While Chubb & Moe leave open the possibility that public schools might still be around after the voucher revolution, some conservative analysts propose an end to all government participation in education. Like Chubb & Moe, Myron Lieberman, in his book Beyond Public Education, charges that public schools have nothing of value worth contributing and it is his contention that the only solution is to create a nationwide network of profit-making entrepreneurial schools. Several corporations have begun investing in research and development with the intent of creating networks such of institutions. Established during a more auspicious political climate, many of these entrepreneurial adventures were begun in anticipation of a Bush Administration pledge to support "break-the-mold" private schools with public funds. Among those fixing their sites on the potential feeding trough of federal education funds are Apple, IBM, Burger King, and Johnson Controls. The most famous and most influential of all of these is likely to be Christopher Whittle, the multimillionaire founder of the infamous Channel One and good buddy of one-time Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.
Whittle -- whose Edison Project aims to break-the-mold with the creation of 200 profit-making schools by 1996 -- gained attention for his earlier attempts at bringing compulsory commercial television viewing to the public schools under the guise of current events education. Schools agreeing to show his fifteen minute news programs get an impressive array of dedicated television monitors wired to a satellite dish. In return, Whittle's commercials are required viewing. Under the contract that school districts sign, 90% of the children in a school must watch the program 90% of the time, each of the programs must be watched in its entirety, a show cannot be interrupted, and the teacher does not have the right to turn it off (Kozol 17). The results have been an educational wash for the students, but an economic windfall for Channel One's founder. The "impresario of captive-audience marketing" as the New York Times dubbed him (Kozol 17), Whittle -- with a personal fortune estimated at $40 million -- earns an estimated three-quarters of a million dollars a day in advertising fees through Channel One (Brodinsky 540, 542). Meanwhile, critics have argued that the time spent watching Channel One is an instructional waste. The shows are not linked in any meaningful way to curriculum or skills, filled with fluff, and take up valuable class time. On the refutation of claims for learning and on the principled stand that gathering students to watch a sale pitch is unethical, many school systems -- most notably New York State's -- have banned Channel one from the classroom.
Such setbacks have not seemed to deter Whittle. At a recent Governors meeting, the following plan was announced:
Over the next four years we will be investing $2.5 billion in new educational infrastructure. That may be something you want to compete for. It includes over 20,000 construction jobs and more than 5,000 educational positions in the schools we will be developing (Brodinsky 542).
The announcement of such investment sent the revenue-starved Governors panting. Tommy Thompson -- the notoriously pro-big business, pro-voucher, Republican Governor of Wisconsin -- shamelessly took the bait. "How do states buy into this? How can I, as governor, get your schools to come to Wisconsin" (Brodinsky 542).
In spite of brazen attempts to purchase public education and an unerring knack for amassing profits, Whittle claims to have nothing but good intentions. "Our efforts," he said "are not about privatization.
Chris Whittle insists he wants to improve public education through competition. I don't believe it. You don't improve the public water supply by selling Coca-Cola. [He] is selling the idea that the public schools can be used as a marketing place for commercial products. He's opening the doors for a massive new industry -- the Educational Industrial Complex (Brodinsky 546).
Whittle, who is no doubt a smart guy, is undoubtedly aware of the profiteering charges leveled at him. In anticipation, he is prepared for an all out propaganda war to sell his vision of American schools. Of his core team -- headed by Benno Schmidt, the former president of Yale University -- four out of seven are specialists in management or mass-media, the remainder -- a Chicago inner-city principal, a former Brookings Institution fellow, and a former professor -- supply the ideological foundations. Whittle has so far spent some $640,000 to recruit high-powered lobbyists with the intent of capturing legislative support (Kozol 18).
The force behind many proposals for market-driven choice is not the improvement of public education but the pursuit of unrestrained greed. A large-scale privatization experiment is currently underway in Baltimore where the Minnesota-based Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) -- in alliance with Johnson Controls and KPMG Peat Marwick -- received a 5 year $135 million contract to run eight elementary schools and one middle school (Miner 16). No sooner had the doors opened on the newly privatized schools when then Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander stepped in to present company officials with a "break-the-mold" award. He has yet to return to the school which is well into its second year of operation.
