What’s the future of American public elementary and secondary schools going to look like? For most of America’s history the story has been one of increasing access to free public school. It’s now offered to everyone, and everyone has to go. Concern about equity, particularly in the last century, now means that the country at least aspires to providing reasonably high quality instruction to children, regardless of their class, race, or geographic location.

But maybe this is going to end. According to a fascinating piece at Politico by Bob Herbert, there is a plot to eliminate all this.


America’s superrich want to end public education. The best example of this destruction goal, of course, comes from the relatively laudable efforts of Bill Gates. He’s long been frustrated by public schools and has worked hard to transform them. He tried making them smaller and then worked on trying to improve teacher quality. None of this has been terribly effective:

This hit-or-miss attitude—let’s try this, let’s try that—has been a hallmark of school reform efforts in recent years. The experiments trotted out by the big-money crowd have been all over the map. But if there is one broad approach (in addition to the importance of testing) that the corporate-style reformers and privatization advocates have united around, it’s the efficacy of charter schools. Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.

Charter schools are public schools. But they’re public schools free of many of the restrictions of traditional ones, and are operated, under various principles, by independent charters with cities. And some of these are run by for-profit corporations. And many of them that aren’t, particularly those that operate virtually or with an extensive technology focus, are still very good business for corporations that can sell their wares to these schools:

Few would accuse Gates of acting out of greed. For other school reformers, however, a huge financial return has been the primary motivation. While schools and individual districts were being starved of resources, the system itself was viewed as a cash cow by so-called education entrepreneurs determined to make a killing. Even in the most trying economic times, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, earmarked for the education of children from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, are appropriated each year. For corporate types, especially for private equity and venture capital firms, that kind of money can prove irresistible. And the steadily increasing influence of free-market ideology in recent years made public education fair game.

They’ve discovered something long familiar to the world’s government contractors: it’s possible to make an awful lot of money when the government contracts with you to do something, even if what you produce isn’t really that good.

We should be wary of words like “plot,” of course. There is a segment of the population, particularly heavily concentrated among conservative pundits, who really do want to destroy public schools and give every family a voucher to spend as they wish, employ all teachers on an at-will basis (like Walmart associates), and close and open schools according to market demand, but this is a small group and not likely to ever achieve its ends.

What matters more, perhaps, is the proliferation of the idea of the glory of “disruptive” education and those who want to change education as we know it to include more free market, less regulations, and fewer labor protections for teachers. And this really does matter because it’s become so established that it’s influencing policy, even policy promoted by Democrats.

But so far this has eliminated many neighborhood schools and destroyed the idea of teacher job protections as sacred. We’ve had more than a decade of charter school and other innovation experiments, however, and it hasn’t done much to improve student achievement.

But (with the notable exception of Diane Ravitch) assessing the success of market-based reforms in education is not the sort of thing in which education reformers are much interested.

These trends are likely to continue, and perhaps even get more extreme. We’ve been warned.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer