“Free-Market” Education Is Ineffective and Discredited

Education and other public services and social programs have been under attack by major owners of capital and “free market” ideologues for several decades. To be sure, the privatization of all spheres and sectors continues at a brisk rate at home and abroad. Public-private “partnerships” and other pay-the-rich schemes carried out under the veneer of high ideals are multiplying rapidly and intensifying problems everywhere. Few countries are unaffected.

Charter schools and vouchers are the two main forms of privatization in the sphere of American education. Both have wreaked havoc on public education and the public interest for decades. Together they have lowered the level of culture and education, misled parents and the public, greatly enriched a handful of people along the way, and damaged the economy. These privatized education arrangements have not served the national interest in any way.

Extensive information and analysis of school privatization in its various forms can be found in many places, including at the Network for Public Education, Tultican, In The Public Interest, Common Dreams, and Truthout. Hundreds of scholarly peer-reviewed articles and books also expose many serious problems with school privatization.

The main theory behind the privatization and deregulation of public education is “free-market” theory, which maintains that treating education as a commodity, as a business, as an exchange phenomenon in a dog-eat-dog world where everyone fends-for-themselves, is the best of all worlds and the most effective, civilized, and fair way to save children, the economy, society, and the nation.

“Free-market” theory openly promotes a survival-of-the-fittest ethos for schools, families, and individuals, which ends up consolidating inequality and reinforcing a system of winners and losers. In practice, “school choice” leaves many children and families behind. In this connection, it is important to appreciate the segregationist origins of “school choice”.

Such a dog-eat-dog system is anachronistic and negates arrangements based on the affirmation of basic human rights that belong to all by virtue of being human. In the “free market” you may end up in a great school or you may not, which is often the case. It is on you alone to find a school that serves the needs of your children, and to do so in an environment that is increasingly complex and confusing. And “buyer beware” because when your school closes, often without warning, there is no way to secure redress. You have to live and die by the “free market.” Nothing is guaranteed.

Indeed, privately-operated charter schools close every week, leaving many low-income black and brown families feeling violated. A recent example of this disaster comes from Philadelphia (August 26, 2022) where a news headline reads: Families left scrambling after 2 Philadelphia charter schools announce closure days before start of school. Many Philly families say that they are shocked and at a loss for what to do. Another recent example (September 24, 2022) comes from Florida: ‘Devastated’: Weeks after opening, Red Hills Academy charter school set to close. Financial malfeasance, mismanagement, and poor academic performance are the three most common reasons privately-operated charter schools close every week.

Such upheavals and chaos are common in the crisis-prone charter school sector. They are a salient feature, not just a bug, of charter school arrangements. In some cases parents receive only a short cold email from charter school operators informing them that their charter school is closing abruptly—and at the worst possible time. It is an irresponsible approach to education in a modern society. And with no sense of irony, “free market” ideologues present such “churn” and disorder as a good and normal thing, as the way things are supposed to be.

Charter schools now have a 31-year record of failure, corruption, fraud, controversy, scandal, and closure. So do vouchers. Poor accountability and low transparency are hallmarks of the crisis-prone charter school sector. However, none of this has stopped charter school promoters from working tirelessly to oversell and prettify charter schools. Charter schools have become notorious for over-promising and under-delivering. Intense advertising and marketing are central to this business-centric drive. The nation’s 100,000 public schools, on the other hand, spend nothing on advertising and marketing because they are not businesses or promoters of consumerism, competition, and the “law of the jungle.” They do not view students and parents as customers shopping for a school. Education is not seen as a commodity or as something provided to society by private interests obsessed with maximizing profit as fast as possible.

“Free-market” theory does not recognize education as a modern human social responsibility. It does not view education as a collective responsibility in the 21st century. It does not consider education to be a basic human right that government must guarantee in practice. It does not accept that public schools in a society based on mass industrial production need to be universal, well-organized, world-class, fully-funded, integrated, locally-controlled by elected individuals accountable to the public, and available for free in every neighborhood.

Education in a complex society such as ours cannot be left to chance and a fend-for-yourself outlook. Such an orientation is at odds with contemporary conditions and requirements. The “law of the jungle” is not fit for human beings. For centuries, humans have needed and wanted a society fit for all, not a society for “the fittest.”

If private schools wish to exist—and thousands do in America—that is perfectly fine. They simply should not have access to any public funds, assets, facilities, services, or resources because these belong legitimately and wholly to the public alone and no one else. Only schools that are public in the proper sense of the word should receive public funds. Calling charter schools “public” 50 times a day does not automatically make charter schools public. Over the years courts in many jurisdictions have even ruled that charter schools are not public schools. Unlike public schools, charter schools are not state agencies. There is ultimately no justification for funneling public wealth to deregulated charter schools run by unelected private persons. The private sector has no valid or legitimate claim to public funds and resources produced by working people.

Public and private are antonyms and should not be mixed up. They are different categories with distinct characteristics. The public sphere and the private domain have different features and embrace different aims, roles, and agendas, which is why they cannot be reconciled. They are also governed by different laws. The rich and their representatives continually blur the critical distinction between these different realms for self-serving reasons. For example, if they can get away with calling privately-operated deregulated charter schools “public schools,” then they can lay false claim to public funds and resources, which is really nothing more than private parasitic expropriation of public property under the banner of high ideals. Such self-serving claims make the rich richer while wrecking public education and the public interest.

