In 410 A.D. Visigoth barbarians from northern Europe under their military leader Alaric brutally sacked imperial Rome, trashing its museums and public buildings, vandalizing its art treasures, and driving its population out of the city and into the countryside.
Just so, in June 2009, news arrived in my inbox from Todd Price in Wisconsin that Democratic U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, like Bush-era Republican Secretaries Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings before him an advocate of using charter schools and business management to bring about “education reform,” was gearing up, in his maiden outing as Secretary, for a sack of the city of Milwaukee, or at least its most visible community incarnation, its democratically administered public school system.
Even to an attuned but distant observer from out of state like myself it seemed significant that here was a U.S. Secretary of Education making his debut in his post by involving himself in the micromanagement of how a single city, Milwaukee, runs its schools. A newspaper headline put a spotlight on this unusual federal intervention in a city’s affairs: “U.S. education secretary pushes to improve Milwaukee Public Schools.” The format was for Duncan to meet with an invited assemblage of a dozen school, community, and elected leaders from one American city, the city of Milwaukee, along with a high-placed state official, the Governor of Wisconsin, to lay down the law on the education makeover that would have to take place in the city of Milwaukee for the state of Wisconsin to qualify for a share of the $4 billion in federal “Race To The Top” funds for education reform.
Wasn’t it just a little unprecedented that here were a United States cabinet Secretary and a state Governor going to a city to put it on notice to shape up or ship out? Couldn’t the Secretary simply have put this message in a letter? No, he felt it important to be there in person to make the following points so that those in attendance who seemed to have been invited to create an impression of representativeness of Milwaukee education and the Milwaukee community — the president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, the president of the Milwaukee Urban League, the Milwaukee schools head of Career Youth Development and the newly named staff person for the public schools’ Innovation and Improvement Advisory Council — would get his points into their heads, to wit, as this summary taken from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel puts it:
• Duncan wants a united approach, with people from throughout the community getting behind school improvement
• Duncan is not interested in small change, he wants dramatic, bold change
• Duncan is offering billions of dollars to a select number of states and it could be a big opportunity for Wisconsin to be one of them, but if they don’t get in line with the Secretary’s demands for reform, they could “blow it.”
• Duncan demands that leadership of the school makeover in Milwaukee, as the Journal-Sentinel reporter put it, “needs to start at the top, and that means the mayor.”
In an interview with the Journal-Sentinel published the day prior to the meeting, Duncan somewhat unconvincingly declined to express an opinion on the, you’d think, local issue of whether the Milwaukee mayor should be empowered to take over the city schools, while in the same breath exalting the benefits of mayoral school takeovers in uniting whole cities behind a common cause:
“Where the challenges are so large, you need all hands on deck,” he said. “You need the business community, you need the philanthropic community, you need the social service agencies, you need the not-for-profits, you need the city agencies, the police, the fire, the parks and rec . . . The best way I can think to get everyone rowing in the same direction is from leadership at the top, and that comes from the mayor.”
The Secretary in his whirlwind trip to Milwaukee did everything but slam the door on his way out. Milwaukeeans and people familiar with his previous record of replacing public with charter schools as CEO of schools in Chicago, recognized immediately that the outcome would bode ill for public education.
Sure enough, the Duncan visit was followed in September, three months later, by an announcement by Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, of a state- and city-endorsed plan for “reform” of education in Milwaukee through dissolution of the city’s elected Board of Education and transfer of its authority to Tom Barrett, Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor. Barrett, who acknowledges aspiring to succeed the retiring Doyle as Governor in 2010, surely must anticipate a boon for himself — by carrying out the Duncan takeover game plan in Milwaukee — with voters across the state. The pretext for the transfer would be the need to bring Wisconsin in line, as speedily as possible, for the so-called “Race To The Top” funding that Duncan is holding out as a plum to the lucky 25 states that toe the Secretary’s line on reform, his line being: elimination of bureaucratic impediments to the remaking of schools such as boards of education who sign contracts granting job security to union teachers.
While Duncan, in replying to a September letter sent to him by a Wisconsin Congresswoman, Gwendolyn Moore, protested that no such demand had been made by him in the Milwaukee meeting, his letter and subsequent developments suggest otherwise.
