The Choice Racket
Privatization moves full speed ahead.
In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential race, hesitant voters were urged to consider the world of difference between the education platforms of Biden and Trump. Betsy DeVos had become a household name during Trump’s term in office, synonymous with the toxicity of school privatization--euphemistically called “choice.” DeVos was unpopular even among Republicans.
Fortunately Trump was defeated. But the school choice policies DeVos championed are blossoming in state legislatures across the country, facing no real challenge from Biden’s ED. The proponents of these policies see public education’s currently weakened, tumultuous condition as an opportunity to ram through measures that will weaken it further still. At least fourteen states are considering bills that transfer public education money into private hands by expanding charter or voucher programs.
Because school funding is based on enrollment, charter and voucher programs that decrease public school enrollment leech funds directly from public schools. If a school loses ten students at, say, $14,000 a piece, it can’t reduce building maintenance or energy costs by that much to close the gap; rather, it’s forced to cut offerings like music and art, increase class sizes, and squeeze more work out of fewer staff. School choice advocates point to such struggling schools and argue that parents deserve better options for their kids.
In this way, the school reform movement is one big racket: Reformers inflict body blows to public school systems through test-driven punishments, funding cuts, and closures, then criticize the damaged schools and posture as saviors offering “innovative” privately run alternatives. Never mind that these alternatives, in aggregate, do not come close to providing all that public schools do.
The school choice movement can be traced back to Milton Friedman’s 1955 case for applying free-market discipline to America’s public schools. Around that time, school choice arguments were used to protect tax advantages for schools enabling parents to opt their children out of Brown V. Board’s integration mandate. Modern iterations of this segregation effort include right-wing proposals empowering parents to withdraw from districts with voluntary or court-ordered diversity plans. While most liberal school choice advocates say they are motivated by a desire to reduce racialized inequality, ample data show that school choice increases segregation and heightens racialized education disparities.
The individuals who have promoted school reform over the past two decades are a motley bipartisan set. School privatization seems to be the one topic on which America’s wealthiest elites can all agree. In fact, school choice advocates frequently collaborate across party lines. Biden’s longtime friend and Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed, for example, helped direct over a million dollars to conservative DeVos-affiliated reform groups during his stint at the Broad Foundation. When it comes to unleashing the market on public education, the ruling class are happy to set aside their cultural differences.
On the lowest level of the school reform machine you find a variety of grifters, including slick charter operators who enrich themselves with taxpayer dollars intended for poor kids. Explicitly for-profit charters are only legal in one state (Arizona), but a recent Network for Public Education report shows how charter management companies in 26 states and DC enable “for-profit owners” to set up non-profit facades and “maximize their profits through self-dealing, excessive fees, real estate transactions, and under-serving students who need the most expensive services.”
Banks and equity funds that invest in charter schools in low-income areas can take advantage of generous tax credits while also collecting interest on the money they lend. And in at least 18 states, businesses and individuals are able to claim hefty rewards if they donate to private school scholarship funds. These are just a few of the ways rich people cash in on poor kids’ schooling--to say nothing of the standardized test-makers and the ed-tech pushers who are forcing more and more harmful screen time onto our little ones.
On the next level up you find individuals and groups who spend fantastic sums to build philanthropic networks aimed at electing charter boosters. Hedge fund managers, such as those who formed Democrats for Education Reform, have created organizations that enable Wall Street money to dominate local school board elections, crushing candidates who stand up for the idea that public funds should be used for schools that are accessible to all students.
At the top of the school reform machine you find multi-billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates, the Waltons, the Broads, the Kochs, the DeVoses, the Sacklers, Reed Hastings, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, and others determined to use their immense wealth to privatize not only public schooling but also the discourse about public schooling. These philanthropists fund think tanks, media organizations, university departments, and astro-turf “parents” groups designed to push the myth that parents are desperate to escape from what Friedman called the “public school monopoly.” Frequently these ventures manufacture the appearance of intense charter support within Black communities, by grooming Black pro-charter politicians, funding scholarships for Black students interested in school reform, and backing litigation and advocacy that attacks public schools.
