Education Profiteering; Wall Street's Next Big Thing?
by Jeff Faux
The Real News Network
The end of the Chicago teachers' strike was but a temporary regional truce in the civil war that plagues the nation's public schools. There is no end in sight, in part because -- as often happens in wartime -- the conflict is increasingly being driven by profiteers.
The familiar media narrative tells us that this is a fight over how to improve our schools. On the one side are the self-styled reformers, who argue that the central problem with American K-12 education is low-quality teachers protected by their unions. Their solution is privatization, with its most common form being the privately run but publicly financed charter school. Because charter schools are mostly unregulated, nonunion and compete for students, their promoters claim they will, ipso facto, perform better than public schools.
On the other side are teachers and their unions who are cast as villains. The conventional plot line is that they resist change, blame poverty for their schools' failings and protect their jobs and turf.
It is well known, although rarely acknowledged in the press, that the reform movement has been financed and led by the corporate class. For over twenty years large business oriented foundations, such as Gates (Microsoft), Walton (Wal-Mart) and Broad (Sun Life) have poured billions into charter school start-ups, sympathetic academics and pundits, media campaigns (including Hollywood movies) and sophisticated nurturing of the careers of privatization promoters who now dominate the education policy debate from local school boards to the US Department of Education.
In recent years, hedge fund operators, leverage-buy-out artists and investment bankers have joined the crusade. They finance schools, sit on the boards of their associations and the management companies that run them, and -- most important -- have made support of charter schools one of the criteria for campaign giving in the post- Citizens United era. Since most Republicans are already on board for privatization, the political pressure has been mostly directed at Democrats.
Thus, for example, when Andrew Cuomo wanted to get the support of hedge fund managers for his run for governor of New York, he was told to talk to Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, a group set up to lobby liberals on privatization. Cuomo is now a champion of charter schools. As Joanne Barkan noted in a Dissent Magazine report, privatizers are even targeting school board elections, in one case spending over $630,000 to elect two members in a local school board race last year in Colorado.
Wall Street's involvement in the charter school movement -- when the media acknowledges it -- is presented as an act of philanthropy. Perhaps, as critics claim, hedge funders are meddling in an area they know nothing about. But their motives are worthy. Indeed, since they send their own children to the best private schools, their concern for other people's children seems remarkably altruistic. "Wall Street has always put its money where its interests of beliefs lie," observed this New York Times article, "But it is far less common that so many financial heavyweights would adopt a social cause like charter schools and advance it with a laser like focus in the political realm."
Yet, with the wide variety of social causes and charitable needs -- poverty, health, housing, global warming, the arts, etc. -- why would so many Wall Streeters focus laser-like on this particular issue? The Times suggest two answers. One is that the money managers are hard-nosed, data-driven investors "drawn to the business-like way in which many charter schools are run; their focus on results primarily measured by test scores."
Twenty years ago, one might have reasonably believed that the private charter schools, which are managed to produce the numbers, would produce better outcomes -- as measured by the numbers. But the overwhelming evidence is that they do not. The single most comprehensive study, by researchers at Stanford University, found that 17 percent of charter school students performed better than their public school counterparts, 46 percent no better and 37 percent worse. Stanford's conclusions have been reinforced by virtually all of the serious research, including those at the University of California, the Economic Policy Institute and the policy research firm Mathematica.
Nor do charter schools seem more efficient. Those promoted as the most successful examples have been heavily subsidized by foundations and Wall Street donors. The film, Waiting for Superman that portrays a heroic charter school organizer fighting a selfish teachers union was widely hyped in the media -- including popular TV shows like Oprah Winfrey's. Yet, as Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush and a former charter school supporter turned critic, noted, the film neglected to report that the hero educator kicked out the entire first class of the school because their test scores were too low, that the school was heavily subsidized by the pro-reform foundations and that the hero took an annual salary of four hundred thousand dollars.
Neither do the data on international comparisons support either privatization in general or charter schools in particular. The foreign education systems that out score America's are government-run, unionized, monopolies. Ravitch asks: "I look around the world and I don't see any country doing this but us. Why is that?"
Good question. Although the data do not support the supposedly data-driven privatizers' claims, their enthusiasm is undiminished. In response to an op-ed by Bill Gates that crudely misrepresented the statistics on school performance, education policy analyst Richard Rothstein observed: "It is remarkable that someone associated with technology and progress should have such a careless disregard for accuracy when it comes to the education policy in which he is now so deeply involved."
The Times' other guess about Wall Street's motives was that hedge funders are attracted to the anti-union character of the charter schools. This is undoubtedly true; the attack on the pubic schools is clearly a part of the broad conservative campaign to discredit government.
Wall Street has always loathed the labor movement. And in the last decade it has had even more of a reason since corporate profits now depend more on cost cutting and less on the creation of new products. The Chief Finance Officer of JP Morgan reports that some 75% of the net increase in corporate profits between 2000 and 2007 -- before the financial crash -- was a result of cuts in workers' wages and benefits. Given that unions are the only serious vehicles for resistance to the corporate low-wage strategy, Wall Street's antipathy has become even stronger.
But today unions represent less than seven percent of private sector workers. And the influence of public sector unions on the bargaining position of workers in profit-making corporations is, certainly in the short run, negligible. So while hostility to unions plays a role, is it is not quite credible to believe that Wall Street profit maximizers would be spending so much of their time and money simply to beat up on a proxy for the private sector unions that they have already so beaten back.
As usual, when looking for what motivates capitalists in a market system, the answer is likely to have something to do with making money.
Having been rescued from the consequences of its own folly by the Bush/Obama bailouts with its de-regulated privileges intact, Wall Street is once more on the prowl for the new "big thing" -- a new source of potential profits upon which to build the next lucrative asset bubble.
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