One of the biggest con games going on right now is the sustained attack on the U.S. public school system. It's being perpetrated by predatory entrepreneurs (disguised as "concerned citizens" and "education reformers") hoping to persuade the parents of school-age children that the only way their kids are going to get a decent education is by paying for something that they can already get for free. You might say it's the same marketing campaign that launched bottled water.
The profit impulse fueling this drive is understandable. All it takes is a cursory look at the economic landscape to see why these speculators are drooling at the prospect of privatizing education. Millions of students pulling up stakes, bailing out of the public school system, and enrolling in private or charter schools? Are you kidding? Just think of the money that would generate.
Mind you, these "education reformers" are the same people who want to privatize the world -- the same people who want to add more toll roads, who want hikers to pay trail fees, who want city parks and public beaches to charge admission. Indeed, they're members of the same tribe who convinced a thirsty nation to voluntarily pay for drinking water that it was heretofore getting for free.
Let's revisit for a moment that bottled water craze -- that stunning marketing phenomenon that made beverage companies wealthy and added a billion non-biodegradable plastic bottles to our landfills and oceans. For the record, since passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), municipal water, unlike bottled, has been stringently regulated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which is why bottled water contains more impurities and bacteria. It's true. City water is safer, cheaper and better for the environment.
Of course, there are people who refuse to believe one word the government (municipal, state or federal) tells them. They don't believe the census numbers, they don't believe the figures in the federal budget, and they regard EPA statistics as little more than state-sponsored propaganda. Fine. You'll never get these people to change their minds, so save your breath. Let them, Grover Norquist, and Orly Taitz do whatever it is they do.
And then you have your beverage connoisseurs who (even though blind taste-tests tend to dispute this) insist that they can not only tell the difference between bottled and tap water, but can differentiate between varying brands of bottled water (Is it Evian or Dasani?). Taste-test evidence aside, I'm not suggesting that these epicureans don't have the right to make such claims. All I'm saying is that they have abused the privilege.
Offer a glass of tap water to a beverage connoisseur who -- before the bottled water craze swept the nation -- had happily guzzled city water his entire life, and he'll flinch, he'll recoil in horror, as if you'd invited him to drink from your toilet. I've joked with these people that if I ever introduced a brand of bottled water, I would name it "Placebo."
Back to education. The thing about private schools is that they're very much like bottled water in that you're being asked to pay for something you can get free, and because they are largely unregulated. Take California schools, for example. In order to teach in a California public school (elementary, intermediate or high school), you must have both a college degree and a teaching credential. The private schools require neither.
Not only can you teach in a private without a credential or degree, but private teachers earn significantly less than their public counterparts. Less education, less certification, less salary. The obvious question: Which institution -- private or public -- is going to attract the better instructor? Put another way, would we ever choose a medical doctor with these startling deficiencies? Yet, free enterprise hounds continue to extol the virtues of privatization, pretending it's the cure for what ails us.
Another component to this anti-public education campaign is the Republican Party's on-going attempt to subvert organized labor by attributing the flaws in our public school system to the teachers' union. In 2008, labor is reported to have donated $400 million to the Democratic Party, which has been a rallying cry for Republicans ever since. Their stated goal is to neutralize the Democrats by crippling organized labor.
The irony here is that labor is furious at the Democrats for having more or less abandoned them. America's labor unions dump $400 million into the Democrats' war chest, and what did they get in return? A pat on the head and a condescending lecture on the virtues of patience from Rahm Emanuel. Talk about a placebo.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org