“[T]he chief business of the American people is business,” President Calvin Coolidge famously said in a 1925 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. While many have taken issue with that assessment, the impress of business on much of American life cannot be denied. That is particularly true of American education.
In his book New Demands in Education (1912), the education scholar and administrator James Phinney Munroe illustrated how influential business had already become in shaping the nation’s approach to schooling. “We need ‘educational engineers’ to study the huge business of preparing youth for life,” Munroe wrote, “to find out where it is good, where it is wasteful, where it is out of touch with modern requirements, where and why its output fails; and to make report in such form and with such weight of evidence that the most conventional teacher and the most indifferent citizen must pay heed." In Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1962), the historian Raymond Callahan traced the development of this ethos to the simultaneous domination of local school boards by businessmen in the early twentieth century and the embrace of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s message of scientific management.
Milton Friedman’s advocacy of vouchers as a means of improving education through competition between schools for teachers as well as students clearly belongs to this same narrative, as does the notorious 1983 report A Nation at Risk, claiming a decline in the quality of American schooling threatened the country’s economic security. The ill-fated faith on Wall Street in the 1990s that for-profit firms like Edison could do a better job than municipalities in running public schools likewise comports with this narrative, as I documented in Education and the Commercial Mindset (2016).
Less obvious but no less important has been the role of business leaders in backing the charter school movement through such organizations as the Charter School Growth Fund and in steering the boards of many charter school networks such as KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Success Academy, IDEA, Noble, Mastery, and Rocketship. In “School Board Privatization: A Case Study of New York City Charter Schools,” Daniel Sparks addresses this development and its implications through a detailed examination of board memberships for the 268 charter schools in operation in the 2020-21 academic year in the five boroughs of New York.
Sparks finds that of the approximately 1,200 board members steering these charter schools, 23 percent work for banks, hedge funds, or private equity groups, 15 percent run businesses, and 10 percent practice law while 17 percent work in education. Sparks, a Ph.D. candidate in Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, observes that these figures do not square with the visions articulated by Ray Budde and Albert Shanker in advocating charter schools in the 1980s. To Budde and Shanker, as Sparks notes, educators were supposed to be at the helm of charter schools, directing them as laboratories for innovative pedagogical practices. The minority status of educators supervising charter schools in New York City as well as much of the country accordingly raises significant questions, argues Sparks, about appropriate school governance.
With a detailed literature review, a thorough examination of New York charter school law regarding governance, and 11 tables exhibiting a range of telling data, Sparks builds impressively on prior scholarship and breaks new ground to advance our understanding of the steadily expanding charter school sector.
Samuel E. Abrams
November 15, 2021