06/09/2011 08:21 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2011

Education Is Not a Consumer Product

Harmony Schools: sounds lovely enough, evoking thoughts of children singing or institutions seeking to bring peace to the world. As reported in the New York Times on Monday, June 6, this iteration of "harmony" may be an entirely different story.

Harmony Schools are the marketing moniker for a charter chain in Texas backed by the Cosmos Foundation. The group now runs 33 charter schools, gobbling up $100 million in tax dollars per year. The Times report revealed an alarming connection to a Turkish preacher named Fethullah Gulen, who is the acknowledged spiritual leader of a worldwide, supposedly moderate, Islamic network.

Among the concerns reported by The Times is the disproportionate employment of Turkish expats on the faculty, and the questionable awarding of millions in construction contracts to Turkish-owned or controlled companies.

This, my friends, is what we asked for. Perhaps the politicians and corporate-funded lobbyists who promulgate school choice and the charter movement didn't have exactly this in mind.

I'm less concerned about the employment of expats and non-competitive contracts than I am about the rapid disintegration of the public education system. Fueled by this generation's inexplicable adoration of unregulated or lightly-regulated free markets, education in America is quickly turning into another competitive marketplace, where any idea or product is as good as its branding campaign. No ethical convictions needed. No practices based on the best interests of children are required.

There is, of course, more than a tad of xenophobia involved in this multi-page Times article. The article states that the Turkey/Islam dimension is not the "real" concern. Of course the Turkey/Islam connection is the real concern. Neither the Times nor anyone else writes a major piece questioning the millions diverted to Vatican/Catholic education through voucher programs.

It's because the Vatican is a sovereign state we adore and Catholicism is a good, Christian, god-fearing American religion. Other than that, the issues are essentially indistinguishable, except that the Harmony Schools don't explicitly proselytize like the Catholic ones do.

But, I digress. I don't have anything against Islam or Catholicism, at least one compared to the other. I do have a great deal against dismantling the noble, secular institution of public education, to be replaced with any number of publicly funded "brands" that serve anything from religious dogma to political propaganda to online pap -- and that is exactly where we are heading.

I suppose there are some voucher and charter fans who genuinely believe that breaking the so-called public school "monopoly" will lead to important innovation and opportunity. It hasn't happened, except in a few rare cases.

The more apparent consequence of Gates-funded political momentum is a dangerous turn toward privatization and an evermore painful class divide in America. The problem is that you can't have KIPP and Green Dot and Harlem Success and, well, you fill in the blank, without also having Harmony Schools and worse.

I think even our libertarian/reactionary Supreme Court might conclude that we cannot deny public support to Islam-flavored schools while funneling it in huge scoops to other religious or otherwise themed schools. We are alarmingly far along a path of no return.

Add in legislative initiatives, like that recently passed in Ohio, which allow public dollars to flow to for-profit schools, and you have the final ingredient of the end game. We might as well admit that education is no more important than any other product in our consumer culture.

Metaphorically, if a Doritos education is cost-effective and profitable, let the market forces work their magic with lots of slick marketing and lots of computer-based learning (it's cost-effective!). Personnel costs go down, profits go up.

Eventually schools will sort themselves out just like fast food franchises and they will be just about as good. It all reminds me of the privatization of the prison industry. For-profit prisons reap compound benefits from perverse incentives. Having fewer employees with lower pay increases profits. Fewer employees and lower pay perpetuate prison dysfunction, reduce rehabilitation and increase recidivism. That's good for profits too. It's a grand win-win -- except for the prisoners and our society.

I don't claim to know how to fix public education. Like many who post and comment here, I'm quite sure the problems are social and economic, not educational. The teaching and curriculum during our so-called golden days wasn't any better or worse than it is now, but the nation was significantly less divided by class.

We've seen what can happen when we entrust a basic human right to market forces. While innovation and discovery have emerged from private enterprise, the distribution of the benefits of progress has been immorally inequitable.

Big Pharma and Big Insurance have made meaningful health care reform impossible. Now, courtesy of Gates and others, we're on the front edge of an analogous privatizing wave that will drown public education. Once it's gone, we'll never get it back.