Derrick Jensen: You’ve written, "It is almost impossible to capture the magnitude of the self-serving corporate invasion of the classroom since the mid-1980s." Do you think most people are aware of this invasion?
Alex Molnar: I think a lot of people know about corporate involvement in schools; they just don’t think about it as an invasion. They think about it as a benevolent embrace intended to improve the quality of schools and enhance the possibilities for kids to get good jobs and participate in the economy and global marketplace. So to say that corporations are heavily involved in schools is simply to state a commonplace. That’s conventional wisdom, and the conventional wisdom also is, "That’s terrific! What a great idea!" And the reason it’s terrific is that the wave of the future—not only as regards schools but in many areas of our civic lives—is public/private partnerships. So not only should we not be worried about corporations being involved with schools, but we should celebrate the fact that they want to be.
DJ: That’s not a perspective you share. . . .
AM: No, in great measure because corporations and schools have fundamental differences in purpose. The purpose of a corporation is, in the narrowest sense, to provide profit for the people who own the corporation. That’s it. They don’t have to be ethical, and will sacrifice ethics for profits. They don’t have to be concerned with justice, and will sacrifice justice for profits. They don’t have to be concerned about the common welfare, and will promote the special interests of their owners over and against the common interests of all of us. And they will do all that simply because that’s what they were created to do.
The government and its institutions, on the other hand, must concern themselves with these issues, to the degree that we live in a democracy, because the issues go right to the core of democratic governance.
Because corporations and democratic societies—including their political institutions, and schools are part of the political institutions of our state—have fundamentally different purposes, the public good requires that the government—and all the institutions that are enervated by the government—keep corporations at arm’s length. This is absolutely necessary if we’re to keep the self-serving purposes of corporations within tolerable limits. But over the last several decades we’ve seen the destruction of the boundary between governance and corporations, so that in many instances now it could be well argued that we have lost our ability to even understand the distinction between private gain and public good. They are widely used as synonymous. I think the popular catch-phrase is "a win-win situation." In fact there are far fewer win-win situations than would be represented by all of this happy-talk about public-private partnerships. Mostly it’s corporations win, everybody else loses. That’s certainly true with schools.
DJ: What’s the primary argument used to promote corporate involvement in schools?
AM: I think the argument is that schools are failing. Schools need help because they’re dominated by bureaucracies that have grown large and unresponsive and are for the most part uncontrollable except by self-interested employees, primarily teachers, and because they suck up an awful lot of money. Schools are not capable of becoming reformed, because they don’t have to face the same sort of competition as corporations. They’re neither lean nor efficient, nor do they have the same kind of expertise corporations have, and therefore it would be a mistake from a public policy point of view to invest a lot of money in the schools. They’ll take as much money as you give them and won’t produce any discernible improvement in their outcome. That’s the argument.
DJ: Do you accept these starting assumptions?
AM: I think they’re largely false. It’s not that you can’t make the argument or bring evidence to bear, but on balance the argument isn’t really sustainable.
DJ: But we hear all the time on the news that the public school system is terrible. Is that a whole-cloth fabrication, or is there a germ of truth?
AM: Of course there’s a germ of truth, because effective propaganda never lies. It only omits. There has to be enough resonance in the argument with enough people for them to believe it. In this case it creates some crazy disjunctions, though, because national polls show that Americans, having heard again and again this rhetoric of crisis, are concerned about education. But when you ask these same people about the schools in their own communities, they generally like them. That suggests to me that people are prepared to believe that the schools they don’t know about are terrible, but that the schools they do know about are pretty darn good. They don’t usually want any significant messing around with them. Now, they’re prepared to believe that corporations can help, especially for all those other schools out there across the country, but most of them don’t want corporations controlling or dominating their own schools.
You asked about the germ of truth. Sure, some schools are falling down. Class sizes are large in many schools. There are children who come to schools who sometimes have weapons with them. Each of these statements has a face validity. But there are very different ways you can go about addressing these problems. I think it’s fair to say that if a school has a leaky roof, it’s not an ideological issue: you’ve got to get the money to fix the roof. If the toilets don’t flush, you don’t require the CEO of a large corporation to tell you to fix the toilet. You need money. You also need money for supplies, you need money to buy equipment, you need money to buy curriculum materials, you need money to provide programs, and you have to pay the people who work in the schools, because even the Catholic schools—which are struggling because they can’t get the free labor in the form of nuns that they used to have access to thirty or forty years ago—are often in deep financial trouble. So yes, there are problems in schools.
