Uncommon Sense

April 5, 2021

Why Are the Rich So Hot For School Choice?

Everywhere in this land the rich, the 1%, are finagling for more charter schools, more vouchers, more support for private schools and less, ugh, public schools. Why?

I think the answer is multifaceted.

Back when I was a youngin’ it was an unvarnished truth that free public schooling was a pillar of our democracy. What would we have if citizens went uneducated? By this logic we accepted public schooling as a “collective responsibility,” not just an individual responsibility. But, also in my childhood, I heard from people arguing: “I don’t have any children, so why should I be paying school taxes?” This argument confused individual and collective responsibilities. We all benefit from the education of the citizenry, so we all pay for it (unless you are a church). Some of the rich expanded upon this argument and asked “I pay a great deal of money to have my children educated in the finest private schools, so why should I also have to pay for the public schools. Again, this argument confuses individual and collective responsibilities. I do not actually think they were confused on that issue, I think they were just making an argument, any argument, that might reduce their taxes. (It is interesting that those with the most money, worry about how much money they have more than others do.)

Some of the very richest consider all taxes to be “theft.” These extremists got their wish when a town out in the boondocks (of Montana? Idaho?) voted in a cadre of people who thought like that. They thought being a low tax zone would attract all kinds of businesses, but when they reduced or eliminated the vast majority of taxes, they lost their police department, their fire department, their road maintenance department, and even their city hall. (The town council, in fact the whole city government, now works out of a single wide trailer.) Businesses not only didn’t flock to their city they ran, screaming, the other way.

More recently, the filthy rich have recognized that they have cornered almost all of the sources of wealth in this country: mineral extraction, construction, communications, financial “instruments,” etc. and then turned their gaze upon the pile of money spent every year on public schools. This amount of money dwarfs the revenues of many of the other wealth sources in the US combined. So, there was money to be made in supplanted the “public schools.” They even figured out how to extract large profits from “non-profit charter schools.” It was ridiculously easy. First create a school. Then hire a “management company” to run it, a company which has no restrictions on making profits at all. Often the two entities were the same people. Have you ever wondered why there are so may charter school scandals? The answer is easy: the founder’s motivation was greed and with little to no oversight (aka guvmint regulayshun) greed overwhelmed any restraint every time.

It is somewhat amazing how it is that ordinarily intelligent business people can decide to create a business in a certain place because it has a “large pool of quality workers” and then turn around and undermine the process that produces those workers.

I think all this is based upon the rich man’s fallacy: namely that their wealth is a sign of their superiority. That they were able to become rich is their qualification. The “other people” are lesser beings, not worthy of their attention. This meme is so entrenched in the minds of the rich that they all consider themselves to be “self-made men.” I laughed at Mitt Romney making this claim. You see when Mitt graduated from college, his father gave him $2,000,000 of seed money and access to all of his contacts (his father was President of American Motors and a heavy hitter in the Republican party). Do you know how much money I made in my almost 40 years as a college professor (at about the same time span)? It was $2,000,000. Mitt Romney was given, in effect, the amount of my career earnings to “get started” in business. But Mitt Romney did it all himself. He even dialed his own phone from time to time, I am sure.

October 8, 2020

The Limits of School Choice

Filed under: Education,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:28 pm
Tags: , ,

I have written before about the “school choice movement,” a thinly disguised privatizing campaign seeking to suck up some of those public dollars being spent on public education. Basically, once “financiers” had ravaged all of the private economic segments, they decided that the vast untapped market of “education” was the last frontier for their rapaciousness.

Lets look at the idea from a cost benefit basis.

Suppose you live in a smallish town which supports a number of grade schools, maybe a middle school or two and a single high school. Your community does it best to create good schools with the highest community standards they can muster but, of course, there are limitations. This high school cannot offer every possible course that might serve a small cluster of students, so they focus on offering courses that will serve the majority.