According to “free market” theory, anything other than “free-market” arrangements leads to “special interests,” “politics,” “inefficiency,” “economic distortions,” “government tyranny,” and more. Government is typically the bogeyman in “free market” theory. Government is automatically and permanently evil in “free market” theory, which is ironic because government today actively imposes the neoliberal outlook and agenda of the rich on everyone and everything, leading to greater inequalities and tragedies at all levels. Like the welfare state, the neoliberal state ensures that the rich keep getting much richer. This is all consistent with the theory of private property expounded by political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. They argued that government’s main role is to protect private property rights, which means, among other things, prioritizing individualism over the general interests of society. To be sure, states and governments intervene regularly in the “free market” to privilege big business. The rich seem to have no issues or concerns when government guarantees them even more benefits denied to others. The rich, in reality, do not like to live and die by the “free market.” They want the state and government to guarantee them profit at all times, regardless of how damaging this is to the natural and social environment.

Private property, it should be recalled, means that only one individual can use said property. All others are excluded from use of said property; the legal individual owner has the exclusive right to use it as he or she sees fit and no one else is allowed to benefit from this property. Private property is about exclusion. ((Private property and personal property are not the same.))

Further, any notion of consciously planning an economy to secure stability, sustainability, and growth for all is rashly rejected as irrational by “free market” ideologues. They maintain that it is absurd and impossible to plan for the needs of all humans in a deliberate and conscious way that ensures that all parts of the economy operate in a harmonious pro-social manner. “Things are too complex or too big to be controlled or planned” say “free market” ideologues. In this way, uncertainty, chaos, instability, individualism, consumerism, and a fend-for-yourself lifestyle are normalized.

According to “free market” ideologues, if everything were just left to the “free market” we would supposedly have the best of all worlds where “the best and brightest,” “the winners,” and “the most meritorious” would rise to the top, lead, and make everything better for everyone. Talent, ability, and initiative would be properly rewarded, according to “free market” theory. All the chips would land fairly and correctly in their proper place if everyone just played by the rules of “free market” theory. “Free market” ideologues claim that everything would be high quality if we just upheld “free market” ideas.

This ahistorical and apolitical approach ignores 50 things, including the unequal distribution and control of economic and political power in a class-divided society, that is, who is already-advantaged and who is already-disadvantaged. It ignores inherited wealth, unequal access to information, differing levels of literacy, uneven cultural capital, the exploitation of workers by owners of capital, and much more. The game, as they say, is already rigged, which is why “might makes right” and “winner takes all” prevail in the “free market.” After all, since “not everyone can be excellent” in the “free market,” then not everyone can be “a winner.” Only the “fittest survive” in this obsolete set-up. Many have to fail. Put differently, competition in the “free market” is already heavily pre-conditioned by economic and other considerations.

Mountain States Policy Center

The newest entity to enter the “free market education” foray is a “nonprofit” group called the Mountain States Policy Center. According to Idaho Ed News, the Mountain States Policy Center:

advertises itself as a nonpartisan research group. Its goal is to promote the free market, individual liberty and limited government in Washington, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

We are also told that, “Education is one of the group’s top concerns.” Indeed, “school choice” is the group’s “top education priority,” which means more school privatization (e.g., charter schools and vouchers).

The group is led by committed long-standing “free market” ideologues and claims to be “above” politics and rhetoric, even though it is heavily involved in both. Chris Cargill is the co-founder, President, and CEO of Mountain States Policy Center. He “spent the last 13 years with the Washington Policy Center, a similar free-market think tank headquartered in Seattle.”

In an ideological sleight of hand, the Mountain States Policy Center explicitly equates the “free market’ with “the people.” This is a particularly dark form of disinformation because the “free market” and “the people” are not the same. They are different categories with different qualities. The “free market” is the way commodities are exchanged in a society based on individualism, commodity production, exchange relations, and private property. It is a set-up based on profit-maximization, not one based on meeting social needs. This is why there are six vacant homes for every homeless person in the U.S. The people, on the other hand, refers to the modern polity made up of citizens with equal rights and duties. There is no necessary or automatic connection between the “free market” and “the people.”

People have lived and worked in many periods that did not have a “free market.” Entrepreneurialism, for instance, did not exist in most economic formations; it is specific to capitalism and serves as a euphemism for “rugged individualism,” fend-for-yourself, and survival-of-the-fittest. Promoters of entrepreneurialism also try to equate it with “innovation.” It should also be noted that the concept of “the people” did not exist in periods prior to the rise of capitalism. Under slavery and feudalism many humans were not even part of “the people.”

The “free market,” it should be stressed, rests on instability, uncertainty, chaos, anarchy, competition, consumerism, possessive individualism, and private property. It fosters turmoil (“creative destruction”) and blocks the rise of a self-reliant, diverse, and balanced economy whose parts work together in harmony to meet the needs of all. Humans, however, do not need or want instability, uncertainty, and insecurity in the 21st century. People in a modern society based on mass industrial production need and want a society that ensures stability, peace, security, and prosperity for all on a planned, conscious, sustainable basis. Constantly lurching from one economic crisis to another is inhumane and avoidable.