What’s remarkable about American public schools, though, is that they’re probably performing better than any other sector in this society. The fact is that the achievement scores for the poorest students and minority students tend to be going up. Not only that, they’re going up even faster than performances for other students.
Test results in the US are often compared unfavorably to those of many other countries. These comparisons are fatally flawed. When we talk about education we really should consider the United States as fifty separate countries, because in fact the US doesn’t have a national system of education. So we should disaggregate the data and compare, say Minnesota, to country X, and then we should compare Mississippi to that same country. What you find when you do this is not surprising at all: the states that have invested very little in their public education systems and that have widespread poverty are doing so poorly that they skew the results for the whole country. In this big, diverse country we have a system of education which has allowed the wealthiest families and their children to get the most public benefit in their public schools where they live. That’s exactly the reverse of the educational system in a place like Sweden, where the children and the families who need the most support get the most support. The government spends more money on those children than on the other children, and they consider that to be just.
There are all kinds of problems with the underlying rhetoric of crisis that seems to pervade media coverage of education issues. Nobody’s ever tried, really, all out, to do the kinds of things that are fairly obvious that need to be done in public education, in part because public education is such a fragmented, loosely joined system in the United States. While that looseness has some virtues, it raises real problems as well, such as the disparity in quality of public schooling between, to use the same example, Mississippi and Minnesota.
DJ: Let’s get back to the argument that corporations should be in schools. How are corporations supposed to help?
AM: First, they have expertise. . . .
DJ: As in having an Exxon scientist explain oil spills, or a Plum Creek forester explain clearcuts?
AM: Expertise in the form of mentors. Expertise in the form of technology. Expertise in the form of curriculum knowledge. "Let us teach your teachers what they need to know in order to teach this subject. Let us help your students learn to read. Let us consult with you about the technology programs you have. Let us help you figure out an administrative style capable of helping build a bridge to the next century." This argument is advanced in almost any form imaginable.
So they have expertise. They have resources. And they have a need. They say, "We’re going to need well-trained workers if we’re going to compete effectively globally."
Now, at the same time corporations are extending this helping hand many of these same corporations are arguing vociferously for tax incremental financing, industrial revenue bonding, and reduced corporate taxes, all of which make it more and more difficult for schools to raise the resources they need to provide the kinds of programs business says it wants.
They want it both ways. If you look at the rhetoric surrounding job training, vocational education, or any of the other sort of school-to-work programs, you consistently see corporations attempting to socialize the cost of training their workers. What is conveniently omitted from the debate—remember that effective propaganda needs to not lie but to omit—is what Germany does, for example: tax corporations for vocational training. Either the corporation provides it at its own expense, or it reimburses the government for those school costs.
DJ: You said corporations want it both ways. Want what?
AM: Corporations want the expenses of education to be borne by someone else (which means these hard-core free-market capitalists want the cost of public education to be socialized), and at the same time they want to exert a lot of influence over the way schools work, and how different subjects are taught.
DJ: Which means education provides a perfect case study of how the whole corporate economy works, which is to privatize profits and . . .
AM: . . . socialize risks and costs.
DJ: Stepping aside from the rhetoric, what are some of the real-world effects of corporations in schools.
AM: An interesting development over the last twenty or so years in the corporate school-reform argument is that increasingly obviously self-serving activities are viewed as appropriate and okay in schools. Most specifically schools are now being integrated into the marketing mechanisms of our advanced capitalist society. School marketing programs have become very much a part of many corporations’ plans to promote the sales of their products.
Examples of this are sometimes as grotesque as when Tootsie Roll provided a lesson for teachers to implement in their classroom about "the sweet taste of success." It purports to teach children history, but the real purpose is obvious. Unfortunately that’s not a solitary example. There’s the Prego science lesson where kids are supposed to compare the thickness of Prego to the thickness of Ragu, and there’s the lesson that talks about the nutritional value of chocolate. There’s a lesson plan that purports to teach children about math using potato chips, and one that pretends to teach them about geothermic phenomenon by asking kids to put "Gushers" fruit snacks into their mouths.
DJ: How do parents respond to this?
