“So the public no longer runs public education in Nova Scotia; the government does.”
This fairly succinct summation of our new system of educational governance was uttered, somewhat matter-of-factly, by none other than Diane Ravitch, former assistant Secretary of Education under George W. Bush and author of “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools”.
For those of you who may not know, Ravitch was one of the key architects of the Bush administration’s educational reform policy, “No Child Left Behind”, but soon realized that her vision was being co-opted by private enterprise. She has since become one of the most fierce defenders of public education in the United States, if not the world. She graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to meet with me a few days ago as I was attending the Network for Public Education conference in Indianapolis.
The conference brought together educational activists from all over the US, and I had the distinction of being the only Canadian in the room. I met community members and pastors, classroom teachers and superintendents. I met the people who organized the “Red for Ed” campaign, met the people behind the badassteachers movement, and shook hands with an educator from Seattle whose school started the Black lives matter at school movement. I even had an opportunity to meet with world-renowned author and educator, Pasi Sahlberg, thanks to a recommendation from the aforementioned Ravitch.
The one thing that all these activists have in common is that they are involved in what has become a major policy battle in the United States around the privatization of public education through the charter school movement. As you may know, the opening of charter schools has long been a point of focus for many of our more right leaning think tanks here in Canada, many of who point to Alberta’s charters as a model to be emulated, and perhaps more tellingly, expanded upon.
Certainly the Fraser Institute has long been beating this drum. Here in Atlantic Canada, our version of Fraser, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), just recently launched another attempt to convince the Nova Scotia public that the idea is worth exploring. (For an excellent rebuttal to that paper, please check out these posts by Molly Hurd, former head of Halifax Independent School.)
Now, I have long been firmly against the opening of charter schools. The reasons for that are vast and various, not the least of which is that they have yet to show any capacity to improve student learning in any meaningful way. However, I don’t know that even I completely understood the insidiousness of the movement until I sat in a room full of hundreds of activists from all over the United States; activists who are not just having to protest against the charter schools coming into their region, but are now attempting to get them out.
You see, over the course of the past few decades, backed by donations from the uber-rich (think the Walton family, owners of Walmart), lobbyists have spent an incredible amount of time and money in the US trying to convince the public that public education is failing. Using a common marketing strategy that Ravitch has identified as FUD, (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) these lobbyists have spent years spreading the gospel that the system, propped up by corrupt teacher unions, is falling short.
Once parents become convinced this is the case, the lobbyists claim to have the ultimate salvation: The Charter School. These schools, originally envisioned as experimental hubs of innovation, are often set up by not-for-profit groups who are, themselves, supported by the uber-rich. (AIMS is no exception.) They make a wide variety of promises around how they are going to “fix” all that is wrong with public education, from the achievement gap to those over-bloated unions. Under Donald Trump’s Education Secretary, billionaire Betsy Devos, they have thrived and multiplied.
Once opened, these schools draw students, (and the associated per-student funding), away from public schools. Their parents tend to be some of the most engaged, so essentially what happens is the rich kids go to the charter, while the poor kids stay in public school. This trend has been mirrored in both well-to-do areas and in poor minority communities, a favourite target of the charter movement. As was explained to me by one speaker, poor black American kids go to the charter, the really poor black American kids get left behind.
As the population of the public school decreases, so too, does funding. As schools get less money, they can offer less programming, which makes the charter even more attractive for students. This cycle continues until the local school board can no longer keep the public building open.
Since the schools are funded on a per student basis, millions of public tax dollars are now being siphoned off to the not-for-profits. To make things even sweeter for the uber-rich, not-for-profits are charities, so any donation given to them is tax-deductible. Thus, billionaires can set up these organizations, access public tax dollars, and have the cost defrayed by claiming them as charitable contributions. This has become such a lucrative practice that an entirely new industry has emerged in the US under the heading of Education Management Organizations, (EMOs).
Not every charter school is run by a not-for-profit. In fact, many EMOs are now openly for-profit enterprises. This is particularly true of on-line charters. Without needing brick-and-mortar buildings, the potential for profiteering off the promise of a free computer for students and individualized education is immense. (Recently a number of these schools were shut down due to some rather questionable accounting practices.)
Considering the amount of money spent on public education, one can see why the uber-rich might want a piece of this particularly large pie. However, tax money may not be the only incentive. Consider the following actual example from the US.
A few years ago, it was discovered that some EMOs had developed a pretty comprehensive plan around how to maximize profits. A company called School House Finance, which was a branch of Imagine Schools, would go out and acquire school buildings. School House Finance would fix up the property, then sell it (at a profit) to an organization called Entertainment Properties of Kansas City. Entertainment Properties would then immediately lease the building back to School House, who would sub-lease it back to Imagine schools. School House would then collect high rental fees, but since Imagine Schools and School House were the same company, no one complained. As well, there was further kick back to Entertainment Properties, who were now sitting on a prime piece of real estate.
And every dollar of tax payers money paid to these companies was cut out of the per student funding. In some cases as much as 20% of per pupil funding has been eaten up by inflated rents paid by EMOs, essentially to themselves.
Of course, it is doubtful that there would be much here in Nova Scotia to draw the attention of the likes of the Walton Family. However, if charter schools were to be ushered into our province, privatization firms would have a definite toe-hold in our country. Using us as an “example of excellence”, corporate reformers would tour our nation, holding up Nova Scotia as a shining example of charter school excellence. Before long, the real estate up for grabs would not be in downtown Halifax, but rather in downtown Vancouver.
But, here is the real kicker.
In order for charters to flourish, they need the support of local school boards. Thus, in the US, the uber-rich have actually taken to pouring money, (often through their not-for-profits) into local school board and municipal elections to support pro-charter candidates. Indeed, the one issue that seemed to bind the activists I met in Indianapolis was how much of their volunteer resources go into attempting to reduce the influence of for-profit companies on such elections.
And, since our government has abolished our elected school boards, that is no longer an issue here in Nova Scotia.
Ravitch had it right. With this new system of governance, our public education system is no longer being controlled by the public. It is being controlled by a secretive, hand-picked body of our government’s own choosing, who are answerable only to the Deputy Minister, who is, once again, hand-picked.
It is a system the likes of which folks like Waltons can only dream.
For those of you who may believe that my fears about the potential privatization of our public education system are simply a case of alarmist rhetoric, I will leave you with this.
I doubt very much that I would have gotten a personal audience with the likes of Diane Ravitch or Pasi Sahlberg, if those fears were not solidly, firmly and, indeed, frighteningly, well founded.