The aim of conflating the “free market” with “the people” is designed to make it seem like the “free market” is somehow pro-social and human-centered when, in fact, it stresses possessive individualism and denies the existence of society and the social relationship between individuals. “Free market” theory does not see individuals as social beings but rather as self-interested, disconnected, isolated (“independent”) beings that just want to be left alone while they “make their way” in this dog-eat-dog world that perpetuates many inequalities and tragedies. The “free market” essentially ignores social responsibility and lionizes individualism and individual responsibility. It has no dialectical conception of the relationship between individuals and society.

The Mountain States Policy Center also creates a false dichotomy between government and “the people.” This is done in an attempt to de-link “the people” from the government, even though no civilized society can exist without government. Such disinformation is meant to foster the idea that government is not and cannot be an arrangement that actually represents and serves people. Indeed, government is seen as a big nuisance. “People” for “free market” ideologues really means capitalists, entrepreneurs, business people, stakeholders, and consumers. It does not mean humans and citizens with rights that belong to them by virtue of their being and which must be upheld by a modern government. “Free market” ideologues never distinguish between a human-centered government versus a capital-centered government. They do not recognize that a government that upholds a public authority worthy of the name differs from a government that puts the narrow interests of big business in first place all the time.

The neoliberal character of the Mountain States Policy Center comes out again in this statement: “We believe that parents should have the right to use the dollars that they put into the public school system to educate their children as best as they see fit.” This is one of many versions of the worn-out neoliberal disinformation to funnel public money into private hands. The statement combines “parents” and “choice” in a way that makes it seem like the Mountain States Policy Center is simply defending some sort of benign choice and rights, when they are really promoting consumerism, individualism, a fend-for-yourself mentality, and the commodification of education. It also ignores the fact that public school funds do not belong to parents or students, per se. Public school funds are not “portable” and free for any individual to use as they wish whenever and wherever they want. This is not the premise, purpose, and function of public school money in the U.S.

It is worth recalling that charter means contract, that contracts are part of private law, and that charter schools are contract schools. Contracts are the quintessential market category; they make markets ‘work’. Contracts are the expression of exchange relations in a society based on commodity production and the social division of labor and private property underlying such an economy. Individualism, competition, utilitarianism, and consumerism are the companion ideologies of such an outdated set-up. The link between private property and charter schools cannot be overlooked, especially because such a connection negates the oft-repeated irrational claim that charter schools are public schools. In practice, the concept and practice of charter schools forsakes public control and benefit. This is why charter schools are not, in fact, open to all students and do cherry-pick their students using many different methods.

Further, like private businesses, charter schools treat teachers as “at-will” employees, which means that they can be hired and fired at any time for any reason. In addition, many states allow charter school teachers to teach without a license or certificate. This is on top of the fact that charter school teachers, on average, are paid less, are less experienced, and work longer days and years than their public school counterparts.

Moreover, widespread fraud and corruption are perhaps the most striking features of cyber charter schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools. Not a day goes by where there is not some sort of scandal, crime, or controversy in the charter school sector. Arrests, indictments, and incarceration of charter school employees are commonplace.

Charter school owners and operators are also known for manipulating student waiting list numbers to create the illusion that most, or all, charter schools have long student waiting lists, which is supposed to “prove” and signal to the public that charter schools are popular and a superior alternative to the public schools that educate 90% of America’s youth. Apparently, parents and students are clamoring to escape “dreadful” public schools as fast as possible, just to get into a privately-operated, deregulated, segregated charter school governed by unelected private persons focused on the bottom line. In reality, countless charter schools manipulate their waiting lists and many cannot meet their own enrollment targets. This is besides the never-ending problem of high student (and teacher and principal) turnover rates in charter schools. Every week, many students are pushed out of charter schools in one way or another and dumped back into the “dreadful” public schools that accept all students at all times. But, as researcher Jeff Bryant notes, No Matter What the Charter School Movement Says, Parents Like Their Public Schools (October 5, 2022).

The list of problems plaguing the charter school sector, along with the damage that this sector is doing to education, society, the economy, and the national interest is lengthy, damning, and indicting.

Today, a robust and growing body of unassailable evidence documents many serious problems in the crisis-prone charter school sector. This has had the effect of steadily and methodically strengthening the ideological, theoretical, educational, and political battle against neoliberal educational ideas, policies, and arrangements.

After two generations of failure and scandal, privatizers and neoliberals continue to push aggressively for more school privatization in order to transfer as much public wealth away from the public and into the hands of narrow private interests seeking new sources of profit in an economy that is tapped out and steadily collapsing.

Working people, students, parents, educators, public education advocates, and others have an objective interest in ending privatization in all its forms and defending the public interest. Neoliberals, privatizers, and “free market” ideologues determined to further wreck public education, society, the economy, and the national interest under the banner of high ideals can and must be stopped.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.