Republicans in the New York State Senate have included, in their proposed version of the budget, a provision allowing for-profit companies to establish charter schools. Most likely, this effort at wholesale privatization will fail, but it shows that the for-profit forces are gearing up for a renewed assault on our fragile public system.
As “Report Card” has often described, New York schools are deeply affected by market logic, and by the gonzo libertarian ideology of the financial class. Still, there are limits on outright profiteering. Since 2010, New York has had a law prohibiting the establishment of new schools run by profit-making businesses. That law left existing relationships with such companies in place, and still allows schools to enter new contracts with for-profit management companies. (As of September 2011, according to the New York City Charter School Center, 9 percent of the city’s charters contracted with for-profit school managers.) Those companies can provide many services as long as they are not actually “managing” the schools—a wide and murky gray area. Now, it looks as if that crucial breakwater may be breached again.
In politics as in parenthood, if we cannot set limits, we are in deep trouble. Mona Davids of the New York Charter Parents Association, which opposes for-profit charters, explains that “even as nonprofits, so many charters are corrupt and mismanaged.” If the restrictions are lifted, she exclaims, “Can you imagine? It would be bananas. They would be nickel-and-diming our kids because they have to make a profit for investors.”
In other states, that is exactly what’s happening. According to a study by the National Education Policy Center, in the school year 2010 – 2011, for-profit management companies operated charters in 33 states. Over the past 15 years, the number of such companies has increased from 5 to 99. It’s hardly a huge industry—there are easier ways to make a buck—but the growth suggests that the presence of profiteers in education has become increasingly acceptable in most states.
While the idea of for-profit schools sounds bad, their execution is even worse. The largest for-profit charter chain is the Arlington, Virginia-based Imagine Schools, which operates 75 schools in 12 states and Washington, D.C., enrolling some 42,000 children nationwide, as many as the entire Newark school system. The Missouri state school board closed down two Imagine schools due to financial problems, mismanagement, and dismal academic performance, and is considering closing four more for similar reasons. As reported in St. Louis Today, the chain’s test scores are some of the lowest in St. Louis, a city where most public schools are severely challenged by their students’ poverty.
The Imagine schools struggle in part because the for-profit management companies charge cripplingly high management fees to the schools, leaving little money for the schools to meet basic expenses. Thus the classrooms are even more starved for supplies than in the public schools, often lacking pencils or paper. Teach for America, which has been rightly criticized for pioneering a low-wage, high-burnout model for the profession, recently announced a partnership with Imagine, showing that it’s always possible for the major players in neoliberal education reform to wade further into the swamp of depravity.
In New York, for-profits are supported by the New York State Charter Association, which tends to be more right-wing than the other charter school forces in the state. But Republicans don’t need to be lobbied or plied with cash from the for-profit education industry or its sympathizers, because most are ideologically committed to a full market takeover of the public sphere. So far, the politics of New York State have—somewhat—prevented them from acting on all their wildest libertarian desires.
When for-profits were severely curtailed in 2010, the reaction from moderate neoliberal reformers was muted. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform (D.F.E.R.) clearly realize that in New York, some of the most enthusiastic support for charters comes from liberal do-gooders who would feel queasy about selling off children’s futures to the highest bidders. In fact, New York City Charter School Center (NYCCSC) has a fact sheet calling the idea of for-profit charters a “myth.” It’s a curious choice of word—a lie, actually—but revealing: the liberals feel the need to distance themselves from the crassest profiteers in their own privatization movement.
NYCCSC’s fact sheet laments that the charter school sector has “done a poor job” of explaining the difference between profiteers and corporate donors, “leaving the ill-informed to speculate that Wall Street donors are trying to profit from poor children.” It’s good that these folks feel some twinges of conscience, or at least shame, at being associated with the disgrace that is for-profit schooling. It shows that there is still some stigma attached to the idea of getting rich at the expense of children; once that stigma begins to fade, our public education system will be truly doomed. Just ask the many Third World countries in which free education has been abolished and even the poorest small citizens must pay school fees.
Republicans, meanwhile, are still hoping to turn back the tide and turn New York into the Wild West enjoyed by much of Middle America, in which kids go without pencils so shareholders can enjoy fat profit margins. And while most people have been oblivious, including the media, one Brooklyn politician has been speaking out. In mid-March, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who represents large chunks of Brooklyn, including Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene, and Red Hook, spoke against the Republican budget provision on the Senate floor, calling it “a signal that we are opening up our education system for sale.”
There has been little public outcry, probably because there are so many more immediate threats to our public schools—like the spread of Success Academies throughout Brooklyn (which, like invasive phragmites growing along the edge of a pond, look pretty, but are fatal to the ecosystem). Still, we can’t ignore the threat of the for-profit sector much longer. Says Mona Davids, “We have to mobilize.”