Teachers and teacher advocacy groups have staged protests at early screenings of Won’t Back Down, a new film about the widely assumed decrepitude of American public education that posits the only way forward is for parents to “take back” their schools. That’s not a critique; it’s what the filmmakers themselves say, and appealing to moms and dads in so visceral a manner is always a smart sell.
But like many sells, it could be a disingenuous one. Education experts contend that the film is really an advertisement for what’s known as the “parent trigger,” an increasingly utilized policy mechanism enabling 51 percent of parents in any public school to close it or hand it over to private management. That’s why knowledgeable educators are protesting. Dianne Ravitch calls the trigger an “inherently terrible idea”—a public school, built with public funds, belongs to the public, she says, not to 51 percent of the parents who have children enrolled in it. Would a simple majority of people using public transit have the right to privatize that?
Maybe they wouldn’t have the right, but if they were as flush with financial support as trigger advocacy groups, they might have the ability. The Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations are among the backers of trigger initiatives, along with test-development and test-prep companies, for-profit charter companies, educational diploma mills, educational consultants, and other businesses that stand to gain from the privatization of public schools. Right-wing organizations like the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Council (ALEC) have helped craft trigger legislation in 17 states, with, in the case of ALEC, millions in funding from the billionaire Koch brothers, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. The center’s PR Watch notes that ALEC also receives funding from Walden Media, the head of which owns the conservative Weekly Standard magazine and is a producer of both Won’t Back Down and the notorious pro-charter documentary Waiting for Superman.
Support for the trigger and for charter schools isn’t limited to the right, as the administrations of Barack Obama, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg have demonstrated. They may not preach the gospel of “market solutions” with matching fervor. But in their enthusiasm for “reform,” and for tying student and teacher performance to high-stakes testing, they have inevitably found themselves allied with interests seeking profit opportunities in public education.
In other words, “parental empowerment” and “reform” may not be the real goals. If they were, as Ravitch notes, then the money would be going to community-based parent groups like those in New York City and Chicago that have actively opposed the closing of their neighborhood public schools—not sought to take them private. Or to Catholic schools, which according to Ravitch are being killed off by the “marketplace of options” in spite of noted successes.
Michael B. Fabricant, professor of social welfare at Hunter College and co-author of Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, says in an interview that for-profit interests are exploiting anxiety over the public education “crisis” to advance their market-based agenda (.pdf; the interview begins on page 17 and is worth reading in full).
The language of crisis is really manufactured, and manufactured crises can open the door to various kinds of shock policies—policies we wouldn’t consider were it not for the threatened crisis. I’d say [those policies] are the doctrine of school choice and the proliferation of charter schools. … This freedom [of choice] is market-defined, for policy makers simply assume that market-driven reform, when applied to a public good, will produce efficient and productive results. … They are, in effect, allowing ideology to drive social policy. And what they put forth as the primary solution to what ails public education is an exit strategy, a way to move children out of the public schools.
And the strategy, in terms of meeting its ostensible educational goals, isn’t even working. Fabricant cites a study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes showing that only 17 percent of charters have proven more successful than public schools, while 37 percent are less effective and 46 percent about the same. “So,” Fabricant sums up, “ten to fifteen years into the experiment, public schools continue to outperform charters.”
The real issue, according to Fabricant, is the impact of class and race on achievement, and addressing this requires innovation, union flexibility, and smarter investment to fix a system that isn’t working for the poor and people of color. North Carolina, Connecticut, and New Jersey are among the states that have followed this path, focusing on class size, teacher training and workplace support, and leadership development for principals. All three states have seen substantial improvements. “We know what works,” Fabricant says. “There is no magic to this.”
No magic, and no profit, but dividends in terms of achievement. Which the trigger-happy backers of privatization, and Won’t Back Down, may not want to hear.