Free Market Drivel

The Founding, as told by Libertarians

There is no good reason to support the current wave of charter schooling. The American education system is too Byzantine for anyone but insiders and a few specialists to know very well. When laymen cry in unison with the deformers about our schools being in “crisis”, it is not out of any intimate knowledge they have of schools. It is because the school system is run by the state and the state in their minds mean inefficiency. All of the bad press surrounding “incompetent” teachers and “underperforming” schools is just the continuation of a war against the public sector that began 30 years ago. Laymen who want to replace public schools with charters are largely uninformed about the school system and how it works. Like everything else, they have been brainwashed to assume that public sector is bad and the free market is good. Their concern with education reform is disingenuous, their opinions are merely reflexes conditioned by decades of propaganda and their role is merely that of shills for the hedge fund brats who profit from the chartering of our public school system. Defenders of public education who debate the facts with charter supporters are wasting their breath. Instead, we must attack the Orwellian contrast of “free market good, public sector bad” that too many Americans take as a matter of faith.

The propaganda campaign against the public sector started in earnest with Ronald Reagan. The Watergate scandal, the loss in Vietnam, the Iranian hostage crisis and a host of other embarrassments made the nation ripe for the Reagan Revolution. Reagan preyed upon the public’s disenchantment by blaming the government for all of the nation’s problems. If only the government would get out of the way, competition could flow freely and innovation would abound. Reagan and others did a remarkable job of painting small government and free competition as the American way. In true Orwellian fashion, they gained control of history in order to gain control of the future.

But this version of history is incredibly skewed. It is a quaint, elementary school version made up of frontiersmen and cowboys taming the wilderness. It is a mythic idea of rugged individualism that has never been anything more than a myth. For every Horatio Alger story of a poor boy making good through pluck and application, there are just as many stories of those same poor boys being helped along at some point by the government. Rugged frontiersmen often obtained land from the government for next to nothing and were protected from Natives by a string of western military outposts. Even the hero of many small government types, Thomas Jefferson, envisioned a stateless society only after all Americans had been given free government land and educated at free government schools. Of course, the Reaganites airbrushed all of these communist tendencies of Jefferson’s out of existence (after all, he was deeply inspired by the French, who were innovators in communism), leaving behind only a rabid libertarian. The libertarian myth of American history is merely groundwork meant to prepare us intellectually for a libertarian future. The charter school craze shows us that, for teachers and students, the future is now.

While rank-and-file Americans might be easily fooled by the myth of small government and rugged individualism, charter school operators suffer from no such delusions. Every spate of privatization has been preceded by Orwellian double-speak. Government-run prisons in the 1980s were assaulted by accusations of being ineffective because they were unable to “reform” their prisoners. Having corporations run the prisons would instill “competition” and make the prisons more “effective”. Now that corporations control the prison system, nobody bothers to ask anymore how well they reform their inmates. Considering that incarceration rates have quintupled since the 80s, it does not seem they have done a very good job. This is what the reformers have in store for the school system. They are bludgeoning schools with the same accusations of failure. They will then insulate themselves from those accusations once they gain control of the system. The reformers know what they are doing. Their aim is not the restoration of America to its true, libertarian purpose. No such purpose has ever existed. Instead, they wish to profit from taking over functions that have largely always belonged to the state. They seek not a restoration but a revolution. Privatization is a radical change away from citizenship and towards consumerism.

The neat little libertarian narrative of American history allows corporations to insert themselves into the place of the plucky young man who gets ahead through hard work and intelligence. Instead of the innovating individual, it is the innovating corporation that will save our schools, prisons, military and every other facet of the public sector. It has been the most successful propaganda campaign of the past 30 years. We will decry the government as an inefficient bureaucracy and then, in the next breath, exalt these large, clunky corporations as paragons of efficiency. And why would we not? Corporations have to provide high quality products for low prices. Despite the financial crisis where an entire industry colluded to provide nothing but air for sky high prices, despite that so many privately-run charter schools in Florida have committed some sort of financial malfeasance and despite the fact that charter schools nationwide have not outperformed public schools on standardized exams, we still persist in this idea of the hero corporation. At every turn we have seen corporations do nothing but cut corners so that their CEOs will profit, yet we refuse to shake this libertarian notion of the superiority of the private sector. Even in the face of disaster wrought by the private sector there are still a substantial number of people who believe that it can save our education system.

