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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Reject the Con: Education Is Infrastructure

When public institutions are subsumed by private interests, we all get fleeced.

May 31, 2018
 
 

When the local newspaper dies, the city gets poorer.

And not just culturally, according to a working paper by researchers from Notre Dame and the University of Illinois – Chicago, recently covered by Kriston Capps at CityLab.

“Cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals,” Capps says, relating the findings.[1] 

Economists Paul Gao and Chang Lee essentially found that without local media to act as watchdogs, governments run less efficiently, leading to consequences such as increasing the cost of issuing municipal bonds which fund infrastructure like schools, roads, and hospitals.

Gao and Lee conclude that “the information [newspapers] provide, is a public good and it’s worth providing.”

While newspapers are private corporations, they once satisfied the customer/corporation relationship by producing journalism in the public interest. Those days are mostly over, as journalism has been subsumed to “content,” quality a secondary concern to clicks.

Now, with some local papers, we’re in a late stage where private capital bleeds the final dollars out of once vital institutions, coasting on a once meaningful brand as journalists are cut. Alden Capital, current owners of the Denver Post have “borrowed” almost $250 million from the paper’s workers’ pension fund, and loaded up the company with an additional $200 million in debt, spending it on Florida and Hamptons real estate for the executives “personal enjoyment.” 

When Alden is done, they will dispose of the Post like a vampire discarding an exsanguinated body.

Perhaps, thanks to studies like this we will begin to recognize that the subsuming of these public-facing institutions to corporatism is straight-up wasteful, not just damaging to the culture or community, but actually bad for the bottom line.

Running institutions which are not meant to be corporations like corporations just doesn’t work.

Consider public higher education, where years of austerity and moves toward privatization have resulted in what Christopher Newfield has identified as “the great mistake,” creating institutions which run far less efficiently than if they were treated as public goods, driven by mission.

It’s worse than being penny wise and pound foolish. In the end, adjunctification doesn’t save money on instructional costs, but merely shifts the burdens around. It is fundamentally damaging to the core functions of a higher education institution.

But it’s also expensive in terms of dollars and cents. The constant turnover, the lack of faculty to advise students, or develop curriculum which may better serve students are all a waste of monetary resources, a failure to pursue the mission. When the mission is secondary, the institution shrivels, moves closer to death.

The cycle of waste is perhaps more pronounced in K-12 education. Because of a combination of low pay and being fed up with the relentless focus on standardized testing  and its concomitant outside meddling, my home state of South Carolina (like many other states) is hemorrhaging teachers.

Meanwhile, the state has funneled more than $350 million over a 10-year period to “online charter schools” with "dismal results" to show for it. 

The current leadership of the federal Department of Education wants to double and triple down on these failed policies. Meanwhile, there’s no evidence that “competition” improves the quality of schools.

It sure doesn’t save public money either. Fraud inside the charter sector is so common that a paper in the Indiana Law Journal asks if charter schools are the new Enron

It’s not even that all charter schools are frauds. Even those charters on the up and up extract money that goes to purposes other than education. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academies has a salary equivalent to over 50 dollars per student served.

The chancellor of the New York City public schools is paid 40 cents per student

The study on the economic harm of losing a local paper breaks new ground, but in hindsight, we should see it as perfectly obvious, the same way we should be able to see through the talk of austerity and competition as routes to making education more efficient and more effective.

Education is infrastructure, not a business opportunity.

It’s a lie, a con job, a way to extract public money for private gain and it’s happening over and over again.

 

[1] I encourage everyone to click on the link to Capps’ article and read more details about the study. The possible complicating factors to the analysis appear to have been thoroughly considered by the researchers.

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