponsors for the purpose of affirming the superiority of private to public education, there is no evidence either in public utterance or on the printed page that this towering Colossus of the age of education profit seeking that is upon us has a holistic educational philosophy of how one actually inspires a young person to want to read, study, and achieve.

Eli Broad, who rose from the status of 19 year old prodigy in the field of accounting (“the youngest in Michigan history”) to founder one of the nation’s biggest networks of assisted care facilities, has devoted a significant portion of the $5.8 billion net worth that has made him number 42 on the list of 400 richest Americans to the cause of totally privatizing American education.

To this end Broad has contributed $10.5 million in startup funds to the Green Dot charter schools network in Los Angeles and in 1999 he and his wife Edythe joined the ranks of family foundation scions Bill & Melinda Gates and Michael and Lowell Milken with their founding of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. A flagship program of the foundation is the Broad Superintendents Academy that identifies and trains, executives with experience of leading large organizations for service as administrators, and even places them, in urban school districts. But is there any evidence either in public utterance or on the printed page that beyond his credo that American education needs to be run more “like a business” this indisputably wealthy and successful individual has a conceptual clue about how to cultivate and motivate the mind of a child?

These may be what used to be called Captains of Industry (and Finance), they may be builders of unparalleled monopolies in the fields of software, finance, real estate, insurance, etc. — world straddling economic players in the mold of the (for a time) successful businessman that Theodore Dreiser portrayed in The Financier and The Titan — but they do not fit the profile of “educators.” As far as education is concerned, they are “barbarians at the gates,” untrained and uncouth in the arts of shaping the lives and intellects of children. Yet here they are, the nation's prime movers in the raging battle to replace public education with a system in which the schools are outsourced to for-profit businesses, businesses that are not accountable to government financial oversight and free from union contracting that protects the job security of teachers.

*On this point, I believe Mr. Berne is mistaken. Broad made his initial fortune in real estate (Kaufman & Broad, now KB Homes), then he founded SunAmerica, which sells retirement plans and is a subsidiary of the insurance company AIG.



And here is Jerry Bracey explaining more of the same.

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