News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

February 25, 2019

Why billionaires love charter schools

Billionaires care about one thing: protecting their profits. That’s why they use charter schools to destroy two of the top threats to their fortunes: unions and taxes.

By Robbie Nelson

It’s clear that the American ruling class — from the Wal-Mart family to Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates to Betsy DeVos — loves charter schools. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year funding charters, pro-charter lobbying groups, and pro-charter politicians in both parties.

But why do billionaires love charter schools and privatization so much?

The answer is simple: The rich can be cruel, but they are not stupid. They want to protect their fortunes and future profits at any cost.

What are the primary elements that eat into their profits? On the one hand, workers’ wages, benefits, and collective power to resist exploitation; and on the other hand, taxes. School privatization reduces both of these costs for billionaires.

Serving Billionaires’ Interests

Capitalists understand, first and foremost, that the labor movement is their primary adversary and that defeating unions is their priority. Individual workers don’t have much power on their own, but through joining together with coworkers, they can act collectively to check their bosses’ power.

Education workers might not directly be employed by the likes of the Walton family or the Fisher family (founders of The Gap and huge backers of school privatization), but billionaires’ interests and experience in busting unions and funding school privatization are served by repeating their efforts in Oakland. Meanwhile, public-sector unions — representing 33.9 percent of all public sector workers, including more than 3,000 members of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) — are some of the strongest remaining bastions of organized workers left in a country where private sector unionization has plummeted to 6.4 percent.

Studies show that a strong and growing labor movement drives up wages in all sectors — even among workers who aren’t in unions. Because the Walton family wants to pay Wal-Mart workers as little as possible and wants workers everywhere to be as weak as possible, they work to bust unions across the board. In the United States today, labor is at its strongest in the public sector.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Waltons of the world have made public-sector workers their current target.

The Value of Unions

Public-sector unions are also among the most important forces pushing for pro-worker regulations and legislation at the local, state, and national level. Billionaires don’t want that. So if they can successfully close public schools, lay off teachers, and divert public funds to non-union charters, they can weaken unions and the public sector as a whole.

But unions don’t only fight for wages. They also fight for better working conditions and benefits. And as we know, the conditions teachers work in are the conditions students learn in.

This gets to the heart of the matter. Good wages and pensions for unionized school workers, smaller class sizes, and more support staff like nurses and counselors for poor and working-class students — who in Oakland are overwhelmingly students of color — will mean more funding for a public education system that doesn’t benefit the ultra-wealthy at all, and costs them billions in the form of taxes.

Drivers of Privatization

Gutting unions and cutting taxes are the core motivations behind the vicious cycle of austerity and privatization.

Billionaires spend millions to buy politicians — in California these are mostly Democrats — and lobby for tax cuts for the rich. These cuts are paid for by cuts to spending on infrastructure and social services, including K-12 schools and public colleges that are now disastrously underfunded. On top of this, pro-charter school boards and superintendents manufacture budgetary crises to undermine the viability of public schools: In Los Angeles, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) showed that the school board had hidden a nearly $2 billion surplus.

Then billionaire-funded think tanks, charter advocacy organizations like Oakland’s GO Public Schools, and Democratic and Republican politicians push for school privatization — which really means closing public schools and reopening them as non-union charter schools.

This is a “solution” that many parents understandably find appealing. When the public schools in your neighborhood have been starved of funding for 40 years, have leaky ceilings, high teacher turnover, and no nurses, it makes sense for parents to look for alternatives.

It’s is a classic right-wing strategy: deny funding for public services, and then when those services suffer, claim that public services are “failing.”

The more the school system is privatized, the more funding is drained out of unionized public schools: in Oakland already 30 percent of students attend charters, draining $57 million dollars annually from the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). This further erodes the public schools, giving privatizers more ammo to argue that traditional public schools — thanks in part to their expensive union teachers — are “failing” and need to be replaced with charters.

In this way, billionaires are using the faux progressive privatization agenda to crush unions and plunder the public education system — impoverishing teachers and depriving children of a decent education.

Privatization yields other benefits for capitalists, too. Some companies make money directly off the privatization process, and some billionaires use charters as an excuse to say that they are spending their ill-gotten gains on a “good cause.” Privatization is also associated with standardized testing and other means of “deskilling” teachers while making working-class students more compliant.

But at the end of the day, the primary drivers of privatization — and the reason why billionaires from all sectors of the economy love charters — is the desire to break unions and cut taxes on the rich.

Strong public education requires unionized school workers with good wages and benefits, small class sizes, and adequate funding for schools supplies and infrastructure. To achieve this requires us to massively raise taxes on the rich.

That’s why working families everywhere need to stand up and support striking Oakland teachers. They are fighting not just for their own jobs, but for a society that puts the well-being of the multiracial working-class majority over the profits of a handful of billionaires.