In December, we were treated to two very interesting but seemingly unconnected events. One happening created large headlines and continued a nearly two-year long controversy. The other generated a few stories but was otherwise unnoticed on evening news programs.
Upon closer examination, the two events are very much related, and when you examine them together, they provide us a lesson to apply in the current political upheaval in this country.
But wait: the warning signal these two disparate stories generate is more important than what might be visible on the surface.
The first event was the waves made by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, when he revealed new indictments in the ongoing Flint water scandal. The New York Times put it this way:
Announcing the charges at a banquet center not far from the Flint River, Bill Schuette, the state’s attorney general, described “a fixation on finances and balance sheets” as at the root of what happened in Flint, where the water has been tied to the lead poisoning of children and the deaths of 12 people from Legionnaires’ disease.
The Michigan Attorney General, a Republican, minced no words about the Flint disaster. Here is his very clear observation:
All too prevalent in this Flint water investigation was a priority on balance sheets and finances rather than health and safety of the citizens of Flint.
It is the second event in December that proves to be more subtle than the Flint imbroglio, and that makes it troublesome. Donald Trump, the new president-elect, has said on several occasions that he prefers to keep his private security firm in place to work with the Secret Service as part of his protective detail.
As befits nearly all of Trump’s thinking, this is a very bad idea.
“It’s playing with fire,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent. He elaborated:
You never want to commingle a police function with a private security function.
Commingle. Let’s get back to that word a bit later for one of the lessons we need to learn and apply.
When we connect these two events and think deeply about the lesson each provides, the combination of the two becomes a powerful model of how to identify misguided public policy and hopefully avoid its consequences. Here is a look at each.
The Flint Lesson
If you skimp on public services and are concerned almost exclusively about finances and balance sheets, as the attorney general noted, you wind up poisoning a city’s water supply, as happened in Michigan’s seventh largest city. But if you extend that mindset into other operational areas of civic life, the corrosive effect on other public functions is to be expected.
This possible consequence is mentioned because a sizable number of the populace believes that charter schools are a more economical delivery system than traditional public schools. Amazingly, a high percentage of the public have the belief that charters are a more cost effective approach of providing education with public dollars, including some influential Ohio politicians. These pols are fervent proponents of low teacher salary charters that otherwise reward school management with big salaries from savings gained by paying teachers well below the salary scale found in public school districts.
The Flint debacle, we have been told, was driven by an obsession with the bottom line rather than with public health outcomes. And with privately run charters proliferating and management companies like K12 being traded on the New York Stock Exchange, there should be a lesson here for citizens to become more vigilant and engage the cheerleaders of charterdom about their obsession with the privatization of a public function.
The imposing rubble of more than 200 failed Ohio charter schools (at link, click on schools/community schools that have closed) should provide a lesson about the folly of commingling private school management with public education functions and describing the amalgam as public. For those who believe that such low-wage and alleged low-cost schools are beneficial to the public treasury, it might be helpful to view a classic 1972 commercial and its profound message, “pay me now or pay me later.”
The Private Security Lesson
There have been a number of reports during the presidential campaign about the aggressive nature of Donald Trump’s private security detail. As Vanity Fair reported recently on Trump’s hired guns:
Trump’s private guards have also acted at times in an apparently extralegal capacity, allegedly using racial profiling to target protesters at rallies, and reportedly using physical force to expel them when Trump points them out. [One guard] has been involved in nearly every instance in which Trump has publicly called for the ejection of protesters from his rallies, and can be spotted next to Trump during public appearances.
The private security detail idea also didn’t sit well with former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who believes it is one sign of “impending tyranny.”
On the New Year’s Day edition of Face the Nation, former George W. Bush speechwriter and The Atlantic Senior Editor David Frum, continued his warnings about the danger of a presidential private security force, saying that “private bodyguards paid for by (Trump) rather than by the state” flies in the face of tradition and a democratic form of government.
What Reich, Frum and other critics of Trump’s own personal security detail are saying is that a private entity is not subject to the same level of transparency, accountability and oversight as the Secret Service – the very same type of criticism that has been leveled against charters.
In looking at so many challenges that have arisen in the past year, Frum added another ominous note. “We are living through a crisis of democracy,” he said, “unlike anything seen since the Second World War.”
The Larger Lesson
When we look at the tragedy of Flint, it is important to remember that the decision-maker who determined that the city water supply could be switched from lake water to a river source was not the elected mayor of the city. An emergency manager appointed by the governor of Michigan, under the terms of a state law that allows state intervention in locales which are experiencing fiscal stress, made the fateful choice to switch the city water supply. With this kind of thinking, city councils and mayors’ offices, though elected by the voters, don’t count. But someone from the outside – an agent put in place to privatize and compartmentalize the decision-making apart from elected officials – has gravitas. Surely this is an example of a crisis of democracy.
Similarly, with Donald Trump’s insistence that he will use his own private security force to operate parallel with the public Secret Service and thus “commingle a police function with a private security function,” mirrors the same mentality that says you can deliver public education with both charter schools and public schools. As Secret Service Agent Wicklow said, when you commingle functions, you’re “playing with fire.”
A city of 100,000 people had its water supply poisoned, and months later, the new president said he will keep his own private security force, allowing it to act with less restraint than the professional – and public – U.S. Secret Service. But while these were two separate events, we must examine them together for a greater meaning.
There are indeed lessons for us here. We should think twice about turning over our schools to less accountable, less transparent private management companies and to people who are hand-picked and not elected to a governing board by the community. But we also should understand that just as accountants and external auditors may not care for commingled assets that make their job of oversight more difficult, we should also not commingle corporate charter schools with traditional community schools and call it public education.
Thanks to Attorney General Schutte, Secretary Reich, Editor Frum and Agent Wicklow for providing the framework for an important lesson that we must learn.
An obsession with balance sheets and privatization, when mixed together with other vital civic functions like ensuring clean, safe water and providing responsive, effective public schools, does not serve a clear, proper public purpose. If anything, the result is an unclear toxic concoction that is inimical to effective public policy.
No community needs a water supply that corrodes the pipes which bring the water to a city. Similarly, commingling the public education function with corporate charter schools and traditional community schools, both paid for with public funds, is also corrosive to communities and will create a “crisis of democracy.”
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.