So, is having a second school even an option for such a community? The answer is clearly no. Dividing the communities funds into two pools to offer the same curriculum doesn’t make any sense at all. This would involve and increase in infrastructure costs with no increase in capacity. So, could not each of the two schools focus their efforts, such as one being an arts magnet school and the other a science magnet school (just for example)? Again, this is problematic. What if the two clusters are of unequal size with the arts school having twice the number of students as the science school? And why spread them out? Why not have schools within the original school, so that classes in both areas could be available to all students? Why deprive the science students of the art classes being taught at the other school? (Scientists are often drawn to music; one of my chemistry professors was a performing cellist.)

Okay we now move up a notch. Our community is now large enough to support two high schools. Should competition between these two play a role in the running of these two schools? For example, let’s say that one school is clearly superior to the other, and you decide to let the parent’s choose which school to place their kids in. (I have seen this happen in public schools through the simple expedient of parent’s lying about where they lived, using an aunt’s address for example to get their kid into a desirable school.) In this case, knowledgeable parents will sign their kids up to the “good” school and desert the “bad” school. The “good” school will suffer from overloading issues (large class sizes, teacher burnout from trying to interact with too many students, wear and tear on facilities, etc.) and the “bad” school will suffer from small class sizes (limiting student interactions), inability to field sports teams, inability to offer classes in advanced topics due to low enrollment, etc.

Plus, you have to ask how it is that parents determine which school is good and which is bad. If we take how well they are informed when it comes to voting as an example, their education “decisions” won’t be as informed as we all might wish them to be.

Currently, schools are set up, mostly, to serve geographic communities. This does have some advantages for racists, of course, with the whole school busing movement testifies to, But there are legitimate reasons for this also. Would you want your child taking a one-hour bus ride, each way, every day for school? Would you want to drive them to school and back this way (four hours per day driving for you)? Such schools also can be more community oriented. Schools in farming regions can teach agriculture courses, for example. (I lived in a rural community in which the high school had a gunsmithing course.) Schools near technology centers can teach more tech classes, etc. That is these schools can teach topics that lead to employment in their community, which helps keep communities together, instead of kids drifting away from the community to find work. Community colleges exemplify these goals.

So, now let’s look at large school districts, having multiple high schools. Is competition between any of them at all good (outside of between student athletic or academic teams)?

To engage in competition that is considered healthy and which leads to superior “products” you have to ask whether or not the “competitors” are equipped to compete. In the major metropolitan area I now live in (Chicago), the athletic teams are segregated by school population. The really large schools don’t compete against tiny schools. The large schools have all of the advantages and would just crush the smaller school teams. The same issues apply to school academic issues. Large schools have thousands of candidates for any sport or academic team (e.g. debate, Math Olympiad, etc.). The really small schools may have only dozens. This is why they make sport movies, e.g. Hoosiers, about a small school team beating a large school team for a championship. Just through sheer numbers, the larger schools have great advantages.

So, let’s say that schools do compete. Do they have control over the tools of competition? Control over things like budget, coaching, teacher quality, etc? Largely they do not. In wealthier areas, there are alumni support groups who donate funds to support athletic teams. In poor areas, the parents cannot afford such things. In rich areas, the tax base is greater and financial support is better. In rich areas, teachers have better living conditions. School districts, no matter how much they recruit, do not determine who applies for teaching jobs at their schools, the teachers make those decisions.

Once teachers are hired, is there an infrastructure in place to determine which are really good, which are adequate and which are so poor as to deserve being fired? The answer is kinda sorta, unfortunately. Unlike in business, there are no production or sales parameters that can be used to determine which people are pulling their own weight. (My own experience is that the vast majority of teachers are “competent.” Very few are brilliant or exemplary and also very few are so bad as to need their contracts terminated.

Now, are their any examples of what competition does for the schools? It turns out there is. A recent survey determined the highest paid “state employee” of each state of the US. Who do you think it turned out to be highest paid state employee most frequently? The governors? The presidents of university systems? The heads of public healthcare networks or public utilities? In most states, the highest paid state employee . . . drum roll, please . . . was one of the state’s university’s football coaches. This is what competition gets you . . . vastly overpaid employees . . . which always have vastly underpaid employees elsewhere as a compensation. In a university system where Nobel-prize winning academics can only hope for a salary as high as $200,000 annually, football coaches make five, six, seven million dollars for the same term.

So, we must be very careful in determining who reaps the benefits of competition as it isn’t always the people being served.