In reply to Moore's question as to whether at that session mayoral takeover of the city schools had been stated as a condition for the state to receive "Race to the Top" funding, the Secretary denied that there had been such a quid pro quo. However at the same time he firmly emphasized that if the state did not void "all legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers to linking data about student achievement or student growth to teachers for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation" it would not be allowed to receive the coveted funding. In other words, a threat had been made back in June, and in his September letter, peeling away the oblique wording, he repeats the threat by making the removal of “barriers” an absolute condition for receiving funds – the implication being: get rid of your board of education or do without the funding!
But why has Mr. Duncan had this “thing” about Wisconsin and invested so much of his time, and reputation, in bringing the state into the fold of the public school flagellators (excuse me, I meant to say “reformers”)? One answer is that until legislation to change the system of teacher remuneration was passed in that state during the week of November 9th, Wisconsin had been one of just three holdout states (the others being New York and Nevada) that were stubbornly refusing to peg teacher salaries to student test scores .
The other reason the Secretary may have put such a premium on Wisconsin is the opportunity to make Milwaukee, America’s 11th poorest city, a poster child for the Duncan method of improving inner city schools: by empowering mayors to close and replace them.
If getting Wisconsin to adopt the Milwaukee takeover legislation is so important to the Secretary of Education that he even made a second trip to Wisconsin (that is, a charter school in Madison) with President Obama on November 4th, then we had better be alert for the importance it may have for the rest of us as well — as a sign of the future for urban communities like Milwaukee that many of us happen to live in, for the boards and officials that we elect to run them, and for school districts outside the inner city who may someday wake up to discover that they themselves are on the receiving end of this juggernaut of “school reform.”
Todd Price, whose account of this, let's face it, Washington-engineered attempted takeover of Milwaukee schools follows in Part II, was the 2009 Green Party candidate for Wisconsin Superintendent of Instruction. With credentials as a teacher of education as well as eyewitness and rally speaker in the Milwaukee confrontation, he opens a rare peephole into privatization-in-action: first, the would-be sack of a major American city’s schools by federal and corporate “barbarians” and then, the bristling backlash against it by Milwaukeeans rallying to defend the independence of their city.
Reacting to his reports and YouTube videos of ferment in Milwaukee that have been coming to me in Ohio, where I have been monitoring and writing about school privatization since the lead-up years to the birth of vouchers in this state with the Cleveland pilot program of 1995, I’ve been brought to attention (and I wouldn't be surprised if Sec. Duncan has been as well) by these Milwaukeeans - teachers, principals, administrators, elected officials, religious leaders, parents, and young students - who’ve been turning out in such numbers to defend their elected school board, and by their resistance to federal and state intrusion.
Could this be a crack in the picture window of acceptance of the privatization pandemic that has been raging unimpeded in this country since even before breaking into the open in the Reagan and Bush years in the 1980s? Considering that, nationally, even unions representing teachers from districts outside of urban areas like Milwaukee have climbed aboard the Duncan “school reform” bandwagon hoping for a seat at the table in the seemingly unstoppable post-public era that awaits, appreciation of what a striking rebuff to this consensus Milwaukeeans have lodged requires a sense of just how ingrained in our system the privatization process has become.
My purpose in what follows is to put Todd Price's narrative of the Wisconsin events in the context of that larger process.
Let me start this preface by highlighting dates in the modern history of privatization that, I believe, offer needed perspective on the Milwaukee story.
Federally grandfathered mayoral takeovers of city school systems like Milwaukee's did not happen out of the blue.
The seemingly overnight transformation by mayoral appointment of local businessmen and retired military into "educators" deemed somehow more qualified to run a city's schools than its elected school board is part of a wave of "let business do it" privatization of government that started as far back as Lyndon Johnson's professedly liberal presidency in the 1960s and has merely come to its crest in the 21st century administrations of the younger George Bush and Barack Obama.
For a fuller visualization of how, all but hidden in the shadows of the 23rd largest city in the United States, it comes to pass that a Democratic president’s Secretary of Education is found plotting to disable public school administrations and orchestrating the demise of the tradition of administrative home rule that goes back more than a hundred years to the founding of the modern American school board in 1901, we need a wide angle gaze.
