The storyline used by those who seek to destroy public education

Dennis SparksJust as stories can instruct, provide guidance, energize, and help create a desired future, they can also provide a rationale for destruction that becomes so broadly accepted that it is viewed as an unquestioned truth. Here’s an example that is having a profound effect on public education in the United States.

The prequel:

A few enormously wealthy individuals and organizations such as ALEC that are ideologically opposed to government services and/or who see the privatization of government functions as an essentially untapped profit center focus their resources and efforts on remaking public education for their benefit.

Through an unrelenting litany of criticism they have convinced many Americans that their public schools are failing and that they must be radically changed. If these “reforms” are not implemented with urgency, these ideologues say, the United States’ world dominance will fade as “government schools” deprive American’s of their freedom.

The storyline and the plan:

1. What business does is good. It is efficient and effective. What government does is bad. It is inefficient and ineffective. With a small number of exceptions, everything government does can be better done by private enterprise.

2. Public schools are government schools, which means they are inefficient and ineffective.

3. Exploit this country’s financial crisis by blaming public education for economic problems, including the outsourcing of jobs.

4. Blame the  alleged failures of public education on teachers and teacher unions.

5. Use the imprimatur of “reform” to shift public resources to for-profit companies who run charter schools and are online providers.

6. Begin “reform” with historically low-performing schools because of the long-standing challenges they face, which are closely linked to poverty and discrimination. Then expand “reform” to suburban schools using the results of new standardized tests and systems of teacher evaluation as evidence of their ineffectiveness.

7. Transfer public money with minimal oversight and accountability to companies that manage for-profit schools and provide other services.

8. Consign to “traditional public schools” students whose high-cost special needs make them less profitable. Then blame resource-starved schools for not succeeding with those students and begin anew to find new ways to drain those schools of their remaining resources.

The consequence:

• Money that would benefit students is siphoned off as corporate profit.

• Public money is spent to serve non-public purposes (for instance, schools that promote an ideologically-driven form of science education) without transparency and public accountability.

• The “traditional” schools that remain continue to serve the neediest students, and they do so with even fewer resources.

The narrative I’ve outlined is the rationale for a wholesale, ideologically-driven assault on public education that will affect a generation or more of students in virtually every school system.

It remains to be seen whether the forces that are beginning to coalesce in response to this threat can gain traction before irreparable harm is done. The stakes are high, and I remain hopeful.

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31 Responses to “The storyline used by those who seek to destroy public education”


  1. 1 Jan Neufeld December 14, 2012 at 8:41 am

    I appreciate your candor. That story needs to be told, as is! Also, I enjoyed a previous blog on changing the culture on schools. Thank you for sharing. Jan

  2. 3 Dean Schutz December 14, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Great bog post! We have forwarded it to many. Excellent! Dean

    Sent from my iPad

  3. 4 Rick Hamrick December 14, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Thank you Dennis for eloquently cataloguing the long and destructive path taken by ideologues to wrest control of our public schools for the economic gain of big edu-business.

    Many of us who fully understand the insidious nature of this “takeover” continue “preaching-to-the-choir”, while feeling powerless in our efforts to prevent the oncoming train wreck.

    Uniting voices like yours, Valerie Klein and Diane Ravitch help inform many of the dangers and reality of charters, freedom academies, vouchers and roles played by ALEC and the Koch brothers. However, until we are able to gain the attention and support of federal officials and the President in our fight to prevent the takeover, this will be just another sad story that ends in the destruction of a valued and necessary public institution. Humpty Dumpty revisited.

    • 5 Dennis Sparks December 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Rick. Because it’s easy to confuse activity with accomplishment, it’s easy to feel like we are doing something meaningful by forwarding blog posts and articles to like-minded people. I think it’s essential that individuals who care deeply about public education in Michigan and elsewhere find a way to organize themselves and to think strategically in the way that ALEC has done at the behest of those who seek to privatize it.

    • 8 Ed Johnson December 29, 2012 at 7:36 pm

      “However, until we are able to gain the attention and support of federal officials and the President…”

      Heck, the president is a leader in the charge to dismantle public education. There’s a reason it’s called “Race to the Top Competition.”

  4. 9 wgersen December 29, 2012 at 9:07 am

    The story really started in 1980 when Reagan declared that government was the problem and no one pushed back…. He got the negative story on schools going with Terrell Bell’s A Nation at Risk and no one pushed back… every President since Reagan has declared public education is failing and no one pushed back…. Now that people are beginning to see the flaws associated with using standardized tests as the sole performance metric SOME people are starting to push back… But those of us pushing back have to work against 30+ years of the “Government BAD Business GOOD” mantra that BOTH parties now embrace… it will be a tough slog!