I cannot fathom a scenario in which school competition benefits the students most. We have seen charter school after charter school close business, some do this before they have officially opened. In business this is acceptable, but in educating the youths of our community, this is unacceptable. Those students are required, by law, to be educated. The money spent to educate those students at the closing charter schools is gone. But those students will be lined up for admission at the public schools the very next day and they cannot be turned away . . . no “Sorry, you have already spent your allocation of public education money, you will have to wait until next year to continue your education.” Imagine having been sold a lemon of a car and then dumping that and lining up at a government office for free public transportation. Is that happening anywhere? Does anyone actually want that kind of “education insurance”?

The charter school movement is sucking the funds out of our public schools systems. They are enabled in this effort by supportive politicians which make up supportive laws just for them . . . and these politicians receive “campaign donations,” aka bribes, from the charter operators to do this, often using public funds they were given for other purposes. (Any public school system doing that would result in people in jail.) The charter operators claim to offer “school choice” . . . but do they? Testing shows that charter schools are little different from public schools in educational outcomes. They differ solely in their ability to go out of business, which they do at alarming rates. So, what kind of choice is this? It is a bogus choice. It is like a restaurant making extravagant claims about the quality of their food, so you go and find out that their food is awful. The restaurant doesn’t care because they already have your money and they aren’t dependent upon repeat business. This is the Achilles heel of the “competition” argument. Modern marketing allows people to be hoodwinked into buying what they are selling. When they don’t deliver, you have no recourse. And, they are not dependent upon you being a repeat customer.

There is a word for this kind of business, several actually: scam, con, Ponzi scheme, etc.

Now, I do not deny that there are some reputable charter schools, who serve students adequately. But are these really a “choice” that makes anything better? Imagine a community that has a dozen different car dealerships. Then someone opens up a second, say, Chevrolet dealership which offers the same models at the same prices as the one already there. Do you really have any additional choice or are you and the other car buyers just spreading your car buying money around into more hands?

June 20, 2016

Running Government Like a Business and Delegation

It is a common trope in politics that we should “run our government like we run our businesses.” Since the GOP is putting up a businessman to run for president, maybe we should look at this idea.

Basically the idea has little, if any, merit. What do those claiming this chestnut is good advice mean? That we should make our government run at a profit? That we should sell shares? (This seems to have already been done, with politician’s votes substituting for stock certificates.) The U.S. government has run a loss on its accounts for the past century with only a few exceptions. No corporation could do that (although Amazon.com seemed to be trying). No corporation has the ability to print money, either.

A major aspect of business management is the art of delegation: one gives a task to another and steps back to allow them to do it. It is Republicans most often declining to use this technique. Oh, it should be emphasized that after good delegators delegate a task, they don’t go off to the side and close their eyes and plug their ears. They check on the project’s progress. In fact, you must check on a delegated task from time to time to see if it is going okay. Failing to do this often leads to disappointment. This is standard business practice.

Take, for example, the longest running school voucher program in the country. Republicans have touted “school choice” as an exemplary way to cure our failing schools, offering no evidence of either the failure or the reasons why vouchers should work (arguments, yes; evidence, no). This longest running experiment in school vouchers is in Milwaukee, WI.

According to a recent post on Diane Ravich’s Blog “Michael R. Ford, a professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, reports that 41% of private schools that received vouchers have closed their doors since the inception of the voucher program (my emphasis SR). Milwaukee has the nation’s oldest voucher program, and anyone looking for the miracle of school choice should look elsewhere. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Milwaukee continues to be one of the nation’s lowest performing urban districts. Milwaukee has had charters and vouchers for 25 years—two generations of students. If charters and vouchers were the answer to the problems of students and schools in urban districts, Milwaukee should be a shining star of student success. It is not.”

Ford writes: “Forty-one percent of all private schools that participated in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) between 1991 and 2015 failed. I do not mean failed as in they did not deliver academically, I mean failed as in they no longer exist. These 102 schools either closed after having their voucher revenue cut off by the Department of Public Instruction, or simply shut their doors. The failure rate for entrepreneurial start-up schools is even worse: 67.8 percent.”