We need to see this attempted educational annexation of Milwaukee as part of a panorama of selloff and outsourcing of publicly owned lands, services, and capital that has become a uniter of both political parties in a common cause: turning the keys to the American superstructure over to corporate domain.
Escorted by an honor guard of the two parties back to the seat of power it once held in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (and has sought to have restored ever since), a corporate camarilla bent on stripping the nation of its public capital and its public treasury has dragged us back to 1921 and the days of President Warren Harding when cabinet members colluded with oil industry moguls in the privatization of federally owned lands in California and Wyoming’s Teapot Dome, and the watchword of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it all: “more business in government, less government in business.”
Meanwhile the gospel of full-scale public ownership, services, and regulation has languished for want of a party voice.
Already in 1966 under our "big government" President Lyndon Johnson, noted in the history books as the last of the New Dealers, seeds of the selloff of government functions and services were being planted when the Office of Management and Budget issued Circular A-76, a directive for government to maximize the process of outsourcing:
"The competitive enterprise system, characterized by individual freedom and initiative, is the primary source of national economic strength . . . the Government should not compete with its citizens."
Privatization picked up steam under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, whose presidential "Privatization Initiative" in his last year in office made the transfer of government services and capital to private ownership the official and declared policy of the United States:
George H.W. Bush: Title 3
Executive order 12803 of April 30, 1992 57 FR 19063 / May 4, 1992 Privatization initiative: To the extent permitted by law, the head of each executive department and agency shall undertake the following actions: (a) Review those procedures affecting the management and disposition of federally financed infrastructure assets owned by State and local governments and modify those procedures to encourage appropriate privatization of such assets consistent: with this order (b) Assist State and Local governments in their efforts to advance the objectives of this order; and (c) Approve State and local governments' requests to privatize infrastructure assets.
While the Bush directive laid out the game plan for massive asset sales, it was left to the Clinton Administration for implementation. According to Sheldon Wolin in Democracy Incorporated the biggest private expansion into intelligence and other areas of government occurred under Bill Clinton.
Wolin reminds us that during his first term, Clinton outsourced more than 100,000 Pentagon jobs, thousands of then in intelligence, to private companies. By the end of his second term, he had cut 360,000 federal jobs, and the government was spending 44 percent more on private contractors than it had when Clinton took office in 1993.
The Heritage Foundation typified the enthusiasm of the right for the Democratic Clinton’s seeming partnership in privatization with then-House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich, calling his 1996 budget the “boldest privatization agenda put forth by any president to date.”
Nowhere is the hold of private corporations over our national wealth more obvious than in the for-profit manufacture of arms, warplanes, ships and military hardware.
The Congressional Research Service in the U.S. reported that American weapons sales abroad reached $37.8 billion, or 68.4 percent of all global arms transactions. The next largest weapons supplier was Italy at $3.7 billion, less than one-tenth the U.S. amount.
According to the Project on Governmental Oversight (POGO) database on Federal Contractor Misconduct, misbehavior by unaccountable and uncontrollable suppliers of arms and hired contract personnel, the top 100 defense contractors have cost the U.S. taxpayer billions in improper, illegal, and unaccounted expenditures.
The Commission on Wartime Contracting (CWC) released a "Special Report on Contractor Business Systems" exposing failures of Defense Department oversight of contractor business systems to prevent egregious "waste, fraud, and abuse" on a scale tantamount to "hemorrhaging."
Right now, taxpayers are vulnerable: the government can't effectively audit those systems and detect contractor errors, omissions, misstatements, and unsupported, unallowable, or unreasonable costs. As stated in the report, the CWC found in an August hearing that "unreliable data from business systems produced billions of dollars in contingency-contract costs that government auditors often could not verify."
Here are some of the more outrageous financial losses to the public treasury attributed to unmonitored corporations receiving government military contracts (since 1995). From a list of the top 100 contractors (instances of misconduct and dollars misappropriated or unaccounted for):
Lockheed Martin: (50 instances of misconduct), $577.2 million. Boeing (31 instances of misconduct), $1561.4 million. Northrop Grumman (27 instances of misconduct), $790.4 million McKesson (8 instances of misconduct), $1356.7 million Merck & Co. (10 instances of misconduct), $5834.7 million.
