School reform, Benton Harbor, and the Tea Party

Contra John Cole, I don’t think the libertarian reaction to Benton Harbor is really all that important. But I think Jason is missing a fundamental piece of the puzzle in his response as well. I will try to explain.

No Child Left Behind was the beginning of a new era in school reform. Oddly, though it was a Republican president who set the wheel in motion, the school-choice and accountability movement was largely spearheaded by liberals and by liberal corporate reformers affiliated with the big foundations such as the Broad and Gates foundations. This is important, because what materialized over the past ten or so years was a convergence of liberal, libertarian, and conservative forces all centered around these ideas. Suddenly public employee unions were under fire, not just from the usual quarters, but from Democratic leaders as well. And when I say public employee unions, what I mean is teacher’s unions.

At the height of this movement, with Michelle Rhee in D.C. and No Child Left Behind morphing into Race to the Top another phenomenon emerges: the Tea Party. Suddenly small government conservatism (and the Tea Party is a conservative movement, not a libertarian one as far as I’m concerned) is in fashion again, and with the economy in the dumps and a bunch of pension funds across the country badly bruised by the financial collapse – well let’s just say the stars aligned. Democrats had been pushing an anti-union school reform agenda, the Tea Party was mobilized, and even Hollywood had joined in with films like Waiting for Superman.

Then, in 2010 the Republican Party rode the Tea Party wave to victory across the country. In state after state, Republicans suddenly controlled the legislature and the governorship. Seeing chinks in the armor of collective bargaining all across the country – chinks largely left by the neoliberal school reform movement – Republicans began hastily drawing up legislation to weaken the unions. I say hastily, because I think they realized that the long-slumbering Democrats might just wake up once they saw the danger.

So in Wisconsin we have the massive protests as Scott Walker sweeps in to end collective bargaining for teachers, opens up the floodgates not only for public charters, but also for private virtual schools. In Florida, the Tea Party governor Rick Scott slashes nearly $2 billion from public education and implements a strict testing regime that could cost local school districts another $2 billion. And in Michigan, Tea Party governor Rick Snyder enacts legislation that allows him to declare any municipality or school district in a state pf financial crisis and appoint a private citizen to come in, fire elected officials, unilaterally change or abolish contracts, break up unions, and control all finances including state and federal grants. This emergency manager cannot be sued, and reports only to the governor.

This is just the logical next step in a long bipartisan succession of efforts to undo teacher unions across the country – from San Diego to New York City to Washington, D.C.  School reformers sneer at democracy and implement top-down measures with little input from parents, teachers, or communities. Schools are closed and charters opened. Teachers are fired based on test scores rather than actual human evaluations. Students are measured based on their ability to take a test. This is all labeled as ‘accountability’. Lots of money pours in from the Gates and Broad foundations and from hedge funds and other deep pockets. Lots of people make lots of money.

To me, it is not so much that libertarians did not speak out against the actions of Rick Snyder. I’m sure some did. I’m not a referee of libertarian thought. What bothers me is that the ideas fueling this education reform movement are all libertarian ideas – choice, competition, accountability, privatization – and yet they are implemented time and again in an illiberal and authoritarian manner. Whether or not the ideas are sound (and I’m not at all sure they are) they are certainly not being carried out in a way that libertarians should approve of – and yet Michelle Rhee and Chris Christie and Joel Klein and all the other tough-guy school reformers are generally considered heroes or martyrs by libertarians. Slap the word “choice” on something, and suddenly all the other elements of the reform movement – all the other ways in which choice has been revoked and the liberty of teachers, parents, and students has been greatly diminished are unimportant, insignificant – either casualties of a just cause or simply ignored. I’m not sure which.

Benton Harbor is just another example. Detroit is another. I don’t think the school reform movement can be accurately called a libertarian movement. It’s not liberal in any sense of the word. It’s corporate reform wearing all the trappings of choice and freedom. I think libertarians should pay more attention to the dark side of these reforms. There are worse things than a public school monopoly after all. Sometimes they come in the form of despotic bureaucrats and megalomaniac mayors who think that enough money and enough force of will can help them remake the American public school system from the top on down. I suppose I am simply far too conservative to believe that they really can. But they can certainly do some damage along the way.

