Dismantling Public Education
Georgia Is a Leader in School Privatization Efforts
Our state legislators are at the vanguard of a national, corporate-backed campaign to bring about a for-profit education system.
Education legislation in the Georgia General Assembly probably seems like a snooze: arcane and obscure to voters with school-age children and inconsequential to those without. But the recently concluded legislative session’s education debates made the Gold Dome a key battleground in what can be called without hyperbole a revolution extending beyond education and threatening to radically reshape American life. Here’s where things stand now that the dust has settled on the 2012 legislative session.
ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council—is a network of conservative state legislators, corporations and Friedmanite free-market ideologues which provides the means by which corporations write legislative templates for lawmakers to deliver to their statehouse floors. A set of legislative initiatives by ALEC-affiliated Georgia politicians is the tip of the spear for the corporatization and Wall Street-ization of education in the United States. The fight was conducted on two fronts: voucher-based privatization schemes and the weakening of the existing public system by way of charter schools, the two linchpins of ALEC’s education strategy.
The templates—or “model legislation,” in ALEC parlance—focus on destroying unions, deregulating banks and corporations, and privatizing state assets and functions, like prisons and education. To corporations and Wall Street capital firms, the American education system looks like 50 million potential paying customers, more commonly known as “children” to the rest of us. As with other states, education makes up the largest outlay in the Georgia budget, nearly tripling the state’s next closest expenditure. To make each school a for-profit business would deliver those millions of students and parents as legally compelled customers to education corporations. The Walton family and the Walmart Corporation’s investment in school privatization advocacy—to the tune of tens of millions of dollars—suggests that the world’s largest retailer might have an interest in entering what would be the country’s largest growth industry: the for-profit operation of schools after the public school system is dismantled.
In February, ALEC hosted a secretive “education academy” at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island, FL, inviting hundreds of state lawmakers and footing the bill. It appears that the meeting was to dictate marching orders for proceeding in the ongoing project to privatize American education. Though the press was effectively barred from the conference and little information has leaked out, one assumes that the several Georgia legislators in ALEC’s leadership were in attendance, especially considering that key ALEC education legislation in the state—bills with ALEC legislators’ names printed on top as sponsors—started seeing action around the time of the posh retreat.
For the past decade or so, Georgia has served as a crucial battleground in the privatization fight. Introduced just ahead of the education conference was ALEC’s education “report card,” in which each state legislature is scored for its willingness to push for charter schools and privatization. Only three states performed better than Georgia. Former state Senator Eric Johnson (R–Savannah), who led the charge on privatization until leaving office in 2009, boasts that Georgia is “leading in the country” in the expansion of corporate educational options. ALEC has nabbed Rep. Jan Jones (R–Alpharetta) for its Education Task Force and Rep. David Casas (R–Lilburn) was chosen as the task force’s national co-chair (a corporate executive always shares the ALEC chairmanship). Both Jones and Casas serve on the Georgia House Education Committee.
Newly appointed to ALEC’s board of directors, state Senator Chip Rogers (R–Woodstock) attempted to radically expand the 2007 ALEC-written school voucher program for “special needs” students. Gunning for rookie-sensation status with his new corporate friends, Rogers combined a number of bills from ALEC’s wish list into a single amendment to the existing law, which would bring Georgia considerably closer to a state-wide voucher system. To that end, Rogers’ bill proposed to change the name of the law, from the narrow “Special Needs Scholarship Act” to ALEC-speak for universal vouchers: the "Georgia Educational Freedom Act."
School vouchers (or “scholarships,” as they’re often called now) are the means by which the per-pupil outlay for public schooling is permitted to be used for private schools. If a student chooses to go to a for-profit school, the state would, under the Educational Freedom Act, divert the money formerly dedicated to the student’s public education to the private business. The per-pupil state expenditure in Georgia is around $9,000. Wealthier parents could use that amount as a subsidy for their children to attend a more expensive school, with a sector of bargain schools emerging to operate on the minimum amount. ALEC anticipates a tipping point somewhere in the process, at which the exodus of children from public schools breaks the ability of the public system to work, and the for-profit system steps in to assume control of the entire education apparatus. Fortunately, enough Georgians see vouchers as too radical, and ALEC legislators have struggled with even the incremental steps toward a full voucher system. Rogers’ bill fell in the House.
Rep. Jan Jones’ HR 1162, however, marked a success for the charter school path to privatization. After facing a state Supreme Court defeat of an ALEC-written 2008 charter school law last May, Republicans muscled a constitutional amendment onto November’s ballot which would, upon voter approval, effectively annul the Court’s decision and allow an unelected body, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission (GCSC), to grant charter school authorizations over the objections of local school boards.
Charter schools are quasi-public schools that operate outside of the local school system. The schools are, in many instances, operated by businesses, and they are seen by both opponents and proponents as an intermediary between a public system and a fully privatized education market. Charter schools operated by private capital have been known to secede from public systems once they’re authorized by bodies like the GCSC.
It’s not surprising, then, that the ALEC Education Task Force’s industry co-chair is an executive of Connections Academy, a company which makes money both in charter-style public schools and fully for-profit private schools. Until it was bought by a global conglomerate in the fall, Connections was an asset of Apollo Global Management, LLC, a New York private equity firm much like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital.
Just behind the focus-grouped rhetoric of “school choice” and “freedom” is a whole network of capital and the most extreme of free market ideology. Before the ALEC privatization initiative was struck down by the Supreme Court in May, the GCSC was chaired by Dr. Ben Scafidi, who serves as a fellow at the the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, founded by economist Milton Friedman and billed as “the nation’s leading voucher advocate.” Friedman maintained that “vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system." It was Friedman who used the Washington-backed 1973 coup in Chile to force privatization of that country’s education system. Riotous protests now fill Chile’s streets, with students decrying the economic “segregation” of the world’s first privatized system. “Segregation” is an apt term, as Friedman’s 1981 privatization plan for Chile was initially incubated in the Jim Crow South in response to Brown v. Board of Education.
In 2012, school privatization is less a matter of race than of economic power. And the implementation of a capitalist caste system, in which sorting by wealth begins at the kindergarten door, is nowhere more advanced than in the Georgia legislature. HR 1162 is “just the first battle won in the war," says Tony Roberts, CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. State Senator Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) warns that “our limping schools systems will be financially decimated when we redirect funding to these barely public charter schools—schools that create a parallel school system… What they have proven in the debate of HR 1162 is that the State Capitol is for sale.”
When the State is sold, we become customers, not citizens. The same forces that ship jobs overseas and create financial industry cataclysms replace democratic governance. And Georgia Republicans, in service of their corporate directors, have determined that children and their futures are the frail canaries we send into that dark unknown.