Nowhere is the link between the right's national political agenda and the privatization of public education clearer than in Massachusetts. In November 1995, just weeks before announcing that he would run for the U.S. Senate against the liberal Democratic incumbent John Kerry, Governor William Weld unveiled a truly radical plan for reshaping K-12 education that could make Massachusetts the testing ground for every weapon in the privatization arsenal.
Weld wants to voucherize the entire public educational system, putting an educational voucher in the hand of every low-income student in Massachusetts and radically expanding the idea of school choice by including parochial and private schools in the voucher program. He wants to remove the cap on the number of charter schools (currently set at 25 by law) and let them expand without limit to increase competition with public school systems throughout the state. He wants to eliminate all forms of teacher certification. He wants to limit the independence of the Board of Education, a body that has been strongly critical of Weld's new proposals.
But Weld is too good a politician to be satisfied with "the having of bad ideas" (apologies to the title of Eleanor Duckworth's wonderful book, The Having of Good Ideas). He has also placed fresh horses in key leadership positions in the hierarchy of public education, from kindergarten through graduate school, appointing Boston University President John Silber as the Chairman of the Board of Public Education, insurance industry magnate George Carlin as Chairman of the Higher Education Coordinating Council, and using his influence to make sure that the UMass Board of Trustees named the Massachusetts Legislature's Senate President, William Bulger, as President of the University of Massachusetts system. All are on Weld's ideological wavelength, all wield power ruthlessly, all are white males, and none has any significant experience in public education. This leadership troika is best understood as Weld's management team for a hostile takeover of all levels of public education.
While Massachusetts under Weld may be leading the privatization charge, it's clear that this movement continues to gain momentum nationally. Privatization initiatives are underway in most states, and are especially potent in urban areas where dissatisfaction with public education is greatest. This opens the way for troubling alliances between poor people, especially in communities of color, and slick-talking entrepreneurs like the Edison Project's founder, Christopher Whittle, who seduce these communities with promises of a computer in every child's home, upscaling "hoop dreams" into "computer dreams." The lure of privatization is also great for big city mayors and school boards frustrated with failing public schools and thus vulnerable to sales pitches from entrepreneurial "ed" companies promising they can run better, cheaper schools and turn a profit for their investors at the same time.
Claims made by charter school advocates and others in the privatization movement have great appeal to people who are frustrated, angry and alienated by their sense of the multiple failures of public education; this appeal extends to progressive teachers and parent activists who have been unable to bring about needed changes within their public school systems. Charter school movements present themselves as an extension of public school systems and argue that they combine the democratic values that gave birth to public education in this country with competition, the engine of progress beloved by every free marketeer. Advocates use familiar buzzwords like grassroots organizing, community-based coalitions, empowerment, innovative education, parental involvement in education, school-based management.
Here, for example, is language from an overview of charter schools put out by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education in its charter school application brochure:
Unlike other popular reform initiatives which have come and gone with little lasting impact, charter school reform is a decentralized, "bottom up" approach to school reform which is fueled by local creativity and grass-roots initiative. (Charter 2) Decentralized ... local creativity ... grass-roots initiatives: all familiar rhetoric to progressive educators working for change. But the next sentence in the Secretary of Education's description of charter schools slips in a new and radical idea:
Through a charter granted by the Secretary of Education, a private entity or coalition of individuals is given public authority to create and run an independent public school which is legally autonomous from the local district. (Charter 2) How quickly the language shifts from "grass-roots initiatives" to "private entities." In this sentence the distinctions between private and public have been obscured. What is the difference between a private entity being given public authority to create a school and a private school? And what is a coalition of individuals? Would a teachers' union qualify?
The final sentence in this paragraph from the Secretary of Education's official "overview" of charter schools brings together key elements from progressive educational rhetoric and the new conservative rhetoric:
These new community-based schools have real potential not only to empower local communities, but also to unleash a sorely needed dynamic of entrepreneurism into the larger school establishment. (Charter 2) Meant to read seamlessly, the language stitching between "community-based schools," "empowerment of local communities," and "dynamic of entrepreneurism" is about as subtle as the stitching across the forehead of Boris Karloff's version of the Frankenstein monster.
It's tempting merely to rebut the conservative educational agenda at the rhetorical level, but such an approach falls short of recognizing how well-organized and effective these efforts have been to date. To really understand the charter school movement and other privatization initiatives, it's necessary to grasp the political, legislative and economic strategies used to further them: the realities on the ground. One vehicle for doing this is a brief analysis of key features of the charter school legislation contained in the Educational Reform Act of 1993 (M.G.L. Ch. 71, s. 89). This analysis is done from the perspective of an educator, not a lawyer; it seeks to bring out the political, economic, and, most important, the educational implications of charter school legislation.
Decision-Makers and Managers: Structural Issues of Power and Control in the Charter School Legislation
M.G.L. Ch. 71, s. 89 begins: "A charter school shall be a public school operated under a charter granted by the Secretary of Education, which operates independently of any school committee and is managed by a board of trustees. The board of trustees ... shall be deemed to be public agents authorized by the Commonwealth to supervise and control the charter school."
By giving all approval authority and administrative oversight to the Secretary of Education, this legislation creates a separate school system for charter schools that is for all practical purposes under the direct control of Gov. Weld. The Secretary of Education is a cabinet-level official appointed by the Governor, and the Office of Education is obviously part of the executive branch. Unlike any other public education structure in Massachusetts, which prizes local control of public schools, this is a highly centralized structure. While this approach might have been rationalized as a temporary protective structure for the first stage of an educational experiment, it's clear from other language in the law related to charter renewals at five-year intervals that the intent is to create a separate system in...