    • 10 Keith Savage December 29, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      One of the largest problems(if not the largest) is that both parties are now pushing this line-“Govt. bad business good”-since most of us have a good idea what the Republicans want to achieve (read:deconstruct & destroy)now read what H. Giroux has to say about the neoliberalism circa 2008. We need to figure out a way to change the destructive mantra, re-orient the conversation. T.Paine- “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” We need to emphasize the necessary part and eliminate the idea that American government is intolerable in all forms-it is simply ludicrous!

      • 11 Mary Valentine December 29, 2012 at 5:39 pm

        In Michigan, let’s remember who is pushing this legislation. It is the majority party, Republicans. Democrats fought it every step of the way.

  5. 12 Dienne December 29, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Short, to the point, and right on target. I’d only caution that Republicans aren’t the only ones to blame. If anything, the Democrats are worse because they’re the “good guys” and we let them get away with more.

    I’ll second your comment that forwarding these posts to like-minded bloggers isn’t really accomplishing anything more than preaching to the choir. We really need to figure out how to get the message out in no uncertain terms to the country at large and to people who can do anything to stop what’s been happening. How, exactly, to do that is beyond me, but we need to get organized and make it happen sooner rather than later.

    • 13 Dennis Sparks December 29, 2012 at 9:35 am

      I share your view that it is not just Republicans and that Democrats have too readily accepted the narrative I’ve described. I look to Diane Ravitch for suggestions about how we can move beyond preaching to the choir, although I know there is value in the intellectual and emotional support provided by like-minded people.

  6. 14 aeakuykendall@sbcglobal.net December 29, 2012 at 10:04 am

    One way to spread the message is the way the privatizing message has been spread, that is, beginning with small, local groups who care about their own children. Privatizers soften the ground with “town halls” & “community meetings”. These are publicly announced shortly beforehand, and elected officials are personally invited on the premise that they will be visible to voters. This is slogging, Saul Alinsky, all over again.

    • 15 Dennis Sparks December 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm

      It makes sense to me that community organizing will be a primary mechanism to address this significant challenges to public education that we are now facing. Hopefully, it will provide the mutual support required to overcome resignation and a long-range strategy that will at least equal that of ALEC.

  7. 16 Ray Sanders December 29, 2012 at 10:42 am

    BRAVO!
    Thanks for writing one of the most accurate descriptions of the market model education reforms that is destroying our communities. The only thing I would add is that the all the decisions related to public education are now being made by privately managed self appointed charter boards, thus parents and communities are now excluded from the public education process. These reforms have made public education an undemocratic process, our votes don’t count as the private sector makes millions.

  8. 17 Amadeu Sanz December 29, 2012 at 11:02 am

    That is happening everywhere. Your words fit like a glove to the situation here in Spain, where our minster of Education is implementing an educational reform: testing, choice, core standars, privatization.

  9. 18 Ken Mortland December 29, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Wrote the following editorial in June, 1992. Change a few words here and there and you have an accurate description of what’s going on today. Frightening!

    “Try to picture this. A large national corporation, until recently grazing contentedly on federal military contracts, finds its annual earnings reflecting a shocking drop. It is decided that new access to federal dollars must be found, or the corporation may go out of business. Someone suggests a product which could tap into ever increasing federal education dollars. Another suggestion leads to looking into the possibility of crafting that product so that state and local education dollars can also be tapped.

    The marketing department points out that the product will not sell, unless the buyers, the American public, can be convinced that the current product is substandard. Marketing is assigned the task of creating the need for these new products by convincing the American public that its public education institutions are utter failures. Once that had been accomplished, a program will be undertaken to separate public education dollars from public education institutions. Those dollars would become the mainstay of corporation earnings. The product is private education.”

    • 19 Dennis Sparks December 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      Beyond prescient, Ken!

      • 20 Ken Mortland December 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm

        It’s sad, isn’t it.

        As a conservative among teachers who tend to be liberals, I still find the continued spread of this nonsense as a malignant growth within the body of America’s public schools.

        When I think about it, I get an image of the tsunami wave that inundated farm land beyond that village in Japan; the image that went viral after it was shown on TV. That image is the spreading destruction of valuable resources.

        And Mother Nature’s not to blame. Greedy, self-interested privateers are to blame.