So, have any of the legislative delegators in Wisconsin followed up to see if their Grand Experiment in School Choice has worked? Apparently not. Should not evaluation plans be included in all such authorization plans? If we were to run our government as a business, we would, now wouldn’t we? Running schools as if they were businesses mean they can fail and fail they do. And what happens to the kids in these failed schools? (Figure it out, it is not hard. After the money to educate those kids was spent by the failed charters and private schools, those kids were poured back into the public system without the funds to educate them.)

The GOP doesn’t want to run the country as a business. This is yet another smoke screen to distract our attention away from what they are actually doing: running the government as a Ponzi Scheme.

May 14, 2014

The Shocking Thing Is They Were so Blatant

The fact that the charter school movement was highjacked by plutocrats wanting to tap into the trillions of dollars spent on public education was quite understandable, what is shocking is that they are so inept at hiding their rapaciousness. Not satisfied in making substantial profits, the systemic cheating of the public is truly appalling.

According to Paul Rosenberg in Salon (“Charter schools are cheating your kids: New report reveals massive fraud, mismanagement, abusesub Millions of dollars are being vacuumed out of public schools and into the corporate pockets – or fraudulent execs):

“Just in time for National Charter School Week, there’s a new report highlighting the predictable perils of turning education into a poorly regulated business. Titled “Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud and Abuse,” the report focused on 15 states representing large charter markets, out of the 42 states that have charter schools. Drawing on news reports, criminal complaints, regulatory findings, audits and other sources, it “found fraud, waste and abuse cases totaling over $100 million in losses to taxpayers,” but warned that due to inadequate oversight, “the fraud and mismanagement that has been uncovered thus far might be just the tip of the iceberg.

“While there are plenty of other troubling issues surrounding charter schools — from high rates of racial segregation, to their lackluster overall performance records, to questionable admission and expulsion practices — this report sets all those admittedly important issues aside to focus squarely on activity that appears it could be criminal, and arguably totally out of control. It does not even mention questions raised by sky-high salaries paid to some charter CEOs, such as 16 New York City charter school CEOs who earned more than the head of the city’s public school system in 2011-12. Crime, not greed, is the focus here.

“In short, the report is about as apolitical as can be imagined: It is narrowly focused on a white-collar crime wave of staggering proportions, and what can be done about it within the existing framework of widespread charter schools.”


January 29, 2014

Republicans Conflicted Over American Exceptionalism

Republicans react angrily to any suggestion that the U.S. of A. isn’t exceptional, isn’t Number 1 in any ranking system. During the Health Care Debate, Republicans insisted that our health care system was #1 in the world, when fact-based rankings had it listed closer to #19. More recently, Republicans are upset that American students score so poorly on international tests, blaming teachers for doing a poor job of teaching our young and when they run out of steam on blaming teachers, they blame students for being lazy. (The GOP is also directly attacking teacher’s unions and working to saddle students with massive amounts of debt to stifle the political activities of both, so they are at least being consistent.)

Setting aside the facts that the U.S. never does particularly well on international tests (I remember one such scandal a while back in which the U.S. was way down the ranks in math, yet a team of young U.S. students won the global Math Olympiad the same year.) and that the U.S. does poorly on such tests for the same reasons that many U.S. states do poorly on national tests (hint: poverty and heterogeneous populations) one has to be surprised that Republicans are also pushing strongly to make it more possible to teach creationism in our schools. Republican governors across the land are getting laws passed creating charter schools which need not conform to existing education laws, many of those charter schools being church-affiliated schools which go on to teach creationism and that “Evolution is a lie straight from the pit of Hell!” (Sorry I could resist quoting the Republican Member from Georgia sitting on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.) Now that ought to help those international science test scores: all of our students looking for the multiple choice response: “God did it.”

American exceptionalism is a ridiculous notion, but if one accepts it, it certainly is based upon a solid core of scientific and technological learning. Whining about the decay of American exceptionalism when the GOP is actively undermining the education system that helped create it is a major problem for Republicans.

January 9, 2014

Whose Brilliant Idea. . . ?

In the current “reform” movement being inflicted upon public education (whatever happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?), whose brilliant idea was to put the decision-making in the hands of politicians who are bribable?

