Everything you need to know about Jeb Bush's dangerous education agenda

The presumptive GOP frontrunner thinks privatization is a cure-all. In truth, that idea couldn't be more dangerous

Published June 17, 2015 2:59PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

“There’s nothing else as large in all of society. Not the military—nothing—is bigger.”

That’s how Randy Best, Jeb Bush’s business partner, sees public education, as an untapped market where untold billions are to be made when kids and their families become educational customers. Touting his impressive assault on public education while Florida governor in yesterday’s announcement of his 2016 candidacy, Bush may become the loudest proponent yet of turning public education into a for-profit enterprise.

Before getting into Bush’s record and financial interests in for-profit education, a full understanding of the dystopian horrors of for-profit, privatized education is necessary. Bush offers it with a handful of Milton Friedman-esque catchwords and focus-grouped slogans, and it may be that the proposals sound innocuous and vaguely innovative until the slightest scrutiny is applied to the ideas -- at which point, it’s difficult to imagine much worse than public education turned into a for-profit market. Because the most basic and collectively understood truisms about markets, when applied to children, take on a horrifying character.

First off, most businesses close. Something like 8 in 10 businesses close within 18 months. It’s an inconvenience when I drive up to a business to find it’s closed its doors. It’s a whole different situation if I’m an eight-year-old with my backpack on and that’s my school—and it’s the middle of the school year, like it was for students of a Dallas charter school in January of this year.

But a for-profit, competitive market works that way, always has. Mom and pops close, medium-sized firms close, automakers go bankrupt—that’s how capitalism works. That’s what the competitive market makes: a vast, bloody battlefield of losers laid out behind the much fewer winners.

The number of vanquished products and companies in the wake of Apple’s success is the way we get the cool stuff Apple makes. Everyone competed and most businesses lost, they closed. That’s the market. But kids weren’t involved in those defeats (unless you count Chinese child laborers), and finding my technology to be obsolete is not the same as second graders being told they have to go to another school now.

Part of what produces that instability is the differentiation that occurs in a market. Product A wins over product B, in a perfect market, because of competitive differentiation. That means a Ford transmission doesn't work in a Mercedes, and that Hulu has programming that Netflix doesn't have, and vice versa. But what happens when education corporation A teaches geometry in an earlier grade, and a new customer (i.e., a child) transfers from a shuttered school that hadn't yet covered geometry? Corporation A is offering what it presents as a better product than its competitors: earlier geometry. But its vanquished competitor’s students are now without geometry if they choose (or have to choose, per availability) it as their new education corporation.

What if a fourth grader’s school closes and she's missed fractions and long division because that’s how her former company distinguished itself, with a unique schedule for mathematics? Or even worse, what if her new school teaches reading in an entirely different way (phonics versus whole language) than the corporation where her family had been buying her education before?

Then there’s the severe differentiation in the quality of products offered by firms in a large market, as a privatized education market would be. Some Americans dine at the finest of restaurants, while some subsist on dollar menu fast food fare. Some Americans clothes are hand tailored, some wear what they can afford at Walmart.

It’s hard to imagine in a fully privatized market that big that there wouldn’t be the Walmart equivalent of a school (especially since the Walton family has put hundreds of millions of dollars toward charter and privatization groups). The academic equivalent of cheap, Chinese-made crap, produced and sold by people not paid enough to care, will be called "education" and sold to families. In fact, the company Bush joined and invested in with Randy Best, albeit a college-level privatization effort, has been denied contracts because of suspicions that it’s only a “diploma mill”—that is, a place that sells things called “diplomas” but which are reduced of value because they’re sold to anyone with enough money.

And this is what Bush and the rest of the “school choice” crusaders are steering us towards, the replacement of public education with for-profit, market-directed education.

