Dismantling Public Education: Turning Ideology into Gold

By Alex Molnar, CEPC Publications Director, Director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit (CERU), and Research Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. His most recent books are Commercialism in education: From democratic ideal to market commodity (2005), Think tank research quality: Lessons for policymakers, the media, and the public (with Kevin Welner, Pat Hinchey and Don Weitzman) (2010), and Sold Out: How Marketing in School Threatens Children’s Well-Being and Undermines their Education (with Faith Boninger) (2015). Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website


Nowhere is the toxic effect of privatization on America’s public wellbeing more evident than in the sphere of education. Today, politicians in thrall to neoliberal ideology seek to subordinate the democratic mission of public education to a theory of market-driven economic development and social organization. The phantasmagorical belief in neutral “scientific” expertise as the primary basis for policymaking has, therefore, profoundly antihuman as well as antidemocratic implications.

The major education reforms of the past 35 years —education vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts — all seek to remove public schools from the control of elected bodies; to subject them to the “laws” of the “market”; and to put them at the service of the economic elite.

Who Does Privatization Serve?

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. …The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.[1]  Frederick Douglass

On January 15, 2017 the Green Bay Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys to win the National Football League NFC divisional playoff game.  I live in Wisconsin and I’m a Packers fan, so I read the New York Times account of that victory with great pleasure.  What really caught my attention, however, were the many comments posted by readers highlighting the ownership structure of the Packers.  Here are some unedited samples that capture the tenor of multiple posts.[2]

  • I became a Packers fan because they are owned by the people and not some entitled billionaire!
  • Let’s hear it for the PUBLIC OWNED gb packers. as a part owner (2 shares) i take immense pride in knowing that a team that doesn’t have to suffer an obnoxious, cynical billionaire in the owners’ box can do these great things. overall aaron rodgers is a better quarterback than tom brady.  and the packer franchise is better than the rest of them, not threatening to move every time a one-percenters gets a greedy itch. let’s talk them ALL public, get rid of the racist nicknames and have a truly democratic sports network in this country.
  • During the TV broadcast, the camera cut to the sky booth of the billionaire owner of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones, as he celebrated his team advancing. However, there was no camera shot of the Packers’ owners during Aaron Rodgers’ magic or Mason Crosby’s kick–because you have to do a satellite shot of the entire state of Wisconsin celebrating. And that’s why the Packers are truly America’s Team–they are owned by your everyday Joe and Jill, not a greedy billionaire.

These are not the kind of sentiments generally expressed on the sports pages, yet many Packers fans hailed the victory as a triumph for public ownership and a negation of the values that rationalize the systematic exploitation of the majority for the benefit of the few.  In the case of the National Football League, many wealthy owners enrich themselves in part by leveraging their exemption from anti-monopoly statutes to demand taxpayer subsidies under threat of moving their teams to a different city.  As a result, sports stadiums now claim billions of tax dollars in cities across the U.S., even as public services and needed infrastructure repairs and improvements languish for lack of funding.

To understand why privatization is a regressive policy, it is helpful to consider that despite the growth in national wealth in recent decades, less and less money is available for purposes that benefit the public. Understanding this dynamic requires cutting through the ideological fog to locate privatization within the framework of beliefs, values, and assumptions that have made it appear rational, necessary, and inevitable. Fortunately, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, you don’t need an economist to figure out where the money goes (and how it gets there).[3]

Nowhere is the toxic effect of privatization on America’s public wellbeing more evident than in the sphere of education.

The historical development of public education in the U.S. resulted in an egalitarian institution that was redistributive in its effects.  The American public school ideal is thus the antithesis of neoliberal ideology.  As a result, public education provides a useful lens through which the transformations sought and achieved by three decades of privatization may be viewed.

At the time of the U.S. Revolutionary War, the colonial population was already well educated by the global standards of the day.  After the revolution, the new nation’s leaders were explicit about public education serving as a “bulwark” of democracy.  Educating the population was considered essential because a “mob” of ill-educated, impoverished citizens would be easy prey for demagoguery. Intended as a cornerstone of U.S. democracy, then, the system of public education evolved out of the nation’s founding political principles. The fledgling U.S. democracy stood in contrast to Europe, where the ruling elites regarded education above one’s station as a threat to elite economic, political, and, social power.  In Report Number 12 of the Massachusetts School Board (1848) by Horace Mann, a key architect of the “common school,” wrote that “the establishment of a republican government, without well-appointed and efficient means for the universal education of the people, is the most rash and fool-hardy experiment ever tried by man.” [4]

Mann saw public education as key to his state’s (and the nation’s) wellbeing, writing:

“The people of Massachusetts have, in some degree, appreciated the truth, that the unexampled prosperity of the State, — its comfort, its competence, its general intelligence and virtue, — is attributable to the education, more or less perfect, which all its people have received; but are they sensible of a fact equally important? — namely, that it is to this same education that two thirds of the people are indebted for not being, to-day, the vassals of as severe a tyranny, in the form of capital, as the lower classes of Europe are bound to in the form of brute force.”

Public education in the United States has from its earliest days been structured to embody and strengthen representative democracy by inculcating democratic values and by providing the knowledge necessary to secure economic wellbeing.  As wave after wave of immigrants entered the U.S., public education was one of the principle mechanisms by which they were to be “Americanized.”

Under the U.S. Constitution, education is not a power vested in the federal government; therefore, it falls to the states to organize and fund public schools.  The right to a free public education is enshrined in every state constitution.  In practice, states have delegated a great deal of their authority to local school boards to make policy for the community’s schools and to levy local taxes to support those schools. From the inception of U.S. public education, the nation’s public schools and the content of their curriculum have been embroiled in controversy.  These conflicts reflect disagreements over the character of U.S. democracy — battles over public education are struggles over how society should be organized.

‘There is No Such Thing as Society’

Today, politicians in thrall to neoliberal ideology seek to subordinate the democratic mission of public education to a theory of market-driven economic development and social organization.  Policy deliberations are now dominated by of econometric modeling and production function research.  This modeling and research is often used, inappropriately, to make decisions about the value of education reforms.  The mathematical models used by researchers are made to “work” only by assuming away much of the real world in which people live and students learn. The phantasmagorical belief in neutral “scientific” expertise as the primary basis for policymaking has, therefore, profoundly antihuman as well as antidemocratic implications — a topic Sheila Dow takes up in “People Have Had Enough of Experts.”[5]

The major education reforms of the past 35 years — education vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts — all seek to remove public schools from the control of elected bodies; to subject them to the “laws” of the “market”; and to put them at the service of the economic elite. The world being called into existence is based on the belief that anyone, but not everyone, can succeed—a world of winners and losers, each of whom has earned his or her fate. Thus, as British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, one of neoliberalism’s foremost champions, proclaimed:

“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”[6]

This is a world in which the poor must be judged by the rich to be “deserving” of private charity rather than one that allows collective action through the democratic political process to secure the common welfare.

My life illustrates the trajectory of the transformation of Franklin Roosevelt’s world into Margaret Thatcher’s.  My parents had each immigrated to the U.S. following the First World War.  I was born in Chicago in 1946, which makes me a charter member of the so-called baby-boom generation.  The country into which I was born possessed political, economic, and military power unprecedented in world history.  From the time I entered elementary school until I was awarded my Ph.D. 21 years later, every school I attended was under construction.  Public investment in schools was booming.  Even for students who dropped out of school or who didn’t go to college, well-paying jobs were plentiful. When my father died in 1955, Social Security Survivor’s Benefits provided cash to my mother to help care for me.  My first two years at a publicly funded city junior college cost me $30.00, while my further education was highly subsidized by scholarships and cheap government loans under the aegis of the “National Defense Education Act.” The name reveals how tightly schools and education were tied to the nation’s understanding of its national security interests. I was born into and grew up in a world dominated by New Deal redistributive social policies, and by the economic advantages of being a citizen of the dominant economic, political, and military power on the planet.