GlaxoSmithKline (16 instances of misconduct), $4280.7 million. In all there were 678 instances of misconduct run up by the 100 top contractors for a total wasted dollars in the amount of more than $26 billion (26126.8 million).
And then there is the military itself in its newer privatized guise. In Afghanistan and Iraq an estimated 180,000 private contractors employed by private for-profit corporations such as Blackwater/Xe are increasingly taking the place of members of our nation's own armed forces.
According to the Congressional Research Service, as of March of this year, contractors made up 57 percent of the Pentagon's force in Afghanistan and total 65 percent if the past two years are averaged in. Congress appropriated $106 billion for contractors, earning salaries that are often triple or quadruple those of an American soldier or Marine, in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to through the first half of 2008.
While as of March 31 there were still more uniformed military personnel - 282,000 - than contractors - 242,657 - it is not hard to imagine if the trend continues a future in which an American force will be sent into battle without swearing an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution and subordinate to the authority, not of an elected U.S. commander-in-chief, but to the dictates of their respective private corporations' CEOs.
One of the jewels in the crown of the new "let business do it" system of outsourcing public functions to private corporations is prison management. Private for-profit companies are increasingly running America’s prisons.
The Corrections Corporation of America, far and away the leading private corporation in the fast-growing incarceration industry known as "The Prison-Industrial Complex," operates a total of 65 facilities including 41 that it owns, and a total of 78,000 beds in 19 states and Washington D.C.
For 2007, CCA reported total revenues of $1 billion-478 million and profits of $266.3 million, an 18.4% increase over 2006. The net profit for that time period was $133.4 million, a 26.7% increase over 2006.
When the dynamic of profit is allowed to enter into the field of incarceration, incentive is created to maximize the number of arrests and length of sentencing, a Pandora's Box opening the way to corruption of the justice system, what George Monbiot calls "the revolting trade in human lives." He was commenting on reports in the Wall Street Journal of guaranteed payments of public funds to private jails for a set number of inmates regardless of the number of cells that are full or empty, and of inducements to judges to counter declining crime rates by handing down disproportionate sentences just to keep jail cells full (and prison management companies’ books in the black).
So it is that vital functions of government such as arms manufacture, prisons, and the waging of war are increasingly being handed over to private corporations to be run for-profit.
So what is wrong with that? What is wrong with outsourcing government functions if private corporations can do a job more efficiently and cost-effectively than government itself?
What's wrong is that when corporations that operate for the purpose of maximizing profits perform functions on behalf of or as "partners" of elected government, policy is put at the service of profit and contracts between political entities and partnering corporations are necessarily filled regardless of changed circumstances such as diminished need or budgets.
When the dynamic that drives the system is privatization, gratuitous wars are waged at wantonly padded expense, prisoner remediation vanishes and jails are stuffed to the gills by judges handing down inordinately extended sentences, medical insurers nickel and dime over coverage, and children are marched off to low-budget and non-union charter schools in desolate and abandoned shopping plazas and vacant industrial facilities for the sole purpose of making profit on investment and of maximizing profit yield for corporate investor s.
As with military manufacture, military contracting, and prison management, the federal government's education agenda under the leadership of Sec. of Education Arne Duncan is dead set on a policy of transferring the administration of public schools to private businesses. The Secretary has given evidence that his chosen means for accomplishing this handover is through putting mayors at the helm of entire (mainly urban) school systems, allowing them to replace elected school boards with appointed councils of businessmen and retired military that then go on to bring in for-profit corporations to manage the schools, drawing on budgeted money previously intended for public systems.
Duncan’s Race To The Top, a strategy of having states compete in a horse race for funds for education reform, makes clear that only states making concrete efforts toward privatization will get the coveted funds. These efforts would have to include “fostering the growth of charter schools” plus taking steps to replace teacher tenure with procedures to make employment conditional on student test results, i.e. making both teacher retainment and the continued existence of the schools they teach in as public rather than private entities conditional on performance measurement as in the world of business.
