A World of Widgets: Privatizing Public Schools?
I feel bad for Chris Hoffman. I really do. He is in the untenable position of serving as spokesman for a privatized public school. The New Haven Independent is having a field day with Hoffman. One wishes he could just look at the camera and say what he must be thinking: This is an oxymoron, a farce.
School reformers are forever dreaming about ways to make schools more effective. It’s no secret that students in many inner cities do poorly on standardized tests. They also are more likely to drop out before completing their high school degree. If only, the reformers dream, we can discover the secret recipe of academic success. There is a sense of desperation about it all.
In New Haven, dreamers have privatized a school. And why not? We’ve privatized prisons in this country. If the government can’t do it, let the profit motive make straight the road to success. New Haven recently struck a deal with Renaissance Services LLC of New Jersey to turn the Roberto Clemente School into some kind of educational oasis. Captive audiences are the best sort of paying customer, I suppose.
But somehow the school is still part of the New Haven school district. That means it is still a public institution. That means the school superintendent still has a say in what goes on there. Chris Hoffman is spokesman for the elected school board.
The job of being spokesman is thankless. I know this from experience. Two of the most miserable years of my life were spent as spokesman for the Connecticut Hospital Association. Yes, hospitals are great places to go if you are, well, sick or dying. But a spokesman’s job is to appear before the world and articulate a message given to him by others. The hospitals wanted to be regarded as caring and thoughtful, trapped in the vice-like grip of evil insurance companies and incompetent government regulators. I knew the script. I mouthed the lines. Until I got fired.
That was a long time ago, but I still recall doing the limbo with one reporter or another. It was painful. I’m never going back to toeing that sort of line.
I feel Hoffman’s pain now as I watch him perform on the pages of the Independent.
For those of you who do not know the online publication, the New Haven Independent is a muckraking marvel. It is edited by one of the state’s best journalist and writers, Paul Bass. As near as I can tell, Bass doesn’t have to kiss the hindquarters of a corporate board or paymaster. He tells it as he sees it. So do his reporters.
So when a reporter turned up the other day to film the privatized doings in one of the privatized public school, a confrontation was inevitable. The reporter wanted full access to the school, and apparently believed she had been promised as much. She was armed with a video camera. When Hoffman would not let her film, things got ugly. The reporter played the part of victim with passive-aggressive glee; Hoffman erupted, later apologizing.
It’s not the first time Hoffman stepped in it on behalf of this ungainly privatized public school. Not long ago, he was instructed to keep a reporter out of a meeting at which parents were to meet with representatives of the school and the new corporate bosses rolling into town. The corporate ethos forbade cameras in what was otherwise handled as a public meeting. Hoffman was placed in the impossible position of justifying the exclusion of the press from a meeting to which parents were invited.
I feel bad for Chris Hoffman. I really do
Those in favor of good government like transparency in the form of open procedures and accountability for all. The press plays a key role. It reports. It exposes to public view what is being done on behalf of all.
Corporations and private groups don’t like transparency. Spin is their operative watchword. Their spokesmen are sometimes referred to as "spin doctors," after all.
Hoffman is in the impossible position of serving the goddess of transparency while being bullied by corporate paymasters to play spin the bottle. I watch Hoffman struggle and I see a young man being sacrificed on the same sort of altar that produced fascism. Letting private money and corporations tap dance their way into control of government is wrong.
We’ve seen this game played in other school districts this year. Private money was behind the coup that led the State Board of Education to displace the elected school board in Bridegeport with folks appointed by the governor’s lieutenants. Expedited hearings about whether this can really happen in this state led the case to the state Supreme Court in record time. I argued on behalf of a couple of displaced elected officials last October. As the year ends, there is no sign of a decision by the high court. My elected clients sit by watching appointed board members with ties to big money act on behalf of the city’s schools. I sense a disturbing pattern here.
Are the schools failing? Yes. They reflect a broader social failure. Putting corporations in charge of the schools is like making a madame the head of a convent. Do we really expect the whores who tanked our economy – recall those private bankers, if you will -- to make good students of our kids? If so, we kid ourselves. More likely, Walmart wants to run the schools to train a more compliant cast of cashiers.
The Walmarts of the world don’t want spokesmen who speak the truth. They want to put the Chris Hoffmans of the world out of business. They want to silence dissent. They want, in the end, to run a world in which there is neither transparency nor accountability: just backroom deals conducted by members of the leisure class.
I feel bad for Chris Hoffman. I feel bad for the rest of us, too.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.