“The government should be run like a great American company.”
We’ve heard this tired, oft-repeated saw before. And if you follow this reasoning, those who come out of a corporate environment, as we are told by Jared Kushner and his father-in-law, possess training and knowledge superior to anyone else’s life experience.
But in our fact-free world of the present, should we ever totally believe this supposed truism?
Nope. But we can thank none other than The Donald for destroying a myth deeply embedded in our consciousness.
But why are people still believing this myth? Yes, even when Donald Trump, the supposed talented, decisive CEO, the archetype of the effective Corporate America exec, proves every day that his glaring incompetence belies this nonsense.
Yes, who would have thought that Donald Trump could ever teach us anything, other than how to give a grand performance as a serial liar? Better yet, who could dream that the ethically challenged real estate tycoon and reality TV star could motivate people into thinking that his incompetence might provide us other lessons?
Trump, an individual who had zero military and government experience going into the White House, arrived in Washington to drain the Potomac swamp and inject corporate values to tame what he claimed was a vast, ineffective bureaucracy. After about 75 days, we now know how skillfully his corporate executive leadership and legendary negotiating skills are, as we have seen them applied from the White House. Or is it now called the Executive Mansion, as it was known in earlier times?
In and out of government and corporate America, we all know about deal making, but when it comes to leadership, Trump knows nothing about that art. In the end, Trump, however unintentionally, is teaching us that governance is an art form that is not automatically acquired through experience in the board room and executive suite, but through some experience in government itself.
As we consider Trump’s glaring incompetence and distorted view about the purpose of government, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, in an article aptly titled Why Trump Shouldn’t Run America Like A Business, was somewhat gentle in his analysis of the narcissistic CEO and his performance to date.
It’s good to have fresh thinking about how government might function more efficiently. But it’s important to remember that government is not a business. The purpose of government is not to show a profit. It is to achieve the common good.
It appears that Trump’s top-down corporate approach to leadership and his disastrous attempt to govern a now divided and angry electorate has spawned some apologists.
“No one expected a businessman to completely understand the nuances, the complicated ins and outs of Washington and its legislative process,” Jeanine Pirro, the firebrand Fox News commentator, said of Trump after the healthcare vote fiasco, as she blamed Speaker Paul Ryan for the debacle.
Really? No one expected a profoundly unqualified narcissist businessman and abusive individual with a history of bankruptcies and no government or military experience to understand the importance of collaboration and principled leadership as essential in governance?
Perhaps the most visible, yet challenged apologist of all is Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who on March 30 telegraphed the Trump Administration’s disdain for the collaboration so necessary for success in governance. “…[W]e are not as obsessed with the process as much as the substance,” he replied in answer to a reporter’s question.
But process is key in government, and Trump’s mismanagement is aggravating the chaos that is the White House. “It reveals a chasm of ignorance about how stuff is done,” said Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and National Security Agency.
You’d think that with all of the bad reviews pouring in about the performance of this crew, you might expect some moderation. But that seems too much to ask for a discordant gaggle to realize that in order to deliver a substantive product, there is a collaborative and not a top-down process involved in the work of governance.
Several months ago, Plunderbund informed its readers about the essential nature of experience in ensuring success in government:
The story is told that after Lyndon Johnson attended his first meetings early in the new administration of John F. Kennedy, he was in awe of the talent and abundant Ivy League pedigrees of those seated around the table. When he told his mentor, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, about how impressed he was with the JFK team, the Speaker replied.
“I’d feel a lot better if some of them had run for sheriff just once,” the wily Texas sage observed.
In watching the floundering, slow-motion train wreck that is the Trump Administration, devoid of experience in governance and collaboration, I was reminded of my own experience during the course of four years in serving as a state monitor for charter schools in the Ohio state education agency. Upon reflection, there are indeed some parallels to apply with regard to the formation of Trump in his expected role and those for some charter school administrators.
We know, of course, that there are only age and citizenship requirements for service as president. In the case of requirements for charter school administrators in Ohio, there are none.
Let me repeat that. None.
Unlike traditional school district leaders, where licensure is conveyed after the accrual of classroom teaching experience and the completion of a graduate degree program, there are no educational or licensure requirements for charter school administrators, who variously call themselves superintendents, principals, school leaders, and in some cases, CEOs.
