The lethal attack on education
These charter schools, though run by private companies, are supported by both public and private funds. Walmart, through its Walton Family Foundation, "has awarded more than $1 billion in grants nationally to educational efforts since 2000, making it one of the largest private contributors to education in the country" (The New York Times, 4/26/14). An immense portion of this money has gone to charter schools. The Walton foundation also heavily contributes to extreme right-wing groups such as the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, the bastion of neo-conservatives from which President Bush drew many of his administrators.
And it hired as its education program officer a former employee of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate-sponsored group of conservative state legislators that has a comprehensive plan for privatizing all education and that writes boilerplate laws meant for national application, such as the photo ID requirements intended to suppress the voting of minorities and the poor. Can anyone be naive enough to think that Walmart's intentions in funding education could run counter to its ultra-right socio-political position, which it also heavily funds? The Gates Foundation, started by Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and the Dells of computer fame, are not only multi-million dollar contributors to charter schools, but are leading the charge to flood the nation with them. The motives of these corporate funders are presented as pure and unselfish: To help the disadvantaged and to generously return some of their good fortune to society. Who could fault such altruism? But wasn't that "good fortune" extracted from society in the first place? If the Gateses and Waltons are really so magnanimous, why don't they pay their workers living wages that would relieve the poverty that creates the desperate kids whose lives the charter schools claim to be rescuing? Walmart fights against raising the minimum wage and most of its employees are paid so little that they qualify for federal aid! This excerpt from a Monthly Review article (Feb. 2012) on working conditions in a Chinese factory attests to the "human concerns" of the Dells and Gateses and how they amass their fortunes: Two thousand workers, mostly women, assemble keyboards and computer equipment for Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Pack ard, and Dell. Employees work 12-hour shifts seven days a week, with two days off a month on average.
They are at the factory 81 hours a week, while working for 74. They are paid 64 cents an hour base pay, which is reduced to 41 cents after deductions for food and rooms. Metai workers are locked in the factory compound four days of each week and are not allowed to take a walk. They do mandatory unpaid overtime cleaning of the factory and the dorm. Workers are regularly cheated out of 14 to 19 percent of the wages due to them. The workers are told that "economizing on capital is the most basic requirement of factory enterprise." Are we really to believe that those who enrich themselves through this cruelty truly want to "rescue the poor" through the funding of education? The Koch brothers - whose father admired Mussolini and was a founder of the neo-fascist John Birch Society - are another example. They fund the Tea Party; the right-wing legislators responsible for our dysfunctional congress; and virtually every other arch-conservative and libertarian anti-government, anti-people organization - as well as education.
"Between 2007 and 2012, Koch family foundations contributed $30.5 million dollars to 221 colleges and universities in the United States" (The New York Times, 5/18/14). Can we believe that these brothers - who have spent fortunes denying the science of global warming in order to protect their energy industry profits - are truly interested in the unbiased advancement of knowledge? These contradictions are so glaring that one is compelled to rip off the mask of beneficence to see what really lies beneath it. Let's first understand that these are the very corporate forces that - to maximize profit - impoverish the public sector by opposing necessary taxation; oppose raising wages; outsource their production and services, putting further downward pressure on domestic wages and fostering unemployment; destroy unions - and use their money to buy politicians who enforce the "austerity" that curtails or eliminates every needed public program, including education. Because of an impoverished public sector, thousands of teachers have been fired, schools are underfunded, facilities are in disrepair, and classes are overcrowded - all to the detriment of the children, particularly the underprivileged who have taken the brunt of the attack. Having deliberately caused the problem, this private sector now generously comes to the fore to solve it!
This should make anyone skeptical that the educational success of charter schools is the real goal of the capitalist class in funding it - that a corporate sector that wages relentless war against the people is truly concerned about poor kids. Charter schools sift off the better students and leave the remaining public schools with even greater challenges. They limit the number of handicapped children and can arbitrarily expel underperforming, disruptive, or disturbed students that public schools cannot, sending these kids back to the public schools.
Charter schools are less subject to state regulation than public schools, and since most of the teachers are non-union they are paid less than their public-school counterparts - yet another me thod of putting downward pressure on wages in general. Not being unionized, the teachers are "at-will employees, wildly afraid for their jobs, afraid to speak up for students, so there's huge teacher turnover," says a Chicago charter school teacher (In These Times, April 2014). Teach for America, another organization serving charter schools, takes recent college graduates, gives them a couple of weeks training, and sends them out to teach. While there are some notable successes, the overall performance of charter schools nationwide mirrors that of the public schools they were supposed to surpass.
Most condemning is the fact that as soon as an institution leaves the public sector for the private, it is no longer subject to democratic control - and this is probably the key to understanding the charter school phenomenon. Capitalism has an irrepressible drive to privatize everything, whether it's the oil in the ground, the vast forests, the water we drink, grazing lands, prisons, or education. And what the private sector owns is always and necessarily used to serve that sector's singular purpose: Maximization of profit - regardless of human or environmental considerations. The intense corporate funding of charter schools clearly indicates that sector's intention to create a privatized system parallel to the public school system. And to accomplish this, private enterprise has the cheek to demand public funds in addition to its own - funds taken from public schools and which the public sector docilely provides for the further destruction of these schools! It's terrifying to imagine all of public education transferred to the hands of the wealthy aristocracy and used only to serve the needs of that elite. Think of the private evangelical colleges that don't permit courses in evolution. Capitalists fund university department chairs occupied by hand-picked, pro-corporate ad vocates who promote the laissez- faire doctrine: No taxation, no regulation, and eradication of all public benefits.
So what we actually have in the charter school movement is yet another method of dismantling the democratic public sector in favor of the non-democratic private sector and its princes - the .01 percent - this time under the admirable guise of philanthropy. And isn't philanthropy - so solemnly revered - really the hypocritical practice of putting a sanctimonious face on the one who took your money in the first place? It becomes particularly onerous when insidiously used to undermine the public education of our children.
A free and equitable society does not need philanthropy or charter schools.
Andrew Torre lives in Landgrove.
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