At the National Opportunity to Learn Education Summit earlier in December, Diane Ravitch (PDF) explained how a false civil rights rhetoric came to be attached to charter schools rather than to public schools accessible to everyone:
When I was active a decade ago with the Manhattan Institute, which is led by conservative business leaders, it was decided that the best way to market charter schools was to present them as a way to save minority children. This strategy, it was believed, would win liberal support for a very conservative idea. They were right. Liberals could not resist this narrative.
So today we see Wall Street hedge funders and billionaires saying that they are leading the civil rights movement of our time. I have trouble imagining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., walking arm in arm with billionaires in a crusade to privatize control of public education. Dr. King understood that social movements need a mass base, and that they are not based in Wall Street. He knew that the civil rights movement depended on its moral authority as well as its ability to mobilize poor and working people in coalition with labor unions. He had no desire to privatize. He wanted to make private interests bow to the demands of the public interest. As I watch rightwing politicians doing their best to destroy the public sector unions, I recall that Dr. King was assassinated at the very time that he was fighting to organize the sanitation workers of Memphis. How dare they invoke his legacy to attack public education and public sector workers!
We know—or we should know—that poor and minority children should not have to depend on the good will and beneficence of the private sector to get a good education. The free market works very well in producing goods and services, but it works through competition. In competition, the weakest fall behind. The market does not produce equity. In the free market, there are a few winners and a lot of losers. Some corporate reformers today advocate that schools should be run like a stock portfolio: Keep the winners and sell the losers. Close schools where the students have low scores and open new ones. But this doesn’t help the students who are struggling.
The evidence shows, as Ravitch reviews in her talk, that "[o]n the whole—and study after study shows this—charters don’t get different results from regular public schools," that "[t]he market does not produce equity," that the market-based reforms beloved of the corporate reformers do not shrink the gaps in achievement between rich and poor or black and white, that the tests we have now don't tell us which teachers are good and which are bad. But it's important also to remember the breathtaking cynicism with which these so-called reforms are being marketed.