In these initiatives Duncan has set for himself the roles of midwife, epigone, and chief factotum for the privatization doctrines first laid out by the “father of modern school reform,” fellow-Chicago luminary Milton Friedman in a 1955 essay that he later incorporated into his landmark book Capitalism and Freedom in 1962. Friedman called for a wholesale “denationalization” of public education: instead of public funds going to school systems parents would receive vouchers on these funds to pay for “educational services” for their children at for-profit and not-for-profit schools that would be operated by entrepreneurs and managers who’d be free to set teacher compensations as low as a dog-eat-dog market for teaching jobs would bear. Government’s role would be reduced to “insuring that . . . schools met certain minimum standards, such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants to insure that they maintain minimum sanitary standards.”
In true survival-of-the-fittest purism, Friedman believed that parents should, if they decide to have children, be prepared to pay for their education.
In a prescient prophesy of the state of education today, Friedman depicted that the downfall of public schooling would be smoothly accomplished by being brought in in a piecemeal fashion, with the mushrooming privatized sector coexisting with the shrinking and declining public sector for a transitionary period of time. “Since governmental units . . . would continue to administer schools, the transition would be gradual and easy.” An educational regime change would be accomplished before people realized it had happened.
Though at present only 20 states have established vouchers-type subsidies for private schools, Friedman smelled victory for his idea of free-market education reform in an interview conducted for Reason Magazine in 2005 on the 50th anniversary of his 1955 vouchers essay, and two years prior to his death, stressing as proof that the tide has turned in privatization’s favor the capitulation of the teachers unions. Their “dam is buckling,” he waxed proudly, “and will shortly break . . . The basis of the National Education Association's and the American Federation of Teachers' power is crumbling.
At present, the privatization process, with its union-disabling subtext, is being promoted to the public as a rescue effort to “turn around” schools in impoverished and struggling urban neighborhoods, ASAP. States are being pressed, as in Wisconsin, to give mayors of major urban centers powers to effect the same transformation Duncan presided over in Chicago, where mayoral control under Richard Daley Jr. has existed since 1995 and where Duncan made a name for himself by closing 75 schools and replacing them with smaller, business-run schools shorn of union contracts and community governance.
Regardless of whether the Chicago experience actually produced the improved academic performance that was claimed, regardless of the toll on communities and the enormous number of families who found themselves without local schools for their children to attend, Chicago and mayoral takeover are being sold to the legislators of states like Wisconsin whose suburban and rural constituents can be counted on to back quick and drastic solutions to the schools of those “Warsaw Ghettoes” that their larger cities have become in their eyes and that many of them will never see or so much as drive through.
In this way, state adoption of mayoral control for just the main urban school districts is used as a wedge and foot in the door for what American business and the foundations that speak for them hope will be the privatization of all of American education. For when mayors need management for the schools that have been put under their direction, they make appointments from the business community and/or turn to ready-made education management corporations that are there waiting for their call.
In other words, education privatization is not just about mayors “turning around” underperforming urban districts. It’s about opening, ultimately, the whole education sector to for-profit management. However, first the public has to be sold on the need for “turn around.” First the public has to be whipped into a frenzy over a crisis in the schools, that is, the urban schools, a crisis requiring urgent “reform.” And then in the name of reform, the way is paved for business to be brought in on a white horse as reformers.
In the guise of reformers, celebrity tycoons from the world of business, opportunistic social advocacy personalities, and ambitious officials seeking to make a name for themselves as advocates for corporate interests have been the leading players in the new world of investment and career opportunity in privatized education.
Regardless of having no professional training as pedagogues or published works or other credentials as education theorists, researchers, or analysts, barons of finance for no discernible reason other than their Brobignagian wealth have been elevated to the status of venerated education mavens and saviors of our children's futures.
Prominent in this category are entrepreneurs like Microsoft's Bill Gates who, notwithstanding his record of epic business success, happens to have dropped out of college (Harvard) in his sophomore year rather than go to the top of the educational stepladder that is held out as model and paradigm for America’s schoolchildren. Secretary Duncan, an administrator whose advancement came from endearing himself to Chicago’s corporate community by his policy of shutting down public schools and opening charter schools, has no hands-on experience as an educator other than a period of time spent working in his mother’s tutoring school. Charter school minority advocate Al Sharpton, whose "action organization" has been the beneficiary of generous residuals he has received for his public appearances at the White House and around the country in support of opening charter schools that would supposedly put minority children on a college prep track, himself dropped out of Brooklyn College in his sophomore year.
