The Warped Logic of School Privatization

The Warped Logic of School Privatization

At a KIPP School in the Bronx (Leila Hadd / Flickr)

Education and the Commercial Mindset
by Samuel E. Abrams
Harvard University Press, 2016, 432 pp.

With a quarter-century of advocacy and institution building under its belt and extraordinarily deep pockets financing it, the movement to privatize public schools has become an influential presence in American education. After twenty-five years this movement has a substantial record that demands careful, thorough evaluation.

Samuel Abrams’s Education and the Commercial Mindset makes a signal contribution to such an evaluation. The bulk of the book is taken up with well-documented comparative studies of two different moments of the school privatization movement—for-profit educational management organizations (EMOs) and nominally non-profit charter management organizations (CMOs). This contrast proves instructive, because it reveals different business models and educational strategies, and raises interesting questions as to why CMOs have been more successful business enterprises than EMOs. The answers to those questions provide insights into the future of school privatization.

On the EMO side, Abrams examines the Edison Project (later Edison Schools and EdisonLearning). The entrepreneur Christopher Whittle founded Edison in 1991 with a major public-relations splash. Whittle recruited a star-studded management team to Edison that included Benno Schmidt, the former president of Yale University; Checker (Chester) Finn, a former assistant secretary of education under President Reagan who would later play a major role in the development of President George W. Bush’s educational strategy; John Chubb, who with Terry Moe authored the definitive scholarly brief for educational privatization, Politics, Markets and America’s Schools (1990); and a bevy of top talent from the publishing world. In subsequent years, prominent figures such as Richard Barth (later CEO of KIPP schools and spouse of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp), Chris Cerf (later Deputy Chancellor of New York City public schools and New Jersey Commissioner of Education), and Floyd Flake (a former Democratic congressman and senior pastor of a large African-American church with a conservative political bent) would join Edison management.

Edison’s business model was to establish a chain of private K-12 schools that would be financed through government vouchers. But with the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, vouchers were pushed onto the political back-burner, and Edison decided to remarket itself as a subcontractor that would manage public schools, with a theory that the application of business practices to education would produce superior results. It was successful in winning contracts to manage a number of struggling inner-city schools, most notably in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chester Upland, a working-class Philadelphia suburb. Edison was given far-reaching authority to use its own educational program and curriculum, as well as the power to select and manage school leadership and staff. But Edison generated resistance from local communities angered by the loss of control over their neighborhood schools, and an effort to gain a further foothold in New York City was unsuccessful when parents decisively voted down a proposal to convert their children’s schools into Edison charters. Opposition to Edison grew in Baltimore and Philadelphia as its schools compiled records of weak educational performance that compared poorly to public schools with similar student demographics. As a result of these setbacks, Edison came to be seen as a risky investment with poor returns, and entered into a spiral of business decline. By 2013, it had lost its school management contracts in Philadelphia and Baltimore. A private equity firm, Liberty Partners, had bought Edison in 2003 for $91 million, which was 90 percent below its initial valuation when it had gone public four years earlier. In 2013, Liberty conducted what amounted to a fire sale for Edison’s assets, taking an 85 percent loss on its investment. Even at bargain prices, Liberty could not find a buyer for some parts of the Edison portfolio: it ended up paying Edison’s COO $3 million to take the last of the company’s assets off its hands.

While Edison’s main actors continue to be outspoken advocates of educational privatization, not one has offered an analysis of what went wrong with their own spectacular effort. The blow-by-blow account of Edison’s downfall in Education and the Commercial Mindset is the first full rendering of that history, and the book makes a valuable contribution for this reason alone.

On the CMO side, Abrams examines KIPP, the highest-profile national charter chain, and Mastery, a regional charter chain in the Philadelphia-Camden area which operates on similar principles to KIPP. KIPP began in 1994 as a single Houston middle school founded by two teachers, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. It established new schools deliberately, being careful not to overextend its organizational capacity. By the time of Edison’s 2013 demise, its steady growth had yielded 144 schools across the United States; today, its chain includes 200 schools.

KIPP pioneered a business model that is currently used by many of the largest and most influential charter chains in the United States. KIPP schools recruit young, novice teachers, often through Teach for America, and their staff experiences a very high rate of turnover. This tamps down salary and pension costs, which are by far the major expenditures in education, but it also has detrimental effects on teaching and learning. Teaching is a complex and demanding craft, and it takes a number of years for a novice to master the fundamentals. The human resources churn of the KIPP business model yields teaching staff that are mostly inexperienced and inexpert. To compensate for the underdevelopment of its teachers’ professional skills, KIPP developed a “No Excuses” educational program: a combination of strict codes of student conduct and punitive discipline, a traditional curriculum, and didactic “teacher proof” pedagogy that uncannily mirrors the techniques of Taylorist factory management. A key ingredient of this program is greater learning time: KIPP schools have significantly longer school days, weeks, and years. What they lack in high-quality instruction by accomplished teachers, KIPP schools look to offset with the sheer quantity of classroom time. As a result, the “No Excuses” program puts extraordinary time and energy burdens on teachers, leading to high rates of burnout and turnover. Moreover, “No Excuses” schools need to recruit many more new teachers than district public schools simply in order to maintain their staffing levels. But the supply of new teachers is finite, and many observers, including Abrams, believe that if the number of “No Excuses” charter schools continue to grow, their business model will soon become unsustainable.