During his eight years as governor, Jeb Bush was a leader in dismantling public education. Detailed in a January New Yorker article by Alec MacGillis, Bush’s push for for-profit education has been the former governor’s passion, and those looking to profit on children will likely fall in behind him as presidential candidate. By all accounts, Bush appears to truly believe that the sort of reform he advocates is the answer to a flagging American education system. But his genuine passion and conviction doesn’t mean his “solution” isn’t dangerous. (Likewise, his brother may have genuinely believed that Saddam Hussein was a WMD-bearing chum of bin Laden’s, but we see where that got us.)

After leaving office, Bush teamed up with Best in 2011 to be paid spokesperson for and investor (to an unspecified degree) in Best’s Academic Partnerships, a firm that focuses on higher education and is said to glean as much as much as 70 percent of students’ tuitions paid to public university by routing their education through Academic Partnership’s online product. The company has been criticized for leeching public universities in the way that charter school firms and privatized academic corporations siphon public money away from K-12 schooling.

Bush announced his departure as paid spokesperson in the lead-up to his presidential candidacy.

In his campaign announcement speech on Monday, Bush touted his success in Florida and spoke in language of school “choice,” the key word that proponents of privatization and profitization use to describe their plan’s benefits.

“When a school is just another dead end, every parent should have the right to send their child to a better school – public, private, or charter,” he said.

Beginning with the recent unrest in Baltimore, Bush presented his school choice plan as an answer to poverty, especially black and urban poverty.

“Think of what we all watched not long ago in Baltimore where so many young adults are walking around with no vision of a life beyond the life they know.”

They weren’t just “walking around” in Baltimore, by the way. They were reacting to decades of injustices, but Bush wanted to insist that charter schools would fix that right up. He brings it out like a cure-all panacea. Let’s just let corporations and their Wall Street investors run the schools! Racism is gone, poverty is only a memory, and we’re all now super-educated.

The first charter school created by Bush in Florida was founded with the intent to address an underperforming largely black school district in Miami. There’s no denying that black-majority schools are often weaker than their white counterparts, but to posit that dismantling the public education system is the silver bullet to fix hundreds of years of racism’s effects demonstrates a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of how racism is a societal ill that exists outside of school walls as well as inside them. What happens to black students before and after class, before they enroll in kindergarten and after high school—this is where racism’s effects act as well, and inviting a company to run a black school is unlikely to finally bring about racial justice.

Plus, public school funding mechanisms are to blame. Less than 10 cents of every education dollar comes from the federal government, and more than a third comes from local property taxes. If you’re a student in a poor urban environment without a base of valuable properties, you’re school will be considerably less-funded than wealthy schools. And a few centuries of racism have left us with many black Americans living in impoverished city centers with weak property tax bases.

It seems that a simple adjustment of this funding scheme would go a long way toward effecting the sort of equity and quality Bush posits will come with charter and privatized schools.

But instituting equity and parity through the tax system and the distribution of its revenue is anathema in Republican politics, and perhaps Democratic politics, as well. So Bush’s plan is to go full neoliberal, to sell off the State’s largest remaining public venture to corporations, including his friends and associates, following the lead of capitalist superhero Milton Friedman, a hero to education privatizers. Friedman, who intellectually presided over the experimentation in neoliberal privatization in Chile, including its education system, is celebrated by the Center for Education Reform, a powerful pro-privatization group whose praises are sung by Bush.

We only have to look at Chile, where Friedmanite privatization reforms were implemented after a U.S.-backed coup, to see how an experiment in school privatization and charterization has worked. Only 37 percent of Chilean students are enrolled in public schools, down from 80 percent in 1980, and the 30-year experiment in profiting off of children brought those young Chileans out into the streets in a wave of violent protests.

That’s what Chilean students learned: Privatization, profits, and market forces are enemies of education. And they made the streets their classroom to teach the country. Surely this is not what Jeb Bush wants. He appears to honestly and genuinely care about education, but his prescription withers under the most cursory scrutiny. The basic workings of capitalism, found in any Econ 101 textbook, should be kept as far away from the well-being of children as possible. Let’s not learn this lesson the hard way.

By Matthew Pulver

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2016 Elections Charter Schools Education Education Reform Jeb Bush Privatization