Education Reform

Charles Siler: A Former Privatizer Changes Sides

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Charles Siler had excellent credentials to work in the privatization movement. In this article, he explains why he switched sides. To learn more about Charles Siler, watch this video in which I interviewed him.

Confessions of a Former Privatizer Why I Don’t Want to Eradicate Public Schools Anymore

I spent years working to privatize public schools. I realized that I was wrong, and am now proud to call myself a public education advocate.

By Charles Siler

Nearly all my life I believed public schools were obstacles to success, achievement, and social mobility for individuals and our society as a whole. And it wasn’t just schools. This was my belief about nearly all government activity. I saw government agencies as little more than hives of self-serving bureaucrats looking for ways to increase their budgets by robbing more and more money from taxpayers, all while standing in the way of innovation and success.

My view of government, including “government schools,” was in many ways a reflection of my upbringing. I was raised by evangelical Christians, with a father who descended from slave owners and who attended schools in Mississippi before the state had fully integrated them. The words “[Robert E.] Lee surrendered, but I didn’t!”were emblazoned on a trinket that hung off the family car keys. This tongue-in-cheek joke that wasn’t entirely a joke captured the ethos of our familial and social circles.

As we saw it, a strong government meant outsiders imposing limitations on us and got in the way of people living their lives. A strong federal government, after all, had freed our slaves. That same strong federal government told us how to run our elections and forced us to integrate our schools.

I left home and joined the military before heading to college. By that time my anti-government views had transitioned from general critiques steeped in the Lost Cause myth I’d grown up with to economic and social policies that I could back up with evidence and reasoned philosophy. I was drawn to libertarianism, so I headed to George Mason University to study economics. It was a fitting choice, as the department had been designed to develop young talent who could recast the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy, including the school choice fight against desegregation into clinical academic language, bolstered by dispassionate “evidence.”

I was only 30 years old but I’d already had a lifetime of conditioning, some I was born into, much I’d sought out on my own. I was convinced that people were their most liberated and most able to define their own lives when they were given as much individual freedom as possible without the intervention of governments or the “whims” of majority rule. A common refrain I heard and was fond of repeating was that “Absolute democracy is four wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.” Unions were just as much part of the problem as far as I was concerned, as they enabled people to form large groups and decide what others could or couldn’t do.

To me, public school represented everything that was wrong with our society. Our K-12 schools were a massive government bureaucracy staffed by union members that children were compelled to attend and adults were forced to pay for with their taxes. If I was going to help make the country a better place for everyone, I had to pitch in and help take down public schools. 

By now you’ve probably noticed that I brought a certain arrogance to my mission. That’s because I was convinced that I was working to make people better off. But I was also frustrated by the positive opinions that so many people seemed to have about public education as well as government programs, including Social Security and Medicare. People didn’t understand what was truly best for them. And that arrogance defined my work and the privatization movement more generally.

Even as I pursued my mission with zeal, I was beginning to experience doubts about whether the policies I was pushing really were improving people’s lives. For one thing, the “evidence” that I was so fond of pointing to when I argued with public school defenders was actually pretty hard to find. That’s because pro-privatization groups like the ones I worked for and alongside fight with incredible vigor to block any efforts to collect data on privatization programs. When data was available, I could see for myself that the programs I was selling rarely seemed to produce academic benefits for students, even as they increased inequity. I knew that data could always be cherry-picked to make pro-privatization arguments—it was what I did for a living—but it was increasingly hard for me to deny what I could see with my own eyes: privatization is bad for students, for communities, and economies.

Confronting the reality of the work I’d been doing in conservative/libertarian policy circles wasn’t easy. Fortunately I had a network of friends who supported me through my crisis of conscience. But it was a chance encounter that really pressed me to deepen my reexamination of my beliefs and would lead me to become an advocate for public schools. One evening I dropped by a public debate on privatization in order to catch up with a former colleague who advocated for school vouchers. I ended up running into Dawn Penich-Thacker, my former supervisor when I’d worked in public affairs for the military who’d since gone on to co-found Save Our Schools Arizona. 

More than a decade had passed since we’d worked together, and here we were on opposite sides of school voucher expansion in Arizona. That encounter marked the resumption of my friendship with Dawn. It also forced me to engage in a much more critical examination of school privatization than I’d ever done before. Here was someone who I liked and respected, and who believed passionately that privatizing schools wasn’t empowering parents at all, and had reams of data to back up her argument. Study after study showed a lack of academic improvement for students in school privatization programs, school privatization programs increased segregation, they increased discrimination, they were more succeptible to fraud, and so on. I had no choice but to admit that I’d been wrong.

I’d reached a turning point in my life. When Arizona legislators passed a universal school measure, something I would have cheered as a privatization advocate, I joined the opposition. I signed up with Save Our Schools Arizona, becoming one of the countless volunteers who helped defeat the voucher measure at the polls in 2018 by a 2-to-1 margin. I also did what I could to support Save Our Schools’ policy efforts, using the lobbying and communications skills I’d honed as a privatization advocate on behalf of public education.

Working with SOSAZ was profoundly inspiring to me. It is an incredible organization of volunteers, and seeing so many people pouring so much of themselves into fighting for their communities has galvanized me to become more deeply involved. It has also been incredibly frustrating to encounter the political machine I used to be a part of. The movement to privatize schools and indeed all public goods can feel overwhelming with its persistence, its reach, and its political influence.

Despite this, I have a lot of hope for the future. The politicians that the privatizers bankroll have gone too far, and people are getting more engaged, not to mention enraged, as a result. In other words, I am seeing cracks in the privatization army that I used to be part of. And as grassroots resistance gets stronger, the movement is gasping for wins. They’re also having to attack democracy itself in a more coordinated effort just to hold onto the gains they’ve made. Sensing that the door is closing, they are grasping for as much as they can before it’s too late. That’s why there is so much frenetic activity at the state level right now. These are the desperate reaches of a movement in crisis. 

I’m convinced that the pendulum is set to swing back in support of public institutions and public schools. While the fight is exhausting and often dispiriting, this is actually an exciting time to be an advocate for public schools. Diverse communities are more engaged than ever and are helping shape conversations about the future of public education. People are paying more and more attention to local elections, including school board races.

There are many of you reading this who have been fighting for public schools way longer, and more effectively, than I have. While I can’t know the exhaustion and despair many of you must feel at this point, I hope that you see the light ahead. Hopefully together we can turn the tide on school privatization. I’m proud to finally join you in fighting for our communities and our future.

Charles Siler formerly worked for the pro-voucher Goldwater Institute in Arizona. He now advises pro-public education groups and candidates.

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