Educational achievement at EAI-run schools declined dramatically at a time when overall district scores were improving. In EAI schools, average reading achievement dropped from the 31st to the 27th percentile and mathematics achievement from the 36th to the 28th percentile. In the same period, overall student achievements rose moderately in each category -- reading from the 31st to the 32nd percentile and mathematics from the 36th to the 37th percentile (Rose 10). That the claims of EAI should turn out unfulfilled is of little consequence to the free-market supporters. Ineffective schools must be allowed to fail in their plan for the effective schools to emerge. This leads to a non-sequitur in their reasoning -- the claim that private schools are inherently and unequivocally superior to public schools does not agree with the necessity of school failure in the educational marketplace. If privatization were the sole factor in determining whether or not a school was effective then there never would be any failures.
This decrease in achievement at the EAI-run schools is due in no small part to their slash and burn employment policies. Student-teacher ratios rose from approximately 1:19 to 1:25 as 27% of the regular teaching, 50% of the special education, and 63% of the paraprofessional positions were eliminated. Non-certified, college intern, replacement workers were hired to cover for the lost paraprofessionals at wages of $7 an hour -- well below the regular rate of $10 an hour -- and with none of the normal benefits. Turnover among interns has been so great that some classes have had as many as four interns in a single year. Additional cuts were made in the areas of librarians, art, music, reading, and resource teachers. The special education department -- which was more or less eliminated -- suffered the greatest under the fiscal tyranny of EAI. Although the EAI schools represent only 5% of the Baltimore public schools, they account for 89% of the compensatory hours charged to the district for failing to provide services. (Rose 10-11, Miner 16). The employment policies of a private corporation are completely at odds with the creation of a climate conducive to quality education.
Not only did EAI fail to deliver academic achievement, they failed to deliver it with fiscal responsibility. EAI has been unable to improve the schools in its charge despite a $500 per-pupil increase in expenditures. In addition to the personnel cuts mentioned above, 11% percent of the federal dollars received for the education of disadvantaged children -- $400,000 -- are presently unaccounted for. During all of this, the greatest injustice has been the diversion of funds out of the classroom and into administration and profits. For their role in the fiasco, the inept EAI project administrators were rewarded with a cool $2.6 million in legal and accounting fees, corporate travel, and profit. $650 of per per-pupil expenditures were lost to these categories as the in-classroom expenditures fell from $4,077 to $3,777 (Rose 11).
By all accounts, Baltimore followed Chubb & Moe's instructions and did not tell the EAI schools how they must be internally organized nor did it hold them accountable for student achievement or school performance. In a contract Chubb & Moe would be proud of, EAI are completely without obligation to the students or the school district. The EAI schools were:
- not required to meet city standards for hiring subcontractors owned by minorities or women (Miner 16);
- did not contact the parents of students with special needs when their children were mainstreamed (Miner 16);
- received a USDA waiver so that the food service contract could go directly to their corporate partner Johnson Controls without a bid (Miner 17); and
- has been allowed to retroactively drop the $1.7 million in lost Chapter 1 moneys without accounting for them (Rose 11).
The EAI schools played by rules that were completely different from those of the public schools and yet were outperformed by them on standard measures of effectiveness. In view of such results, it's hard to see how Chubb & Moe could have the confidence in the efficacy of the market that they do. Competition in business depends heavily on cost-cutting. Libraries and special education can justifiably be eliminated as commercial "frills" in order to maximize the "necessity" that defines a successful corporation -- profit. As long as the business of business is still profit, education will never be improved through privatization.
The philosophy of an unrestricted market raises some serious questions. Without public accountability, how can we insure that unscrupulous executives won't squander their revenues on golden parachutes and massive stock options? Will we be able to buy and sell shares in major education corporations? What would happen were a major educational corporation to be acquired in a hostile takeover? What if a corporation decided to divert funds from its education division in order to keep another less profitable division afloat? Might a corporation decide to sell off its less than profitable education subsidiary, dismantling it in the process? Do we want an education system that could casually "lay-off" thousands of students the way the manufacturing sector has laid off thousands of workers? What repercussions would an educational crisis on the scale of the S&L crisis have on the nation? Chubb & Moe's free-market can offer little in response. Its guiding philosophy -- one that supporters of deregulation in many other spheres subscribe to -- doesn't address the global market of transnational corporations that exists today. Their theories are based on a system of capitalism that hasn't existed for a very long time. Enlightened self-interest died with it. The coming telecommunications revolution will effectively disintegrate any notion of community and with it the shred of responsibility the rich had towards that community before they became the super-rich.