Unlike Edison, KIPP and other “No Excuses” charter schools have records of educational accomplishment, albeit with some real shortcomings. The “No Excuses” schools began to reach critical mass during the “No Child Left Behind” era, when standardized exams were the currency of the realm for education accountability. Their instructional program focused on those tests, and proved adept at delivering solid student scores. Success on standardized exams was critical in obtaining massive philanthropic support for the expansion of their schools: a 2011 study found that KIPP schools had 50 percent more funding than neighboring public schools, with the great bulk of the advantage attributable to philanthropy. There was, however, an educational downside to this single-minded focus on standardized exams. “No Excuses” schools played too little attention to the purposes of education in a democratic polity and society, and thus to the development of such higher order skills as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and problem solving. As “No Excuses” students progressed in their education—and especially once they entered the post-secondary years—they found themselves inadequately prepared for the rigors of advanced academic work. To its credit, KIPP has publicly acknowledged that too many of their graduates are not succeeding in college, and has begun programs designed to address this problem. Whether such efforts can overcome a problem deeply rooted in its business model and educational approach remains to be seen.

Some of the most widely read literature on KIPP, such as Jay Mathews’s Work Hard. Be Nice. (2009), can be described as uncritical boosterism. By contrast, Education and the Commercial Mindset takes a more scholarly approach, and does a creditable job of discussing the existing research and evidence. There are, however, flaws in its analysis.

Why did KIPP achieve a measure of success where Edison failed? Both entities had control over the major components of schooling—curriculum, pedagogy, school culture, school leadership, and staffing—so the answer does not lie in the management authority they exercised. Abrams largely credits the explanation given by KIPP’s top brass: the powerful sense of mission that KIPP inculcates in its schools. Without question, Feinberg and Levin brought to KIPP a teacher’s dedication to educating students living in poverty, a motivating force that was absent in Edison’s business-sector management. But how much of KIPP’s success does that sense of mission explain? As evidence to support the KIPP thesis, Abrams describes how Edison teachers were angered by the stark contrast between the conditions in their inner-city schools, where basic supplies were lacking, and the incomes of Edison executives, which could add up to close to a million dollars a year. The not-for-profit status of “No Excuses” charters ensures that resources are directed to the education of students and not the bottom line of the profit ledger or management salaries, he suggests. Yet top executives at KIPP and other “No Excuses” charters also pay themselves salaries that are considerably larger than those earned by public school management, more in line with Wall Street largesse than public service.

A more salient difference may be found in the students who attended Edison and KIPP schools. Since it took over existing district public schools, Edison schools had the same mix of students as comparable public schools. But KIPP and other “No Excuses” charter schools are new schools, and they have considerable ability to shape the contours of their student populations. Most state laws require charter schools to use lotteries to admit students, which introduces two selection biases into the process. First, in their outreach, schools can target student populations they want, while discouraging students who pose greater educational challenges; for example, by simply publishing information on the school and its admissions process only in English, a school will severely restrict the numbers of English-language learners who end up in their lottery. Second, by its very nature, a lottery process will only include students whose parents possess the cultural capital to seek out alternatives for their children; parents of students with special needs, for example, are much less likely to participate in a lottery. A third bias enters the process in the form of the stringent demands of the “No Excuses” program, especially its strict codes of conduct and punitive discipline. “No Excuses” schools have a much higher rate of student suspensions and expulsions than district public schools. Many parents remove their children from these schools because of the heavy burdens that come with these practices. Most “No Excuses” charters have a policy of not taking in new students to replace those who exit, leaving them with substantially smaller student bodies that have been pruned to remove the most behaviorally troublesome and academically challenged students. In combination, these factors yield student demographics in “No Success” charter schools that give them a considerable advantage over district public schools and over the Edison schools, which were converted district schools. While Abrams touches upon the subject of KIPP student demographics, he does not compare them to the Edison schools and the district schools, and does not discuss their considerable impact on student performance on standardized exams. Yet this issue explains much of the success of KIPP and other “No Excuses” charter schools.

