States Opinion

Prisons, Post Offices and Public Schools: Some Things Should Not Be For Profit

By Anthony Cody — August 18, 2013 7 min read
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Here are some things that should not be turned over to profit-seeking corporations.

Prisons. Postal services. Public Schools.

Here are the problems with prisons for profit: The first is that prisoners are the ultimate disenfranchised citizens, with very little power over their conditions. Corporations that run prisons literally have a captive audience. There is growing evidence that prisons run for profit are even more dangerous for inmates than those run by state agencies.

This article explains that:

Like pretty much all other for-profit enterprises, private prisons make money in part by cutting operating costs wherever possible. In most industries, this can be done by reducing employee hours or buying goods wholesale or any number of other strategies. But when it comes to housing inmates, cutting costs is done in a variety of troubling ways. In the case of the EMCF [East Mississippi Correctional Facility], the lawsuit alleges the facility offered inmates a Spartan diet, grossly reduced access to health care, and essentially eliminated mental health services -- in a facility specifically for patients with mental illness.

Other ways private prisons cut costs are by understaffing guards and other prison employees, leading to increasingly dangerous conditions for both guards and inmates.

The other major problem with private prisons is this. Since taxpayers are now paying more than $2 billion a year to prison corporations, these corporations have the wherewithal to buy influence with politicians. The three largest corporations, Corrections Corporations of America, The GEO Group and Management and Training Corp, have reportedly spent more than $45 million on lobbying over the past decade.

And it was at an ALEC meeting in 2010, attended by a representative of the CCA, that Arizona’s harsh immigration law, SB 1070, took shape. This law dramatically increased the role of local law enforcement in apprehending undocumented immigrants, many of whom are incarcerated in CCA prisons. Sponsoring lawmakers got healthy contributions from CCA

We have lowered the quality of service, especially for those with little or no power, and we have policies influenced by corporations motivated to expand their profit base at great human cost. In fact, we incarcerate more of our population than any other nation on the planet.

The Gates Foundation recently purchased 3.2% of one of the world’s largest prison corporations, G4S, with operations in 125 countries, and annual income of more than $11 billion.

As I noted in a letter stating my objections here, my own California State Teachers Retirement System also has a holding worth $8.6 million in Corrections Corporation of America.

What about the US Postal Service? Until recently, the postal service was doing reasonably well. However, in 2006, a law was passed that required the USPS to prepay health care benefits 75 years in advance, something not required of any other government agency. This created an instant debt, and now post offices are being closed, services cut, and 193,000 workers have been laid off.

Why? Because there is a major move under way to shift mail delivery over to the private sector, so companies like Pittney-Bowes can make profits. Now Congressman Darryl Issa is introducing a bill that will cut another 100,000 jobs and end Saturday delivery. Privatization is leading to cuts in service, and the elimination of middle class jobs.

And last but not least, we come to public schools. It has been decided in the halls of power, governmental and corporate, that the way to improve schools is to unleash the power of the marketplace. We are undergoing a transformation of huge proportions in order to allow this to occur. Through the Common Core State (sic) Standards, we are creating a single national marketplace for tests, technology and curriculum - all three of which are increasingly intertwined and removed from the control of teachers and local communities.

As Joanne Weiss, Arne Duncan’s chief of staff, wrote a couple of years ago:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

High stakes consequences for test scores are used to close public schools, and the disruption of this “monopoly” allows for private schools and semi-private charters to take their place, and receive public funding. Test scores are likewise used to provide market incentives for teachers, in the form of bonuses if their students exceed expectations, and possible loss of status or even termination if student performance is sub-par.

Meanwhile, our leaders have unleashed “austerity” on the public sector, schools included. In Chicago, the bulldozers destroyed a community reading center treasured by local parents, capping off the closing of more than 50 public schools by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In Philadelphia, the mayor has been working to abandon public schools in favor of charters, and the underfunding of the city’s schools has clergy there calling for a student boycott.

But the mask is falling off some of the leading players advancing this “movement.” Journalists have begun to dig into the shadowy connections between advocates for “reform” such as Jeb Bush, and the corporate sponsors of his advocacy. This week David Sirota wrote:

Under the headline "E-mails link Bush foundation, corporations and education officials," the newspaper earlier this year reported on correspondence showing the foundation carefully shaping its education "reform" agenda not around policies that would most help children, but around legislation that would most quickly expand the profit margins of its donors in the for-profit education industry.

Michelle Rhee still barnstorms the country trying to rally support for the idea that we ought to assign letter grades to schools, but the project is tainted both by her own cheating scandal, and the manipulations of school grading systems by her allies in Indiana and Florida.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been a nexus of these efforts to privatize, and though it has become better known, it continues to be highly influential. The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch reports that:

Despite widespread public opposition to the education privatization agenda, at least 139 bills or state budget provisions reflecting American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) education bills have been introduced in 43 states and the District of Columbia in just the first six months of 2013, according to an analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy, publishers of ALECexposed.org. Thirty-one have become law.

When our schools are run for profit, there are disastrous consequences for both students and teachers. Teachers are “managed” through the “outcomes” they produce, meaning their students’ test scores. This makes teachers focus not on their students strengths, not on their students’ needs or interests, but rather on their deficits, on the skills and concepts the students must master to pass the next test. Students who are, for whatever reasons unable to produce test score gains (perhaps they might be uninterested, alienated, traumatized, hungry, special education, new to the English language, or a hundred other reasons) become a liability for the teacher and the school. Under the pressure to produce “profits” is the form of higher test scores, schools begin to systematically reject students like these, as we are already seeing among some charter schools. Schools care less about nurturing students or teachers. The environment becomes less humane. Turnover increases among teachers, and attrition rises for students. Residual public schools become a dumping ground for students too difficult to educate.

This is the natural consequence for turning our schools into a marketplace governed by competition over high test scores. It is the result of the push to privatize, to shift our schools out of the public commons, where they have been for the past century-plus. Out of the arena where locally elected school boards set policies, and into a national marketplace where international publishers like Pearson, and huge foundations like Gates and Walton have the largest influence.

Our prisons ought not to be privatized, because the misery of the incarcerated should not be a source of profits. In an era where legislative decisions are swayed by lobbyists and corporate donations, we should not have profits from prisons flowing to the campaigns of politicians willing to expand those profits at the expense of prisoners.

The US Postal Service is a cornerstone of local communities, and many aspects of the business which might be unprofitable - such as rural deliveries, are crucial to connecting citizens to one another and to business opportunities. If it is privatized, service quality is likely to decline, and our communities will lose a great public resource.

Our schools are part of a public heritage passed down to us. They were built in our communities with a vision of bringing all children under the same roof to learn together. Privatization replaces this model of the commons with one ruled by marketplace “choices.” As we know, some people always wind up with many more choices than others. Interviews with parents reveal that their first choice is almost always a high quality local public school for their children. If we shifted our public policies away from attempting to discredit and replace these schools, and towards supporting and strengthening them, we would be far better off.

Those who are opposed to the privatization of prisons, post offices and public schools have a lot in common. In the absence of the funds that the corporations are actively investing, all we have are our own voices, and our own grassroots organizations. Let’s raise them together!

What do you think? Are there some parts of our world that are better off as part of a public sphere? Or is competition for profit the only way to drive innovation?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.