At the time I was awarded my Ph.D. in 1972 and took my first academic position as an assistant professor of Curriculum and Instruction, few realized that American economic hegemony was cresting.  Being blissfully unaware of what lay before us, forward-thinking educators in the early 1970s took up the topic of “leisure education.”  Not being economists allowed us to naively imagine that since humankind had, for the first time in history, the productive capacity to eliminate material deprivation and the means to do so with ever fewer hours of labor, it would be necessary to develop education programs and curricula to help large numbers of people figure out how to best make use of their new-found leisure time.  As the Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling was reportedly fond of saying:

“My mother explained the magic with this [washing] machine the very, very first day… She said: ‘Now Hans, we have loaded the laundry. The machine will make the work. And now we can go to the library.’ Because this is the magic: You load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books out of the machines, children’s books. And Mother got time to read to me.

“Thank you, industrialization… Thank you, steel mill. And thank you, chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books.”[7]

Rosling’s anecdote is set in the post-war years in Sweden, a small, economically developed country that emerged from World War II relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, today, washing machines (to use Rosling’s example) no longer produce the leisure time to read books that they once did — not for the people who make them, or for the people who use them. How do we explain the contemporary reality that in the U.S. more and more people are working more and more hours for less and less money, and are doing so with less and less economic security in a world that is vastly richer than the world in which I grew up?  This reality is revealed in the data on income and wealth inequality that Thomas Picketty amassed in Capital in the Twenty-First Century.[8]

I’m not an economist, so I might be forgiven for failing to grasp when I started my career that the period from 1945–1970 had been a historical anomaly.  I might also be forgiven for not foreseeing that once other countries were capable of creating powerful modern economies, they would lay claim to an expanding share of the world’s economic pie. I could not imagine that to preserve their power and wealth, the moneyed elites would seek to dismantle redistributionist New Deal policies. The New Deal was built on a system of progressive taxation and public investment.  If U.S. elites were to retain their relative wealth and power as the rest of world began to compete with the U.S. economically, then the progressive edifice that Roosevelt had constructed would have to be set aside, taxes on wealth and profits reduced, wages suppressed, and a greater share of government costs shifted to the working class.  The problem faced by the elite powerbrokers was how to do this under the noses of a population whose interests were very much in opposition to those of the moneyed classes.  As John D. Rockefeller’s propagandist Ivy Lee would have framed it, the neoliberal “story” needed to get “believed.”[9]

The American propagandist Edward Bernays, regarded as the father of the U.S. public relations industry, argued that “engineering consent” was at the heart of democratic social control.  He makes his case in the 1928 book Propaganda:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.  Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute the invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country.”[10]

“…economic power tends to draw after it political power…the industrial revolution shows how that power passed from the king to the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie.  Universal suffrage and universal schooling (emphasis mine) reinforced this tendency, and at last even the bourgeoisie stood in fear of the common people.  For the masses promised to become King.  Today, however, a reaction has set in.  The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities.  It has been found possible so to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction.”[11]

The election of Ronald Reagan marks a reasonably good starting point for understanding how neoliberal political and economic strategy was used to shape public opinion to accept a market-based system of public education.  A system that, to appropriate Hirschman’s terms, replaced the citizen’s democratic right to a “voice” in shaping their public schools with a consumer’s choice to “exit” schools.[12]  Under the banner of “school choice,” public education would thus be removed from democratic control and reformulated as a commodity to be “chosen.”   Engineering this transformation would be no easy task, because although public schools were always controversial, they were also very popular.

By 1984, the U.S. had moved past the recession of Reagan’s first two years.  The economic and policy trends were clear enough, however, for Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee for president, to declare in his acceptance speech:

“Four years ago, many of you voted for Mr. Reagan because he promised you’d be better off. And today, the rich are better off. But working Americans are worse off, and the middle class is standing on a trap door.”[13]

Mondale was right; nevertheless, he lost by a landslide.

With the economy seemingly recovered from the recession of the early 1980’s, a confection termed “supply side economics” (“Reaganomics” in the vernacular) was ascendant.  State and federal policy began to shift the tax burden from corporations and wealthy individuals to lower and middle class working people.  At the state level this meant that school financing relied more and more heavily on real estate taxes paid by people whose incomes were stagnant or declining, and whose pensions and job security were disappearing.  For the next two and a half decades, the hollowing out of the U.S. working class was obscured by continued government spending in spite of tax-cut-fueled deficits; the entry of large numbers of women into the labor force; the explosion in the availability of consumer credit; and successive financial, technology, and real estate bubbles culminating in the catastrophic global financial collapse of 2008.  It was against this backdrop of regressive economic policy that the war on public education began in earnest.

In its initial phase, the assault on public education relied on the myth of school failure, complemented by the argument that the U.S. economy was suffering and losing market share to foreign competitors, such as Japan, because American schools were failing to properly educate students to compete in the emerging global economy.  The alleged “skills shortage” of American workers became an element of the received wisdom of U.S. policy making, and nicely complemented elite support for multinational neoliberal economic agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 and the World Trade Organization (WTO) that in 1995 replaced the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT).  These agreements favored capital over labor, setting up adjudication mechanisms that restricted the ability of democratic political institutions in the signatory states to control the impact of those agreements on their laws, economies, labor practices, and the environment.

The resulting destruction of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. was characterized as an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice to promote a more vibrant and richer global economy.  It was argued that these manufacturing jobs would never come back, but prosperity awaited workers with skills needed by the modern economy.  The “remedy” for the economic dislocation of blue-collar workers was re-training.  Future workers would need schools that trained them for success in a transformed labor market.  The alleged “failure” of public education to prepare students for the high-skilled global economy was the focus of Berliner and Biddle’s The Manufactured Crisis.[14]  The result of their close examination of the central arguments made about the so-called education crisis and its impact on the U.S. economy is captured in the book’s title: the “crisis” had been manufactured.  The school failure story was propaganda cynically deployed to obscure the reality that the specter haunting public education was poverty and inequality.

Manufacturing Consent

Irrespective of the data, the myths of a “skills shortage” and of widespread school failure became articles of faith among policy makers.  This policy fantasy might be aptly termed “supply side economics in a Field of Dreams,” a phrase I jotted on a napkin while listening to Clinton Administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich explain the “skills shortage.” In the movie Field of Dreams, a farmer is moved by hearing a voice whispering, “If you build it, he will come,”[15] to turn a cornfield into a baseball diamond — and, sure enough, the mythic baseball player turns up. Beginning in the 1980s American policy makers argued, in effect, “If you give them the skills, the jobs will come.” For three and a half decades, retrained workers in blue-collar communities across the U.S. have waited in vain for the jobs to appear.  Meanwhile the public services upon which they rely have continued to deteriorate and their communities are collapsing around them for lack of public funds to support them. For an excellent discussion of white work class support for Donald Trump see Joan C. Williams “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class.”[16]

Field of Dreams was lighthearted entertainment. The 1987 movie Robocop provided a dark glimpse at the privatized world at the heart of neoliberalism. Set in Detroit, the script opens:

“New technologies have left Detroit behind.  In the wake of this changing economy has come poverty, social decay and crime.”[17]

In Robocop every aspect of human life — every need, every sorrow, every hope — is an opportunity for profit in a corporate-dominated world in which even crime has been privatized.  The main character, Murphy (Robocop) is literally transformed into a product to be sold.  I used Robocop in my urban education classes in the late 1980s to discuss the future of public education in a world dominated by neoliberalism’s privatizing ideology.  For many of my students, the idea of a privatized education system was, at the time, so alien that they found it difficult to see the connections I was trying to make.  I doubt that would be the case today.

In the early 1980s it was not yet obvious how neoliberals would make use of the economic crisis in impoverished communities — and the argument that school failure was the leading cause of economic misery — to make their case for a radical transformation and privatization of public education.  The publication of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools in 1990 helped clarify things.  The case made by authors John Chubb and Terry Moe rests on the idea that poor academic performance is a product of schools being under the direct control of democratic institutions, and that the remedy lay in a market-based approach that offered parents choice between competing school options.

