Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Chester Finn, the Death of Democracy, and Opposites Day

So today, conservatives hate tradition, and democracy is increased by taking away the vote.

Behind the paywall at Wall Street Journal, Chester Finn (honcho emeritus of the Thomas Fordham Institute), Bruno V. Manno (Walton Foundation), and Brandon Wright (Fordham) are happy to announce the death of one more piece of democracy in this country.

The trio reports that charter schools are spearheading a "quiet revolution" in local control. Because, like Reed Hastings (Netflix), they are happy to see the local elected school board die.

Oh, the elected school board was fine back in the day. "This setup functioned well for an agrarian and small-town society in which people spent their entire lives in one place, towns paid for their own schools, and those schools met most of the workforce needs of the local community." But this set-up does not work for a "country of mobile and cosmopolitan citizens." Not with money coming from the state and feds, and not when "discontent with educational outcomes is rampant." What does that mean? Where is the evidence? What do you mean?! Didn't you hear him? The discontent is rampant! Rampant, I tell you!

Also, they want you to know that some school districts are really, really big. So big that elected boards are no longer "public spirited civic leaders" but are now a "gaggle of aspiring politicians and teacher-union surrogates." Because gaggles of aspiring politicians are far worse than gaggles of aspiring financial masters of the universe. Hedge fund managers are known for their altruism (remember how altruistic Wall Street was back in 2008). Not that these guys are going to mention that the folks behind the great charter revolution are mostly hedge funders and money changers.

So, on opposites day, conservatives like Finn, Manno and Wright are opposed to one of the oldest democratic traditions in this country. But wait-- the bulletins from Bizzaro World are still coming in.

Yet far from undermining local democratic control, these new schools are reinventing it...

Well, yes. Kind of like Jim Crow laws tried to reinvent freedom for black folks.

Because these boards function more like nonprofit organizations than political bodies or public agencies, their members need not stand for election. Being generally union-free, they don’t have the headaches of collective bargaining.

"Function like nonprofit organizations" is weasel wording of the highest order. I live in the shadow of UPMC, a nonprofit healthcare giant that turns huge profits and employs some of the highest paid executives and board members around. We need to get past the notion that nonprofits can't be as  money-grubbing and rapacious as for-profit companies, because they absolutely can.

And with freedom to engage and deploy principals and teachers, and to adjust budget, curriculum and instruction to do their students the most good, charter schools are attracting to their boards selfless citizens and community leaders who see a plausible chance to promote change.

Which is a pretty way to say that the unelected operators of the school district can do whatever the hell they want to whomever the hell they want to do it to, and not have to answer to anyone. That's the dream here-- no answering to unions or taxpayers or damned government busybodies-- just the sweet freedom to rule over your domain as an all-powerful CEO.

The boys also talk about "confederations" of similar schools, by which they mean big business charter chains. And they take a moment to whinge about how charters get fewer government monies and so must depend on the kindness of philanthropists and "entrepreneurial energy" aka investors.

Established education interest groups—always more attentive to adult jobs than to kids’ learning—fight them relentlessly, as do a few civil-rights groups aligned with the unions. Some charter leaders and board members have been guilty of self-dealing and corrupt behavior.

Yes, those damned unions, trying to take away power from the rightful Masters of the Universe. And here comes another favorite charter cheerleader refrain-- These are a new species of public school, "open to all comers, paid for by taxpayers, and licensed by the state." Well, two out of three ain't bad.

What accountability do charters face? If they fail to meet standards of academic performance or fiscal soundness, charters are "supposed to be closed or restarted with fresh leadership." And that's absolutely it, because this section started with the phrase "But that's where democracy comes in," but now a paragraph later, democracy is a no-show. Voters don't get a say. Taxpayers don't get a say. Charters resist transparency vigorously. And if you are a parent who's unhappy with some aspect of the school, you can vote with your feet-- that's it. Any other kind of vote is off the table.

We've seen it over and over. Check out just this single report from NBC News, profiling how the closing, turning over, or general charterizing of schools is invariably accompanied by a loss of voting rights and voice for non-wealthy, non-white communities.

Of course, privatizing means the death of democracy for the sorts of people who don't read the Wall Street Journal. But the old kind of local control (sometimes known as democracy) is obsolete. What the world really needs is for elected officials to be replaced by boards composed of our Betters, the rich and powerful folks who need to run things without interruption from the Lessers who keep yelping and squawking and demanding some kind of voice or vote. Democracy, as these guys define it, is enhanced by giving fewer people less say. Because on opposites day, the fewer votes you get, the more democracy you have. As long as only the Right People, the Betters, have most of the money, most of the power, and most of the votes, well, then, democracy is thriving. At least on opposites day.


  1. They are floundering right now. Over the past few weeks, Charters have taken a real beating in plain public view. Thank you John Oliver for your charter expose' that just scratched the surface of all the ickiness. Thank you NLRB for making it clear that Charter's are private schools funded by public tax dollars. Thank you to whoever exposed the Charter operator in PA who lined his pockets with 8 million dollars of tax payer cash that was to operate his private but publicly funded school. These people are dreaming if they think they can keep talking and everybody will want to listen.

  2. I am finding it hard to understand how this guy is on my state's BoE now. Is this not a blatant conflict of interest? :-(

  3. They are looking to put even more charters into BaltoCity and PG county. Who else knows this scheme better. Besides, he needs another paying gig when the facade comes crumbling down.