Big business has state prisons, wants schools, too

Published 10:23 am Tuesday, January 30, 2018

By Charlie Mitchell

Lobbyists have been around as long as there have been lawmaking bodies. Once they were seeking favorable rules and regulations for the private economy. Today, more and more, lobbyists are seeking customers.

Federal and state governments — including Mississippi — spend billions every year with private enterprise, increasingly handing off jobs traditionally done by government. “Contracting out” keeps expanding. This state’s lawmakers are rallying behind the banner of “school choice” as the next big step.

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Some observers hail the trend; others are more cautious. Either way, the trend is real: Where government sees obstacles, entrepreneurs see opportunity.

Take food service in the state’s network of 22 public and private prisons for example. A recent Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Committee review shows Mississippi’s provider, a multinational corporation, being paid $34 million per year.

The noble idea is to save taxpayer funds. Shedding responsibility as a side benefit. Today, if a lawmaker is being told prison food is bad, the lawmaker can shift the blame to Aramark, the food contractor.

The company has a compelling story. It traces its roots to 1932 Los Angeles where founder Davre Davidson sold food while driving around in a Dodge automobile. Today, Aramark operates in 21 countries, has 270,000 employees and a stock price that risen during the past five years from $23 per share to $46. Aramark, which charges a measly $3 per day per adult prisoner, is prosperous.

This year, immediately after the House passed legislation to change the way Mississippi’s public schools are funded, legislation was introduced to expand existing school choice options. The idea is touted as increasing opportunities for parents to make sure their children, especially impaired or at-risk children, are enrolled in the best possible schools. Often the alternative schools are charter schools, and legislation allows the dollars that would have gone to the local public school to follow students into the new classroom.

In the ideal vision, a charter school evokes local control, dedicated teachers, modern, well-lit facilities, good discipline and a caring cadre of parents, administrators and other supporters totally focused on excellence. Some charter schools fit that description to a T. But most charter school enterprises are multinational corporations. They may aim for excellence, but they have to answer to stockholders, too.

Mississippi lawmakers would do well to engage in more research. Michigan has had charter schools for 25 years. It’s the national leader with about 80 percent of all schools operating under charters. Also, most New Orleans schools became charter schools in the aftermath of Katrina.

The perfect solution to underperforming schools? Mississippi put its toe in the water for charter schools in 2010, and already results are mixed.

Two years ago, The New York Times reported this: “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.”

Back to the PEER report on Aramark. It certainly isn’t an indictment, but consider the nature of the flaws that were noted:

• Aramark is not providing the staffing levels required by the contract and, in some locations, subbing out work and consolidating positions.

• Aramark is using its own training process as opposed to the specified MDOC training for interacting with inmates.

• Under the contract each meal must meet acceptable nutritional standards, but there is no external review of whether the requirement is being met.

• While most kitchens passed inspection, one was closed by the Mississippi Department of Health and there was a five-month period during which MDOC did not have records for another.

See? Each of those indicates an emphasis on income at the expense of service.

It’s great to see so many parents committed to seeking the best possible learning situation for their children, but there’s every reason to be cautious.

An example from Florida, where state law requires charter schools to be non-profit but they operate under a for-profit parent, shows how bollixed some of the financing becomes. There, PolitiFact reported last year, “The charter-school solution was originally touted as a way to give families — particular those in low-income areas — another option for schooling. Critics say too many taxpayer dollars have been shifted to the private companies that run charter schools to the detriment of traditional public schools.”

Mississippi lawmakers appear determined to turn over more and more control of public schools. In so doing, they may happily wash their hands. But will schools be better?

The record shows Mississippi is late to the party. Many states have grabbed onto “choice” as a panacea and, billions of dollars later, found themselves no better off.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at