Popular culture has helped “manufacture consent” for these neoliberal talking points. The Hollywood movie Stand and Deliver (1988) encouraged the belief that a “star” teacher who makes “no excuses” can overcome the impact of poverty, while Waiting for Superman (2010) and The Lottery (2010) touted the transformative potential of school choice.

If movies provided the sizzle, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools provided the beef, offering a concise guide to the strategic logic that steered U.S. school reform from the 1990s to the present. The solution to problem of democracy, Chubb and Moe argue, is the “creative destruction” of marketplace competition touched off by implementing voucher programs. To which we may add neo-voucher reforms such as tuition tax credits and education savings accounts, along with charter schools.  Under pressure from and with the aid of charitable foundations, wealthy philanthropists, and ideologues, government policy makers have steadily shifted control of the schools from locally elected school boards to appointed governing bodies.  A for-profit school sector has emerged that depends entirely on taxpayer and philanthropic funds.  Accountability has been shifted from government regulatory oversight mechanisms to “market discipline.” To sell their ideas, neoliberals promise that heroic teachers and “no-excuses” principals combined with competition, technology, and high-stakes student, teacher, and school evaluations, will “disrupt” sclerotic bureaucracies, rein in unions, and liberate oppressed impoverished urban communities from “failing” schools.

Getting this myth “believed” meant new opportunities to turn tax dollars into profits — profits from, for example, paying a few teachers more and many teachers less; profits from designing standardized tests; profits from renting school facilities; profits from managing schools; profits from data management systems and test-scoring systems; and profits from selling software platforms and computing devices. Best of all, these profitmaking opportunities came with little or no government oversight to thwart self-dealing and ferret out fraud and abuse.  Oversight and regulation had by this time been successfully characterized as innovation and achievement killers.  Baker and Miron provide a useful introduction to some of the ways in which charter operators, for example, generate profit by running schools.[18]

Hedge funds were now at the schoolhouse door.  The stage was set for what Diane Ravitch has termed the “Billionaires Boys Club”[19] to turbo-charge neoliberal education reform in the early twenty-first century.  As the privatizing reforms grew in scope and gathered in intensity, the lack of evidence that these reforms had an appreciable effect on student achievement or that they mitigated inequality[20] didn’t deter the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations, among others, from aggressively selling their basket of favored neo-liberal reforms.

The successes of these reforms were not found in systemic improvements in educational outcomes.  Instead, what these measures actually succeeded at was concealing under a veneer of idealism and public service the power relationships responsible for the misery of students in working class and impoverished communities; establishing efficient mechanisms for leveraging public capital investments in school facilities, and capturing public funding for instruction and student services; and launching a private education sector large enough to export American educational products and services to a world ready and waiting, thanks to the framework provided by the WTO agreements.

In 2001, when George W. Bush’s signature “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) education legislation was passed (with the support of Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy), “disruption,” “markets,” “accountability,” “no excuses,” and “choice” were an established part of the bipartisan vocabulary of school reform.  And for-profit firms dominated the expanding charter-school sector.

The NCLB legislation contained plans for a significant expansion of the privatization of public education.  The law made huge investments in tutoring and other remedial services—services it prohibited local school districts from providing.  It required and provided funds for standardized testing and grading schools, and mandated that schools report on the yearly progress of their students on those tests.  It promoted common academic standards across schools and required “remedies” for “failing” schools—concentrated in impoverished communities of color—such as converting them to charter schools or having them run by private firms.  All of these measures were justified as a way of confronting what George W. Bush was fond of calling “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Education reform was now firmly in the hands of people for whom, doing well by doing good, was axiomatic.  “Strategic philanthropy” became their modus operandi. I doubt the world has ever produced such a large pool of rich education “visionaries,” “disruptors,” and “revolutionaries.”  These are the people whose world is represented at the Davos World Economic Forum under a banner that reads “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” The New York Times reported that the 2017 Davos meeting yielded insights such as the need for people to take more ownership of upgrading themselves on a continuous basis and the need to free the “animal spirits” of the market.  According to the New York Times article, there was, however, not much interest in inequality or redistributionist policies.[21] The Davos class is fast losing even the appearance of providing a social benefit that justifies its enormous wealth. Its neoliberal ideological fig leaf is slipping. What is now on display is something more primitive and feral: avarice and greed.  They do what they do simply because they can.  And, they will keep doing it until they are stopped.

Over the past two and a half decades, the poor in privatized urban schools have been successfully harnessed to the delivery of reliable profits to investors and munificent salaries to executives.  At the same time, the working class has discovered that schools in their communities often cost more than they can afford to pay.  The decades of wage stagnation, unemployment, and tax shifting have taken their toll.  Teachers and the unions that had won them the relatively high wages, job security, and benefits that are a distant memory for many blue collar workers became a useful target for the ideologues and politicians pursuing neoliberal reforms.

The neoliberal argument is that public schools cost too much (the largest item in a school budget is for teacher salaries) and performed too poorly to justify the tax dollars they commanded.  If “star” teachers could be freed from the union wage scale to earn what they were worth, the resulting competition would create incentives for better teacher performance.  Mediocre teachers would earn less, and low performing teachers would be fired.  The mechanism proposed for measuring teacher performance was assessing the performance of their students on standardized tests.  So began the policy embrace of “Value Added Assessment” (VAA).  In the kind of methodologically sophisticated, intellectually fatuous study that has become all too common, Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff claim to have found long-term economic benefits for students whose teachers have higher “value added” scores.[22]  Their conclusions offer a glimpse at the disconnect between the neoliberal policy and research agenda and the economic reality of working class and impoverished families:

“Each child would gain approximately $25,000 in total (undiscounted) lifetime earnings from having this teacher instead of the median teacher. With an annual discount rate of 5%, the parents of a classroom of average size should be willing to pool resources and pay this teacher approximately $130,000 ($4,600 per parent) to stay and teach their children during the next school year (Emphasis mine).”[23]

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I live, the median annual household income is $37,495, for a four-person family the median annual income is $41,050.[24] What should Milwaukee families do with a recommendation so stunningly obtuse?  This is the kind of research that has understandably produced a populist democratic backlash against the unaccountable power, influence, and arrogance of experts. In “Fed’s ‘Gold Standard’ Produces Fool’s Gold” Glass discusses the consequences of “scientific” expertise run amok in education policy making.[25].

By suppressing teacher wages, and reducing their benefits and job security, the privatizing agenda creates space for profits in school budgets, shifting funds to owners.  Privatizing “failing” schools rarely delivers the promised school performance gains or saves money.  Mathis and Trujillo provide a useful overview of the context, the issues and the results.[26]

The neoliberal reengineering of America’s education system is not a partisan affair. Throughout the Bush and Obama presidencies, the privatization of education continued apace through school “restructuring” and charter “conversions.”  In New Orleans, the Hurricane Katrina disaster provided an opportunity to privatize virtually the entire school system by creating a “recovery district.”   Many urban superintendents now manage a decentralized system of “portfolio” schools, some privatized and some not.

In many ways, the “liberal” Obama administration was a more aggressive advocate of neoliberal education ideas than the “conservative” Bush administration that it succeeded.  Obama’s “Race to the Top” program, for example, put heavy pressure on the states and created financial incentives to create more charter schools and push privatizing initiatives. The election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary promises to accelerate the privatizing trend.  DeVos, the sister of Erik Prince, founder of the notorious private security company Blackwater USA, is an ardent supporter of private school vouchers and charter schools.

