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.