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The Shadow of School Privatization in Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform

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by Kay Whitlock


The education crises plaguing most of our public school districts are the result of corporate-controlled, state-sanctioned and federally-funded attacks to reverse Brown v. Board of Education, and create a desuetude discrimination and educational apartheid that must be challenged and overthrown.

Excerpt from Movement for Black Lives Platform


In January 2017, the bipartisan Coalition for Public Safety inaugurated a new “Champions of Justice Reform” series by recognizing Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Republican, as an exceptional leader.

This was a fascinating and, if you knew where to look, revelatory choice.

In the run-up to the November 2016 election, Deal relied, in part, on the rhetoric of public safety to make the case for passage of a proposed constitutional amendment. Amendment 1 authorized the state to take over “chronically failing” (read: underfunded) schools which are usually located in poor, predominantly Black and Latinx communities. Within a new “Opportunity School District,” a superintendent answerable only to the governor, would have the option to run the schools, close them down, or convert them to charter schools. The schools that emerged victorious within this district, Deal and other supporters argued, would interrupt the heavily racialized school-to-prison pipeline.

In a rare bit of good election night news, Georgia voters defeated Amendment 1.

Much earlier, its passage had seemed all but assured. The state had already passed implementing legislation, and, years before (also by constitutional amendment) created a State Charter Schools Commission. But some who had previously supported the commission’s establishment weren’t as enthused this time around. Opponents argued this was a scheme to replace public schools with problem-plagued charters that would not serve students well – and, in the process, would further decimate the ranks of unionized teachers. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the amendment’s passage would “inevitably result in the diversion of public funds for public schools to private entities, with inadequate oversight, and without accountability to parents.” The NAACP in Georgia opposed it, and just a month earlier, delegates to the national NAACP convention had called for a moratorium on charter schools. A host of municipal leaders and school boards decried the proposed loss of local control.

Recognizing he was in trouble, Governor Deal doubled down on his public safety message. But he came at it from a different angle, emphasizing to particular audiences what they could expect when students from “failing schools” branched out into white neighborhoods.

“They’re going to go to those school systems where people are more affluent. Where they have cars that they can hijack. Where they have houses they can burglarize. Where they can find victims for whatever criminal activity they are pursuing. So it does impact us all from a criminal standpoint.

There it was, in Governor Deal’s desperate plea for votes: the not-so-stealth connection between the libertarian-Right’s strategic embrace of criminal justice reform and its determination to dismantle the public education system. While school privatization is not an openly-declared part of bipartisan criminal justice reform agendas, it is a constant, often unacknowledged, shadow presence. Its existence and racist origins are masked by deceptive bipartisan rhetoric emphasizing “reinvestment” of millions, even billions, of tax dollars saved and expenditures averted over time through reforms.

 Education, Not Incarceration!

The familiar mantra “Education, Not Incarceration” is a progressive demand. It conveys the hope that money saved by reducing public spending on imprisonment will be shifted away from the criminal justice system toward public education and other human needs, including health care, food, and housing.

And sometimes we project that hope – heartfelt longings for a more just and compassionate society that prefers educating and caring for its children to exiling and punishing them – into comforting campaign rhetoric about savings and reinvestment. Sometimes the projection is so strong that it becomes an implied promise that we are reluctant to question. Many of us assume that substantive shifts in civic budget priorities will – or at least should – follow. But no promise of new budget priorities has actually been made; no bipartisan consensus on this point exists.

None of this is new. In 2011, as I have written elsewhere, the national NAACP issued a report, Misplaced Priorities, that advocated specific sentencing reforms to reduce incarceration costs  and called upon on all states to begin to prioritize education spending over that for imprisonment. In what was arguably the first major national press conference featuring liberal luminaries alongside notables associated with Right on Crime, the nonprofit behemoth of libertarian–Right views on criminal justice, participants jointly called for sentencing reforms affecting those convicted of low-level offenses.

Yet amid this display of “strange bedfellows” bonhomie, none of the Right on Crime emissaries, including Rod Paige, the designated conservative educational administrator, actually supported increased spending for public education. Paige, an early advocate of “No Child Left Behind,” was Secretary of Education during President George W. Bush’s first term and is a former superintendent of Houston public schools. Under his Houston watch, school dropout data was falsified to produce a glowing, but bogus Texas narrative about how to achieve accountability through a turnaround of  “failing schools.”

It was left to Grover Norquist, founder and president of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform, to clarity the Right’s position in an interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS’ Newshour, aired after the press conference. When she asked him if he agreed with the NAACP that at least some of the money currently spend on incarceration should go to public education, Norquist indicated his personal disagreement but said that was “a separate discussion” that could be had at “another time.”

 What Discussion?