After the U.S. Constitution had been drafted, Benjamin Franklin commented that the framers had given Americans a republic, “if you can keep it.” [27]  The founders also provided the nation with a deeply democratic ideal of public education. We’re not likely to keep it.  In the next decade the distinction between public and private will likely continue to blur, and ever more public tax dollars will be syphoned into private coffers. Public schools will limp along, underfunded and struggling to educate ever larger numbers of students with needs too great to be profitable.  Vast amounts of student data will be collected, sliced, diced, and sold for private gain again and again. Technology, marketing, and finance will fill the pockets of a tiny minority, and their well-paid retainers and experts will continue to obscure this reality.  Or, if it can be contrived, they will celebrate the successful exploitation of public resources as the desired and virtuous triumph of talent and “vision.” Entertainments, spectacles, service jobs and manual labor will keep the masses busy and in debt.  The “market” will devour partisan politics, fashioning political parties as brands and politicians as ambulatory logos. Everything will be new and nothing will change — until it does.

As Aloe Blacc sings:

…Whatever you believe it’s easy to see

The whole world’s sitting on a ticking bomb…

…And It’s about to explode[28]

* I would like to thank Barbara Lindquist and Faith Boninger for their generous assistance.  Their edits, insights, and thoughtful criticisms have improved this essay immeasurably


[1] Douglass, F. (1857, August 3). West India Emancipation. Address delivered in Canandaigua, New York.  Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Project. Retrieved February 16, 2017.

[2] Macur, J. (2017, January 16). Packers Bury the Memories of Playoff Failures. New York Times. Retrieved February 17, 2017.

[3] Dylan, B. (1965). Subterranean homesick blues(Original lyric: “You don’t need a weatherman / To know which way the wind blows”)

[4] The Horace Mann League (2012, November 19). Report No. 12 of the Massachusetts School Board (1848) Horace Mann

[5] Sheila Dow “People Have Had Enough of Experts” Institute for New Economic Thinking, February 6, 2017.

[6] The Spectator (2013, April 8). Margaret Thatcher in quotes.

[7] Roberts, S. (2017, February 9). Hans Rosling, Swedish Doctor and Pop-Star Statistician, Dies at 68. New York Times.

[8] Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century (Arthur Goldhammer, trans.). Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Hear Piketty explain his work here: Piketty, T. [The Graduate Center, CUNY]. (2014, April 23). Capital in the twenty-first Century [video file].

[9] Molnar, A. (2000, January 1). Colonizing our future: The commercial transformation of America’s schools. John Dewey Memorial Lecture, presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, New Orleans, LA.  Retrieved February 15, 2017, from

[10] Bernays, E. (2005). Propaganda. New York: Horace Liveright, p. 9.

[11] Bernays, E. (2005). Propaganda. New York: Horace Liveright, p. 19.

[12] Hirschman, A. O. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[13] Mondale, W. F. (1984, July 19). Address acccepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. The American Presidency Project.

[14]  Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis, New York: Addison-      Wesley (Republished by Harper Collins).

[15] Robinson, P.A. (1988, March 9). Field of dreams: Based on the novel by W.P. Kinsella[script], p. 3.

[16] Williams, Joan C., What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class, Harvard Business Review, November 10, 2016.

[17] Neumeier, E. & Miner, M. (1986, June 10). Robocop: The future of law enforcement [script], p. 2.

[18] Baker, B. & Miron, G. (2015). The Business of Charter Schooling: Understanding the Policies that Charter Operators Use for Financial Benefit. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

[19] Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education (Chapter 10). New York: Basic Books.

[20] The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder Think Tank Review Project has, since 2006, commissioned and published 96 third-party expert reviews of research published by think tanks related to the topics of value added assessment (7), virtual schools (7), privatization (11), charter schools (45), and vouchers (26).  The expert reviewers in virtually every instance concluded that the research they reviewed offered little or no support for the claims made for these reforms.

[21] Goodman, P.S. (2017, January 18). Davos elite fret about inequality over vintage wine and canapés. New York Times.

[22] Chetty, R., Friedman, J.N., Rockoff, J.E. (2011, December). The long-term impacts of teachers: Teacher value-added and student outcomes in adulthood. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Find an analysis of the work here

[23] Chetty, R., Friedman, J.N., Rockoff, J.E. (2011, December). The long-term impacts of teachers: Teacher value-added and student outcomes in adulthood, p. 51. National Bureau of Economic Research.

[24] Advameg, Inc. (2017). Milwaukee, Wisconsin (WI) income map, earnings map, and wages data. City-Data.com.

[25] Glass, Gene V (2017, February 17).  “Fed’s Gold Standard Produces Fool’s Gold.”

[26] Mathis, W. J. & Trujillo, T.M. (2016). Learning from the federal market-based reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing.

[27] McManus, J.F. (2000, November 6). “A Republic, if You Can Keep It.” New American.

[28] Blacc, Aloe [AloeBlaccVEVO] (2013, November 6). Aloe Blacc – Ticking Bomb [video file].

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  1. The Trumpening

    Fascinating that an article this long on private schooling in the US never once mentioned race. The post-Civil Rights push to racially integrate public schools is surely one of the primary factors provoking the move towards private schooling.

    I was recently in Northern Ireland (NI) where after a long civil rights struggle / insurgenc, peace (mostly) reigns nowadays. But in stark contrast to the US, where a similar struggle (minus the insurgency) occurred, there is little to no push to integrate the Catholic and Protestant communities in NI. Only 5% of students go to “integrated” schools. And no one seems to mind the lack of integration. Recently it appears that Catholic students, who used to lag far behind Protestants, have not only closed the achievement gap, but are now surpassing Protestants in educational performance.

    But this is a radical point of view for an American to be exposed to.

    I recently read a click-baity titled but somewhat substance-filled article No Thug Left Behind. The article describes “equality advocates” in the public schools of St, Paul Minnesota launching an equality jihad over the fact that black students are suspended 15 times more often than Asian students! This racial disparity was somewhat perplexingly blamed on teachers imposing “white privilege” on Asian students (or something like that). I suppose the term “Asian Privilege” was deemed inappropriate.

    The racial demographics of St. Paul Minnesota schools was already 32% Asian, 30% black, and 22% white; already evidence of white flight for an area that is 67% white, 13% black, and 12% Asian.

    The key point here is that equality advocates blame most racial disparities in public schools on teacher racism! The teacher’s unions are not pleased. But the teachers are terrified of being even further branded as racists if they resist this foolishness so they meekly submit to the tyranny of the equality advocates.

    Now if I were the owner of an evil charter school corporation I would most certainly be financially backing these “equality advocates” to the hilt!

    And so in St. Paul they launched a Khmer Rouge-style cultural revolution to equalize the Asian / Black punishment rates. And naturally this effort failed completely and chaos ruled. But it did end up pushing children of all races out of the St. Paul public schools and into charter schools.

    The saddest part of this story is the fact that nice, goodthinking school teachers actually internalized the idea that racial disparities are caused by teacher racism and they did everything in the world to try to not be racist — but to no avail.

    And Sweden was mentioned in the article. Surprisingly enough (or not) with the arrival of mass immigration, Sweden was forced to adopt a charter school system so that Swedish children were not forced to go to the same school as Middle Eastern / Africa immigrants. Many of these charter schools are junk and education standards are declining in Sweden as a result of both low performing immigrants and lower performing Swedish students thanks to the charter schools.

    Either diversity or racism (depending on your point of view) is a major enemy of public schools.

  2. Thomas

    Regarding the above mentioned Movies;
    two viewer comments on imdb:

    Stand and Deliver (Rating 7.3)
    “Stand and Deliver has several messages and Edward James Olmos delivers an outstanding performance. Every time I watch it, it leaves me with a good feeling of achievement. I think Mr. Jaime Escalante deserves all the recognition for proving that all kids will rise to whatever level of expectation they are put on. If we lower the levels to the least common denominator, that’s as far as they will get. But if we raise it, they can accomplish anything. All they need is GANAS or desire to succeed and a good teacher to motivate them. This should be required material for every school teacher. We need more constructive movies like this instead of the trash that Hollywood is producing lately”

    Waiting for Superman (Rating 7.5)
    …”In other words, superlative teaching works with students who have support at home. This is wonderful, but it’s not either a surprise or a miracle. It sounds like a magnificent way of educating the children of caring and concerned parents/guardians who can’t flee the inner city to the better schools of the suburbs. But it does not address the problem of what is to be done with all the students who are children/wards of individuals who don’t give a damn about their education. …
    P.S. I notice that there are some scathing reviews of this movie on here. Remember in reading them that WfS pulls no punches: it goes after the AFT and NEA with a vengeance, and those two organizations will no doubt do whatever they can to discredit this movie. Beware anything that comes from them, therefore. Bill Gates has long said that those two organizations are two of the biggest roadblocks to educational reform in this country. This movie documents that, and those unions won’t take that lying down.”

