Anyone who pays any attention to the debate over public education knows the rap consistently advanced by the pro-vouchers/pro-privatization crowd: “We need to bring the ‘genius’ of the free market to education so that schools will compete with each other and thereby drive up the overall quality of education.” This is the same argument under which charter schools are supposed to be “incubators of innovation” that hatch all sorts of brilliant ideas that then percolate throughout the K-12 system.
A key and obvious flaw in this logic, of course, is its blind and absurd glorification of the private sector. Here’s the real truth about the “free market” in the U.S.: For all of its many strengths as a wealth producer, it is also frequently a ruthless and cutthroat world in which most new enterprises fail and in which many actors are driven by (and act upon) less-than-honorable motives — most notably greed.
To see evidence of this hard reality in North Carolina’s just-underway move to bring market forces to bear upon K-12 education, check out this story by NC Policy Watch reporter Sarah Ovaska: “Charlotte charter founders accused of plagiarizing, school may not open.”
It turns out that a new charter school applicant in Charlotte basically lifted the language in its application, word for word, from another applicant. And what is perhaps even more disturbing, the harried and overworked people in the Department of Public Instruction’s Charter School Office (staff size: 6) didn’t even catch the plagiarism until it was called to their attention (and, indeed, had already given the applicant preliminary approval to open this August!).
Ovaska also reports that a member of the proposed charter school board — a lawyer from Pennsylvania named Melvin Sharpe — was disbarred last September for misuse of client funds.
Ovaska’s story, of course, comes less than two weeks after her in-depth report about a troubled Winston-Salem charter that is running a basketball factory for foreign students.
The bottom line: While there may be room for a small number of rigorously observed charter school laboratories in a healthy public education system, Ovaska’s story provides new confirmation of the lunacy of the notion we can upgrade North Carolina’s public schools by turning our system into some kind of dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest free market .
What we are doing by privatizing our schools and “unleashing the genius of the market” is flashing a giant open invitation to all sorts of people and institutions of widely varying degrees of competence and appropriateness: solid citizens and incompetent bumblers; well-meaning parents and shady con artists; worthy nonprofits and greedy corporations. We are, in effect, premising our public education system upon the idea of widespread failure. And while such a model may work well when it comes to producing widgets or commodities, it is not a model upon which to base the development of young minds.