CHARLIE MITCHELL: Charter schools equal privatizing public education

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – “Privatization” was popular with conservatives and not-so-conservatives in the 1990s. Folks in government were convinced anything they could do, the private sector could do better.
That’s kind of strange when you think about it, but lots of functions of public staffs were turned over to private businesses. For example, there are abundant private prisons in Mississippi. Even local jails still operated by public employees contract out meal service, medical care and such.
Droves of cities and counties also got out of the garbage collection and disposal business and turned everything over to private enterprise. Cities turned over youth league sports management to private groups. Many school districts have hired out pupil transportation and cafeteria management.
There was talk of privatizing collection of past-due child support payments. Several attorneys general have hired private lawyers for government work. A short-lived experiment with traffic cameras auto-generated citations for autos running red lights. In essence, this turned law enforcement over to private companies that would hand over a share of the take to city or county coffers.
Also kind of strange when you think about it is the common denominator in many moves toward privatization: Performing what had been a government task had become too complicated, often due to government regulations and/or court rulings.
With all the discussion about charter schools so far this legislative season, it should have occurred to all of us by now that what we’re really talking about is privatizing public education.
The end game here is to take the money that had been going to public schools, including teacher salaries, and turn it over to free enterprise.
The end game is for the state, having failed, to drop out.
Gov. Phil Bryant doesn’t see it this way. He is absolutely eloquent when he talks about charter schools. He goes so far as to question how anyone could be so crass as to deny young people trapped in low-performing school districts (which would be the only districts where charters could be sought) an opportunity to have better instruction, a more challenging school experience.
He could be absolutely right, with the emphasis on “could be.” That’s because the term “charter schools” encompasses so much. The range starts with pure, for-profit operations that, as with garbage collectors, seek first and foremost to reward investors. The range tops out with pure, for-the-kids schools where altruistic, motivated faculty work tirelessly to help students.
And there’s a vast in between, including the scenario that this whole discussion is really about funneling public money to mostly white private schools. That would, in essence, adding the state’s stamp of approval to segregation that is as prevalent in 2012 in some areas as it was in 1950.
Bryant and other proponents of charter schools want us to take it as a matter of faith that charters will only be issued to groups that will improve outcomes for all students who enroll, that everything will be closely monitored and on and on.
Skeptics – even those who agree that public education could use a trip to the principal’s office and a stern talking-to – aren’t so sure. They have enough to sense to know that quality is a hard thing to legislate, to guarantee in any law, no matter how detailed.
Bryant says he will call a special session if necessary and if he feels he can get a charter school law passed this session.
Here’s a different idea: Why not give public schools all the powers and attributes trotted out every time “privatization” is pondered? The power of administrators to make their own decisions. The power to hire and fire for any nondiscriminatory reason and to set variable rates of compensation based on performance.
Too, if charter schools will have the power to create courses and assign grades as they see fit, try letting public schools set standards of conduct and to expel students who decline to get with the program.
When local schools were local – even when they were segregated – they were better than they have become since the state and federal government started micromanaging them. Government has thoroughly complicated public education, made it so complicated that now government says it can no longer do the job.
Just as with garbage collection.
Viewed this way, charter schools – privatization – amounts to throwing in the towel. Some will claim otherwise, but it will not be a proud moment for government if charter schools come to Mississippi.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.