The GOP-dominated Kentucky General Assembly is poised to transform the state’s public education system into a lucrative private investment opportunity with several new bills.

House Bill 103, sponsored by Republicans Phil Moffett and Wesley Morgan, would allow private entities to skim state revenues from so-called “public charter schools” for their own profit.

The bill’s language follows that of a model designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Koch Brothers-funded conservative lobbying group whose motto is “limited government, free markets, federalism.” According to the ALEC web site, “it’s time to let parents take back control over their children’s educations by allowing them to apply competitive pressure to schools and educational providers.”

“Competitive pressure” is short for privatization — the conversion of public institutions and assets into privately owned, profit-making ventures funded primarily through tax dollars and incentives.

Though any charter schools allowed under HB 103 would technically be nonprofit, there are loopholes through which profit-motivated privatizers can operate. Primarily, the bill allows charter schools to negotiate or contract with any “for-profit private entity for the use of a facility for a school building.”

Two other bills, the identical HB 162 and SB 102, would create tax credits for those who donate money to fund scholarships at “qualified nonpublic schools.”

All of the bills are motivated by a “free market” desire to transfer public resources to private investors, not to help students.

Think of government (local, state or federal) as a giant piggy bank. Through its power to tax, government raises a tremendous amount of money from the public as a whole every single year. Together we all pour a portion of our financial resources into a big pot that can be worth millions or billions or trillions of dollars.

The government then takes that money and uses it to provide services and support to important institutions like schools and hospitals and police and fire departments and highways. It provides those critical services without a profit motive. While “breaking even” is desirable, public institutions are not businesses and there are no shareholders or executives making decisions calculated to line their own pockets. The only purpose is to provide the services.

There is sometimes corruption, of course, but corruption is not an inherent feature or bug. The underlying model — government raises money through taxes, government applies that money to effective services — is time-tested and has a fairly incredible track record of success with proper oversight and smart leadership.

But for those whose primary concern is not the effective distribution of public services, but rather their own financial gain, the government instead looks like a giant pile of money just waiting to be scooped up.

Privatization pushers don’t see institutions, they see markets. They don’t see schoolchildren, they see consumers of educational products. And they see an untapped income stream in the form of millions upon millions of dollars going to public schools that they don’t get to skim from.

So they concoct plans to take over those public institutions. To funnel public funding into their own alternative school systems where they get to pocket a big chunk of the cash. And it’s an endless source of cash because we will always need schools and other public services and government will always have the power to tax us to fund those things.

But in order to get access to that money, you have to convince the public to hand over the keys to the revenue. You have to chip away at the legitimacy of government itself.

You can do this in three coordinated ways. First, you can pour money into dark money media campaigns that say, over and over and over, that government is inherently bloated and corrupt and inefficient. Second, you can point to problems like poor student performance and blame it on the government rather than on deeper social issues (like racism and poverty) or on outdated educational models that don’t require privatization to fix. Third, you can get elected to government and purposely sabotage it from within — by defunding it through selfish tax cuts and by appointing incompetent administrators to run it.

After a few decades of this, many people will be so frustrated with inefficient services and so suspicious of public institutions that they actually start clamoring for anything that seems like an easy fix. That’s when privatizers can swoop in, set up shop, and start cashing government checks. It doesn’t matter that nothing really gets any better in the aggregate.

The only people to whom privatization plans should appeal are those few wealthy (or soon-to-be wealthy) folks who stand to benefit directly from them. Everyone else, which is pretty much everyone else, stands to gain only mixed student performance, lower pay for teachers, and a fractured educational system.

Let’s be clear: If supporters of privatization really wanted to improve student performance, they’d work within our existing public school system to do that.

Or, they would open and fund their own private schools. Private schools are already allowed in Kentucky and are free to compete with public education — just without the benefit of public tax revenue to bolster their bottom lines and enrich their administrators.

We don’t need to shuffle public money into private pockets to make things better. We can tackle the underlying problems that make students less likely to perform well (namely poverty) and ensure sufficient funding and support for public schools and the teachers and administrators that work in them. We don’t need the profit motive to make that happen.

But, then again, that won’t make anybody super rich. It will only make our society a better place in which to live for everyone. Not exactly a top priority, I know.

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Joe Dunman
Joe Dunman is a Louisville, Kentucky attorney whose practice focuses on civil rights and employment law. He tweets @JoeDunman and blogs at www.joedunmanlaw.com.