AM: I got a letter from a grandfather in Michigan today, with a whole big sheaf of examples from his school that he was concerned about. He said he was frustrated because in his community, raising these concerns was greeted largely with indifference.
One of the problems is that while these so-called lessons are absurd, they’re not unique. Advertisers are doing whatever they can to get into schools. In some ways kids are pretty hard to aggregate for advertising, except in schools. That’s because they’re all over the place. So the goal of these advertisers is to dominate all of the channels of access to these kids in order to promote their products.
Many companies have integrated multi-media tie-in campaigns with magazines that they own, and use school-based advertising to accomplish this. Take one large firm, Prime Media, which owns My Weekly Reader, Seventeen Magazine, Lifetime Learning Systems, Channel One, and so on. They can do the equivalent of what happens during blockbuster movie releases. And they can do it right inside the schools.
Another sort of program that has recently been launched is called Zap Me. The Zap Me corporation provides a school with a computer lab containing fairly advanced computers loaded with Microsoft software. You can’t load anything else on their computers. It’s not allowed. It’s got a sophisticated web-browser with enough bandwidth to pull down full-motion images so you can look at it like a tv monitor. They have what they call a netspace, which is an intranet, which corporations pay to provide content for. Obviously the corporations which pay for content are going to control it, which means you might very well get Exxon’s version of science. Kids can get through to the internet on this browser, but they need their parents’ permission to do so. Zap Me bills this restriction of access as a good thing, but I’m not sure that I would lable corporate control of children’s access to information very good at all.
Schools get the Zap Me labs for no upfront cost, but they have to agree that children will be using it so many hours a day. And guess what? The browser portal has advertising on it. This means you have kids whose ability to do their schoolwork is contingent on their witnessing advertising. If a teacher makes an assignment requiring the child use a Zap Me browser, the teacher is requiring the child to watch commercials. If a child refuses to watch these commercials, her or his academic future will be imperiled.
Another condition of the Zap Me program is that the school has to provide access to this computer lab during non-school hours. And Zap Me is partners with Sylvan Learning. So Sylvan Learning will be able to use a public facility for free to put on its for-profit programs inside of this Zap Me lab.
The bottom line of a program like this is that you’re reforming schools by selling your children to advertisers. And that is the wave of the future.
DJ: I don’t know whether that makes me more scared, angry, or sad.
AM: Why must it do one thing? It’s all those things.
DJ: I used to teach at Eastern Washington University, and the first thing I would do every quarter is rip down all the advertising on the walls of the classroom. In no way was it acceptable for anyone to force my students to look at advertising.
AM: But it is acceptable now. It’s acceptable in many communities. But it’s actually much worse than just that. Not only is it forcing people to look at advertisements, it’s promoting products and services that are harmful. A Louisiana State University researcher found recently that about 25 percent of the vegetables that children consume are in the form of french fries and potato chips. Twenty-five percent. We have an enormous problem with childhood obesity in this country. And of course the products that are most heavily promoted in advertising in the schools are personal care items, expensive apparel, and junk food. These kids are forced to watch ads for products that will literally harm them.
DJ: What if teachers refuse to participate?
AM: Teachers can’t actually refuse to participate in a program like Channel One. The school has to sign a contract saying that approximately ninety percent of the children will be watching ninety percent of the time. It’s not an option. It’s on in the classroom.
DJ: I might not last, but if I were a teacher at a school where that was used, I would turn it off.
AM: Actually, there was a case in Michigan when Channel One was first introduced where a science teacher was disciplined for refusing to turn it on in his class. A lot of schools now apparently get around this by saying, "Well, we show it in homeroom, so nobody’s watching." The logic is laughable: we need to have this program because of its educational value, so we show it at a time when nobody watches. That’s the sort of doublethink frequently associated with these programs, because you have educators whose public position must be that they care about children, and that they make wise choices about what will be taught, yet who at the same time are rolling right over for these programs.
DJ: In The Construction of Children’s Character you mentioned a number I hadn’t seen before that’s pretty horrifying, which is that we’re exposed to approximately 16,000 ads per day.
AM: The data are hard to get, and it depends on what you use for references, but if you count them all, from the side of the school bus to the logo on the coffee mug, that’s as good an estimate as any about how many you’re hit by.
