Sunday, November 2, 2014

Corporate Public Schools! It's Going to be Great!

Last week I visited the first completely corporate public school system in the country. For years, corporate crusaders have been claiming that breaking the “public school monopoly” and bringing business efficiency to education will only improve results.

So it was that I found myself seated in the office of the superintendent of the Enron City Schools in Enron, Texas.

Glancing out a window, I couldn’t help but notice three oil wells pumping on the front lawn of the administration building.

The superintendent, Henry Clay Frick, explained. “Here in Enron, we believe business principles applied to education will always bring good. So we have a lucrative deal with British Petroleum to pump oil from under the schools.

“Yeah, what could go wrong with that,” I replied, faking a smile.

Frick wondered if I might like a tour and led the way out to the parking lot and we jumped in his Lamborghini. I asked how an administrator could afford such a beautiful automobile. He admitted corporate education was different. First, there were no pesky unions demanding raises or fringe benefits for teachers. “In Enron, we pay for talent,” he explained. “Our top executives earn more because, frankly, they work harder.”

When I asked how much more, Frick said his district copied the K-12 Inc. model, a successful for-profit charter school chain. “Our eight top executives earn a combined $21.37 million,”

I do some quick calculating. If the average Texas teacher earns $50,179, then administrators made as much as 426 classroom teachers.

“It’s not easy running an efficient corporate school system,” Frick claimed as we pulled up in front of the high school. “We need money to lobby politicians, so sometimes we have to cut costs in other ways. Luckily, almost all our money comes from state coffers, so when we pay lobbyists, taxpayers foot the bill.”

“How much do you budget for lobbying?”

“We’re not quite where we need to be,” Frick replied. “We’re competing with for-profit charter operators like David Brennan, who runs White Hat Schools in Ohio, and who hopes to expand into every state. In the last eight years he’s donated $3.8 million to fifty-one politicians.”

Moments later, we enter the building. Admittedly, Enron High is neat and clean. The janitor sweeping the hall is obviously a “special needs” individual.

“We in Enron are committed to helping those who require a hand up, not a handout,” Frick says, following my gaze. “All our janitors are severely handicapped—supplied to us by Henry’s Turkey Service.”

“Aren’t they the guys that shipped disabled workers to Iowa for thirty years to work in meat packing plants?”

“Exactly,” Frick agreed. “And we use their system. We house our janitors in a bunkhouse behind the school. We charge rent, charge for meals….”

“How much do they earn when you subtract for food and lodging?”

“Oh, I would estimate about the same as the Iowa workers,” Frick says. “Around forty cents an hour.”

We head down the hall. Stopping a moment, I listen as an American history class goes over material that is expected to be on the next round of standardized tests. There are probably a hundred students crammed into the room. Frick is happy to explain. “Pack ‘em in, we say here in Enron. It’s the same as the airlines. “We even charge a $50 fee if students want to bring book bags to class.”

I offer a wan smile.

I notice a plaque over the door of the history room. It turns out the school copies the business model of the San Francisco 49ers. That means selling naming rights to everything you might imagine. This class meets in the Axe Body Wash Room. There’s also the Reynolds Tobacco Media Center and the Flo-Max Faculty Men’s Restroom. (Frick says later the school is thinking about requiring students to wear uniforms, and he is working hard on an exclusive contract with the Abercrombie and Fitch people.)

Frick soon asks if I would like to tour any of his other schools, and fifteen minutes later we pull up in front of Lehman Brothers Elementary School, I notice a maintenance worker resting a moment beside a lawn tractor. I stop to ask what he most enjoys about working for Enron Schools. He stares at me blankly.

“Oh, that’s Juan,” Frick nudges me. “We need to make a profit, you know. Don’t say I told you, but we hire all kinds of undocumented workers. Man, if you pay them under the table, those guys work cheap!”

“We’re just like the Gulen chain of charter schools,” Frick adds with a laugh. This time, I don’t even try to fake a smile.

As you tour the Enron Schools, you have to be impressed. A stop in the cafeteria at lunch reveals another truth. Junk food = big money. Students may no longer bring food from home. It’s like going to a movie theater. You can order a large Coke for $4.50. (It looks like they’re handing you a bucket.) Or maybe you’d like the special: hamburgers—only $3.50. Frick winks as we go through the line and advises me to skip the burgers.

(He admits later that the meat came from a company that was perhaps bending a few regulations and selling meat from diseased cows.)

Our last stop for the day takes us to Michael Milken Middle School. Frick is proud of the new system and outlines a few of the ways a profit can be squeezed when it comes to students. Each school has an office set aside for a representative of Pearson, the successful maker of standardized tests. Huge piles of cash are there to be grabbed—so one business scratches the back of another—and Pearson sends state education commissioners and Enron leaders to cool education conferences in places like Rio de Janeiro. And what do you know! Pearson now holds the contract to supply more and more tests to Texas schools.

“There’s some huge money right there,” Frick grins. “The Pearson contract is worth $468 million per year.”

Time is growing short, so we hurry along. I see barrels of toxic chemicals stacked in a corner of the art room. Safety costs money. So Enron cuts corners when it must. To cover their tracks they copy the Massey Energy model, meaning there are two sets of safety books, one for company use and the other to dupe inspectors. True: occasionally a few people get blown to bits, but what’s a corporate school supposed to do? Not make gigantic profits?

“We’ve pretty much monetized everything,” Frick says as we finally head back to his office. “If parents can’t pay fees or afford school supplies, we encourage them to take out payday loans. I’m proud to say we’ve copied First Premier Bank of South Dakota when it comes to lunch charges. We allow families to open accounts but cap charge limits at $300. They pay $95 to create the account and a $75 annual service fee.”

“’d be looking at an APR of…67%?”

“We’ve also adopted the discipline system of the Noble Charter Schools up in Chicago,” Frick says, changing the subject. “We charge students who get into trouble for ‘discipline packets.’ What a corporate business model! Noble pulled down $188,000 in discipline fines and fees in just one school year.

“You probably noticed how few discipline problems we have, too,” Frick continued. “We’ve been following the Jansen Pharmaceutical Model. If our nurse thinks a child has behavioral issues she makes sure that child is given a prescription for anti-psychotic drugs. 

“Man, sales are up!”

“Isn’t there evidence some of these drugs have dangerous side effects and that children may die as a result?”

I think Frick suddenly realizes I may be some sort of commie agitator. “Jansen keeps only the finest doctors (and our school nurse) on its payroll and those doctors issue reports to show that these drugs are completely safe,” he says defensively. “And, naturally, our well-compensated school nurse agrees. Just because some Arkansas court fined Jansen $1.2 billion dollars for lying….”

Frick’s voice trails off. I glance at my watch and see it’s really time to go. I thank him for his time and ask one final question.

“Is there any way you think you can still improve profit margins in the Enron City Schools?”

He puzzles over the matter a moment. “If only we could copy the cost-cutting methods of Apple Inc., which operates a number of factories in China.”

“You mean,” I grimace, “violating overtime rules, child labor, workers penned in behind barbed wire….”

“Child labor...if only,” Frick says wistfully. This time he doesn’t smile. “You want cheaper iPads—or cheaper education—you have to make tough decisions.” He gets a faraway look and I hear him mutter, “There must be a way to outsource jobs in American education….”

I bid a goodbye and soon find myself driving north on Interstate-35, back toward Cincinnati, Ohio. “I have seen the future of corporate education,” I tell myself, paraphrasing Lincoln Steffens. “And it works.”

Really, this is going to be great.

Logo for the Enron Public Schools: Endless possibilities...for profiting!

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