Whether or not such a goal is explicitly stated at its outset, any choice system in which competition plays a major role will destroy the current system of public schools. Corporations with a disposition to try their hand at education have a ready and familiar access to marketing and -- when profits can be smelled -- to capital. This is a competition that public educators have neither the experience nor the assets to win. Public schools can't compete because it has never been a part of their structure.
The first for-profit demonstration schools created in the wake of any large-scale voucher program are likely to be well-funded, educational wonders. Economies of scale and intensive investment will make them stunning beyond compare. A promotional momentum will be built up beforehand that will make them the talk of the town. Everyone will be jockeying to get their kids enrolled. Tuition will be subsidized at first and applicants will outnumber openings, ensuring a well-groomed, easily satisfied customer base. Public schools will revert to warehouses of special education and at-risk students and find themselves struggling to get by on tiny vouchers, forbidden by an increasingly dissatisfied constituency from raising additional revenues.
The original loss-leader prices will disappear and the law of supply and demand will return with a vengeance. As the public schools sink further and further into decay, additional for-profit schools will open, offering reduced services at lower cost. The flagship schools will be priced out or reason for more and more families and their corporate sponsors will make only token overtures to the growing class and race stratification of their system. Vast numbers of teachers will be replaced by computerized workstations that look wonderful on first examination, but will be loaded with dry, unimaginative software. Standardized test scores will no doubt rise as the curriculum narrows in scope to accommodate them. The larger school corporations will acquire their own testing services to assure the perfect match of test to curriculum and auxiliary services will be contracted out to companies staffed by temporary and replacement workers.
When the public school system finally collapses, the educational-
As parents scramble to get children into one of Whittle's schools... they will, by necessity, view almost every other parent as a rival. Instead of fighting for a system of excellence and equity for all, we will have taught them to advance their own kids whatever [the] cost to other people's children. Strip away the fancy language and we are looking at a Social Darwinist scenario, a triage operation that will filter off the fortunate and leave the rest in schools where children of the 'better' parents do not need to see them (18).
All claims of devotion to "service" aside, these are Whittle's real intentions. "You have to have a West Berlin for East Berlin to fall, and what we're really doing here is building West Berlin" (Kozol 17).
Large segments of the school choice movement are engaged in propaganda battle for the affections of the American public. The presence of for-profit corporations in the discussion has meant an increased dependence on sophisticated marketing techniques. It is quite likely that such techniques will institutionalize themselves in the curriculum and pedagogy of corporate-sponsored schools. The manipulation of words and images to elicit a favorable reaction to consumer products will no longer be limited to the four-to-six hours of television the average student watches. The corporate ethos will more or less permeate the lives of children throughout the day. The intended consequence is no doubt the systematic propagation of corporate values.
Advertising is designed to encourage consumers to develop needs for goods and services they could probably live without and enhance the perception that one product is significantly better at fulfilling this "need" than another. Great debates are taking place across the country at this very moment on the merits of Coke vs. Pepsi. The war for the hearts of consumers is waged on the battlefield of the unconscious mind. Coke is warmhearted and traditional, with a visceral appeal to friendship and harmony. Pepsi is the path to excitement and vigor, a hip drink that promises youthful adventure. While both campaigns promise membership in a group that will support and nurture its members, a serious inquiry into the correct choice -- assuming one were possible -- would end rather quickly. The names are deceptive (there's no coca in Coke and no cola in Pepsi), the differences are few (both are caramel-colored phosphoric acid), and neither is a part of anyone's definition of the good life. In reducing choice to the level of selecting the best campaign, advertising sells a way of looking at the world and ourselves that interferes with the rational decision-making processes.