DJ: All of this reminds me of the difference between the roots of the words inculcation and education. Inculcation comes from in-culcare, which means to stamp in with the heel, and education comes from e-ducere, which is to lead forth or draw out, and originally it was a Greek midwife’s term meaning to be present at the birth of. To force kids to watch advertisements is not "to be present at the birth of." Or is it? But if so, what are we birthing?
AM: Advertising is propaganda. The purpose of advertising is not to serve the children. We need to always ask: Who pays for the advertising and to what end? Advertisers don’t pay so they can enhance the quality of life of children and their families. They pay in order to enrich themselves. And they then argue that by enriching themselves in the same process the childrens’ quality of life will improve.
DJ: What do you think is the purpose of education as it exists?
AM: For the individual, education has never been just one thing. Maybe for some, education is romantic, in a Roussouan sense: "Education is going to liberate me. It’s going to provide for my intellectual, emotional, and physical development. It’s going to make me more myself." Or maybe education is completely utilitarian: "I’m taking these courses and these credits for that certification so I can get that job." For some people education as they experience it is nothing: "It’s something I have to endure. I have to be in this school, and I don’t know why the hell it’s here. I have nowhere else to be."
On the social level, to the extent that schooling reflects the historical evolution of this country’s revolutionary ideals, education has always been fundamentally about civil society in a democracy, recreating that civil society and allowing it to evolve in healthy ways. The debate has generally been concerned with how we can best achieve that goal.
The debate over American public education has always been contentious, and I think it must always be so. Education as an institution in our society is one of the primary things we argue about, and that arguing is one of the things that as a society keeps us together. We argue about schools and school content, and the nature of instruction, and whether children should be in school and for how long and in what kinds of schools. Arguments over education have always been bound up in arguments over the nature of our state and our democracy.
To be honest, I’m glad we quarrel as much as we do over education. We wouldn’t get so hot about it if it weren’t so central to our lives. And if we didn’t care. But education isn’t something we can relegate to the margins of our lives or our discourse. We can’t say: "Well, they care about education but I don’t." We should argue about education. It’s worth arguing about.
All that said, the focus of schooling in this country has varied considerably over time. Sometimes the focus has been on the civic responsibility of schools, in Benjamin Rush’s terms, who was a revolutionary-period writer, to create republican machines. If you can imagine such a thing. Sometimes the economic aspects are primary. Sometimes considerable attention is given to the role of schools in promoting the development of the individual.
Right now we’re obviously at a point in our culture where the boundary between private and public has been seriously eroded, that is, the distinction between the market and democracy has faded away. Within that cultural context, it’s very very difficult for schools not to become captives to an assumption that the purpose of education therefore is to serve the market. This happens in many ways, for example in the form of providing employees, consumers, or various kinds of technical support.
Let me put this another way. What we’re now seeing is the collapsing of the private and economic rationales for schools on the one hand with the public and civic rationales on the other, so that the market and democracy are now largely regarded as the same. Within this strange cultural environment, consumer choice has come to be seen as the same as democratic freedom. Going shopping is the same as democratic participation. Being a well-trained worker for a corporation is the same as being an effective citizen. And schools are very much caught up in this because schools as themselves don’t control their environment. They are, as they must be, responsive to their environment. They are not and never will be the institutions which directly control events on the ground. The impact of schools is instead manifold, diffuse, and exists over a long time.
Now, at last to your question of what we are birthing by this relentless commercialization. A 1993 study of two pairs of Michigan high school revealed that students who watched Channel One were more likely than other students to agree with the statements: "Money is everything," "a nice car is more important than school," "designer labels make a difference," and "wealthy peple are happier than the poor."
I think that what we are birthing—because all of this advertising cannot but have an effect—is children who believe that life is defined and your value is understood in relation to what you possess, and that if you’re lonely it can be cured with a trip to the shopping mall. If you’re sad, it can be cured with a purchase. If you’re not attractive, it can be cured with a beer. If you think you’re not sexy, or if you think you need to be sexy—and my God, you certainly need to be sexy, because that’s a very important message right there—you’ve got to just buy another shampoo and you can have orgasms in your shower. I’m not exaggerating: I watched a commercial for a shampoo that featured a woman having an orgasm in a produce section of a supermarket, clutching a shampoo.
