Charter Schools, and Other Right-Libertarian False Gods
Charter schools, for the libertarian establishment, are what passes for “free market reform” in public education. They’re regularly pushed by mainstream libertarian think tanks, and at Reason they’re topped only by Uber, right-to-work laws and defined-contribution pensions on the list of libertarian shibboleths. But besides not being very effective they’re not very libertarian either (in the sense of promoting the dignity and empowerment of the people actually served by local school systems). On the effectiveness front, according to Colleen Kimmett (“10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans’ All-Charter School System Has Proven a Failure,” In These Times, Aug. 28) the performance of charterized New Orleans schools — the largest-scale experiment in charterization in the country — is rather mediocre.
The statistics emphasized by pro-charter propagandists — significant improvement in test scores and graduation rates — sound good. But studies controlling for factors like race, poverty and number of special needs students have found large gaps — two or three standard deviations worse — between the performance of charter and regular public school students on eighth grade standardized math and reading tests.
And performance aside, charter schools in practice are about as unlibertarian as you can get. First, they regiment students and prepare them to mindlessly obey orders. According to critics of the education establishment like John Taylor Gatto, Ivan Illich and Paolo Freire, imparting this defential attitude towards authority was the main purpose of the public school systems. They’re basically factories that process, grade and sort human raw material for corporate Human Resources departments — a state-subsidized input to underwrite the bottom line of monopoly capital.
If you’re the kind of libertarian who objects to the public schools on those grounds, charter schools aren’t any kind of alternative at all. Students in New Orleans public schools — where they literally regulate how you sit, and you can get detention for stepping off a line while marching down the hall — “described feeling like they were in prison, or bootcamp. Teachers felt demoralized, like they didn’t have a voice in the classroom.” The “STARR” sitting rules, by the way, include “Track the speaker with your eyes” — a pretty clear sign of their utter disregard for the information processing styles of non-neurotypical students. But hey, they’ll be prepared to follow the Walmart rule someday.
Second, they rob the parents of the school districts — particularly if they’re predominantly black districts — of all political agency and personal control over the direction of the school systems. The people who opportunistically seized on the post-Katrina political vacuum to railroad through charterization of the New Orleans school system represented the same corporate interests and real estate developers who tried to ethnically cleanse as much of the poor black population as possible. In a display of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” as crass and shameless as Paul Bremer’s sell-off of the Iraqi economy to corporate insiders, New Orleans took advantage of the crisis atmosphere to auction off the school system.
The charter school agenda is typically promoted by large-scale lobbying efforts of outfits like the Walton Family Foundation, spending hundreds or thousands or millions in the larger urban school districts, and working behind the scenes to circumvent the will of the voters and taxpayers served by the local schools and railroad their projects through. Although an attempt by the Waltons and other lobbyists to fully charterize the Little Rock school system was largely a failure — thank God — they were successful in engineering a state takeover of the school district and dissolving the majority black school board.
Such takeovers entail a total evisceration of community power, along with the schools’ character as neighborhood institutions and social hubs. They’re usually followed by large-scale closure of old schools that had served as community anchors for generations. And of course the day-to-day workings of the schools themselves are completely removed from local community influence, insulated from accountability by a layer of independent (often corporate) management that reports only to the central school authorities.
And as icing on the cake, they’re just out-and-out stupid on Hayekian grounds. Right-wing libertarians claim to hate government bureaucrats and “one-size-fits-all solutions,” but in practice they dearly love any top-down education “reform” that empowers pointy-haired administrators at the expense of the teachers actually doing the job. I guess their hatred for workers trumps their hatred for bureaucrats.
Charterized school systems are still government-controlled and taxpayer-funded — but destroy virtually all agency for parents, teachers and students. So what’s “libertarian” about them again? Oh, right — there’s no unions and there’s some business interests skimming off the top.