Education is not in so terrible a state that nothing is worth saving from the current system. For-profit schools are more likely to appropriate the attitudes and structures of today's schools than to engage in radical, untested methodologies. Differences between schools perceived as effective and those perceived as ineffective will no doubt depend on the quality of the advertising they engage in. Differences between schools are likely to be as minimal those between Coke and Pepsi.
Profit-driven choice advocates are well aware of the power of advertising -- they use it every day in their current endeavors. Out of their own self-interests, they have chosen a method of framing the overall debate that obscures the reality of the situation. All choice programs are filled with significant obstacles to real choice -- lack of accountability will insure the creation of bad schools, funding without equity will limit educational opportunities, and the uneven distribution of personal wealth will further stratify the population. Choice is meaningless in the absence of an appropriate context. As long as marketing wizards are framing the debate, their proposals can do anything. Used "correctly," advertising can obscure even the vilest of intentions. With its feel-good potential and patriotic associations choice is "an almost perfect political concept" (Orfield 12). "Advocates of an educational marketplace have won a significant ideological and marketing victory by successfully labeling their program 'choice' rather than the more neutral sounding 'voucher'" (Lowe 1992a 28). Peter Cookson's experience with a choice supporter illustrates the visceral appeal of the choice campaign. This marketing strategy reduces choice to an obvious solution. "How can you not be for choice?"
The irrational power of advertising is sure to be foisted on the students of a for-profit school. As every teacher knows schools, curricula, and pedagogy are never neutral. Values are propagated through textbooks, scheduling, desk arrangements, and other intentional and unintentional mechanisms. When corporations control the schools, corporate values will be the ones propagated. The first lesson will be that the owners of the school can do no wrong. Students at the EAI controlled schools in Baltimore start each day with a 15-20 minute "pep rally." Getting the students fired up about being in school provides an excellent opportunity to inculcate them with love for their school and the corporation which sponsors it. A profit-making organization -- especially one which is unregulated -- is unlikely to inform either its students or parents the private internal knowledge of inefficacy or danger. Regulations are sometimes the only reasons that corporations pay attention to such "burdensome" obligations as environmental protection or worker safety. The political and economic climate being what it is, many Americans are just a regulation away from a lifetime of exposure to carcinogenic toxins or an accidental death and dismemberment on the factory floor. The decades long suppression by Johns Mansville of studies linking occupational asbestos exposure with lung diseases is perhaps the best example of corporate disregard for human life. Why should we expect that profit-driven business interests will suddenly reform themselves once they enter into the educational marketplace? Unregulated, for-profit schools would never engage in the kind of critical self-examination that might detail their own failings. The incentive to maximize profits is inherently at odds with the social responsibility of education.
Support for market-driven school choice plans by the average citizen are motivated, to a large extent, by the glowing promises of reduced educational expenditures. As Chubb & Moe proudly state:
[Schools] probably do not require lots of expensive equipment or huge new buildings or vast libraries. Nor do they require paying teachers substantially more. Money is not what makes some schools more effective than others. Private schools -- which outperform public schools -- tend to spend less than the public schools do in educating their students. They get better schools for less money (194, 193).
The claims that market-forces will ensure education of equal or better value for less money and that increased per-pupil expenditures do not necessarily lead to increased educational outcomes are well received. Legislators take heed when opportunities arise to reduce the burden of taxation. No politician was ever elected on the well-principled stand that quality public services need adequate funding. The debate has been marketed as a battle between decent, hardworking Americans everywhere and an entrenched bureaucracy beholden to the needs of "special interests" in an uncontrolled "tax and spend" orgy. The same logicians that gave us "Why Ask Why?" and "Just Do It!" are essentially telling us to shout at the top of our lungs, "I'm not gonna pay a lot for this education!"
What often gets lost in the hype is the absolute ruin that education has experienced at the hands of a tax-stingy public. This circumvents one of the hallowed tenets of the conservative movement -- that money doesn't really matter. The truth is, money does matter and it matters a whole hell of a lot. If money didn't matter, why then would one school district spend more money than any other? "Why not spend less, especially since, so many schools are godless places populated by lazy, unionized, tenured teachers and gum-chewing, dope-smoking, rowdy students?" (Finn 511). If educational expenditures are irrelevant to quality education, Chubb & Moe should convince the over-funded school districts across the nation and their wealthy taxpayers that they are wasting their money.