It’s hard to overstate just how thoroughly all angles of the public education conversation have been purchased by billionaire philanthropists. No organization has done more to influence how the public views school reform than the Gates Foundation. As scholar Ken Libby noted in a 2011 New York Times article, “It’s easier to name the groups which [Gates funding] doesn’t support than to list all of those they do” (emphasis added). Gates funding fuels everything from education media (e.g. Education Week, Chalkbeat, and The 74 Million) and mainstream media to the civil rights and education advocacy groups that crank out polling suggesting minority parents love high-stakes testing and charters. And of course, Gates paid for the development of the Common Core Standards; under Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, states test students on these standards, then use low test scores to close public schools, creating urgent demand for alternative options. And the list goes on and on.
The idea that plutocrats whose children and grandchildren never set foot in public schools are deeply concerned about opportunities for poor kids doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. If the Waltons, for example, are distressed by inequality, as the majority owners of America’s largest private employer, they could reduce it directly rather than filtering their efforts through schools. Clearly that’s not what this is about. The American public can be forgiven for its confusion about school choice, however; we’ve been exposed to decades of pro-reform talking points coming at us from all manner of apparently trustworthy sources.
The overlapping layers of the school reform machine are motivated by varied combinations of greed and ideology--ranging from the religious right to liberal anti-racism. They are united by their antipathy towards democratically elected school boards and teachers unions: two sites where school stakeholders (parents and teachers) can exercise power.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been arguing for years that elected school boards, which seek to hold the people spending public education dollars accountable to the public, are an impediment to school improvement. Of course this hasn’t stopped Hastings from funnelling millions into Los Angeles school board campaigns, contributing to some of the most expensive school board elections in US history. School boards are one of the few remaining strongholds of American democracy, where people without elite degrees or significant spending power are able to exert real influence.
Teachers unions are some of the nation’s largest unions, and public school staff are among the most unionized members of the workforce. Contrary to the nearly ubiquitous anti-teachers union messaging pushed by the billionaire class and their corporate media allies, teachers unions fight for students and communities. Teachers’ working conditions, after all, are children’s learning conditions. While they’re certainly not flawless, teachers unions constitute the primary countervailing power capable of checking the market’s encroachment on public education.
The money power of Gates, Broad, the Waltons, and the rest is diametrically opposed to the people power represented by unions. These billionaires amassed their wealth by exploiting workers. Unions of any kind, in any sector, threaten the world order that gives these individuals their godlike stature. This is the real reason they’re working so hard to replace unionized public schools with privately run alternatives.
Joe Biden courted public school advocates, parents, and teachers on the campaign trail, committing to end both federal support for for-profit charter operators and the federal high-stakes testing mandate. Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that these promises were empty.
Before Secretary Miguel Cardona was even sworn in at ED, Ian Rosenblum appeared as the Acting Assistant Secretary of Education, announcing that states must subject students to the exhausting and demoralizing testing regime this year, in spite of all they have endured. Rosenblum is not an educator. His most recent position was as an executive director at EdTrust, a Gates-funded outfit that promotes high-stakes testing. Before that, he worked as an education secretary for Andrew Cuomo, who famously vowed to “break” the public school system.
The interests that Rosenblum represents are undoubtedly pressuring Biden’s team to let the reform movement continue vampirizing our public schools. The machinery of privatization is vast and immensely well-funded. Congressional public school advocates like Jamaal Bowman are helping to draw attention to these issues, but without moral clarity at ED, transformational change won’t come from Washington. We need to take matters into our own hands. For parents and caregivers, this has meant reigniting the movement to opt out of high-stakes testing. For teachers and school staff, it has meant using the power of collective refusal to contest decisions that trample over school stakeholders. Whatever the future holds, parent-teacher-student solidarity is the only way we’ll win a school system that truly serves all students.