In case you haven’t been paying attention, public schools have been run by what Tom Dewey referred to as “the greatest strength and greatest weakness of public education”—school boards. States set education law and policy and local school boards executed it. School boards consist of elected representatives who get thrown out by the voters if they don’t do what the public wants.

Some wing nuts, under a smokescreen of misinformation and lies, got the states to pass “voucher” and “charter school” laws that exempted certain schools from the state laws, yet got state funds to do their thing. So, who is doing their oversight? Politicians. Politicians who are also getting donations from the schools for their re-election campaigns. (Why is that not bribery/influence peddling?)

Whose brilliant idea was it to turn over substantial aspects of our public education system to elements capable of bribing the politicians charged with their oversight? Have you ever heard of a school board bribing its way to favorable (and lucrative) legislation? How is this a good idea?

For an even better take on the situation I strongly recommend you give this blog post a read: School Choice is a Whale-sized Red Herring.

September 25, 2013

Why do Charter Schools Still Get Paid for Attendance?

Charter schools are part of the corporate hostile takeover of public education. The basic idea is that a school is given a charter to teach students without all of the usual checks and balances in the hope that they becoming foaming beds of innovation to “show the way” to the “hidebound and calcified public schools.” (Referring to public schools as “failing,” “underperforming,” “hidebound and calcified,” etc. is part of the propaganda effort. In reality, public schools are doing better than ever before in many ways.) It is assumed that when such schools are freed from all of the onerous regulations: accountability requirements, union contracts, state regulations, etc. that they will not only be “better” at educating our kids but they will be more cost-effective, too.

Over the history of charter schools, which is quite long, Charter Schools have been the darlings of liberals and conservatives, but currently they are being pushed along with other efforts by the corporate funded big foundations (Gates, Broad, etc.). Apparently they believe that the proven efficiency of corporations is a product of the corporate culture (pro-profit, anti-union, anti-worker, screw the competition, collaboration/cooperation/compromise is for the weak, etc.).

There are extravagant claims being made about the performance of Charter Schools, primarily that students attending them perform at a higher level than “ordinary” public school students. If this were true then why haven’t they asked to be put on a different pay scheme than the “ordinary” public schools. Currently public schools receive funding based on attendance. If students shows up, the school receives funds to teach them. But if Charter Schools are so much better, shouldn’t they be paid better? I mean you don’t see Harvard University bragging about how cheap it is compared to the local community colleges. They make their “customers” pay for the prestige of attendance. Isn’t that the way things work in a capitalist system?

Maybe Charter Schools don’t want “pay for performance” because:

· Many Charter Schools are run by profit-taking companies and no one (to date) has explained how extracting profits/money from what is paid to teach students makes the process better.
· Charter Schools often spend more money on administration than do “ordinary” public schools, thus reducing the amount of money used to educate our kids even more. Julian Vasquez Heilig has done a study on Texas charters showing that: in elementary schools, charters spend $147 more per pupil than traditional public schools; in middle schools, charters spend $495 more per pupil than traditional public schools, and in high schools, charters spend $230 more per pupil than traditional public schools. So much for being efficient. (By the way, a rule of corporate governance is one way to extract extra profits from an enterprise is for the owners to draw salaries.)
· In study after study Charter Schools are found to be not only “not better” than the “ordinary” public schools in their district, but worse. For example, in the Pennsylvania state school rankings, of the bottom 84 schools, 83 were charters.

So, while “pay for performance” is a hallmark of many of the corporate “reform” (sic) efforts, it apparently doesn’t apply here.

September 6, 2013

Charter Schools and “The Magic Word”

Charter schools have been pitched to the public as a way of providing school “choice” and as a panacea for what ails our public school system. I have dealt with the idea of “choice” elsewhere. (Basically how many schools are within transit distance of your home and if one were good and two were bad, how many would be allowed to choose the “good” one, plus how would you know which are good and which were not? Like so many things we are told to “leave to the marketplace;” there is no true market.)