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148 thoughts on “School reform, Benton Harbor, and the Tea Party

  1. I’m not quite sure how to process this. The language swings wildly between liberal, conservative and libertarian. For example,

    “I don’t think the school reform movement can be accurately called a libertarian movement. It’s not liberal in any sense of the word.”

    Maybe that is the intent of the author, to suggest libertarianism is a liberal philosophy. If so it seems like that should have been made more clear in the piece.

    As for the overall theme, am I correct in understanding the core complaint as that libertarians should not support the current school reform movement because it conflicts with their ideals?

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      • Actually, we like to claim that our philosophy is the only liberal one. Modern liberals are more typically paternalists, managerial aristocrats, socialists, or some mixture of the three — often with some true liberalism thrown in, but not nearly enough for our tastes.

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        • Right, which is of course nonsense. The libertarian project is fundamentally about enforcing a natural aristocracy of luck and talent. They are mostly unconcerned with the quintessential liberal project of securing human freedom against the power of others. They mistakenly assume that, just because the state was the primary antagonist when liberalism was founded, no other antagonist is worth worrying about. They also mistakenly assume that the only kind of power that can exist is the kind that comes out of a gun, which is obviously bats.

          To her everlasting credit, Kerry Howley has at least tried to combat this pathology, but her lack of success speaks volumes.

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        • That which we detest in others, they detest in us. Libertarians, like the feckless Communists of yore, believe the State ought to dry up and blow away. The Libertarians play Calvinball and prefer to fight among themselves, as did the Communists for many years, fiery advocates for Freedom, seemingly unable to define what we shall be freed from.

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            • Very true. They are People of Principles, as were the Communists before them. As long as it remains in the realm of theory, it’s hard to disagree with them.

              The most damning thing I ever heard said of anyone in a professional context: “He’s fine with PUSH. But when it comes to POP, he’s all over the place.” If we consider the Declaration of Independence as the opening salvo of Life and Liberty in the abstract, the Constitution proved just how these things inevitably end up in reality, not with a bang but with a whimper.

              Feelings aren’t congruent with facts. I’m a Liberal, not a Libertarian: the Liberal knows how these tasty political sausages are made, and they do not grow on the Tree of Liberty as the Libertarian would tell us.

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              • Eh. Give the communists and libertarians this much: they’re probably more likely to think we need to periodically refresh that Tree of Liberty with the blood of patriots. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

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                • As Communism and the French Revolution taught us, when you’re striving for the smallest, most efficient form of government possible, the one with the fewest rules and best for business, there’s nothing like an autocrat to suit those purposes.

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                  • The common thread here is educrats, quangos and the Democratic Party. I dunno if they’re anti-democratic, but they’re certainly anti-republican.

                    [The Constitution guarantees each state a republican form of government, BTW. Wiki notes:

                    James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”]

                    [Sounds about right.]

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  2. “What bothers me is that the ideas fueling this education reform movement are all libertarian ideas – choice, competition, accountability, privatization – and yet they are implemented time and again in an illiberal and authoritarian manner.”

    Well, they’re all libertarian words anyway. I keep noticing this: government mucky-mucks mouthing libertarian buzzwords in order to fob off on the public things that they don’t likely want without giving them a chance to vote on them. I assume that, by now, some actual libertarian must have written a book about their ideas being co-opted by wonks and bureaucrats, but I haven’t looked for it.

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    • The game is given away here: and yet they are implemented time and again in an illiberal and authoritarian manner.

      Authoritarians are learning that many folks like the idea of libertarian ideas and by appealing to libertarian ideas, the authoritarians can gain power.

      It seems odd to blame this on the libertarian ideas.

      But maybe it’s like Marxism. There have been enough piles of bodies created by people spouting Marxist words (but were not *REALLY* Marxists!) that it’s fair to say that someone who starts saying Marxist things is a moral idiot who deserves to be ignored forever.

      Maybe the stink from the mass graves created by libertarians-in-name-only has finally reached our noses.