The role of philanthropy in providing additional funds, supplies, and services to under-resourced inner-city schools also gave KIPP a substantial advantage: Edison was a for-profit enterprise that did not have access to philanthropy, while KIPP has been a recipient of extraordinary amounts of philanthropy. There is an important political subtext to this philanthropy that Abrams does not investigate, and as a consequence, he misses an important piece of the KIPP and charter school story.

This oversight becomes apparent in Abrams’s discussion of a 2009–10 effort by the teachers of a New York City KIPP charter school, KIPP AMP, to form a union with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and bargain collectively. For his book, Abrams interviewed at length KIPP’s top management and the main KIPP leader at the school; the account of the unionization effort that he provides is seen primarily through their eyes. Inexplicably, he failed to interview anyone at the UFT who was involved with the KIPP AMP unionization. I have personal knowledge of this effort: during this period of KIPP AMP unionization, I served as the vice president of the UFT with responsibility for overseeing charter school organizing.

In the parlance of union organizing, KIPP AMP was a “hot shop.” KIPP AMP teachers had organized themselves and reached out to the union, in contrast to unionization efforts where the initial impetus comes from the union. Their motivation to organize themselves into a union was not wages and working conditions, but rather the sustainability of their work as teachers, given the extraordinary demands that were being placed on them. They believed in the KIPP mission of providing a quality education to young people living in poverty, and were concerned that their students suffered as a result of high attrition rates among teachers. KIPP AMP teachers wanted a collective voice in the decisions that were being made in the school. A supermajority of teachers at the school signed authorization cards to form a union and be represented by the UFT, and the union was certified as their collective-bargaining agent by the New York State Public Employees Relations Board. When the teachers went public with their plans to form a union, it received high-profile coverage in the New York Times and Daily News and sent shockwaves through the charter-school world.

After union recognition, an individual who had previously worked with both KIPP and the UFT’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, brought together top leadership from both organizations to explore the potential for a positive working relationship. At two meetings, KIPP professed to the UFT that they had no animosity against unions, unlike others in the “school choice” movement. There were issues such as the counterproductive drive to evaluate teachers using student scores on standardized exams, they told us, where they and the UFT were in agreement. In response, the UFT leadership declared our willingness to work with KIPP to abate teacher burnout and attrition and fulfill the KIPP mission.

Yet KIPP then went on to hire a union-busting law firm and run an anti-union campaign that included firings, captive meetings, and the harassment of union members. During this campaign, KIPP leadership refused to engage in meaningful negotiations. At the end of the school year, many of the teachers left the school to find teaching jobs elsewhere. Prospective teachers who interviewed to replace them were told that KIPP AMP was a non-union school and that they needed to be against the union to work there. A year after the certification of the union, KIPP AMP leadership engineered a decertification vote. Only a handful of the teachers who had organized the union now remained at the school, and their best efforts were in vain. KIPP AMP became one more case of successful union busting: American labor law has weak and inadequate protections for workers who exercise their right to form a union, and employers all too often ignore even those protections with impunity.

Why did KIPP leadership choose to go the union-busting route at KIPP AMP, given their declarations—which I read as genuine—that they bore no ideological allegiance to the anti-union cause? It became apparent that they were seriously concerned that a union presence in their schools would damage their fundraising. Many of the wealthiest philanthropies in the education field are deeply hostile to unionism, and some have become active in education for the very purpose of advancing that anti-union agenda. Teachers’ unions are one of the last pockets of strength in the American labor movement: they are two of the five largest and most politically effective unions, and K-12 education is the one major sector of the American economy that still has significant union density. If teachers’ unions could be eviscerated, a body blow will be struck to American unions as a whole. Many of those wealthy right-wing foundations with anti-union agendas—the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund ($100 million in contributions to KIPP), the Walton Family Foundation ($58.7 million), the Robin Hood Foundation ($21.3 million), and the Tiger Foundation ($3.1 million)—are among KIPP’s biggest donors. KIPP leadership had decided that they could not afford to lose that funding.

Education and the Commercial Mindset provides the most detailed and comprehensive analysis of the school privatization movement to date. Students of American education will learn a great deal from it. Yet it still misses the symbiotic relationship between the school privatization movement and anti–teacher union animus. Teachers unions are the most powerful and politically effective organizations committed to public education and standing in the way of the privatization of public schools; as a consequence, those who want to advance the privatization agenda have come to view teacher unions as their enemy. By the same token, those on the right with an anti-union agenda have targeted teachers unions because of their pivotal role in what remains of the American labor movement, and they see the privatization of public schools as a way to undermine these unions. No analysis of the movement to privatize schools is complete without a grasp of this relationship.


Leo Casey is executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank and policy advocacy arm of the American Federation of Teachers. While vice president for New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, he directed the union’s charter work. He taught for twenty-seven years in New York City public schools.


Read Samuel Abrams’s response to this review and Leo Casey’s reply.

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