What people mean when they say “small government” is “big corporation”. They want to make the government irrelevant so that the private sector can step into the vacuum. It is disingenuous for worshippers of the “free market” to assume that all that needs to be done is to get government out of the way so that free choice may take over. Leaving private citizens to fend for themselves is just a scheme to allow those already with wealth and influence to run the show. Yet, where would any of the wealthy classes be without the state? Where would oil, agribusiness, banking, transportation or any other industry be without corporate welfare and favorable regulations? Now that a chosen few have gotten fat off feeding from the government trough, those chosen few now want the government to get out of the way so they may sit on and solidify their gains. Maybe free market ideologues could be taken more seriously if, before they call for the government to stand down, they order corporations to give back all the wealth made possible by government largesse.

This shows that, many times, the teacher bashing in the general public is nothing personal. We are just the latest target of an indiscriminate war against the public sector, as well as citizenship itself.

3 responses to “Free Market Drivel

  1. Why do you insist on characterizing the establishment of charter schools as privatization? Charter schools are publicly funded and overseen by the school board of the respective district. In order for them to be private, they would have to be both independently funded (usually by tuition) and operated. Charters differ from other public schools in that they are generally in charge of their own hiring practices and pedagogy. They represent the weakest kind of market reform.

    • It is a common characterization of charter schools that they are not totally “private” and their biggest difference is a certain measure of independence not found in public schools. This is a benign characterization.

      There is no natural “market” for a public school system that educates everybody. In other words, poor people cannot afford schools, so the private sector has no incentive to make them. Therefore, the only type of privatization that is possible in our public school system is one that gives tax dollars to private entities. Same thing with the prison system and, thanks to Obamacare, the healthcare system. It is privatization all the same. Tax dollars are helping line the pockets of the already wealthy. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of a chain of charter here in NYC, makes close to half a million dollars a year. Her chain, as well as every other charter chain in NYC, spends untold sums on marketing and other things having nothing to do with kids or the classroom. Many people are being enriched by the chartering of the school system. That is what happens in privatization. Functions once carried out exclusively by the state are now carried out by private entities. Whether in the U.S. or Bolivia or Russia, it involves handing out tax dollars to private entities. What you describe in a school that exists on tuition is more “free market”. Privatization is a process in which the end result is a”free market”.

      You said: “Charters differ from other public schools in that they are generally in charge of their own hiring practices and pedagogy.” Well, so are public schools. Public schools, especially now, largely have control of who they hire and how they teach. I think what you really meant to say is that the vast majority of charters do not have to worry about the teacher’s unions, so they can hire inexperienced people for next to nothing and make them work long hours. Again, we see what used to be a civic institution resemble nothing more than a Walmart where the workers are slaves, the product is cheap and the owners get the money.

      We can argue the degree of privatization entailed in charter schools until the cows come home. My belief is there should be no degree of privatization in schools, prisons, military and many others things that used to be the province of the state. Civic institutions are for citizens. Private enterprise is for consumers. We have already given away too much of our citizenship.

  2. Jack, you are half-right. Many charter schools are run by non-profits that receive a great deal of money from private companies that in turn get nice fat checks for providing curriculum and other services. The non-for profit is really just a shell. It’s how the system is set up in many states and how many of the ‘name brands’ operate. It’s a business model for education (If you don’t believe me check out some of the bio’s of the people running these things.) But, really when CEO’s of Charter groups or projects are making $500K or more per year for running programs that a similarly sized Superintendent of a school District makes around $200K for…. that’s a problem.

    However, to characterize all charters as good or evil is wrong. Some charters are started by teachers and principal’s are really great places and provide smaller school settings and classrooms for anyone who shows up.

    They are not falsely creating the need for lotteries – they just grow the program as more kids show up. – not keep the numbers at a site small so you can create a waiting list mentality and boot out students who don’t quite live up expectations because you have the next one waiting to come in. it doesn’t cost them a dime to throw one out and bring another in.

    So while I am a proponent of charter schools. i am not a proponent of the way we put them on a pedestal and congratulate them for gain that are never really there. I also invite you to read my blog for further information about charters and schools in general. I may not have all the answers. But, I try to be as honest as I can for someone who sits in my chair.

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