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    • Exactly. Its very similar to what happens in big companies. Quite sincerely, the senior management of a large firm realise that one of their big problems is that they don’t have information about local cirumstances, so they want to delegate authority to local managers. They talk about choice and accountability, and in extreme cases even internal competition. Local business units get their own accounts and budgets. The trouble is that even if you are sincere about about – and people really are – its almost impossible. Even if you try to run a hierarchical, authoritarian organization as if it were a decentralized, isocratic network, it still fundamentally is a hierarchical authoritarian organization, and any amount of free choice given to local units, can and will be taken away if the people try to pretend not to be running the show see problems.

      For something to really be free, it has to be possible for it to fail disastrously. Very few governments or corporations are able to stand by and watch things over which they have authority fail disastrously without Doing Something.

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      • I’ll give an example of what I mean that hits close to where I live- a lot of state universities are now pushing for more “autonomy” from the state and “freedom” from state control over their decisions. This coincides with those politicians who are pushing for them to be autonomous from public funding, and so it’s pretty popular right about now, even though both sides are talking about two totally different things.

        The idea of academic autonomy and independence and freedom from state control sounds wonderful. The problem is that what this often means, in reality, is what’s going on at one of our local State Universities- the local business community invests in the school through “foundations” (basically lobbying firms) that aim explicitly at making the university into a “local economic engine”- by lobbying the state to increase state funding and also allow the state universities to raise their tuition rates much more quickly than they now allow them to. Of course, all of this is supposed to “empower the academic community” while loosening the grip of the state, but really it’s a scam. It’s all couched as freedom and autonomy and choice and the local university President actually called the traditional state university system “socialist” in one of the press releases. But, if you ask locals if they want the tuition rates to go up more than they already do, while still adding to the billions of dollars the state has already pumped into these universities, they’re not as fond of that choice as one might imagine. Not that they have any say.

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        • Universities as “engines of growth” always scares the crap out of me. Business-people’s idea of what tertiary education should be are invariably wrong. I say this as as a business person. The universities that are truly engines of growth are places like Stanford that have more money than god, and therefore the ability to ignore what anyone wants from them and get on with whatever academics happen to find interesting. If you let business people determine what gets taught, you end up with billions of newly qualified Java programmers with no clue about fundamentals but a very strong expectation of a siz figure salary and a very great deal of debt being unleashed on an unsuspecting world just as the dot com boom collapses and everyone realizes Java is actually not that great of a programming language.

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    • I’m looking for him to explain the values that drive the writing.

      He doesn’t have to reference any ideology at all, and he’s free to propose a new one if he likes. I’d even accept an ad hoc one, as long as it seems at least internally coherent. But clarity about one’s values is … irrelevant to you? Now that’s “sort of amusing.”

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      • Not sure why you’re being this defensive, but I stand by the point that his “values” shouldn’t reflect one way or another on the content of the argument. I don’t see how determining whether he holds an “internally coherent” ideology has much if anything to do with his estimation of the politics of school reform. I’m sorry, but shifting the conversation to being one of political values and other such abstractions rather than the actual specific Governors and policies he opposes seems like a red herring to me.

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      • Exactly so. As an exercise, consider these various explanations of how NCLB relates to libertarianism:

        No Child Left Behind… was a convergence of liberal, libertarian, and conservative forces.

        And then:

        [W]ith Michelle Rhee in D.C. and No Child Left Behind morphing into Race to the Top another phenomenon emerges: the Tea Party. Suddenly small government conservatism (and the Tea Party is a conservative movement, not a libertarian one as far as I’m concerned) is in fashion again.

        The reforms are conservative, now. Did things really change that much? Perhaps. But next up:

        What bothers me is that the ideas fueling this education reform movement are all libertarian ideas.

        Which must conflict with both of the previous claims, each of which is inconsistent with the other.

        I’m not looking for anyone to confirm my ideological biases here. I’d just settle for a little internal consistency.

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  3. No Child Left Behind was authored by Teddy Kennedy. Bush43 took it off the shelf, tore out the funding chapter, scrawed BY GEORGE on the flyleaf in crayon. It was the answer to his promise to be the Education President. Until the day he died, every time Ted Kennedy saw Bush, he’d ask him when he was going to fund NCLB, to the point where it became a joke between the two of them.

