Friday, January 30, 2015

Public Schools Are Not Monopolies

A common rhetorical flourish among reformsters from charter boosters to the governor of New York is to refer to public schools as a monopoly.

That's not the truth. To call public schools a monopoly is to either reveal ignorance or hide behind a lie.

To have a monopoly, we must have a single person or business entity which controls all the supply of a particular commodity. Now, schools are not businesses and education is not a commodity, but for our purposes, let's go ahead and pretend that the term can be stretched to cover something like schooling.

A monopoly would be a situation in which you can't get schooling from anyone else. Put another way, it would be a situation in which you have to deal with a particular boss or set of bosses.

Those of us of a certain age remember when the phone company was a monopoly. It didn't matter where you lived or what service you wanted in a phone, ultimately you were dealing with exactly the same corporate board of directors. And you couldn't do a thing about it.

Public schools would be a monopoly --

-- if every single school in the country was ultimately run by the same board of directors. They are not. That has always been one of the reasons that people choose to live in West Egg instead of in East Egg-- they like the West Egg schools better.

-- if the management of the school could not be replaced by the customers. But they can be. We have this thing called elections, in which the public can replace as many of the board of directors as they wish. Imagine what would happen to a corporation like Microsoft or US Air if they could be voted off the board by a vote of every customer of the company? They can't, but the board of a public school can be.

I was struck this morning, reading Jersey Jazzman's account of the struggle over public education in Jersey City, just how much the reformerized school districts behave like true monopolies.

Graduates of the Broad School, where future school bosses receive master of the universe training, cranks out people who prefer a setting where they answer to nobody. Reed Hastings is just one charter fan who has complained about having elected school boards. The push repeatedly in places like Philly and New Jersey and Detroit and unfortunately the list goes on and on-- that push is to cut the elected board out of the picture and replace it with a structure that is politically insulated from the voters.

Charter and choice fans talk about busting government school monopolies, but what they want specifically is a setting where they answer to no one and where no elected official can bother them. Elected officials are a pain because they have to keep voters happy.

And so we repeatedly see school leaders like Cami Anderson and John White who plough on secure in knowing that they don't have to answer to the voters or the customers or anyone.

That is what monopoly looks like on the ground. You take your complaint to the boss and the boss says, "So what? That's what I want to do, and you can't do a thing about it." And that's not what we get at public schools, where the voters can hire and fire the board members who are the ultimate bosses. That's what we get at school systems that have been reformed, or charter systems that have no elected board and need not answer to anyone.

That's the upside-down world of school reform. Use accusations of "monopoly" to help cut down the public system, and then replace it with systems that behave far more like monopolies than public schools ever did.


  1. The classic gambit of the right wing: accuse their opponents of what they themselves are guilty of.

  2. Yet, public schools are not monopolies. Charters without accountability or accredibility clearly have the highest potential for becoming every bit the monopoly that is the foundation of U.S commerce, *vis a viz Big Pharma, Big Insurance, Big Banks----all too big to fail..