We are birthing children who have a mystical belief in the power of things, as opposed to some kind of a real and genuine understanding of how to develop and nurture the connections to other human beings that provide them with some kind of a satisfying life, that give them some hope of love, that give them some opportunity to contribute and be cared about, that affirm them and encourage their talents, and support them in a variety of ways when there’s nothing else there that can. Instead, these students are encouraged to buy a car, buy a hamburger, buy a soft drink, buy a beer, buy almost anything. What it is doesn’t matter. But buy, consume, at all costs. And go into debt to do it. The American Association of University Women and Consumers Federation of America have both released studies in the last year suggesting that consumer debt is impeding young peoples’ ability to go to college now. It’s not surprising that so many young people are in so much debt, because they’re encouraged to believe that not only are they entitled to instant gratification—whatever that may be—but they need not even literally afford it. They can just take it. They can charge it.
I can’t help but feel that one of the other potent by-products of this whole process is an invitation to be cynical. If the responsible adults in your school are willing to sell you to a bottling company to make a few bucks on an exclusive bottling agreement—bucks that come right out of your pocket—and are willing to encourage you to drink soft drinks, which may displace healthier products like fruit juices, water, whatever, why on earth would you go to these people for moral counselling, ethical guidance, or even trust that what they tell you about anything isn’t going to be canted in some way for some other interest, because it was expedient for them to do that? I’m not sure that a seventh grader or a tenth grader will necessarily be able to articulate what I just said, but I don’t think that’s important. It’s in the air. If you experience enough cynical transactions in relation to yourself around you, you don’t even have to know what the word cynical means before you adopt a cynical view of the world. That’s why I think among many young people irony is the steady emotional state. And utlimately I think that irony is just a reflection of the underlying cynicism that we adults have visited on our children by our monumental hypocrisy.
DJ: Let’s move to a different topic. Vouchers seem to be all the rage these days.
DJ: Are they just another form of corporate welfare, another way to give the public’s money to the rich, in this case the owners of private schools, or is there something else going on? It seems that everybody says they’re great nowadays.
AM: Everybody doesn’t say that.
DJ: Everybody in the corporate media. I hear often. . . .
AM: There has been an awful lot of money spent to buy that public opinion. But it is at the moment a contested elite opinion, and as I say, primarily purchased. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent to promote that view.
DJ: By whom?
AM: Lots of different folks. The Bradley Foundation, just down the street here in Milwaukee, has spent I don’t know how many million dollars to create the infrastructure of political support necessary to make the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program look like something it’s not. A whole array of ideological forces have gathered around vouchers. The voucher coalition includes hard-right neoconservatives, the Catholic Church (which has an immense stake in this), and to some extent some spokespeople (or people who at least claim they are spokespeople) for impoverished communities of color, who say public school systems, particularly in large urban areas, haven’t served poor children and children of color very well at all.
But vouchers is really an attempt to create a market in education, that is, to establish a foundation grant (of public money) and allow parents to use that foundation grant to buy whatever educational services might be available. The theory behind it is that just as in the private economy, different market sectors will open up to provide different services for people who have different amounts of money to spend. Already, different people shop at Walmart than at Bloomingdale’s. The theory is that the same will happen in schools. You’ll find clever entrepreneurs offering educational products which consumers with different amounts of money can purchase. The state will provide the same amount of money for every child, but of course parents who have more would be free to supplement the state voucher, so they could get a different educational product.
At least in my judgment, this represents a direct flight from the governmental responsibility to promote equity in its institutions and in its policies and practices. It can mean no other, because equity is not a consideration in the market perspective. Think for a moment about cars. One person might buy a chevy, another might buy a mercedes, and a third might be unable to afford a car at all. Clearly that’s inequitable, but most people would say, "So what?" They would say that’s not overwhelmingly socially destructive. But you can’t apply that same logic to something that is so basic as is education to the opportunities that one receives in our society, and to the ability to participate fully in our civic life. It’s absurd.
Aside from that, vouchers would be fantastically expensive. About one in every seven children in Wisconsin is already in a private school of some sort, so if you had a full-scale voucher program available to every child, the choice would either be for Wisconsin to increase education spending by half a billion dollars just to maintain the status quo, or to take that half a billion out of the pockets of the children who currently attend public schools and put it in the pockets of those who attend private schools.
Another major problem with vouchers is that because most of the private schools in the United States are sectarian, it means tax moneys would be used to promote religion. It means that the government would use the police power of the state, and its taxing authority, to reach into my pocket, and use that money to promote Catholicism, Islam, Judaism. I don’t want that.
