The Detroit Free Press has come out with a scathing indictment of charter school operations in the state of Michigan. The series reveals the greed and almost total lack of oversight that has allowed charters to churn over $1 billion in public money spent into private profit. The series is well-done and a necessary must read. However, because this report accepts the basic assumptions that allow for privatization in the first place, it also dangerously obscures the pattern of elements that continues to decimate public education.
Education as an Economic Utility
The first assumption that the Free Press uncritically accepts as normative is the idea that the purpose of education is economic. That is, education serves to allow for individuals to have access to our economic system. That the purpose of education is to allow for students to make money in the future and drive our country’s economic engine. In his introduction to the series, Free Press editor Stephen Henderson starts with the presumption that charter schools are in theory, as he puts it in the first two words of his article, a “Great idea.” He positively references former Michigan Governor (and current president of Business Roundtable) John Engler’s push for charters in 1993- a push that was motivated by economic utility. (And Business Roundtable continues to promote the idea that we need a solid education system because, “America needs a world-class, skilled workforce to lead in global innovation, ensure future economic growth and drive…”) Henderson later writes that children’s future success, “… is largely determined by the quality of public education.”
The problem is that this frame of economic utility and the idea that “future success is largely determined by the quality of education” are what allow for the privatization of education in the first place.
Education is important. Among other things, it’s important as a foundational aspect of democracy. However, we all suffer when education is treated as an individualized commodity that is justified by its effect only on our economic standing. The Insight Lab’s report describes the problem this way:
“Most school reform proposals, as well as policies current among the status quo, were measured by fairly narrow criteria: will more students be prepared for college? Will they have the skills they need to pursue remunerative jobs? Will they form a workforce that will keep the United States competitive? …given that the highest ideal offered by the model was the economic success of individuals, it would be illogical for most parents to commit their time and energy to the future of children besides their own.” (emphasis added)
Education imagined as a one-dimensional, individualized economic vehicle simply doesn’t serve the whole very well. It becomes one more consumer commodity, and my job is to get mine.
This idea is particularly delusionary when in reality, and especially as our society becomes more polarized and less mobile on the basis of class, education does not cause economic success, in spite of the continuing myth that education is the lever for pulling kids out of poverty. Instead, as Paul Thomas writes, “Education, then, is a marker for privilege/affluence and poverty, but is not the cause agent for the outcome.”
As Matt Bruenig writes in, What’s More Important: A College Degree or Being Born Rich?:
“So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!”
As Bruenig describes, rich people stay rich in our society. And, regardless of educational level of attainment, with few exceptions, (which due to college costs is more and more of a dream for those in poverty), poor kids stay poor.
Thomas puts it succinctly, “In short, education alone is not the key to social reform. Period.”
The myth that education is the answer to poverty allows us to blame the poor for being poor, and to avoid addressing poverty itself. After all, the logic goes, if education is the way out of poverty, all it takes is some grit and a good school (Charter or private preferably. And is there a difference? )
In The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, David Blacker writes, “The scene of resistance is the class struggle. In fact, an excessive focus on education, say, in the form of advancing an allegedly liberatory pedagogy, in the absence of a broader and enveloping social movement, is ultimately going to be delusional.” (pg. 100)
It would be nice if we could stop pretending that education is the silver bullet.
It would be nicer if we could actually address poverty.
The False Narrative of Failing Schools
The other assumption that Free Press accepts as normative is the idea that “schools fail” as determined by the competition of “school rankings.” Henderson’s introduction is ripe with the business language of corporate education reform, of “accountability” and “results matter.” “Results,” in this formula, are test scores. The need for “accountability,” in this formula, is meted out based on test results. This sentence makes my hair stand on end: “And competition can raise standards- when it’s managed competition.” All of this shows an acceptance of the neoliberal pipe dream of the market as reformer. Though Henderson critiques an all-out market model, he also assumes the that the educational market model is appropriate and can work, it just needs to be better managed.
The issue being addressed by the Free Press isn’t the model of the market wrongly imposed on a public system- it’s the management of the market. And the winners of the competition within said market are determined by “school rankings,” and such rankings are based on test results.
And test results are the tool that furrows the ground for the seeds of privatization.
As I’ve put it previously, “What do we know about test scores? That the best predictor of success is socio-economic status. It is well known that what test scores indicate is not ability, but class status and geography. So what are these test scores really measuring? By and large they are measuring the health of the communities the schools serve, not the schools themselves. ‘Failing schools’ do not exist. What do exist are communities that we have failed.”
So what do school rankings show us? Where poverty is concentrated. However, they are used as indictments of the whole public school system, thereby justifying the need for privatization, vouchers, value added measurements, and lots of charter schools, even if, as in the state of Michigan, almost 80% of these charters are for profit.
Diane Ravitch, in Reign of Error, describes the debilitating pattern of achievement testing used as a tool for privatization this way: “Competition may produce better shoes and jeans, but there is no evidence that it produces better schools. The advance of privatization depends on high-stakes testing. The federally mandated regime of annual testing generates the data to grade not only students and teachers but schools. Given unrealistic goals, a school can easily fail. When a school is labeled a ‘failing school’ under NCLB or a ‘priority’ or ‘focus; school according to the metrics…it must double down on test preparation to attempt to recover its reputation, but the odds of success are small, especially after the most ambitious parents and students flee the school…the more school struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability.” (pg. 319)
This test based accountability is simply a death spiral for public education that justifies the existence of charters and privatization. Blacker again, “It should now be clear that to everyone that neoliberal education policy is not about reforming public schools. It is about obliterating any remaining vestiges of the public square via a market discipline that is officially supposed to apply to everyone but in reality is selectively applied only to those lacking sufficient wealth to commandeer state policy.” (pg. 106) It is this market driven process of the obliteration of the public square that the Free Press fails to address. According to it, the issue is not privatization, but only the management of that privatization.
Let me be fair. The Free Press does critique the profit making of many of the charters, and the series appropriately takes these charters to task. Kudos. Yet it fails to critique the system that allows for said profit making. And in doing so, it allows for the continued avoidance of the root cause of failing communities- concentrated poverty and the racialized context those communities exist within. If we don’t directly address the issues of poverty and race, the increasing inequity in our country, we will continue to leave children behind.
Read the whole report. You will find the level of greed and deceit involved in propping Michigan’s charter system absolutely infuriating- though not surprising. (And highly predictable.)
Just keep in mind what it isn’t saying.