Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive


American education is going to be reformed until it rolls over and begs for mercy. Vouchers! Guns on campus! Just the other day, the Florida state Legislature took a giant step toward ending the scourge of droopy drawers in high school by upping the penalties for underwear-exposing pants.

Today, let's take a look at the privatization craze and the conviction that there is nothing about molding young minds that can't be improved by the profit motive.

Enrollment in for-profit colleges has ballooned to almost 2 million, propelled by more than $25 billion in federal student loans, many of which are apparently never going to be repaid. More than 700 public K-12 schools around the country are now managed by for-profit companies. This month in Ohio, the state House went for the whole hog and approved legislation that would allow for-profit businesses to open up their own taxpayer-financed charter schools.

"It takes the public out of public education," complained Bill Sims of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

This exciting new plan, which seemed to have been inserted into the state budget bill by a magical invisible hand, would also reduce oversight. It got a rave review in the Columbus Dispatch from an op-ed contributor named Thomas Needles, who cheered legislators for trying to end the "drip-drop of wrongheaded regulation" of charter schools.

Needles is a consultant for White Hat Management, the largest company currently managing charter schools in Ohio - and with none too great a record, according to the National Education Policy Center, which said that only 2 percent of the schools White Hat runs have scored well on yearly progress tests. The owner of White Hat is a gynormous donor to the state Republican Party. Not that that would make any difference. Just saying.

So that's the path-breaking privatization news in Ohio. Now let's take a look at Texas, which has been leading the way in putting for-profit companies in charge of certifying teachers.

"Very interesting and very disturbing," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford who studies teacher certification issues. Darling-Hammond says that when the federal government began demanding certified teachers in every classroom, Texas was among the states that responded by creating alternative certification programs, some of which have requirements slightly less rigorous than those for the trainers at neighborhood gyms. Most of the new teachers in Texas - particularly at schools in poor neighborhoods - come from alternative certification programs.

Then, the Legislature invited for-profit businesses into the game. "Ever since then, the innovation and competition has been phenomenal," claimed Vernon Reaser, the president of Texas Teachers, the largest of the state's alt-cert companies.

Here is one indicator of how innovative things are getting. Texas is currently considering - although not with any great intensity - a bill that would require that people who go through these programs spend a couple of days practice teaching before they are turned loose in their own classrooms.

The sponsor is Rep. Mike Villarreal of San Antonio. Villarreal first came to my attention as the legislator who proposed requiring that the course content in public school sex education classes be medically accurate. The man has a positive genius for coming up with bills to make the Texas education system do something we really had assumed it had been doing all along. None of which make it out of committee.

At a public hearing on Villarreal's bill, Reaser vigorously denounced the idea of requiring would-be teachers to actually get classroom experience as part of their training: "Practice teachers in front of kids that aren't practice learning!"

To get an alternative teaching certificate in Texas you need to take coursework and have 30 hours of "field-based" experience, 15 of which can be spent watching videos. Villarreal says some programs fill up the other 15 with things like chaperoning field trips.

It's not clear how many people get hired as full-time teachers without ever having stood in front of a classroom for a single hour. The $4,195 Texas Teachers program (its ubiquitous billboards read: "Want to Teach? When Can You Start?") is a little opaque. For instance, Reaser assured me in a phone conversation that his students were required to have a variety of in-person interactions with their instructors even though the website says you can opt for "fully online instruction."

"On our website, we intentionally don't say everything," Reaser explained. "It's basically to get you to call us and ask us."

When we all started clamoring for more investment in education, I don't think we envisioned it going into corporate profits. We have seen the future, and the good news is that the kids in Florida will be wearing belts.

© 2011 New York Times News Service