    Is the Tea Party a conservative movement? This, I suppose, depends on the definition of Conservative, but my beer-sodden Tea Partiers, jaws a-drop as they encounter the cynical wisdom of the Federalist Papers for the first time, these do not consider themselves conservatives. These angry Minnesotans and one Wisconsinite are fundamentally populists. To be sure, they might exhibit some aspects of the GOP’s faux populism, but the concerns of my Tea Partiers have no roots in modern conservatism. They are deeply angered by the inability of politicians to escape the brutal warping of spacetime as they approach the black hole of Washington DC. My Tea Partiers are sick of GOP condescending and MSM demonizing. They trust nobody now.

    Scott Walker is hardly a Tea Partier. He’s been a creature of the GOP since he was a little boy, a Ronald Reagan Young Fogey. And he’s guilty of nepotism: viz. Valerie Cass and Brian “Double DUI” Deschane. This is not a Tea Partier.

    The teachers’ unions have made their own beds very hard over the last few decades. I believe the teachers ought to be represented by unions, but the union leadership has pushed its weight around for the last time for decades to come. They haven’t done anything for the teachers nor have they done much for the profession. The teachers and students are the big losers: my wife left the profession after 25 years. When a tenured teacher walks away from the profession, something is desperately wrong. Teachers will simply leave the profession in droves and public education as we understand it will become a thing of the past, and we’d better come to terms with that phenomenon in the USA. Politicians will be held accountable at some point and the pendulum will swing again, as it always does in the politics of education.

    As for Benton Harbor, a city of 10,000 poor people goes under. So friggin’ what. I could point to a dozen such mismanaged burgs: East St. Louis, Gary Indiana, Newark, Philly, Baton Rouge, Houston, Tempe, Milwaukee, NYC of yore — at some point government becomes untenable and must be put into receivership.

    Let’s face it, the USA is headed downhill. The bloom is off this rose and ought to be pruned back. The bureaucracies created to solve past problems have achieved sufficient institutional inertia to justify abolishment in their current forms, much as our military has been obliged to reform the order of battle to face current threats. Let the consequences of the GOP’s slash and burn approach to the problems we face come to pass: those whom the gods would destroy, they answer their prayers.

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  4. I, likewise, am thoroughly confused by this piece.

    There are a million unstated assumptions in here, most of which I can’t figure out what they are, and I don’t see the connection to the Benton Harbor discussion at all.

    One of the few assumptions I can seem to figure out is that “interest of the teachers’ union” and “interest of improving education” are assumed to be coextensive. They are not. That is not to say that they are mutually exclusive or that the solution to all our educational woes is to crush the unions. It is, however, to say that there will be occasions when meaningful improvement to education is going to have to come at the expense of the teachers’ unions. Those unions will fight such reforms – and they should, since their job is to represent the teachers – but they’re not entitled to win every fight.

    Additionally, you are attributing emphasis on test scores as “accountability” measures to libertarians. Yet Cato opposed NCLB, the libertarians at this site (myself included) have written vociferously against such “accountability” measures, and prominent libertarians have even written about how the choice movement is not -and ought not – be about improving test scores.

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  5. I’ll just start a new thread down here.

    First of all, I think it’s important to note that NCLB and the accountability movement are inextricably tied to the school choice movement. Yes, libertarians may have opposed the accountability measures but they have often supported politicians who were very much in favor of testing and accountability. Maybe this is because such measures help break the back of tenure and seniority, and make teachers more easy to judge based on notions of merit. Either way, I have yet to see a reform movement in this country that embraced only choice and not accountability, or that embraced choice without at once attempting to subvert the public school system, teacher unions, etc.

    Do I think that teachers unions are inherently good for public education? It depends. I think they can be full of their own pathologies. But they are also the only thing standing between many of these top-down authoritarian reformers.

    As to my set of values driving this post – I’m really confused as to what people are asking. I’m writing a defense of the public school system. I think the language of choice and competition has been co-opted by corporate reformers who think they can remake our educational system from the top down, often by hiring bullies or pushing through laws that allow them to side-step democracy. They are well-funded and politically well-connected.