It’s interesting to note that Trump prides himself in using the CEO private sector title, though he is proving to be profoundly unqualified to be the public sector president. (To be fair, what is disturbing is that we also have some school leaders in Ohio, licensed school administrators with proven experience as school superintendents, who also use the CEO title. Perhaps the Trump debacle will disabuse them of continuing to think in those terms, for the title of superintendent is one that is historically associated with public education, not a corporate version of same.) Few would argue, however, that Trump has been successful in one respect – that of giving the concept of CEO a bad name and image.
In the case of some charter school administrators, those who come most readily to mind are a group which became school developers, found an authorizer, and then somehow opened schools that quickly crashed and burned, after these CEOs/school leaders paid themselves a handsome salary and benefits. Those charter schools, who in my memory generated the loudest noise with their abysmal failure, just happened to have as their CEOs or school heads individuals who had little educational attainment or professional licensure to ensure the success of what some labeled as “the enterprise.”
“I have a vision” about the school I want to establish, these individuals variously told me as they went through the process of opening a school, with “free” public federal and state start-up money on the table. (They were already in contract with an authorizer by the time I met them, so as a consultant, I could only perform a silent Edvard Munch Scream.)
Unfortunately, one person’s vision may be another person’s nightmare. One of these high-priced and highly-paid “visionaries” was so clueless that he had a habit of calling me constantly for advice about how to proceed and what to do. After he somehow acquired my cellphone number and started calling me at home after a long day at work, and including one Saturday evening while I was dining, I informed him that he had reached his limit.
“Don’t call me again,” I told him in the most direct fashion. “Call your sponsor for advice. You’re paying yourself more than I receive as a salaried state employee.”
You guessed it. This school and its visionary crashed about six months after that Saturday night telephone call.
As I started to see Trump foundering on the rocks of a non-reality show called governance and national leadership, it made me think of those several charter school visionaries who, without any minimum educational and licensure requirements, arrived in time to scoop up the “free” federal and state start-up money that was conveniently on the table. It was time to take the money and run.
And crash and burn.
Is it a coincidence that Donald Trump seems to be crashing and burning right now? Or, more importantly, what can we learn from the world of charterdom and its unqualified visionaries, along with the world of demagoguery, as evidenced by the unqualified Donald Trump?
Is it now apparent that before someone seeks the highest office in the land, they should be humbled, then seasoned, by first running for and serving as sheriff, school board member, county commissioner, congressman, governor, or senator?
Is it also a good idea that someone have teaching experience and a school administrator professional license before serving as a charter school leader, superintendent, or, here’s that term again, CEO?
As to Jared Kushner and his father-in-law – let alone the anti-education Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos – since when is the government supposed to be run like a business? While we’re at it, when are schools supposed to be run like businesses? Or have we forgotten that schools are learning communities, where collaboration among many professionals rather than corporate top-down directives, informs teaching and learning? Where informed, literate, caring and thoughtful citizens are the expected product, rather than profit and bottom-line thinking.
“The business of our nation is business,” Calvin Coolidge famously said. But today, more than ever, the business of this nation needs to be about transparency, accountability, professional conduct, ethical behavior, and honoring the processes necessary that are part of public participation and governance in our republic.
When you inject those critical elements that must be present in the equation, that more than likely precludes the consideration of privately operated schools as worthy repositories of public funds. We must therefore affirm that public schools should never be considered a business, but it must be our business to ensure that the learning communities which are our public schools do not wind up being absorbed into someone’s private business enterprise.
After what we are going through now, and mindful of the Crash of 2008, let alone the Crash of 1929 shortly after Coolidge’s tenure, should we be thinking more of Sam Rayburn’s advice, rather than advice of the taciturn Silent Cal?
In all of the incompetence that he has amply demonstrated so far, we do owe Donald Trump a favor for teaching us that public schools and private corporations should not be considered in the same terms.
There is just a bit more advice to offer.
Mr. Trump, you should have run for sheriff first. As for you, Mr. Charter School Developer, teach a few years and get experience in the classroom and a professional license before you get one of those visions. And don’t call anyone at home on Saturday night to help you figure out what to do next.
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.