        So, I spend three hours every morning at my computer, reading postings like yours and Diane Ravitch’s and others and responding. I’m also gleaning data to use in postings of my own. Though I’m retired, I believe strongly in the motto of WEA-Retired, “Retire from your position, not your profession.” Here I sit on a Saturday morning, a retired professional teacher, still trying to make a difference in a storm of incredible greed and nonsense.

      • 21 Dennis Sparks December 29, 2012 at 1:25 pm

        I admire and deeply appreciate what you have done and continue to do, Ken.

  10. 22 Ken Mortland December 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    If you follow Facebook at all, look up WEA Republican Educators Caucus. I post there regularly. Currently, I’m writing a series on how to address the authorization of charter schools, now that an initiative, passed by a 0.7% margin, is the law in Washington state.

  11. 23 George Buzzetti December 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    This is not just about profit but controlling minds. As Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Kim Il Jung showed us recently when you control young minds and what they learn and how they think “You Control Them and the Future.” There is method to the madness. Do you think it was an accident that Clinton signed in 1994 NAFTA and WTO which eliminated and offshored our jobs? How about the end of the free press when Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act? Or in 1999-2000 Clinton signed the “Banking Deregulation Acts?” Now we are living the results along with the help that Obama is giving our demise right now through his misguided purposeful policies of destruction of the economy for most and “Real Public Education.” Read the latest DOE OIG report on the total lack of accountability of charter schools in Florida, Arizona and California. This report is DOE-OIG/A02L0002. No one is commenting on this and I have to wonder why. Do they not pay attention? Do they not care? Or is it on purpose?

    • 24 Ken Mortland December 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm

      George: From my perspective in America, the profit motive is far more powerful than a mind control motive. Profit is here and now and rewards are in both present and short term futures. Mind control is more esoteric and takes longer to produce the desired outcome, which may or may not benefit those in power by the time they are achieved. So, I don’t subscribe to you conspiracy theory on this one.

    • 25 Cadey Sontag December 29, 2012 at 7:20 pm

      George, you are so right. The walmartization of public education really got started when we began outsourcing all our manufacturing jobs to China. So the company CEOs and the well-connected Chinese became rich while Americans lost jobs and started shopping at Walmarts where everthing once made in America by unionized workers earning living wages was now made in China, at such cheap prices that most people didn’t much question vague stories about exploited children, slave labor, terrible working and environmental conditions. Control minds via endless media brain massage and/or meaningless standards and tests designed in the same fashion as the Emperor’s new clothes and you control movements, morals, the future.

  12. 26 Mary Valentine December 29, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Muskegon Heights, Michigan, is a perfect example of this travesty. Due to schools of choice, the loss of industry,and cuts to school aid, it was squeezed of money and students until it was so far in debt it could not continue. The district was taken away from the citizens and an Emergency Manager was appointed by the state. One of the first things he did was to fire all of the staff. He then chose a for-profit company, Mosaica, to run the school district. Mosaica hired some of the old staff back, but at a greatly reduced rate of pay.

    These are the students who need stability, yet all the teachers were fired. Shortly before school opened, 30% of the new hires, including the high school principal, quit. New people were hired. As of the middle of November, 25% of those had quit. This, in a school of high poverty, in which stability is critical. Studies are clear about this. High staff turn-over leads to lower test scores.

    These are precious students and families who deserve better. They are not to blame. The working conditions and low pay offered by Mosaica have assured that good, experienced teachers will look elsewhere for work. That is why Mosaica has been unsuccessful in retaining staff.

    Enough. No more excuses. We need to find effective strategies for educating our students in districts of high poverty. For-profit companies are not the answer.

    • 27 Ken Mortland December 29, 2012 at 6:02 pm

      It will be important to report on how well Mosaica is doing financially with this school. Though teachers are being paid less and turnover is catastrophic, what are the Mosaica officials’ salary for running the school. Does Mosaica pay its own people very well with the difference from what teachers might have earned?

      • 28 George Buzzetti December 29, 2012 at 7:11 pm

        All these crooked managers do is strip what is left of value, pay themselves a lot of money and destroy. Then they blame everyone else but themselves for the problems they created and the students and their parents and communities are left holding the bag.

  13. 29 Mary Valentine December 29, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    I should have said this “We need to put in place proven effective strategies for educating our students in districts of high poverty. We already know the strategies; we just need the will to put them in place. For-profit companies are not the answer.

  14. 30 Ken Mortland December 29, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    George: Hope you don’t mind if we actually get confirmation of that before going off on Mosaica.


  1. 1 How a Cynical Narrative Can Advance Privatization « Diane Ravitch's blog Trackback on December 29, 2012 at 8:50 am

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