I’m not sure that even the people who send their children to sectarian schools are wise to want that either. Even though the political climate in the United States is currently somewhat sympathetic to vouchers, it’s still very contested. And it’s pretty much guaranteed that at some point that climate will shift from whatever it is now to something else, and at that point, there would be the very real possibility that the state will start to regulate religious schools. It’s not at all unreasonable to expect that if tax dollars come, regulation is likely to follow. If I were a person who wanted my children to attend a religious school I’d be damned concerned about that.
DJ: Could anybody get vouchers? If I had a kid, and I wanted my child to attend a green anarchist school, could I then give the voucher to my friend who runs, say, the Emma Goldman Academy of Anti-Forestry?
AM: Sure. Everyone could open a school. The green anarchists. The neonazis. The racists. The Orthodox Jews. The mystical Catholics. The atheists. Anybody who wants to. And at the end of the day, what’s left that we all have in common? Where do we have to fight with one another? Probably in the streets.
One of the beauties of public education is that you have to engage people who aren’t necessarily like you, and figure out ways to manage those differences within the acceptable bounds of civil society. If you say that all groups, regardless of their interest, can withdraw to their respective niches, put the gates around their views, arm themselves to the teeth with their own views, and never have to engage anyone else, what have we got left to call civil society?
DJ: Do you see that as one of the primary pitfalls of vouchers?
AM: There are a lot of pitfalls with vouchers. One is that they’re a direct blow to the idea of educational equity. They substitute the market for the political idea of what schools are about. Secondly, they’re enormously expensive. And they are potentially devastating to the idea of schools as a kind of platform for civic engagement. They’re inimical to that. They don’t go there. And they represent the triumph of the market over democracy. Even by calling it school choice, it becomes the perfect example of what we were talking about earlier, the replacement of political choice with shopping mall choice.
DJ: I like what you’re saying, but there’s something here that bothers me. Say, once again, I did have a child, and I was aghast at the notion that this child was going to have to listen to Channel One everyday, and was going to be bombarded with lesson plans put together by Weyerheuser, WMX, or Coca-Cola. Why shouldn’t I be able to get vouchers so I can send my child to a commercial-free school?
AM: What you want is something cheap and easy, and what I’m saying is that in this life, nothing is cheap and easy. If you don’t like your child witnessing Channel One, then get yourself into that school board and demand that your child not have to watch Channel One. Make your arguments. Engage in the debate. Mobilize your community. Talk to your neighbors. That’s what we do in a democracy. And you know what? You might lose. But so what? Being in a democracy doesn’t mean you win. Being in a democracy means you have the right to struggle. And I think a lot of people have forgotten that.
DJ: So vouchers then represents in some ways a giving up on democracy. It’s about pulling up the drawbridge to hang out inside my ideological castle.
AM: I’ll talk to people who think like me, and people who look like me. People who don’t hassle me, because we all know that we’re right.
DJ: Different subject. I also hear a lot about "charter schools," and I’m never sure what that means.
AM: Charter schools are very interesting, because at first glance they seem a very sunny reform. They’ve got wonderful rhetoric associated with them, which is that they are basically mom and pop schools, created by reformers, teachers, parents, other people concerned with serious experimentation in education, providing options for children that don’t currently exist.
But underneath all of that you can see that the real mechanics of this reform—the pistons and driveshaft—consists of the for-profit sector, and of people who want to dismantle and privatize public education. That’s being borne out more and more every day, as you see an increasing number of children being educated in for-profit schools, and as you see a whole host of unregulated schools out there with performances which are not closely scrutinized, and which are largely outside the bounds of public accountability. All of this is the case, even even though this reform is sold as a one that increases accountability. Why isn’t accountability in place? In part because the charter contacts tend to be vaguely drawn, poorly enforced, and have provisions which are so sparse or convoluted you wouldn’t know how to enforce them if you tried.
The whole body of my work is about commercialism, and for me charter schools represent the commercialization of education into a product—an institutional product—called in this case a charter school, which is sold to the public by a corporation seeking to make a profit on the sale.
DJ: How do charter schools work? What exactly is a charter school?
AM: It depends who you ask, but most basically a charter school is a school that is given its right to operate by a chartering entity. . . .