    Many efforts to install charters across the country have been undertaken by ignoring the desires of local communities.

    I guess my point is, I don’t think that the school reform movement is a very good representation of actual libertarian values, but it has nevertheless been supported by libertarians in one way or another, and even if libertarians came out against many individual pieces of recent reforms (such as NCLB) they have not been able to see how all the dots connect, how ‘school choice’ in and of itself has (at least in its current iteration) been brought about by dictum.

    So perhaps they are conservative values that drive this writing. I want to preserve the public education system from Utopian reformers. Then I want to start a new reform movement that is more democratic and more educator-driven. I think we are on the wrong path, and I think the language of libertarianism has been used to take us here, whether or not this libertarian opposes such and such policy or not.

    Re: Benton Harbor – it probably should be placed in receivership. Many towns and school districts should be at some point. Again, the thing that bothers me about Michigan is that too much power is concentrated in the governor’s office under Public Act 4, and by extension too much power is placed in the hands of EFM’s appointed to undertake said receivership. This is dangerous, even if the towns or school districts in question need to be put in better hands (such as Detroit’s schools, which were cesspools of corruption.)

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    • > I want to preserve the public education system from
      > Utopian reformers. Then I want to start a new
      > reform movement that is more democratic and
      > more educator-driven. I think we are on the wrong
      > path, and I think the language of libertarianism
      > has been used to take us here, whether or not this
      > libertarian opposes such and such policy or not.

      That’s how I read the piece. I’ll agree it’s not the best thing you’ve written, but I saw you getting to here from what you wrote up there.

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  6. I’m confused as well, but mostly I’m confused by everyone’s confusion. Why, in order for a argument or conversation to be valid, does the speaker need to state his ideological bona fides and then argue from that position? That seems to me to be imperative if the purpose is to have a rousing “Libertarians Suck! v.s No, Liberals Suck!” argument, but otherwise not so much.

    But if you’re looking for one for this post, I’d try Pragmatic. And I actually do see ED’s point, though I’m not yet sure if I agree with it.

    If those libertarians most visible to the general public are going to push hard for things like privatization of public services and get a ground swell of support, then they contribute mightily to politicians snatching the popularity of those idea or mere buzzwords to create these kinds of power grabs and look to get cheered for them. And yes, before everyone starts furiously typing that those people on Fox and talk radio that the general public think of as libertarian aren’t REALLY libertarian, or that some of these power grabs are a perversion of what libertarian is and here are a years worth of post to prove it, well… duh. But like it or not, that doesn’t change the way people perceive things, or how opportunists take advantage of the situation.

    In other words, if a good samaritan fights for a government program to help the poor and later opportunists use that to grab power and resources for themselves, that may not be what the samaritan wanted, but it is a political burden that progressive liberalism has to deal with nonetheless. And similarly, if arguments for privatization get snatched away by opportunists to make matters worse, well that’s something libertarians are going to have to deal with. Ain’t saying it’s right or fair, just saying it is.

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    • RTod – yes, thank you. This is exactly what I’m saying. I think libertarians are quick as hell to point to regulatory capture, or the myriad ways in which the state is used against the purposes that progressives intended. But they focus much less on deregulatory capture, which I think is just as important if not more so. Privatization is a good example of libertarian ideas that can go horribly wrong. School reform, I would argue, has been completely captured by anti-democratic forces and corporatist opportunists, and largely they have done so using the language of Friedman and others opposed to the public school ‘monopoly’ and to unions, etc.

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    • I get your point here, but I think the problem here is with the definition of “worse.” Erik seems to be suggesting that everyone should agree that, say, “choice” + “testing/accountability” is worse than “status quo,” even if “choice” by itself would be an improvement over “status quo.” But that’s only true if you share a certain set of normative assumptions, and I have no idea what those normative assumptions are.

      Think of it like this: if I was to argue that although social welfare is good in theory but in actuality it often comes with myriad strings attached and is therefore worse for society and efforts to create a stronger social safety should thus be abandoned entirely……well, unless you shared my normative (ie, ideological) values, you’d be a bit confused, wouldn’t you?