    We haven’t got far I guess.
    Hollywood is the most powerfull propaganda tool there is.

    1. Adam Eran

      Waiting for Superman touts the Finnish schools as the ones to emulate–and they are very good, indeed–but neglects to mention Finnish teachers are well-paid, tenured and unionized.

      So the “reformers'” agenda–merit pay, charter schools and lots of testing–has no scientific backing as methods to improve educational outcomes. What does correlate with better educational outcomes? Less childhood poverty. In Finland the childhood poverty rate is 2%. In the U.S.: 23%

      Could the entire “reform” agenda be misdirection to conceal the harm income inequality has done? And is that pope fellow still catholic?

  3. Moneta

    What else could we expect after asking each individual to fund their own 30 year retirement through markets? We’ve created a system that needs profits out of everything. And a demographic bulge can only accentuate it.

    Logically, the need for capital gains leads to lower rates and when yields hit rock bottom, the need for gains intensifies exponentially to compensate… soon everything starts looking marketable…

  4. Larry

    This is an excellent summary of the state of play in public education and should be shared with those who see the charter schools as some kind of magic solution.

    The entire article reminds me why my family and I did not attend one of the women’s marches in the Boston area after Trumps election. One of the highlighted marchers for the Boston area was a 10%er from Salem, MA who was sending her adopted daughter to a charter school. I pointed this out to friends who were telling me not to miss the historic event and I had to say no thanks, I don’t march to support more of the same old same old neoliberal policies. Because it seemed all people marching wanted was to be rid of Donald Trump, who makes them aware of the political and economic dissatisfaction of a vast swath of the American population.

    Try not to barf when you read why Jean “marches”:


    Jean believed there was opportunity in America. Jean undermines public teacher unions by buying into charter education.

    And look here, another fine 10%er who doesn’t believe in public institutions supporting the Women’s March in Boston:


    If this is what the Resistance means, then we need a very strong anti-propaganda team that deflates liberal myths swiftly and decisively. This article will be part of my anti-propaganda kit. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. jrs

      I don’t see any indication she undermines public schools though there might be more to the story. No where one sends their kids is not undermining, unless one believes one has a duty to send one’s kids even to bad schools or even to schools where after they have been there they are deeply unhappy (get bullied all the time say) for the greater social good, and pretty much noone does, nor should they. Voting for Obama is undermining, ok in some sense I guess, but then so is voting for Trump (he specifically pushed school choice in his speech). I don’t see any indication she’s a 10%er. Marketing, the money might be that good, but hard to say (probably more good than more productive work though :)).

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Do a search for this Schools for Children organization and you’ll find this on their website:

        Schools for Children currently owns and operates three schools. We are interested in expanding our portfolio of schools and welcome inquiries. Please visit our program websites for more information about our schools.

        Sounds like a pretty neoliberal for-profit organization. I didn’t read their site extensively but from what I did read, I didn’t see a thing about trying to strengthen public schools.

        I’m sure there are some charter schools that do good things. So why isn’t our state and national leadership trying to bring those programs that work into public schools instead of trying to set public schools up for failure so they can be privatized?

        The old saying about bombers and bake sales comes to mind…

        1. PhilM

          Only it’s not a bake sale. What a crock of poop that old meme is. It’s a gun to your head. It’s a property tax bill, and they will sell your house at auction if you don’t pay it. It is exactly the same as the handcuffs that will escort you to jail if you don’t pay for the F-35.

          Pay to run a world empire; pay your local police, teachers, roads…. Pay, pay, pay. Two bosses, each with a gun to your family’s head, do what they say, or your life is over. Because it’s for the children. Or your “security.”

          The applicable model here for the public school system is a progressive one: rent-seeking. The rent-seeking monopolists are, in this case, the “union” members who argue against charter schools because that is how they protect their monopoly. And they are doing it with the sovereign police power in their hands to take everything you own if you don’t “choose to cooperate.”

          All stick, disguised as a carrot. Don’t like it? Want to see what you can get for your money elsewhere? You must be for “markets,” citizen. I guess you are just another “neoliberal.”

  5. Carolinian

    A good essay but doesn’t talk about the initial impetus for the assault on public schools which was the fierce opposition in many regions to school integration. When Reagan promoted privatization he was undoubtedly sending a racially coded message to his socially conservative supporters. And while our more politically correct era pretends that charters and privatization are really about helping blacks rather than avoiding them there’s undoubtedly plenty of that sentiment still around. Also religious issues like school prayer and the teaching of evolution have played a role. It hasn’t all just been about the finance sector seeking a new avenues of profit. Of course one could argue that Republicans have merely been exploiting these social issues to promote a big money agenda but that doesn’t change the fact that America’s relationship to its public schools, those laboratories of socialization, has always been complicated.

    1. Jagger

      Absolutely. If parents believe their public school is not safe, is promoting values in serious conflict with their own, is not providing a quality education, they will demand and support other alternatives. And we have all read the horror stories.

      All parents want the best for the kids. I know people that send their kids to religious schools, not because they are particularly religious, but because they believe their kids will get a quality education in a safe environment. That is it. Due to what many see as the failure of the public schools, there is significant support for private options. Can you blame them?

      I have known only a few parents that home schooled their children. Perhaps their children were the exception and perhaps not, but what I noticed was their unusual maturity for their age and their good nature. Those that I met were highly exceptional when compared to the stereotypical high school kids you normally run into. Those kids could hold their own with most 30 year old, mature adults.

      1. Carolinian

        Well I’m not endorsing the private school idea, just saying the situation is more complicated than seeing private schools as simply a grift. I agree with the author that public education is part of the “commons” that we should keep. The role of public education has always been as much about socialization as education (i.e. H’wood’s endless fascination with high school as metaphor for real life). Protecting your kids from aspects of the world they will soon encounter may not be a good thing.

        Here in my southern town integration seems to have worked. Black and white kids can be seen hanging out together all the time. But engineering this beneficial social result has also made public schools a center of controversy.

      2. Katharine

        Good home schooling may produce such good results, but bad home schooling may produce people who are wholly ignorant in the sciences, or in rare instances (one I heard of through a friend) acutely over-controlled people who in their late teens have no capacity to deal with others independently because they have never been allowed to. I regard that as a horror story, and I am thankful for the public schools of my youth, which, whatever their flaws, gave me a chance to deal with and learn from many different kinds of people.

    2. Benedict@Large

      Yes, the opposition to integration was a major issue, but there was also the matter of the wealthy attacking property taxes, which provided most of the funding for public education. The wealthy as always were interested in property ownership as a wealth preservation method, bit didn’t feel they should be taxed for education when they did this.

      1. Michael Warhurst

        You are being way way too kind to rich people.
        Property taxes for rich people each year amounts to what they might spend eating out for a week – really insignificant. They only make a big deal about it because they can spin it in their media and because many or most middle income families can relate to it because they live financially month to month these days they believe it is a big issue in their budgets. And for them it is, for the wealthy families who spend far more on educating their kids than they do on property taxes, the crying about the expense of education system supported by property taxes is phony the real issue is not just their kids getting a superior education, it is about keeping the plebs down and in line, an agenda not for public consumption. No, they can do far more harm to middle class families by destroying middle class schools and education through seizing every means of political control and financially throttling the public education system. The wealthy are in commando mode controlling or destroying the middle class at the earliest age possible, so they can suck up all the money without too much bother or competition. After all, they spend big bucks (far more than property taxes) sending their kids to private schools where the elites can mingle at an early age and form the associations that will give them the inside edge when it comes to real opportunity. Destroying the public education systems is the best way to assure their kids that the plebs will never be in control (they want fascism NOT democracy) – the very same reason the financial elites buy and control politicians and political systems – so they can use a supposedly democratic system organization through corruption to further tilt the game in favour of their children and weaken the lower financial class families and their offspring. At the same time this process further weakens democracy generally and assures that the 1% and their minions and progeny retain and enlarge the death grip on economic advantage their families possess.

