A while back, I read a story in the New York Times that really bothered me.
It explained that neighborhood public schools are now compelled to “market” themselves because of competition with charters. In Harlem, charters are omnipresent, and the city administration has closed many public schools to make way for charters. New York City Department of Education officials make clear their preference for charters, leaving no one to fight for or defend the public schools against their competitors. If charters want public school space, they get it, usually over the opposition of the parents and community.
But what was so striking about the story–and you have to read to the end to find this–was the contrast between the resources of the public school and the invading charter. The public school had $500 or less to market itself, with flyers, brochures, volunteers. The charter–in this case, Harlem Success Academy–spent $325,000.
Wow. How can a public school compete when the charter can expend $325,000 to persuade people to participate in the lottery?
This story made me realize that the lottery isn’t really about admission to the school. The lottery is a marketing device. By whipping up interest, curiosity, and enthusiasm, all that money produces large numbers of applicants for the lottery. The lottery is an extravaganza with balloons, the turning of the wheel, the announcement of the winners, the disappointment of the losers. The daughter of a hedge fund manager in Connecticut, who is deeply involved in the charter school “movement,” produced a documentary called “The Lottery,” to promote charters.
Marketing is part of the business plan. Public relations is part of the business plan. Promoting the idea that charters are a cure for the ills of poverty is part of the business plan. Presenting charters as “the civil right idea” of our time is part of the business plan (a cry echoed by both Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney).
In some cities, the business plan is to replace public education altogether with corporate sponsors.
It’s sad that public schools must waste money and time marketing themselves. They should be devoting themselves completely to their mission, not to competing with the charters.
It’s also sad that the corporate and philanthropic interests that push charters so insistently don’t give a thought to the damage they do to an essential democratic institution.