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      • Well I think we need to illustrate how choice is in fact better than the status quo. And beyond that, we need to look at how choice has been foisted upon communities who have no, ahem, choice in the matter. Is theoretical school choice a possibly very good thing? Yes, all normative assumptions aside, I think it could be. Is it in practice? It’s a mixed bag in practice, and again I don’t think we need first principles to assess the actual failures of the choice movement.

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        • Well I think we need to illustrate how choice is in fact better than the status quo.

          No doubt – but in order to have a discussion about whether choice is better or worse than the status quo, we need to make clear what our normative values are. But here’s the thing – for the libertarian, “choice” is not only a normative value unto itself, it is in fact the King of Normative Values.

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            • Sometimes. Not always. I certainly don’t think the case has been made that school choice must inherently come at anyone’s loss, except obviously for those who benefit from restricting other peoples’ choices.

              Regardless, it is not enough to simply say that choice comes at a cost to others. There is no such thing as a cost-free policy. The pertinent question is how we evaluate those costs and benefits, how we decide whose claim is superior; this is an inherently ideological question.

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              • “The pertinent question is how we evaluate those costs and benefits, how we decide whose claim is superior; this is an inherently ideological question.”

                OK, I rarely call BS here, but I’m going to do it now.

                The company I am a partner at faces lots of complex issues everyday, and we make decisions – mostly good, but sometimes bad and needing corrections – all the time. Not once have I ever heard anyone argue from a “Well, being a really socially conservative Catholic, and because of that I think we should do is X.” Everything is very results oriented; conservatives and liberals and libertarians and non-politically oriented folk work together without having ideological fights over solutions and we seem to muddle through OK.

                Making things an ideological question always lead to an issue of whose team wins at the ballot box, period. Worse, it makes it incredibly difficult to either accurately measure your results or correct mistakes. Because while most people are OK with acknowledging an error in a results based experiment and want to actively look to tweak things to eliminate that error, with ideology? Not so much. All that matters is that we see everything that came from our side as unflawed, and we attribute every possible conceivable error, real or imagined, to another’s ideology. And even if, privately, we acknowledge that things we implemented weren’t so perfect, we don’t dare admit this publicly. Publicly, we double down. Because that is what wins at the ballot box.

                Ideology isn’t the solution to policy issues, it’s part of the problem.

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          • This is why I consider libertarianism inauthentically liberal, as an aside. If I were willing to be more generous, which I’m not, I would say libertarianism is more like the Continental/French version of liberalism that is much more radical and deontological than the British/American empirical/utilitarian version.

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            • This actually is my problem with the mainstream of modern American liberalism: it pretends to be entirely pragmatic and ideology-free, refusing to recognize that there is no such thing as politics devoid of ideology and that the values at the core of its ideology are not self-evident. Modern American liberalism needs to make the case for its values.

              To his undying credit, Freddie DeBoer has repeatedly tried to make this case. Unfortunately, not many others have.

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              • I don’t claim that politics is ideology-free. I think E.D. can confirm for you that I am just as ideological as you are. But my ideology is more like utilitarianism or empiricism than the libertarian’s. This is, of course, a vast oversimplification – libertarians do believe that their rationalism is also supported by the evidence, I am not actually that much more empirical than the average libertarian when push comes to shove, etc. – but it’s a first approximation that captures some kernel of reality.

                The Ezra Kleins of the world, who pretend that there are right answers, are not correct. We agree on that.

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              • Mark, if you want an ideological answer it’s this: I value public institutions such as our public school system. I see the school-choice reform movement as a threat to the egalitarianism of public education, and an opening for an even greater segregation of students.

                Furthermore, I value creativity and free-thinking more than whatever it is they’re trying to teach our students with the testing regime.

                Combine the two, and I see a real existential threat to public education. I am ideologically opposed to the dismantling of our public school system.

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                    • I would direct you to any school system implementing a system of traditional, optional and magnet programs to compliment their reside schools.

                      The trick is to flip the script. Each student represents X amount of education dollars. So they are the commodity. You have to create a system not where students compete for schools but where schools (consumers) compete for students (resources).

