Public Schools: The Imaginary Monster under the Bed

How selective our memories can be. Long before the atrocity of "No Child Left Behind," before public school uniforms, before the term "charter school" was even a term on the lips of every public official, public education has been a convenient whipping boy of the past three Republican administrations. Now, it seems the privatization of American schools are being supported from every corner of the political sphere (A sphere with corners?! But I digress.)

Take the current issues of the New York Times Magazine: the education issue. Within the first couple of pages, one is confronted with an advertisement from American Express featuring the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, Geoffrey Canada. No one, including this humble writer, is denying the impact HCZ has had on the students it serves. The rigorous curriculum, exceedingly high expectations, and clear test results are a model for many school reform efforts both in New York City and nationally. Nonetheless, the corporate partnership with a gargantuan credit card company cannot be overlooked. At what point does corporate partnership in education slip into the realm of odd bedfellows? When does financial philanthropy (such a condescending word!) create expectations at the point of the hand receiving the handout? How do we know that our children attending publicly-funded (!!!) charter schools are not being influenced by corporate giants, eager to mold minds to not only their worldview, but to buy their products? I would be shocked if HCZ employees didn't get discounts on their American Express rates.

During the slowly building financial tsunami in 2008, many charter school companies in the United States went to the one-room schoolhouse in the sky. Though still in existence, even larger for-profit school management corporations such as Edison Schools (now Edison Learning) were decimated by the recession. One of the only big players left nationally is Imagine Schools, operation numerous schools in Missouri and several dozen schools nationally. These companies attempt to operate schools from the viewpoint of a business manager.

What never ceases to confuse the hell out of me is why these companies believe that laying the template of a business model over the pre-existing structure of a school is a good, or even ethical, thing to do. How could this possibly not lead to dangerous terminology, like discussing the children as products to be finely tuned and sold to society? This push in business-speak matches nicely with the rise in testing, brought to you stealthily by Bush II's administration in January of 2002, when this country (and rightly so) was still blinded by our tears from 9/11. You did not vote for No Child Left Behind...don't forget that.

This brings me back to public schools. It is not conspiratorial rhetoric to imply a connection between the swell of our bubble economy in the late Clinton administration, the "irrational exuberance" of Wall Street during that time (of course, eventually, leading to the housing crisis), and the desire to privatize the absolute crap out of everything. Education is, constitutionally, a states rights issue. This didn't stop Bush II from passing NCLB, an act which has actually been rightfully sued under the idea that is a false federal "stick-and-carrot" encroachment on our system of government in the U.S. These national "educational management" companies are, at root, responsible to their shareholders, responsible for turning as many bucks as possible. This is in direct opposition to the basic Western tenets of modern education.

Any teacher worth her or his salt with master's degree knows that the revolutionizing of education in America began when we stopped thinking of children as vessels in need of filling with facts and figures in preparation for fulfilling their roles as cogs in the machine. A student should be "taught" how to think for her- or himself. Independent thinking and evaluation of a given idea is the goal. Yet we continue to gauge our children's success by a yardstick diametrically opposed to this goal. We want our children to pass dangerously uniform and culturally insensitive math and reading tests just to say that they've passed, to wave our report card in the face of China and other of-the-moment cultural enemies and say, "Look, we're as smart as you."

There is a building a block and a half from my house that used to be a school. Now its foundations are crumbling, its walls are overgrown, and the local police occasionally meet up for target practice inside, indiscriminately blasting anything on the interior. Meanwhile, new charter schools are being built every day that are directly affiliated, sponsored by, and accountable to multibillion-dollar multinational corporations. Don't be fooled into thinking that we own these schools. We do not.


  1. Glad I'm not the only one who noticed this connection. I feel like a conspiratorial nut when I posit the same links between Bush era education policies and big private education industry.

    I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on this as someone was more intimately involved in education that I've ever been.

    This is also a subtle excuse and invitation to drink beer.

    - kurt


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