Two illustrious business names who have been ceded a national megaphone on the subject of education in spite of having zero credentials in education are former financier Michael Milken and real estate-nursing home entrepreneur Eli Broad.
As is now all but forgiven and forgotten, Milken parlayed a career of reaping high returns from low-yield junk bonds, and from buyouts that created almost a one-man recession by throwing whole workforces of “bought” companies out on the streets, into a fortune that has made him, today, the 458th richest man in the world. Still his only experience as an educator came in three years of community service teaching math to minorities in Los Angeles in fulfillment of a ten year sentence for securities and financial reporting felonies of which he served 22 months in federal prison.
By 1999, only three years following his release from prison, Milken had amassed an empire of companies catering to every possible facet of the education industry that looked as though it might someday rival his former scale of operations as a financier. Today he heads a foundation purporting to set the standard for the training of quality K-12 teachers, all armed with math skills and fluent in the use of computer technology, and dispensing money incentives for recruitment of teacher talent. Yet other than the conferences his foundation sponsors for the purpose of affirming the superiority of private to public education, there is no evidence either in public utterance or on the printed page that this towering Colossus of the age of education profit seeking that is upon us has a holistic educational philosophy of how one actually inspires a young person to want to read, study, and achieve.
Eli Broad, who rose from the status of 19 year old prodigy in the field of accounting (“the youngest in Michigan history”) to founder one of the nation’s biggest networks of assisted care facilities, has devoted a significant portion of the $5.8 billion net worth that has made him number 42 on the list of 400 richest Americans to the cause of totally privatizing American education.
To this end Broad has contributed $10.5 million in startup funds to the Green Dot charter schools network in Los Angeles and in 1999 he and his wife Edythe joined the ranks of family foundation scions Bill & Melinda Gates and Michael and Lowell Milken with their founding of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. A flagship program of the foundation is the Broad Superintendents Academy that identifies and trains, executives with experience of leading large organizations for service as administrators, and even places them, in urban school districts. But is there any evidence either in public utterance or on the printed page that beyond his credo that American education needs to be run more “like a business” this indisputably wealthy and successful individual has a conceptual clue about how to cultivate and motivate the mind of a child?
These may be what used to be called Captains of Industry (and Finance), they may be builders of unparalleled monopolies in the fields of software, finance, real estate, insurance, etc. — world straddling economic players in the mold of the (for a time) successful businessman that Theodore Dreiser portrayed in The Financier and The Titan — but they do not fit the profile of “educators.” As far as education is concerned, they are “barbarians at the gates,” untrained and uncouth in the arts of shaping the lives and intellects of children. Yet here they are, the nation's prime movers in the raging battle to replace public education with a system in which the schools are outsourced to for-profit businesses, businesses that are not accountable to government financial oversight and free from union contracting that protects the job security of teachers.
Do American parents want schools to be run like businesses and their children to be treated as employees? Will they accept the idea of delivering their children into the hands of specialists in financial deal-making and cutthroat competition, who may or may not have completed college themselves and who view students strictly as “human capital” to be schooled in skills narrowly tailored to niches in today’s ever-so-transient corporate job market?
Do they want education to be made over in the model of privatized industries like military manufacture, military contracting, and prison management, industries that have taken advantage of the less-government, anti-oversight policies of federal administrations of the past three decades to pile up a record of fraud and financial abuse unmatched by any era in American history?
Or are parents, in step with the growing opposition to privatization and outsourcing that is being seen all over the internet, getting a little tired and put off by the endless blizzard of promotion for “education reform” as the panacea for all that ails our economy, job market, and society, and, as Todd Price will show is happening in Milwaukee, starting to line up behind their public schools once again?
Click here to read Todd Alan Price's essay "Milwaukee League Comes To The Defense of Public Schools."
Geoff Berne writes from Hamilton, Ohio, where the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in 2002. He was co-producer with Todd Price and Karen Chin of the 2004 video "Public Education in the Crosshairs" and in the 1990s was a member of the Ohio coalition Citizens Against Vouchers.