Public Educations Shock Doctrine Summer Rolls Out

Jeff Bryant

As American public education arrives at the summer of its discontent, we have to contemplate how a system that has already had over 201,600 jobs wrung from its payrolls since August 2008 will handle the prospect of having to shed nearly a quarter of a million more jobs.

The litany of deep education cuts being forced on public schools is prompting many educators in cut-happy states like Texas , where the state legislature reduced per-student funding for the first time since World War II, to wonder if under-funding schools has become a “chronic” condition. School children in at least 21 states are looking at “identifiable, deep cuts in pre-kindergarten and/or K-12 spending,” with states like Mississippi proposing school budgets that “fail to meet statutory requirements,” and states like Florida enacting legislation that takes school spending back in time to 2005.

But it would be a mistake to assume that deep cuts in direct services to school kids mean that increases in education-related spending aren’t occurring somewhere else. In fact, many of the very same governors behind draconian cuts to classrooms and schools also muscled through state houses new legislation to increase spending on new programs for charter schools and vouchers.

In a useful round-up at Huffington Post, Joy Resmovits writes

Indiana approved a law that allows middle- and lower-income families to use tax funds for private school tuition. Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma also passed laws that created or expanded voucher programs . . . And charter school laws are expanding in Florida, Indiana and Idaho.

The transference of public spending on education to the private sector, whether it is to a private school or a “non-profit” charter entity, is a dynamic that is well underway. As the following infographic tweeted from ASCD (full disclosure: a client of mine) shows, nearly $1 billion every year is redirected from public schools to the private sector through voucher and tax credit programs alone.


Another form of public to private transference of school funds occurring this summer takes the form of federal outlays being sent to outside contractors. As Education Week recently reported, nearly all of the states participating in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program will be sending out requests for proposals for “technical help” implementing the complexities required by the RTTT grants.

In fact, those states, with the exception of Massachusetts, that have already been spending up RTTT largesse have sent at least half or more of the grant money to outside contractors. New York, for example, a state that received $700 million in RTTT money, on its way to severe budget cuts of $1.5 billion, somehow found the wherewithal to award a $27 million no-bid contract to Rupert Murdoch.

So as deep budget cuts lay waste to the public sector and new outlays are targeted to private interests, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the term “Shock Doctrine” has been suggested.

Recently, Danny Well got the conversation started, writing at The Daily Censored that Governor Rick Snyder’s proposed budget cuts of $470 per pupil will likely lead more schools to join “the 43 districts and charters already going bust” and becoming targets for take-overs. Proving him true was the announcement just last week that Detroit Public Schools are now going to be managed by a state overseer working with funding from “businesses and philanthropic organizations” to implement “reforms.” As Jim Horn at the blog Schools Matter explains, “the specifics of the plans were not elaborated yesterday, but it does include firing all teachers in ‘failing’ schools, giving school CEOs latitude to set up their own fiefdoms without oversight, and control by the unelected anti-democrats who own the Governor’s Office.”

Echoing these concerns, Timothy Slekar, again in Huffington Post , warned about the efforts of Pennsylvania’s newly elected conservative governor Tom Corbett. Slekar labeled as vintage “Shock Doctrine” the governor’s “plans on cutting $589 million from public school appropriations” while enacting expensive voucher plans that will likely lead to overall increases in education spending.

To bolster Slekar’s argument, even proponents of voucher programs agree that these schemes usually do not tend to reduce a school district’s “central administrative overhead costs” and lead to spending increases due to the costs of requiring public schools to “transfer student records, re-allocate categorical program funding, arrange to test voucher students enrolled in private schools, re-structure public schools that had lost large numbers of students, prepare to accept disillusioned voucher students back into the public schools, and in some cases arrange student transportation to private schools.”

In Wisconsin, for instance, where Tea Party-backed governor Scott Walker seeks to expand Milwaukee’s school voucher system — which by the way, have shown no evidence of improving student achievement — to the entire state, it seems apparent that costs will rise, at least if this analysis bears out.

These warnings of an education “Shock Doctrine” were foreshadowed much earlier this year by an event which went largely unreported. Taking place within the DC Beltway, the event revealed all too well the forces that were at work in the nation’s education sector just as soon as these draconian cuts were beginning to leave the drawing board. A brief recap, tucked away in the back pages of the Wall Street Journal , described the meeting’s focus on the emerging “venture capital opportunity” in the US education market.

Speaking to the crowd of venture capitalists, corporate executives, public school educators, and government officials, one presenter, Jonathan Grayer, former chief executive of education company Kaplan Inc., welcomed the “very dire times” confronting the nation’s schools as a fortunate opportunity for those who want to force onto educators and parents a new “model” of education that also just happens to align with corporate desires to expand their profits.

So what’s to fear from an Education Shock Doctrine? A lot.

First, what must be understood is that a private interest is a private interest, regardless of the intent behind the privatization. And once a matter of the public sector — a guaranteed right to education, police and fire protection, sanitation — becomes private, it becomes intrinsically less democratic. Then, what had been a matter of shared responsibility among parents, citizens, and their elected representatives becomes a matter decided among elites behind the closed doors of boardrooms.

But there’s an even greater risk seldom considered in this rush toward capitalization of public schools. So far, it’s immensely profitable to invest in charter schools and other education ventures. As this blog post calculates, something called “New Market tax credits” established at the end of the Clinton administration make it possible for charter entrepreneurs to “double their money in seven years.”

But what happens when these ventures fail, as some (most?) assuredly will? Profits of at least one large for-profit education provider fell in the most recent quarter due to “rapid enrollment growth,” i.e., all those damned students. Which I’m sure will send corporate executives into a panic of deciding where excesses in the system — due to say, the costs of educating students with special needs or who can’t speak English well — can be targeted for cuts, and ROI can be ratcheted up — by perhaps, increasing class-sizes for well-performing students.

Or maybe these captains of industry decide that their ventures just won’t pan out after all. And they decide to pull up stakes and head out to the next goldmine? Then where will we be?

Get updates in your inbox