Wealthy conservatives in the suburbs are generally happy with their schools and would not dream of spoiling them with reduced expenditures. The unusually low levels of funding found in most voucher programs are designed to prevent the unwashed masses from "choosing" the schools of the affluent. If voucher supporters really advocated "freedom of choice" in a serious way, every student enrolled in a state would receive at least $10,000. Unless state governments are willing to adequately fund voucher programs poor families will be left with but one choice -- to send their children to the unsatisfactory, neighborhood comprehensive schools they always attended. Choice for some but not for all is not real choice.
This has lead some conservatives to predict the nightmarish cooptation of the free-market by wealth-redistributi
Would 'school choice' zealots favor a 'park choice' system, whereby the government would pay for poor people to 'opt out' of the public parks and join country clubs? (Kinsley in Rethinking Schools Editors 19).
How about a favorite argument of voucher enthusiasts: rich people get to send their children to private school, so why shouldn't poor people? Huh? Rich people get to live in mansions, too. Does that mean the government, which provides housing for the poor, has to give welfare recipients fancy estates in Beverly Hills? I thought it was liberals not conservatives, who argued that when the government guarantees people a right, it has an obligation to subsidize that right (Allen in Rethinking Schools Editors 19).
When "freedom of choice" is taken to its ultimate end conservative support vanishes. Comparisons of the funds needed to totally equate per-pupil expenditures with those of other conservative supported programs proves most interesting. Total expenditures on K-12 public education in the United States resulted in a paltry per-pupil expenditure of $3,752 in 1988 (Harris & Harris). Raising this to the earlier described minimum of $10,000 would result in a near tripling of national school expenditures to about $400 billion. This is 60% greater than the budget of the Pentagon. Conservatives have never advocated reduced military expenditures with the same fervor as they have for reduced expenditures on other peoples children.
In contrast to the programs described previously, Milwaukee's choice program is driven by minority discontent with education. National attention has been focused on the program thanks to the support of the Tommy Thompson and Annette "Polly" Williams. Thompson gained favor with the Bush administration in recent years for of his conservative reform of the state's welfare program and has been integral in the coalition of governors attempting to instigate statewide voucher programs. Even before the school term began, the Milwaukee Parent Choice Program won praise from the Bush administration and rumors began to circulate of a possible cabinet position for Thompson in 1992.
Williams, the representative to the city assembly from the largely black and impoverished north side, has become the darling of the voucher movement. As an African-American, former welfare mother, and supporter of Jesse Jackson, her advocacy has been used to deflect some of the criticisms that vouchers are primarily the domain of white, middle-class, xenophobes. Many, including Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert Grover, see her as the unwitting accomplice of right-wing business interests intent on privatizing the state's public education system (Lowe 1992a 4). Whatever her role, Ms. Williams discontent is well-founded. African-Americans -- especially males -- have been traditionally disserved by the Milwaukee Public School system (MPS). According to their own statistics:
- African-Americans comprise 57% of the total school population, but 94% of the expulsions.
- As of April 1990 the mean grade point average (GPA) for the African-American student body was only 1.46.
- African-American males -- the group most at risk -- are 27% of school population, but make up 51% of all suspensions.
- African-American males represent 22% of the high school seniors in MPS, but are only 16% of the seniors with GPAs between 2.0 and 2.9 and 4% of the seniors with GPAs between 3.0 and 4.0.
- In the entire Milwaukee Public Schools system only 21 African-American males graduated in 1990 with a GPA of 3.0 or above (MPS).
The Parental Choice Law, introduced by Williams in 1990, was designed with the intent of rectifying these inequities in the manner of an affirmative action program. Admission to the program was determined by lottery. Qualifying students from economically impoverished families were awarded vouchers worth roughly $2,500 which would then be used to supplement a family contribution towards private school tuition. Restrictions on the program were designed to insure that no money went to schools that included religion as a part of their curriculum and that pupils would demonstrate adequate academic progress and attendance (Cookson 66-67).