      2. Lori

        Perhaps the two are inextricably linked. Here in CA, the Prop 13 property tax rollback (which also included the 2/3 vote requirement for the legislature to raise taxes and locals to raise parcel taxes) came on the heels of the landmark Serrano decisions by the CA supreme court. Serrano held that the state’s property tax-based school funding system deprived poor kids equal protection and demanded the state aggressively move to equalize funding and fully integrate schools. Prop 13 passed a year or so after Serrano III–just as the state was finally getting serious about school integration and equal access to education. We never recovered from the Prop 13 earthquake and its aftershocks.

  6. Anonymous

    Nearly two thirds of American Secondary School teachers were women in 2014.

    Imagine you’re going to have surgery. How would you feel if the average IQ of a surgeon had declined by 20 points over the past seventy years? While I’m sure that there are many brilliant women teaching in Secondary Schools today, my bet is that, the typical teacher fifty years ago was much more intelligent, as measured on IQ tests, and perhaps more inspiring, than the average secondary school teacher today. Why? Because when women had fewer job options–in 1950, there were essentially three: teacher, nurse, and social worker. This is why public schools are having problems: there has been a brain drain.

    This seems obvious, but nobody is going to get a medal for pointing this out. We’re going to have to find a solution to the brain drain that doesn’t entail restricting women’s choices of career, and that solution is likely to be heavily technology centric, and will require social re-organization far beyond what we can imagine today.

    1. nycTerrierist

      I would agree there has been a brain drain for teachers in secondary schools.

      This might have something to do with how teaching has been crapified and de-skilled by forces outlined in this excellent post.

  7. Amy

    Ah, yes. We should all work in academia, where the air is so clear. An incomplete and biased piece- the issue(s) with our public school system are not confined to its structure, but are interwoven with a societal view based upon the “naive” thinking the author admits to early in the piece, that “leisure” is a worthy goal. Our society has swallowed that hook, line, and sinker – from the “New Deal” of FDR overstaying its welcome, through subsequent Dem/Rep policies to increase government involvement in everyday life. Franklin’s astute statement about a republic “if you can keep it” says much – it takes work to make our form of government sustainable. For too long, and increasingly, many of our citizens have shirked that responsibility, including handing over their kids to the state for education ( or “inculcating democratic values and … providing the knowledge necessary to secure economic wellbeing”, as the author puts it ), like good little robots. As one who was publicly educated in traditional schools, with children who benefited from public education in the form of charter and traditional schools, and, as a teacher in homeschool and private settings, I have seen clearly the benefits and drawbacks of these particular institutions. The one overriding factor for success, in general, has nothing to do with the school(s), it has to do with parental / family involvement. Skin in the game. And as long as our society expects to hand over their children at age 5 ( or before ) to the public school system, and receive, at age 18, an educated “product”, with little or no requirement for active involvement in that process, our educational outcomes will continue to languish in mediocrity, and/or eventually decline.

    1. JEHR

      “policies to increase government involvement in everyday life” is not a negative thing if the members of the government are made up of people who care about, for instance, teaching children about their culture, their history, their country, different belief systems, as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. No good teacher sees her students as “good little robots.” I do not understand how government can have such negative connotations if the people who are elected to run it are chosen because of their desire to make society better. If they just want to make big money or later go through the revolving door to financial riches, then the electorate should not elect them. If the government is run by lobbyists and billionaires, then they are not looking out for the people and I don’t know how you get rid of those people.

    2. I Have Strange Dreams

      For such an expert on education, you really have difficulty with making your one (erroneous) point succinctly. That parental involvement in children’s education is crucial to their success is a truism. As Dr. Watson said, “no shit, Sherlock.” That parents have abrogated their duties due to the pernicious effects of social democracy is disproved by comparison to other countries. Logic, my dear Watson.

      1. amfortas

        Aye. That caught my eye, too.
        where parents have ‘abrogated their duties”, isn’t the more likely causative factor lack of time and resources, due to the very Market Uber Alles! policies pushed by the very same people(sic) who now turn their grasping claws to pub-ed?
        I hated school,during the 70’s and 80’s…but I was mature enough to realise, even then, that my problems were anomalous(too smart,too weird, in rural Texas) and that the Idea of Public School and an educated populace were Very Important Things.
        That I internalised this Ideal was actually the source of some of my conflicts with the school I attended.
        and while I’m here…seems that a feature of all the reaganomics/neoliberalism is that they never, ever look at the results of all their glorious experimentation.
        that right there gives the lie to all the high minded rhetoric.

    3. justanotherprogressive

      YIKES! I’d sure hate to be the parent of a school-aged child these days! Both parents are expected to work at least a 40 hr week to pay the bills (more if you REALLY want to keep your jobs or every plan to get ahead), then in their spare time, take their children to all the social activities that will guarantee them the necessary extracurriculars they need to get into a college, and THEN, yep, they MUST show how involved they are in their children’s school (while NOT taking time off from work because they REALLY NEED to keep their jobs), and then suffer society’s blame because they are “lazy” and not showing “active involvement”………
      Catch -22 anyone?

      1. jrs

        it’s hard for both parents to work full time, how it usually works though if a parent wants to be involved, is commute to work, work, commute home, eat dinner with family, make sure one’s kid(s) do their homework before going to bed. Maybe some following up by phone or text with kids during the day while at work, hoping to get them to start on their homework etc.. By no means is it an easy life though (very little time for leisure of any sort – so much for that tons of leisure). And if people choose not to have kids because it’s crazy to both fight so hard economically to survive and raise kids as well, then that too is a reasonable choice.

    4. Laughingsong

      I don’t get from the piece that the author thought “leisure” was the goal of the New Deal, rather it was thought at the time to be a by-product of having many people able to “enjoy freedom from want” I.e., having the basics spoken for and reasonable future security. Inasmuch as this did seem the point of New Deal redistributive policies, I can’t see how such a policy could be considered as overstaying its welcome…. I kinda wish it hung around as many of my friends and neighbors are certainly now suffering from its lack. But let’s also remember that some leisure time, at least, is required for people to be able to participate in their neighborhoods, schools, and government. Finally, I do know a good few people that hardly sleep more than 5 hours a night due to taking care of their jobs, children, and homes, then filling in at their local schools because of their local schools lack of resources. So while I am certain there are parents and people who could be more involved but aren’t, “dumping” their kids onto the state etc., well, it seems too broad a brush.

      I can’t speak much about schools these days, I never had children. I do know parents that have sent their kids to public, charter, and religious schools for various reasons and that have home schooled (in some cases a mix of these). Since they have all had varying degrees of satisfaction with all, I suspect that it depends on the people running the schools and their levels of ability and dedication rather than the type.

      My big problem (from a distance admittedly) with the charter school movement is the use of tax dollars without accountability. I don’t trust the opacity. It does seem to encourage grift.

      And forgive me, but if I hear/see the term “skin in the game” one more time I will likely go postal. For me it’s like “Niagara Falls”

      We ALL have skin in the game by being part of our societies, we are never separate from it and thinking so is only an illusion.

  8. Damian

    “Educating the population was considered essential because a “mob” of ill-educated, impoverished citizens would be easy prey for demagoguery”

    Despite all the trillions expended on education, the population has little critical analytical tools to evaluate political promotion nonsense of every description. The majority of inner city students with a diploma from high school has nothing for the time expended.

