Accountability Charter Schools Education Industry For-Profit Privatization

Privatization and the Demonization of the Public Good

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The New York Times published an article about how critics of public schools now call them “government schools.” This is supposed to conjure up an image of a faceless, unaccountable bureaucracy, like the IRS, not your neighborhood public school whose teachers you know well.

I first heard this term used at the Hoover Institution. At first I didn’t know what they were talking about, then I realized that the public schools were, in their minds, “government schools,” a heinous institution that should be replaced by private schools, vouchers, religious schools, charters, home schooling, anything but those hated “government schools.” I began to wonder if they referred to highways as “government highways” and found a way to avoid them; if they referred to public parks as “government parks,” to be avoided or privatized; if they referred to public beaches as “government beaches.”

Privatization always has a bottom line: profit. And as Peter Greene recently pointed out, the difference between for-profit charter schools and non-profit charter schools is an illusion. The nonprofits like to grow, increasing their revenues and salaries for top administrators. They too exclude the hardest-to-educate children (they cost too much, which affects the bottom line).

One area where privatization has been a major failure is privatized prisons, publicly funded but privately managed. They produce profit. They do not reduce recidivism because they want more prisoners, not fewer.

Our faithful reader John Ogozalek, who teaches high school in upstate New York, sent a letter this morning on the same subject. I decided to let him tell the story:


You probably saw this New York Times article about the efforts to redefine public schools in Kansas.

It’s another fascinating example of how linguistics is being used to twist the argument over school reform.

Once again, the public good is demonized and complicated challenges are reduced to a simplistic need to “rebrand”.

I’m also in the middle of reading a very lengthy piece in Mother Jones (August 2016) about the for-profit prison industry.

The parallels to the for-profit school industry are scary: lack of adequate training for staff, the obsession with profits over people and outright cheating to get around government safeguards…gag rules to keep employees from speaking out. And, of course, ALEC rears its ugly head once again.

I taught many years ago in the New York State prison system. It was for about as long as the reporter for Mother Jones worked at the for-profit prison in Louisiana. Of course, there are very significant differences between the New York State Department of Corrections and the Corrections Corporation of America -not the least of which is the low pay, non-union labor force that the CCA relies on to make money for its shareholders.

And, interestingly enough, the shareholders of for-profit prisons includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Are their tentacles missing from any corner of the U.S.A.?)

My time teaching at the prison was invaluable -not only for helping me understand the huge role that this industry plays in our democracy but also for giving me a way to connect to former students who end up incarcerated. (I recently went to see one young man I taught years ago. The prison he’s in looks like a child’s drawing of a medieval fortress. Visitors walk up to the massive, rusticated castle and enter a thick, steel door that opens right out of the prison wall. If it wasn’t so frightening you might feel like you’re part of a cartoon. To see someone you knew as a child emerge from deep within that stone labyrinth is heartbreaking.

All Americans should visit a prison, I think -especially if you know someone who works as a corrections officer. It is a tough job and I respect the people I worked alongside. Shane Bauer makes it clear in his Mother Jones investigation that the COs at the for-profit prison are sort of prisoners in a manner, too. They’re treated as cogs in a brutal human assembly line.

I remember quitting my job at the correctional facility 30 years ago. It was a very happy moment as I walked up to the razor wire fence on my way out. The Superintendent (i.e. warden) had tried to convince me to stay. “It’s a growth industry,” he said, citing the career I was giving up. Hell no!

I could afford to leave. I didn’t have a mortgage, no kids going to college. I’m not the quitting sort but it was clear I had to go.

It’s very unsettling to now see public schools nationwide being turned upside down by some of the same forces that have made some prisons so incredibly inhumane now. Frightening is a better word. I sit at my desk some days and imagine how it will feel when I walk out of school for the very last time.

-John O.

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