Charter schools operate under different rules: Operators are allowed to turn a profit from a portion of the tax money they’re given and don’t have to follow state laws that dictate everything from the distribution of textbooks to minimum teacher salaries to school-board elections. Nor do they have to honor labor contracts that pre-existed. Nor do many of them, apparently, have to report on how and where they spent those public funds. In return for that freedom, their supporters expected them to deliver strong academic results. And they do claim that they produce strong academic results.

Unfortunately, after a couple of decades of charter school experiments the results are just about the same as comparable ordinary school districts provide. Most recently in Ohio, the charter schools had the same record in school rankings as the non-charter schools but had a lower graduation rate. So much for the promised improvements.

So, why is the charter concept still a hot commodity in the states? Basically it has two reasons. For the public, they have a magic word strategy and for the politicians they have lobbyists and bribes. I have spoken enough of the political impact of self-interested money, so I turn to the “magic word strategy.”

“So how are they doing it? The answer is simple. It is magic.
We sprinkle magic freedom dust on a school and it automatically gets better.”

The magic word draped all over the charter school movement is “freedom.” You will be “free” to choose the best school for your children to attend. The school will be “free” from cumbersome regulations and union contracts and standards of quality. And that’s where the argument stops. No one asks how “freedom” becomes a commodity that can be translated into better schools. For one, no one asked the question how these companies are going to take the same amount of money the publically run schools receive, extract profits for their shareholders, and then do a better job of educating our children. The public schools are “free” of profit taking but that does not come up in the discussion as an example of “freedom.”

Being “free” of union contracts means that you are “free” to pay your teachers less. But if you believe in “free” markets and these people must, then the less you pay for labor, the lower the quality of that labor. Oops. Enter “Teach for America” an agency that supplies “temp teachers” to districts ostensibly with teacher shortages but now to districts that do not want to pay prevailing wages. The TFA “teachers” are recent college grads who receive a five week training program and then are expected to teach 2-3 years on their way to their “real” careers. Since this equates into a claim that a teacher with one year of experience is just as good as one with ten years (“our teachers are just as good as theirs, better in fact because we get better results”) and therefore to justify that oxymoron they are denigrating the role of experience when it comes to teaching e.g. they claim that after a few years of experience, most teachers are just hanging on until retirement to get a cushy teacher’s retirement.

If this claim doesn’t appear idiotic on the surface, the more you dig down, the dumber it gets, trust me. Since high school all I ever wanted to be was a teacher. I studied teaching and teachers all of the time I was in college. When I got my first teaching job (after experiencing teaching to earn my way through grad school), it took me about three full years of experience just to get the basics down. I made it thirty-five years as a teacher upon the belief that if you weren’t trying to get better, you were probably backsliding. Every year the goal was to improve and as a scientists I needed some way to prove that claim. I also quit a couple of years early as I felt my effectiveness had fallen off and maybe somebody new could reach those students better than I could.

Just what is it about being “small” and “free” to operate that gives you any advantages as a school. Larger districts have much better buying power. Smaller schools can be more nimble in making changes to improve instruction but they also can be more nimble in making mistakes that undermine the quality they have. Being nimble is only good if you are heading in the right direction. (This is why so many startup businesses fail within five years.) So, charters have trumpeted their new techniques, then? Yes? No. Smaller classes cost more money, so that’s out. More experienced teachers who can help shape curriculum are too expensive, so they are out. So, magic curricula? Nope, they are too expensive.

So how are they doing it?

The answer is simple. It is magic. We sprinkle magic freedom dust on a school and it automatically gets better.

But my parents taught me that when the “magic whatever” gets pulled out, grab your wallet because somebody is trying to empty it. Twenty years of experiments in charter schools, with the results being good, bad, and indifferent have shown that the “magic of freedom” is not a commodity that translates well into educational excellence. And even if it had, I would want to see how they did it.

This is for the same reason I wanted to know how corporate profits could be at record levels during a very significant recession. If you look at the numbers, the increased profits come solely from decreases in wages paid to their workforces. No other explanation is needed. Since I know that freedom is merely opportunity, I know it doesn’t automatically translate into anything, so the magic word argument to us in the public about the worth of charter schools should make us all grab our wallets and then ask “just how are you going to take this freedom and create a better education for our children?”

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