DJ: A public school?
AM: Depends who you ask. Charter proponents make a great show of saying that charter schools are public schools. In my view that depends on which state you’re talking about, because the legislation varies considerably from state to state. And I would also call them generally a kind of strange public/private mix. Is a charter school run by a for-profit corporation whose books are not open to public scrutiny a public school? I don’t think so, but it’s receiving public money.
A charter is a contract, and states give certain entities within the state the authority to draft these contracts, to enter into these agreements. . . .
DJ: I realize I’m using loaded words here, but is it like a private prison? Some prisons are run by the state, but there are now prisons run by private for-profit corporations. Is it the same deal here?
AM: It doesn’t have to be. Charter schools don’t have to be for-profit. There are some states that prohibit for-profits from running charter schools. At its most basic a charter is a contract, and the contract is between the operator of the charter school—which might be a community organization, a nonprofit group, a collective of teachers and parents, a for-profit firm—and the chartering agency. The contract sets forth the terms under which that school will operate, and what the expectations of the school will be. And that is the so-called accountability that the charter school faces. In return for accepting that contractual accountability, the charter school is largely free of all of the regulations that govern all of the other public schools.
DJ: Does that mean they don’t have a democratically-elected schoolboard?
AM: It could mean that. In some states only school boards can charter schools. In other states, universities can charter them, school boards can charter them, other school districts can charter them, there’s a state agency that can charter them. So it really depends on which state we’re talking about. Does a for-profit firm like Sabis Learning Systems have a school board? If they’re chartered by Central Michigan University, why would they? So they’re responsible to their chartering agency.
DJ: This makes me nervous. Corporations are chartered, and at some point in the remote past they were at least nominally held accountable to that charter. By now the chartering process has become meaningless. Will that happen with charter schools?
AM: We don’t have to wait. The evidence already is that the chartering process is largely meaningless. Charters aren’t revoked and contracts are neither monitored nor even enforced. Because there isn’t the money to do it. You have to create a public bureaucracy to do this, and we don’t have the money.
DJ: I just read about a school in Oakland run on a market-based theme. Children are given phony money to rent their desks and presumably pay their teachers. Students were paid to clean the board. The whole place was about entering the wage economy.
AM: With all these market-based choice mechanisms in place, why would you be surprised to get something like that? You could get weird amalgams. You could have market-based religious practices, where people actually worship money. They could kneel and face Wall Street every morning, every noon, and every evening.
DJ: It seems pretty clear to me that money is a major problem, not simply in the worship of it, but also in terms of funding. Do you believe that whatever problems there may be in schools could be resolved simply by funding schools better?
AM: Some schools are funded just fine. There are beautiful public schools with plenty of resources in affluent communities. But funding schools more equitably, and more adequately, would go a long way toward addressing many of the problems people say they’re concerned with. I wouldn’t stop there. Once you’ve got the money, I think it’s fair to ask how it will be spent. And we need to talk about that. But right now the debate is largely dominated by a discussion of reforms that don’t have anything to do with improving education. What’s the education program of a voucher proposal? Charter schools? These are administrative reforms. Basically they are saying, "We don’t know what to do, so let anybody do anything they want."
DJ: When I think about school problems, I can’t help but think of the obscene military budgets.
AM: Really, if we’re going to adequately fund any social institution in this country, there’s no way around rewriting the tax code. It’s as simple as that. You have to take money away from people who have more, and you have to spend it on programs that benefit people who have less. It’s not elegant, it’s just simply fair. And that’s something we’ve gotten away from. Wildly far away, to look at the latest figures on the amount of wealth controlled by the top one percent of the population as opposed to the bottom forty percent. You cannot address the problems in schools without changing the way money is raised and spent in this country.
DJ: It seems that schools are flashpoints for many of the problems in our culture.
AM: That’s one of the things that attracts me to education. It’s a flashpoint for so much. The environment: right now there’s an enormous effort on the part of many corporations and conservative foundations to wage a campaign against environmental education in the schools. Advertising. Health. Democracy. Consumerism. But I think if I had to choose a single question crystallized by our current system of schooling, it would be this: Is democratic civil society still possible in a culture that is suffocating under the weight of its own consumption? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about what our schools—and our whole society—will look like into the forseeable future.
Originally published in the November 2000 issue of The SunFiled in Interviews by Derrick Jensen