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                    • I’m not sure I like that framework any more. It just seems like a category error to treat schools and students as if they are actors in a market. Obviously you can, but it will pervert the incentives in a way that undermines my goals for an education system.

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                    • If the ‘outcomes’ of European health systems without competition are ‘mediocre’, what do you call the performance of the ‘competition’ of insurance companies in the US?

                      In addition, the myth of the ‘mediocrity’ of American schools is just that – a myth. Most US schools are pretty good and the problems with the bad ones are because of mass poverty, not teacher unions or tenure.

                      As I’ve said before, drop child poverty by half and most of the ‘problems’ with American schools aren’t problems anymore. But, that won’t result in much profit for the for-profit school pimps, so that’s not a ‘serious’ solution.

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                  • Competition breeds winners and losers. By weeding out the losers, it produces good results. School choice works similarly. Good students and white, middle-class families are able to get into the best choice schools and charters, and are able to afford the costs of attending (not tuition, mind you, but transportation, etc.) Charters weed out under-performing students. Selection bias takes care of the rest.

                    Mind you, I think school choice can work, but we need to have a much higher baseline for the quality of our schools in the first place. Otherwise we risk creating an even more imbalanced system than the one we already have.

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                    • School choice works similarly. Good students and white, middle-class families are able to get into the best choice schools and charters, and are able to afford the costs of attending (not tuition, mind you, but transportation, etc.)

                      This claim confuses me every time I see it. To my knowledge, most if not all school choice programs are need-based. Upper-class families have – and always will have – school choice as it exists. Lower-class and working-class families do not. Every school choice program with which I am familiar seeks to rectify this problem.

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                    • Erik, there’s no way to raise the baseline without some sort of reform or measurements (to determine what the baseline is and how it has improved). Your version of reform must relegated to being performed by the same people with the low baseline and measurements, of course, warrant the word accountability in scare quotes.

                      Mark, most voucher programs do, but most charter programs don’t (at least to my knowledge – correct me if I’m wrong). But this is a problem to be fixed! Not a reason not to do it.

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                  • Let’s consider any capital costs, especially initial outlays in the pursuit of Successful Outcomes. Most business ventures fail for lack of sufficient capitalization.

                    Let us attempt to stipulate to the benefits of an educated populace without injecting any egalitarian principles. Can you get that far?

                    If you can, let me posit a certain number of geniuses in each year’s crop of high school graduates. If these are not spotted and put into productive scenarios where they can create the profitable inventions and write the software and discover the cures for cancer, I hope we can both agree the system is seriously screwed up. If only to find these geniuses, as the sports industry does, sending out scouts to the games inviting them to sports camps, our educational system should be funded to do so.

                    School Choice as it is currently presented by its advocates is crooked Newspeak. Magnet schools are hugely oversubscribed. Real estate values rise and fall on the local schools’ standing. This nation does not stint on training our servicemen or providing them with effective tools to fight our wars. For every trigger puller, as many as ten others stand behind him, providing him with materiel, food, logistics, comms, intelligence, in short everything he might need to overcome our enemies.

                    The School Choice debate is a begged question. If these jackasses were as serious about our economic security as they claim to be about our national security, education would be fully funded and teachers would have the respect we accord the military. Instead, we see nothing but ignorant and vicious attacks on teachers from them, their rhetoric rings hollow: these are the same folks who export our jobs in the name of Free Enterprise.

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              • And I don’t want you to read the above as an implication that teleological arguments are inherently better than deontological or anything like that. I think my way is better than yours, but I don’t think there’s a neutral arbiter of truth who can confirm that.

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              • And, not to spam, but I think one of the things that attracts some people to modern American liberalism is that it really is less radical than the other major political schools. American liberals are the one major ideological grouping that isn’t terribly radical (contra Fox News), in that they aren’t very interested in completely remaking society in accord with their first principles. That may or may not be because they already have or something, but it’s the case that they have what might be called a small-c conservative approach. People tend to associate more easily with that, even if it’s wrong.

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                • I actually agree with this to a large extent. But there’s a limit – at some point pragmatism takes such precedence over first principles that you’re just doing things for the sake of doing them. It becomes “DO SOMETHING! ANYTHING!” -itis, if you will. I think we are close to reaching that point.

