When Mayor Bloomberg first took control of the New York City public schools and launched his reforms, his Chancellor Joel Klein said that New York needed not “a school system,” but “a system of schools.” Over time, his meaning became clear. He would break up and close scores of existing schools and replace them with brand new schools, including dozens of shiny new charter schools. “A system of schools” is akin to what others call “the portfolio model.” The board chooses winners and losers, like buying and selling stocks for your stock portfolio.

It soon turned out that the “system of schools” was a reformer cliche, like offering choice to “save poor black kids from failing schools.” We now know that most of those poor black kids lost their community school and were sent off to a distant school that was no better than the school that was closed. They were not saved. There seems to be a Reformers’ Hymnal that lists all these cliches (“no child’s future should be determined by his zip code,” etc.). I would love to see that list of favorite phrases to rationalize disruption the public schools and replacing them with privatized charters that come and go like day lilies.

Jane Nylund, a parent activist, gave a lot of thought to this “system of schools” thing. Here is her effort to put it in perspective by comparing it to the city’s water system.

She writes:

In all the discussions regarding the idea of creating a “system of schools”, I have not seen any discussion regarding school governance, and why these two sets of schools can never be “systemized” as a means to create an aura of goodwill and cooperation amongst the competitors. That’s because the topic of school governance is seen as unimportant, unnecessary, not needed for quality or equity, etc. Don’t worry about it…parents don’t care, because we told them not to…

I’ve been trying to figure out an analogy for what the board has proposed, and I think I’ve come up with one:

A System of Water

East Bay Municipal Utility District provides a high quality product to just about everyone within our municipality. It’s clear, clean, tasty. It’s not entirely free, but the cost can be subsidized for those who have trouble affording their product. As far as I know, virtually everyone has access to it. It is a public utility governed by an elected public board and heavily regulated. It is also fiscally transparent. It operates for the common good. Everyone gets the same high-quality product. It would be terrible if people couldn’t afford it, or the quality was lacking and people got sick from it.

Meanwhile, an assortment of private bottled water companies are having trouble growing new market share in their mature, saturated market. Their mountain springs are running dry, their expenses are going up, and they need to tap into new markets to keep running, so to speak. Crystal Geyser needs to come up with a strategy to sell to EBMUD, and fast. Their shareholders are breathing down their necks.

Crystal Geyser comes up with this great idea, A System of Water. Who needs a pricey mountain spring? What if Crystal Geyser can use EBMUD’s infrastructure and facilities in order to produce a great tasting product that Crystal Geyser can sell for a profit? EBMUD already has low-cost facilities, so why can’t Crystal Geyser simply take over part of those facilities? It can produce its bottled water easier and cheaper than trying to find another clean, high-quality mountain spring. After all, Crystal Geyser has an ROI to worry about. At the same time, because it’s a business, it also needs to grow market share, so part of that marketing campaign would be to claim that Crystal Geyser is clean, pure, free of any nastiness that might get into the regular water system, you know, EBMUD. So even though their product isn’t really superior, they can sell more of it by bashing the quality of EBMUD’s own water product. Crystal Geyser also has attractive packaging, superior distribution, as well as plenty of advertising budget to sell its water. More and more, you see their ads on social media, TV, AC Transit. Crystal Geyser even hands out discount coupons near public water fountains, warning users of potentially harmful bacteria lurking in the plumbing.

EBMUD’s customers don’t think A System of Water is a good idea. EBMUD has to maintain their quality standards and they are accountable to the voters and the regulators if they don’t perform; if Crystal Geyser takes up a portion of their manufacturing/bottling/purification plant, that’s going to make it more difficult and expensive for EBMUD. They also expose themselves to all kinds of legal and ethical entanglements if they can’t keep the water standards high. They have to be held accountable.

Crystal Geyser’s superior marketing means that they are able to grow their share of the water market, bottled or otherwise. Not everyone wants or needs Crystal Geyser, but that doesn’t matter to them as long as their financials look good. Maybe some people try Crystal Geyser, but they don’t like the idea of using plastic. Or maybe it doesn’t really taste as good as the Hetch Hetchy straight from the tap. Customers complain to the company, but there are other customers willing to drink Crystal Geyser, so not a big concern for the company. Any dissatisfied customer can certainly choose another brand of water or go back to EBMUD.

It also turns out that there is some malfeasance going on with the quality of Crystal Geyser. Lab tests show tiny bits of plastic floating around in the water. If ingested, they can pose a health risk. In addition, it turns out that they have not disclosed to their customers that the company no longer bottles their water from a pure, mountain spring, but they have been filling bottles with EBMUD’s own tap water, slapping their own label on the bottles, and marketing it as mountain spring. Since they are a private company, no one is really checking their marketing claims or making sure that the water is safe to drink.

Does Crystal Geyser care about what happens to EBMUD? Of course not, they are a business. They only care about growing and maintaining their own market share. But the company really, really wants to use EBMUDs facilities to grow and save on expenses, so Crystal Geyser comes up with A System of Water, as a means to increase its market share using EBMUDs infrastructure. Crystal Geyser explains to EBMUD’s customers that they are both on the same page; they both provide a quality product; they are both in demand. There’s room at the table for everyone. Really.

But, as more and more water drinkers start purchasing more and more Crystal Geyser (it’s a nice bottle, and it’s pure mountain-spring!), EBMUD struggles. It has to shut down part of its capacity. Crystal Geyser sees that excess capacity as an opportunity to increase its own production. Soon, EBMUD starts having water quality problems: bacteria, particulates, you name it. They have to add more chlorine to counteract this problem; now it tastes funky. This can’t end well for EBMUD. Meanwhile, Crystal Geyser has managed to set up a brand new filtration/purification system that ensures its side of the plant is functioning well. And now, it can market its water as cleaner, safer, and better-tasting than EBMUD. Bottled water flies off of the shelves. Crystal Geyser’s plan has worked perfectly.

Now, given this scenario, can you imagine this kind of business partnership between two directly competing products ever happening in the real world? Then why would anyone ever think that public district schools and privately managed charter schools can work as a system? It’s the same scenario. My analogy isn’t perfect; charter operators argue that district schools do not, in fact, provide a quality product for everyone; hence the creation of a “choice” system. But of course what ends up happening is that charters “choose” their students in the long run and shed the rest, who often return to the district schools. It’s part of the business model of which the entire charter sector is based, and it’s an effective way to sabotage a public good. Unlike public entities, no business exists to serve high quality to all. It can’t happen. Can everyone buy a Porsche? (sorry, that one doesn’t come with an engine). In contrast, there are plenty of businesses that serve low-quality to most. (Pepsi and Dominos Pizza).

One can also argue that, unlike Crystal Geyser, charters in California operate as non-profits. That feel-good nonprofit label is a tax designation that means their profits don’t go to shareholders, but instead are supposed to be “invested” back into the business. But as we have seen, these investments can include all kinds of money-making opportunities: high admin salaries, big consulting contracts handed out to friends and relations, exorbitant rents paid out to leasing companies owned by friends and relations, etc. No oversight. The usual. All for the kids…

In conclusion, the idea that “Turning charters into the Wolf that guards and hunts with you in lean times, rather than than the one that eats you” is an unenforceable, feel-good platitude at best, and nothing more than a rationale for more charter giveaways. In the business world, they don’t call it “Dog Eat Dog” for nothing. The Waltons would be proud.