Approximately a quarter-century ago, some of the wealthiest individuals in America and their foundations began inflicting damage on public schools, their students, teachers, and locally elected school boards.
The plutocrats promised a dramatic transformation in public education, based on their strategy of high-stakes testing, teacher evaluation by test scores, vouchers, state or mayoral takeover of locally elected boards of education, and closing low-scoring public schools.
Despite the investment of billions of federal, state, local, and philanthropic dollars, these expensive, disruptive efforts have come up empty. The leaders of this charade confidently predicted that their success was just beyond the horizon but judged by their own chosen metrics—standardized test scores—the plutocrats’ deformation of public education has failed.
The individuals and groups who have promoted test-based accountability, school closings, and publicly funded vouchers for private schools as remedies for low test scores are certainly not reformers. While others call them the financial privatization cabal, the destroy public education movement, or privatizers, I call them deformers.
The plutocrat deformers are proponents of privatization. They use their vast power to secure the transfer of public assets to the private sector, to demean those who teach our children and run our schools, and to attack locally elected school boards.
The plutocrat deformers insist schools should be run like businesses. Because they believe businesses succeed by having private ownership, profit-and-loss statements, and data-driven decision-making, so should schools.
The deformers also believe standardized testing is an essential tool for making objective decisions about which teachers are effective or ineffective and which schools should be rewarded or closed.
A democratic society needs a strong public sector and a strong private sector. The efforts of the plutocrats to break down public schools, which belong to the public, undermine democracy.
The plutocrats do not like democratic control of education by elected local school boards. They support state takeovers of entire school districts and their school boards or the state creation of special districts that hand high-poverty schools over to charter corporations. They have been busy on many fronts in their campaign to destabilize public schools.
Policymakers are supposed to seek evidence before they impose a new governance structure on a community institution like public schools. Undeterred, legislators in several states continue to take control of school districts away from elected school boards.
The plutocrats’ privatization movement is a direct assault on democracy. While a few big cities have school boards appointed by their mayors, more than 95 percent of school districts are governed by elected boards of education.
Although the plutocrats object to democratically elected school boards, they have financed campaigns to win seats on elected boards in many cities. Their lavish spending makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to compete for school board seats in their communities.
Despite failure after failure, the plutocrats have kept driving forward with their efforts to quash democratic control of public schools.
The time has come for policymakers and public school advocates to declare that the plutocrats’ privatization movement has failed and call for a reinvestment in public education and support for its oversight by locally elected school boards.
Public schools belong to our children, and they belong to all of us; we dare not lose them.