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'Narrow and Unlovely'

By Leigh Dingerson

Many of those who saw green in New Orleans were members of the Education Industry Association—the trade organization representing corporations that market services to schools and school districts. Others included conservative think tanks like the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the University of Washington's Center for Reinventing Education. For years, these well-funded and well-connected institutions and interests have argued that public schools and school districts ought to join the free market economy. In the emergence of charter schools in the early 1990s, these reformers saw their opportunity: charter schools present the vehicle for outsourcing. "Choice" and "competition" could become the new clarion call. Conveniently, such a model also created a multi-billion dollar market for the services some of them sell.

The reformers, who have the ear of the Bush administration, have built a public relations machine that blankets the airwaves with the message that public schools are failing, and that bloated bureaucracy, uncaring teachers, and selfish unions are to blame. Dismissing the role of state funding structures that create inherent disparities between property-rich and property-poor school districts, the movement promotes an individualistic, rather than a collective response to the challenges facing public education. Rather than joining together to demand equity and excellence in our public schools, the message implies that conscientious parents can and should jump ship.

In struggling districts with declining participation and support from the middle class, the pitch for independent schools is a powerful tonic. It has created a painful wedge in many of these predominantly African-American communities, dividing families and neighbors who hold strong allegiances to their historic public schools yet are compelled to pursue the enticing promise of change for their children. The elixir of an individual bailout option not only divides communities, but also weakens the political will for collective action in support of public school systems.

The Takedown

Within days of Hurricane Katrina, conservatives were lobbying aggressively in Baton Rouge and Washington. The message was clear and compelling: The storm is an opportunity to experiment at scale with a free-market construct for public education.

Within two weeks of the hurricane, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings referred to charter schools as "uniquely equipped" to serve students displaced by Katrina. Two weeks later, Spellings announced the first of two $20 million grants to Louisiana, solely for the establishment and opening of charter schools.

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