Scam Goes Education

What can be more important to save in a viable democracy than education and the assurance that it is easily accessible for all, whatever your skin color or financial means? Unfortunately the best vehicle for that endeavor, public education, has figured prominently in quick-profit schemes of private investors, some stemming from honest attempts to improve education, but many motivated by pure greed.

For the latter, it’s beginning to take the character of the Wall Street frenzy that passed off toxic securities as AAA rated, and sold them full price to unsuspecting buyers. For the most part, Wall Streeters, having a culture of entitlement, gave no apology for their greed.

On the other hand, for-profit education defenders tend to peddle what they call education reform in the guise of superior for-profit charter schools using public money. They tend to obfuscate the “for-profit” motives in the process. While corporate-run schools do provide somewhat comparable student success rates, it’s usually at a higher cost, even though they pay lower salaries to inexperienced teachers, who have a higher turnover. Furthermore, they cherry-pick students, teach to tests, winnow out the most intractable students, and provide little accountability to the community.

In states like Arizona, some of the same investors run state prison systems whose lobbyists work overtime to augment prison populations, even supporting harsh imprisonment laws to boost their prison profits and keep penitentiaries full. Public records, for example, show that the so-called “war on drugs” aggressive policing, supported and exploited by corporate interest running privatized prisons, quickly drove up the percentage in state prisons for drug offenses from 6.4% in 1980 to 22% in 1990, with that higher percentage only now declining nationwide.

Somehow, the taxpayers seem to pick up the tab for profit-driven enterprises, whether new sports stadiums, privatized prisons, for-profit health care costing double that of other advanced countries, bailed-out banks, and now education.

Education Reform Only for the Poor

Wisconsin is another state taken over by Republicans. Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010, intrinsically connected with Koch brother funding and programs. He oversees the usual regimen of cutting spending in education, privatizing so-called low-performing schools and dismantling public unions.

Granted a contract by a GOP majority, Rocketship Education has a contract to open schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of several other large cities. Its model has four principles: 1. Cut costs by eliminating teachers and computerize instruction; 2. Hire inexperienced low-cost teachers; 3. Focus on math and reading; 4. Teach to the test. These are the schools for poor kids.

Rich people send their kids to the top ten elementary schools in Milwaukee. These schools look nothing like Rocketship Education schools. They have twice as many licensed teachers per student; offer music, art, libraries, foreign languages and guidance counselors. Students are taught by experienced teachers, not through programmed learning on computers.

Rocketship has contracts in several large cities, and like other charters pushes teaching-to-tests in its schools, seeing it as reform. Charter advocates promote themselves as education reformers, civil-rights crusaders, who challenge failed traditional schooling. They blame teachers, teacher unions, bureaucracy, and bloated budgets for claimed failures They promise to empower parents in low-income minority communities, citing teachers and administrators as the heavies. These promises and claims turned out to be bogus, and the reforms self-serving.

But more and more, parents of color began to realize that policies of change did not yield improvements in education, but were more means to steal control and public moneys. They found that over-testing steals instruction time, but doesn’t yield better learning; school closings too often turn their students over to charter schools with less accountability but no better learning results; shutting neighborhood schools tends to divorce communities from the education process while mostly redistributing control, public funds and real estate from poor communities into private pockets.

Corporate reformers and their hedge fund allies, both with deep pockets, played the media, and courted politicians. All of the above have drunk the same Kool Aid and join the blame game, thus dividing parents, communities, teachers and unions. While blaming bad teachers and public schools for low student test scores, all, especially GOP politicians, disregard the impacts of inequality, poverty, racism, while charters pilfer large shares of public resources.

Test and Test Some More

The use of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, passed during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, in effect, designated low-test-score neighborhood schools as failures. Little or no consideration was given to the demographic mix of students, the affects of poverty or the practice of underfunding poor neighborhood schools. At this same time, the Mastery Charter Schools network began in the fertile ground of Philadelphia.

In April of 2014, the charter network, acclaimed for high test scores, was set to take over Steel Elementary School in a black working-class section of Philadelphia, which by NCLB testing standards has failed. Parents and teachers have blocked this action.

Critics accuse Mastery of practicing rote teach-to-the-test instruction and burning through low-paid young teachers. With outside fundraising, Mastery is not “doing more with less” but doing more with more money than public school counterparts. Especially with the election of Republican, Tom Corbett, as Pennsylvania’s governor in the 2010, the privatization of public education became even more of a priority with funding by outside corporate interests, many who helped finance Corbett’s campaign.

Now the basic structure of school financing in Philadelphia is rigged to benefit privately managed companies like Mastery Charter Schools. Underfunding and segregation is the order for most public schools while subsidies are provided for private charters. Corbett cut $860 million from public education in his first budget. He expanded a voucher system, which provided corporations with major tax credits in exchange for donations for private-school tuition.

No Difference, But Charters Cost More

A 2007 study by the RAND Corporation and Research for Action found that privately managed schools, namely the schools chartered by Pennsylvania’s legislature in 2001, did not produce increases in student achievements any better than public schools, in spite of additional per-pupil resources. Two years later, RAND reported on Charter Schools in Eight States, finding that there is little difference in performance for students in charter schools compared to public schools.

Though vested interest groups – wealthy donors, private interest groups and local and national foundations — were pouring money into the private, non-profit charter movement, parents and teacher resistance grew. According to state data from 2012-2013, Philadelphia spent $13,077 per pupil for public schools, having the bulk of the poor; Abington, a private charter, spent $15,148, this for students needing less intensive services and support; and the wealthy Lower Merion charter spent $22,962 per pupil.

Education for Profit

Unleashed by corporations-are-people Supreme Court decisions, hedge-funders, corporations, and speculators build allies through campaign contributions and elected officials help push privatization. Allies come to call it reform.

The scenario is like a revolving door controlled by the elite and supported by big-money and corporate sponsors in government, including Supreme Court blessings on corporate power. American taxpayers are caught in the revolving door of successive schemes – for example, the 1980s $100 billion savings and loan bailout with taxpayer-insured institutions, the 2008 $500 billion bailout of Wall Street Fraudster banks and auto companies with some 10% of the bailout lost, and now lesser bailouts and/or subsidies for private company endeavors. We still have vertigo as our income and assets are shaken loose in this continuing merry-go-round of scams.

Wall Street looks at education in the same way they see Social Security, as a giant cash cow, something to be privatized. In their name, George W. Bush already tried it in his second term. Speculators fared better at the state level. It’s no accident that the floodgates of cash opened with the Supreme Court Citizens United decision and that the Koch brothers and well-heeled corporate brothers, in effect, helped buy GOP control in 12 new states in 2010 (GOP now controls 23).

Within months of capturing these states, Republicans put public education on the chopping block, in most controlled states attacking unions and cutting public funding. From 2005 to 2011, venture-capital investments in education grew from $13 million to $389 million. Rupert Murdoch, always ready to control and exploit the minds of burgeoning masses, pronounced US education “a $500 billion sector … waiting desperately to be transformed.”

As we watch the besmirched greed spread over the faces of billionaires like Murdoch and the Kochs, shouldn’t we figure out how to avoid this corporate takeover of all that is public?

James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.