The story goes something like this: "corporate education reform" is a conspiracy to "privatize" public education and to turn a public good into a private cash cow for business profiteers.
With education spending topping $600 billion, we would be naive to believe this isn't an irresistible target for "privatization." And, this word, "privatization," is supposed to have a powerfully negative connotation that we should avoid, somewhat like being an "ist" (racist, sexist, chauvinist, etc.).
But, I'm not that married to the negative conceptualization of "privatization." I don't favor or disfavor it as a concept. Could be bad. Could be amazing. Could be neither.
When I see activists lodge the privatization claim, I wonder what they propose as the alternative. If we can't liberalize schools to have different arrangements, and different models, some completely opposed to those we have now, then what will the one-best-system look like, and will it be better for children?
Anti-reformers would probably say their vision is of "true public schools," as characterized by unionized workers in a bureaucracy that reports to elected governors with minimal connection to for-profit entities. This would exclude charter schools because most of them are non-unionized and their boards are not made up of elected officials. It would exclude Teach For America because that program short-circuits the college of education feeder system. And, it would definitely exclude scholarships for students to attend non-public schools on the public's dime.
So then, apparently the opposite of "privatization" is "public-ization," a concept that we'd do ourself well to explore. Public-ization isn't new, and it isn't particularly attractive if you have ever lived through it.
I can't imagine that any humane person argues that public housing should be restricted only to publicly owned and operated "projects" any more. That bus left a long time ago and no one is trying to get on any more. Most folks now see how that great liberal experiment that trapped families in crumbling housing projects was always a bad idea. That may be why Section 8 vouchers are not a target for anti-reform activists that bemoan education vouchers.
No one is saying that food assistance should be limited to publicly produced commodities any more either. It is commonly accepted that giving families a choice of what to eat - even when we disapprove of their choices - is more dignified than prescribing a few monotonous commodities white labeled by the USDA. It wouldn't be considered progressive to shout about the privatization of America's food program. In fact, we often hear rumblings about the subsidies that protect large farming interests that enjoy monopolies equaled only by labor in education.
And, when it comes to health care, even the most government-loving leftists suppot a system that allows for a personal choice of providers.
Housing, food, and health care are all public goods that we fund through a mix of private public systems in order to provide marginalized populations with access into the American mainstream. We don't hear too many arguments about privatization in these cases. There are no unions lining up to keep poor families stuck in housing projects or limiting them to eating that gross government cheese some of us remember.
Why then is education different?
I can think of one reason. If you are honest, you know it too. When you make social changes, often there are people who have something to gain or lose from the change. The activists who spin the "privatization" yarn will tell you school reform is about corporate types gaining in profits. I will tell you the flip side of that argument is that the activists are tied to unions, which are in fact "private," and those education monopolies would lose their status as third party labor managers if families had options other than district schools. If public assistance allowed families to enjoy educational options beyond traditional public schools, it would present education unions with a situation not unlike Microsoft's antitrust case.
Nobody gets out of this argument clean. Not business. Not labor.
No matter how grassrootsy these pieces of urban theater are staged, no matter how down-with-the-people their organizers appear to be, or how many memes they generate in social media to give the appearance of being something other than monopolists or the shills of monopolists, there is but one plausible motive explaining their passion, and it's ironically the one they accuse their opponents of pursuing.
That's what I see when hipster activism pops up as it did at last week's Free Minds Free People conference. Looking at the sponsors, and knowing their unionist sympathies, we have to know it's a public-ization festival, and by that measure, it isn't about our kids as much as the monopolist bottom-line. If we are smart, and have lived in America for five minutes, we understand the double tongue of those who tell us what's good for us while embodying most of what's bad for us. Communities of color are burned as often by those slumming in our camps, chowing our food, and loving our women, as those who want nothing to do with us. So, if we're not clear on the need to occupy the Occupy types, then we haven't been watching.
If you look at Chicago you'll see the twisted logic anti-reformers want us to get behind.
They're raising the red flags to stop 325 Teach For America teachers from joining a teaching force of 30,000, and screaming about it as if it is a massive "privatization" of public schools.
We spend so much time distracted with the question of TFA's effectiveness and motives that we virtually forget the fact that Chicago Public Schools have been a human rights crisis zone for decades. It's a wasteland of middle-class vocational profiteering off of underclass social misery. We forget that Chicago teachers send their own kids to private schools at four times the rate of the general public. We pretend as if we would send our own kids to Chicago Public Schools if it weren't for that nasty school reform enacted by billionaires.
I reject the wobbly notion that boys and girls of color deserve the lowered expectations that have permeated CPS for years, so long as "veteran" teachers are set up for life in careers that require neither ability nor results.
It isn't to make light of displaced careerists who need a consoling narrative to help them make sense of their dislocation. People deserve respect and there are no doubt many good people unable to comprehend how the world has has changed and left them on the curb before their untenable pension plans kicked in.
But, the truism here is that no such thing as a school should exist for any reason other than to facilitate the journey of children through literacy and numeracy en route to exploring the world as academically prepared citizens. If that isn't happening then an educator's claim to a pension should be the very least of our concern.
We should expect there to be emotive stories. There will be touching anecdotes about dedicated veterans who spend their own money on their students and provide them the only bright part of impoverished lives.
And, expect the monopolists to make cartoons of the people who come to liberalize a stoic system, and liberate a captive population of children that deserve freedom.
Those broad cartoons are tactical distractions. They create a completely plausible denial of the bleak, chaotic, inhumane public entities that monopolists use as profitable traps for other people's children.
Each time we hear about the privatization of schools, we need to think critically about that point, not shrink from it. We should ask ourselves how we can justify the enormously ridiculous premise that people of color are the one human population that actually do better when offered fewer choices for life's most basic needs?
And, in the end, ask the activists "what's so great about the public-ization of education"?
Don't be surprised if the answer has nothing to do with kids.