    Public schools are baby siting services with big unnecessary pensions for the baby sitters. Less than 4% of NYC Public schools have math skills upon graduation. It gets worse in Chicago, yet both are very expensive. Integration of Public Schools in the 70’s produced a system catering to the least common denominator rather than excellence focused on those who can think, which is why there is a skills shortage.

    Welfare and identity politics are designed to perpetuate and encourage mediocrity and enlarge the dependent population. Most would certainly vote to take more welfare over an education, if given the choice. The Neo-Liberal Democrats do not want these people to be educated. If they could pay the teachers to do nothing, they would prefer it and preserve their votes.

    Most of the population doesn’t need any education. They don’t know what to do with it. It is a complete waste of time. To prove that, give the money to the parents and let them decide what to do with the “cash”. Most will decide themselves that education isn’t necessary.

    1. JEHR

      Education is the bedrock of democracy and if democracy is not necessary, then you don’t need education. Sure failure there.

      1. Damian

        JEHR said: “Education is the bedrock of democracy ”

        NO it is not !- anyone anyone can walk into a polling place and merely say his name and if it is on the registration roll (without ANY ID demanded) allowed to vote

        no one asks whether you can read or write or count to vote – you can have in the voting booth a cheat sheet and by the line items – vote – not even understanding English and push the lever or submit the ballot

        NO EDUCATION NECESSARY – platitudes are amusing to write but this is 2017 in A-M-E-R-I-C-A

    2. Nakatomi Plaza

      “Less than 4% of NYC Public schools have math skills upon graduation”

      Do you have any data on that? I poked around online a bit, but didn’t find anything. That number sounds suspiciously low, and given the hyperbolic tone of most of your post, I wonder how reliable your numbers are.

      1. Damian

        Various yardsticks for data – here is one reported in NYP – 02-05-17 – Politicians have different view based upon graduation rates which are meaningless based upon “push through system of education”

        “Nearly 80 percent of New York City high school grads who enrolled as freshmen at a CUNY community college in the fall of 2015 needed remedial help in math, reading and writing, the report found.

        The Post reported last month that Bronxdale HS in Allerton had a 76 percent graduation rate in 2016, but a 4 percent college readiness rate.

        But the stats are even worse at other schools such as Urban Assembly HS of Music and Art in Brooklyn, which boasted a 82.5 percent graduation rate but only 3.8 percent of the senior class was college ready.

        College readiness sunk to 1.9 percent last year at the FDNY HS for Fire and Life Safety in Brooklyn, which had an 83 percent graduation rate in 2016,

        city reports show Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña cite the city wide 72 percent graduation rate as evidence that schools are improving.

        Rarely noted — only an average 37 percent of students graduate ready for college.”

  9. PhilM

    Cry me a river. When my taxes go down, I’ll know the “assault” is working, and I’ll give it a solid golf clap. Since they have doubled in the last ten years, I figure the “assault” isn’t doing all that well, and that the teacher’s unions are winning this “war.”

    1. Laughingsong

      The author did mention the shift of taxation to the middle and working classes as well, that was not the work of the teachers who also pay these taxes. The author also points outs that we are richer than we were even when many good paying jobs were available, but today it is not as well distributed.

      But then I read here in comments that redistribution has overstayed its welcome(Amy) and another comment which seems to imply that teachers are overpayed (PhilM).

      I am constantly wondering why people would rather see the last bastions of decent paying union jobs dismantled than fight for increasing the number of decent paying Union jobs for more people. It’s not like the wealth isn’t out there. When I lived in Dublin, Ireland, they called this “Begrudgery”.

      I am also wondering that the implication I get is that teachers don’t deserve their salaries. Sure I’ve known lazy people and bad teachers (Mom was a junior college teacher in her later life and she told me about which teachers worked and which didn’t) but they are hardly the majority. It seems that the neoliberal meme of deserving and undeserving has been so internalized that it feels like a constant subtext in these discussions.

      If this is so, then I think that, in the sense of class war, the elites a have certainly done a good job at keeping us at each others’ throats and away from theirs.

      1. Vatch

        In my view, the only “redistribution” that has overstayed its welcome is the initial maldistribution which makes later redistribution desirable. Nobody deserves to be a billionaire. Nobody. Period.

        In one of his books, Branko Milanovic says that inequality is like cholesterol. There’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, and there’s good inequality and bad inequality. Of course people who work hard, study hard and become qualified for a difficult profession, or who work in hazardous occupations all deserve to be well compensated. And people who are thrifty deserve to see their savings rise. But there is still absolutely no reason why anyone should end up with a billion dollars (or more) in assets. No matter how talented a person is, he or she depends on the efforts of countless others to achieve anything significant. As Newton said, we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

        1. Anonymous

          ‘people who work hard, study hard and become qualified for a difficult profession…deserve to be well compensated.’

          On the bottom rungs of employment, women are incentivized by the government to work thirty hours a week and have babies outside of marriage. For a $12.00 an hour employee working thirty hours a week, having one child increases take home pay by $7,000 (in the form of a tax refund). It’s the combination of the child care credit and the EITC. It’s very unlikely that the recipient of this government largesse–which continues in the form of food stamps and medicaid, but I didn’t quantify that–has graduated from college. College–or being twenty-two to twenty-four years old or greater when one graduates– is a form of birth control.

          By contrast, there are many males with college degrees, sometimes advanced degrees, making a lot less than that per hour once all the government benefits are factored in, even if they make nominally more per hour.

          1. Vatch

            I’m not exactly sure what your point is. I understand that reality is far more complex than my short description.

            I should have said something like this:

            people who work hard, study hard and become qualified for a difficult and useful profession for which there is a demand. . .deserve to be well compensated.

            Anyhow, the point is there is nothing wrong with certain levels of inequality. And the outrageous cost of higher education certainly introduces distortions.

            I’m now going to write about something I don’t know much about, so please correct any errors I have made.

            As for things like the EITC, there is a limit on the number of children for which benefits can be received. And if a person does not have children, then he or she will have lower expenses, and less need for the EITC. I think your example of $7,000 for a $12.00 per hour (30 days per week) employee with one child is wrong. That person would earn $18,720 per year, and would qualify for $3,373. See:


            The maximum amount of credit for Tax Year 2016 is:

            $6,269 with three or more qualifying children
            $5,572 with two qualifying children
            $3,373 with one qualifying child
            $506 with no qualifying children

            The taxpayer can also receive credit for child care expenses. For the $18,720 worker, this would be 33% of $3,000 for one child, or 33% of 6,000 for more children. So combined with the EITC, this would be $4,373. See this:


            There are inequities and absurdities in the levels of compensation that people receive. For example, professional gamblers on Wall Street definitely do not deserve the outrageous amounts of money that they receive. They don’t deserve more than an engineer or a physician.

            1. Anonymous

              I agree that you might have modified your comment to include ‘people who work hard, study hard and become qualified for a difficult and useful profession for which there is a demand. . .deserve to be well compensated.’ Trouble is, it is not easy to determine what professions are going to be in demand. People will argue about this, but the truth is that schools can no longer keep up with the economy, which is changing too fast for them.

              My fastidious wife–who is in the middle of doing the tax section of her CFP– just filled out the taxes for a $11.75 per hour worker with one child. I think the worker actually made more like $15,000 (I overestimated the hours worked), then qualified for a $7,000 tax credit refund (about $800 of that is state). This was part EITC and part child care credit. I’m happy she and her son are getting these benefits, I just fear for the incentive structure of the workplace if those who are trying to better themselves to earn more through investing in education actually understood how the system works.

              If you include all the other benefits such as medicaid, this grocery clerk may be making more than many adjunct professors (who are not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, as part of the ‘learned professions). Many people might ask, after seeing these figures: ‘why did I spend those nine years in graduate school?’

              1. Anonymous

                Vatch: my apologies. I didn’t actually see the return and misinterpreted the numbers. You are correct.

                1. Vatch

                  For what it’s worth, I believe that the treatment of adjunct professors in the United States is absolutely shameful. As you pointed out, there are programs to ameliorate some of the severe inequality in our society (SNAP, Medicaid, Child Care Credits, EITC), but some deserving people don’t get much benefit from those programs. Reforms are clearly needed, but I have trouble believing that any Republican or establishment Democrat (which is most of the Democratic politicians) is willing to push hard for those reforms.