The libertarian-Right doesn’t need or intend to discuss increased spending for public education at all, except to oppose it. Within its ranks of criminal justice reformers, virtually all major corporate and organizational players – ranging from the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation to the Texas Public Policy Foundation (which birthed Right on Crime) to Charles and David Koch interests – work tirelessly for market-based forms of school privatization that transform education into a commodity and teaching into a non-unionized service job. Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education in the Trump administration, has long pursued a relentlessly aggressive school privatization agenda framed as “educational choice.”

I have written here, here, and here about the sleight of hand that produces illusory beliefs about various aspects and impacts of bipartisan reform. Most notably, this includes the deceptive idea that reform produces a contraction rather than expansion of formal and informal systems of policing, surveillance, and control. And the erroneous assumption that the resulting “averted costs” or “saved monies” can and will be redistributed for social and human needs outside of the criminal justice (or more accurately, criminal punishment) system.

My argument is that the Right has a coherent, strategic endgame for “reforms” in almost every arena of civic life – criminal justice, K-12 and higher education, health care, housing, environmental regulation, corporate regulation, food safety, family law, and more. In the current neoliberal phase of racial capitalism, policy advocates and corporate interests work to replace public systems, spaces, services, and shared resources with privatized, deregulated substitutes that undermine and eviscerate, rather than strengthen, baseline national frameworks for civil and human rights.

Crafted over decades, this coherence has consistently and increasingly shifted the center of political and economic debate rightward. “Bipartisan criminal justice reform” is just one of those arenas in which this struggle goes forward. Lacking any endgame of its own, the liberal–progressive–Left sector typically responds in defensive, crisis-oriented mode to the dominance of the Right’s analyses, framing, and initiatives. Single issue by single issue, disconnected tangles of messaging and tepid policy proposals serve to shred the possibility of greater and more unified progressive strategic coherence.

Even worse: centrist-liberal leadership often fails to challenge and sometimes actively supports that market-oriented, privatized, commodified, and deregulated neoliberal endgame.

Let’s return briefly to that societal discussion we’ve never really had about Education, Not Incarceration. Let’s talk about making a stronger, re-energized civic commitment to fund and otherwise support under-resourced public schools and educators. While it’s tempting to dump all the blame for school privatization on the Right, this has long been a bipartisan effort, with various kinds of federal support provided by Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Widely considered a Democratic leader in bipartisan criminal justice reform, Cory Booker, formerly mayor of Newark and currently a US senator from New Jersey, has actively supported K-12 school privatization since the early 2000s. More recently, he sought to disassociate himself from the Trump administration’s unpopular-in-Democratic–circles commitment to it by voting against  DeVos’ confirmation. Then there are Chicago Democratic leaders, including Rahm Emanuel, current mayor and former White House chief of staff in President Obama’s first administration. Their neoliberal “restructuring” of education – draconian budget cuts, mass school closures in predominantly low-income Black neighborhoods, and enthusiastic embrace of corporate education reform, including expansion of charter schools – has intensified  segregation and inequality in Chicago public schools.

 Structural White Supremacy and School Privatization

That’s one hell of a reform outcome. It yanks the US back to the racist origins of the “massive resistance” to Brown v. Board of Education. Rather than desegregate school systems, white public officials in Prince Edward County, Virginia, shut down all public education from 1959 to 1964. A private academy immediately opened for white students; ardent segregationists were willing to help Black people open their own schools, but the offers were refused. Some Black students enrolled in other schools outside Prince Edward County, some of those schools hundreds of miles from home, but according to sociologist Christopher Bonastia, more than three quarters of the county’s Black students went without education for at least four years.

And in 1964, white segregationists, unsuccessful in their efforts to continue blocking school integration, moved to a strategy of creating all-white private school systems, legally and illegally utilizing public funds. In Mississippi, argues Michael W. Furquay, the ‘private’ nature of segregated academies “was largely a semantic subterfuge, designed to evade the requirements of federal law without sacrificing the benefits of public support.” In an examination of that state’s private school movement from 1964–1971, he concludes that “private schools played an important role in the shaping of modern conservatism.”

What does any of this have to do with bipartisan criminal justice reform and the criminalization and policing of Black and other marginalized communities, including LGBTQ people and people with disabilities? Governor Nathan Deal aside, many of the reformers would argue that school privatization is, at best, a tangential issue; that, as Norquist asserts,  it should be addressed separately, and “at another time.” We can get where we need to go without addressing divisive issues. We must not allow the perfect be the enemy of the good. A few sentencing reforms and other tweaks will set things right.

Don’t believe it.

The legacy of the private school movement born of mass resistance to desegregation and the structural violence and inequality that animate it remain with us today. It is not possible to make the shift from Incarceration to Education without openly unmasking, naming, and uprooting them.


About the Author


image from www.beaconbroadside.comKay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.