The Milwaukee Parent Choice Program has received attention far out of proportion to its immediate impact. For the students who applied, the value of the voucher was insufficient for most of the parents to send their children to the wealthiest, elite private schools. The modest number of students who participated, for the most part attended poorly funded, inner city urban academies. In comparison, minority students enrolled in suburban public schools through the metropolitan desegregation program experienced higher levels of funding than either the academies or MPS could provide.
Lost in the shuffle, between the governor's posturing for a cabinet position and the praise of such conservative interests groups as the Bradley Foundation, has been the real effect of the program on its participants. The students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parent Choice Program -- 100% low-income and 96% African-American or Latino -- represent an opportunity for supporters to demonstrate the efficacy of vouchers on an at-risk population. If vouchers really are the be-all-and-end-
Discontent with the program has been pervasive. The program's original intent was to serve 1,000 of the district's of nearly 100,000 students but only 558 applications were filed in the first year and only 341 ultimately enrolled in the seven schools that agreed to participate. Overall participation was better in the second year, but of the 333 non-graduating students who began the program, 155 or 47% elected not to participate in the second year (Lowe 1992a 4, 5). Moreover, one of the schools abandoned its participation in the program midway through the first year after non-voucher parents decided the school should resume religious education. The disorder at the school and the ensuing chaos effectively denied a year's worth of education to the 63 students who made the wrong choice (Lowe 1992b 30). One can only imagine the disastrous effects were such a practice to become as common on the national level as Chubb & Moe desire.
Choice programs across the nation are often disproportionately white and affluent. Those who support private school choice are frequently the same as those who oppose equitable funding. The Milwaukee Parent Choice Program -- although apparently an attempt at affirmative action -- is another example of how established interests can manipulate policies to reinforce existing disparity.
Milwaukee is a hyper-segregated city where attitudes and priorities divide sharply along racial lines. Whites compose two-thirds of the general population but only 26% of public school students. In a recent grade-based survey of attitudes towards MPS, those with children in the system rated their schools at just under a "B" (2.88) while the rating of the general population was just under a "C" (1.81). The appreciably different levels discontent are in no small part due to the racist attitudes of large segments of the white population. When a $474 million facilities plan was tabled as a referendum, Milwaukee voters overturned it by a three-to-one margin. Whites overwhelmingly opposed the referendum while African-Americans approved it by a wide margin (Lowe 1992a 23). The vote suggests the unwillingness of many whites to support the schools of other people's children. A woman exiting a voting booth told a local news reporter quite matter-of-factly that she had voted against the referendum because her children attended private schools (Lowe 1992c 39).
Discriminatory spending practices have been implicated with other school choice reforms. In California -- where a school choice initiatives have been repeatedly tabled -- public school students are asked to bear the brunt of most of the state's spending cuts. The Wilson Administration issued warnings about a daunting 35% increase in the number of school age children in the state in this decade and suggested it cannot meet all their needs. From 1940-1970, however, the state went through an average increase in the school-age population of 62% each decade. By the time children born this year graduate from high school the state's Latino population is expected to double and the Asian population will have grown by two-thirds. The truth is that California is abandoning its children just as a majority of them will be non-white (Shultz 28, 29).
There's no shortcut to building good schools. The advocacy of choice as a panacea for the nations school system depends heavily on unsubstantiated ideological claims. Chubb & Moe's argument is dominated by a statistical hand-waving that obscures the true etiologies of public school deficiencies. The private sector -- which already supplies textbooks and standardized tests -- is easily implicated in the nation's educational deficiencies. Businesses and wealthy individuals stand to benefit the most from large-scale privatization efforts. Taxes will likely decrease in wealthy upper-class suburbs and opportunities will arise for capital rich investors to reap millions of dollars in profits from the newly created "Educational-
Capitalism in the schools exchanges short-term monetary profits for long-term societal gains. The market ethos ignores the well-documented effects of education on success in later life -- 40% of pregnant teenagers are behind two-to-three grade levels, 80% of children in juvenile detention homes read at a fifth-grade level or below, 60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, and 90% of those on welfare have difficulty with the written word (Prentiss 9). With education you either pay now or you pay later. Any philosophy of school reform that destroys the futures of large segments of the population is not worth considering.