  10. sharonsj

    Admittedly my teaching experience is 50 years old but, as an elementary school teacher, I had no control over the curriculum. I was handed a dossier of precise subjects to cover and I had to hand in written lesson plans for everything. When the curriculum changed, or new teaching methods were instituted, nobody asked for my input or feedback. I have no idea if things are different now.

    A friend who retired from teaching eight years ago told me that most parents are completely disinterested in their kid’s report card and, if told their child is misbehaving, sometimes threaten the school with a lawsuit. It’s a far cry from when I taught in a ghetto school where nearly all the parents were concerned–or my own parents, who told me I’d better show up to school every day and do whatever the teacher said.

    As for charter schools, from what I’ve read, many are scams for the purpose of milking taxpayer money for the CEO’s salary. Also, parents don’t realize that they do not choose the charter school; the school chooses them. And if their kid isn’t smart or has disabilities, the school isn’t choosing him.

  11. Dead Dog

    A long essay, thought provoking…

    IMHO a country cannot shirk its responsibility to educate its youth. ie to fund and institute educational policies which prepare our children for life.

    I did primary school in the 60s in the UK and went to a private school on a public scholarship (years 12 to 15) before coming to Australia and finishing my education in public schools in Canberra.

    Australia continues to fund education in partnership with State governments. Teachers in these schools are public servants on salaries which are bit lower than other graduates but reflect the nature of the work and the school holidays (my wife used to complain about the high workload at times – but she still had about 12 weeks every year paid leave).

    The Hawke government in the late 80s, with Paul Keating as Treasurer, started the dialogue that university education was a private good benefiting the student, who should pay. The public good of a university education was dumbed down, erased as though it were a fiction. So, we have the same student debt issue here as in the US, except it is the Government who holds the note and it is only indexed by the inflation rate (CPI). If you never earn above the 57k threshold, the debt is only repaid if you do it voluntary, so it is a debt you can ignore, but can’t be discharged in bankruptcy and the State will be the first payee from your estate – taxes see.

    I guess I’m saying I was lucky to be born when and where I was. And, we should all continue to advocate for a cost free quality education and well paid and respected teachers at the helm. Not attending to this results in a less educated population – which I guess is the intended outcome for the moneyed elites, as well as extracting rent from the education process.

    If any debt in this world should be forgiven it is the debt burden on our youth as they embark on life.

  12. greg

    A couple things: First: The only reason public education is provided by taxes is because the education of the entire populace cannot be done at a profit. If education for the people could have been done for a profit, it would have been done long ago. That this has never happened is evidence that it can’t, and won’t, happen. A profit can be made, however, by skimming the cream, as the long history of private universities and schools has shown. Unfortunately for society, after the cream is skimmed off, all you have left is skimmed milk.

    Second: One of the things people are helping to fund when they fund education is their own retirement: It is the present working generation who supports retirees (and the idle rich) with their labor. By allowing the degradation of the education of future workers, today’s workers degrade their own retirement prospects.

  13. Clearpoint

    Nice work. It sounds like you saw this coming 30 years ago. Not many get it now, so I’m sure barely anyone got it then. When people finally wise up and figure out who did this to them, how they were betrayed, and why, there will be hell to pay. Sad it’s come to this all because the elites have an unquenchable desire for ever more wealth and power.

  14. Anonymous

    I think education has been oversold as a solution to our problems. Many people who go to the absolute best colleges can’t think critically.

  15. Paul Greenwood

    The real reason noone has any money is that The State has expanded beyond all reason since 1960. The S built a war economy coupled with Great Society in classic “guns and butter” style. The expansion of Colleges and Education was to produce engineers to compete with USSR and ICBM construction. The expansion ceased Thorstein Veblen’s Leisured Class who felt normal jobs were beneath them and they were “self-actualisers” instead. Narcissism took over.

    Public Education turned into a pit of Underachievement with no national school exam and no internationally recognisable curriculum. Schools start to adopt IB in the USA to have a national/international benchmark but results show US schools are debasing and devaluing IB itself through US schools.

    US society does not repeat Education so much as Credentials and Money. George Carlin explained why US High Schools will never turn out properly educated people. Unfortunately this sabotage of Education has been spread throughout the West by US propagandists. Even former Communist countries like GDR which once had high standards of technical education have now slipped into a moribund state of mediocrity

    1. Adam Eran

      The state has expanded??? Sorry, it’s been shrinking by the minute. If you go to Wikipedia’s table of government spending as a percentage of GDP (item 5.2b in the linked article)…note that you can sort the columns by clicking the headers…you’ll see that the U.S. ranks between Argentina and Luxembourg as a spender (46th). Remove 11% of that spending to make military spending more reasonable (and still double what the Chinese spend on their military), and the U.S. ranks between Bhutan and Namibia. Federal support for higher education alone has declined 55% since 1972.

      This is the destination of the “austerity” meme. “Eeek! We’re spending too much! [like drunken sailors!]” is the cry of the plutocrats. Not really true, though. And not really a surprise that Flint Michigan has a water system comparable to a third world country like Namibia.

      1. PhilM

        I looked at the numbers on the site, and I can’t find the sources for the data, or even any in-depth descriptors of what the numbers are for. Are they talking about all government, or only national government? Do they aggregate state and local taxation? Everything they refer to seems to be about national government.

  16. Be Prepared

    I appreciate the in-depth article and presentation of our educational system in terms of how the Constitutional framers viewed the public benefits of lifting a country’s citizenry through elevating their minds. On many levels, though, we are a nation of aging-infrastructure corrupted by our willingness to let our government define the answers to what our society should value and how we should approach seeking solutions. Public Education is broken, not just by the last 30 to 40 years of social, neoliberal and “seemingly” progressive policies, and it is clearly evident by the international standing of our high schools students compared to other developed nations. We are losing ground because familial bonds, cultural aspirations and business creation have weakened to such a state through the overwhelming erosion of the middle class.

    Our Republic is shifting from a representational form to government for the many to a Corporatism to benefit the few with control over the masses. The U.S. spends over $12,000 per student per year for secondary education (in the top 5 worldwide) and, instead of moving our educational standards higher, we have consistently lost ground. We don’t even break the top 20 in the areas of Math, Science and Reading. Whatever we are doing, isn’t working so to lay the blame on privatization as a drain on the “institution” of public education seems too easy. Whether we look at Common Core, Race to the Top or other mind boggling spastic dreams from academic elitists in their attempts to obfuscate a crumbling system as the reason for the failure of the overall high level education, we miss our ability to truthfully re-examine what are reasonable next steps to change course.

    The Federal Government’s role should be completely eliminated from this process and the Department of Education needs to be abolished in it’s entirety. The Federal Government gifting our own tax dollars back to our school districts while dictating standards and approaches has been and will continue to be a failure. States need to break this cycle of serfdom to federalism and emerge as the leaders within their communities.

    Side Note: I’m tired of School Districts building mega sports complexes for their Friday night football games and foisting the bill onto the property tax rolls.

  17. Marie Henderson

    Charter schools are a scam. In Florida, the principal is not required to have a college degree. Yes, you read that right. There is one located in the sticks near my home, and it is ran by a family of hillbillies. The principal pays herself, husband, son ( who does maintenance) and his wife, the lunchroom manager, more that the rest of the staff combined. Yes, that includes 13 full time teachers, 3 assistant teachers, a secretary, the dean, and the accountant. Also, the hillbilly family built the school with their “newly formed” construction company and reaped millions as the loan is part of the school’s expenses being covered by federal dollars.
    Children with disabilities are not allowed , so the standardized tests are skewed beyond the pale. This school is a “C” school, while other schools that do have disabled students are a “B”.
    Now why would a parent want to sent their child to a “C” school? Hmmmm. White ratio is 98% compared to 67%.

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