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                  • Ha. Perhaps not the best time for me to assert my liberal ideological bona fides by pointing out that budget deficit do-something-itis makes me want to rip out my hair and scream at everyone.

                    Other obvious contenders where we may find more common ground: fighting wars with EVERYONE, half-assed health care reforms, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink financial reform.

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  7. I see the post as a howl against the hypocrisy of the right and specifically the Tea Party. The right has the vocabulary down pat but actions, the ones mentioned in the title, often turn 180 degrees to the words. I don’t think E.D. is accusing Jason or Cato or Mark of hypocrisy. E.D. is pointing to the state government, Tea Party, for mouthing platitudes like freedom, choice, local control and turning those words inside out.

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    • Bob – again, quite right. This post was in part a defense of libertarians, who I think would recoil at much of the school reform movement, including the ‘choice’ elements, if they ran it through the proper gauntlets.

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  8. May a progressive teacher who is on spring break chime in here? I’ve been reading E.D. Kain over at Forbes where I stumbled upon him via other blogs focused entirely on education reform & politics. I read obsessively in this bizarre sub-top, because it affects me personally. I’m also a parent so this stuff affects my kids too.

    Just as “the ideas fueling this education reform movement are all libertarian ideas – choice, competition, accountability, privatization” but are applied “in an illiberal and authoritarian manner”, consider how the buzz-terms “libertarian, free-market, conservative, neoliberal, neoconservative, Rand, Freedman”, etc. have become synonymous with corporatization and plutocracy. In the case of Ayn Rand, let’s just shoot ourselves right now.

    I would say at this point that “libertarianism” has a branding problem. The brand has come to represent a crude sort of anti-government, which is frightening to those of us who feel the state has some role in ethically protecting ordinary citizens (who vastly outnumber those in power) from scammers, polluters, opportunists and the rampant unethical behavior that is under every rock covered in the mossy green of profit. Just as “NCLB” has become a toxic brand name, so has “libertarianism” to anyone who is not a true believer. As for the Tea Party, “libertarian” is just another useful synonym.

    And on another point: NCLB was under construction prior to GW Bush taking office. It was germinated during the Clinton years, and pre-dates the rise of the Gates Foundation by several years, and the W. Buffet endowment by a decade. Have you heard of the “Dear Hillary” letter written by Marc Tucker? It is a pollinator of NCLB and worth reading if you are catching up on all this stuff. You can find it at the Eagle Forum: http://www.eagleforum.org/educate/marc_tucker/
    (And no, I am not a member of the Eagle Forum.)

    Good luck untying this Gordian knot.

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    • I would say at this point that “libertarianism” has a branding problem.

      Before Rick Santelli’s rant, the libertarian brand was carried by persons as diverse as a blue druid and a woman who argued against child pornography laws. The potheads are actually refreshingly normal.

      So a branding problem? Yeah, tell me about it.

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  9. “Teachers are fired based on test scores rather than actual human evaluations. Students are measured based on their ability to take a test. This is all labeled as ‘accountability’. Lots of money pours in from the Gates and Broad foundations and from hedge funds and other deep pockets. Lots of people make lots of money.”

    This makes it sounds as if the Foundations are pushing straight assessment accountability & evaluation of teachers. Other Gates money aside, the link to follow at shows that the deep pockets are being used to find more nuanced path: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/united-states/Pages/measures-of-effective-teaching-fact-sheet.aspx

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    • The Foundations push lots of different things. I don’t think they’re “bad guys” I just think they have way, way too much influence over the debate. I also think they believe they can remake public education in the image they prefer. Perhaps it is the conservative in me that says “No you can’t.”

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      • I took some Gates Foundation money for a SpecEd school in Guatemala. Anecdote != Trend, but they didn’t really involve themselves as deeply in the project as I thought they would and probably should have. I sorta brought that up with the administrator at the end of the project and we had an interesting discussion.

        The Gates Foundation isn’t really against public schools so much as they are about being able to control for certain variables. They really don’t want to intervene so much as run controllable experiments, seeing what actually works and what doesn’t. As long as they understand the parameters of the experiment being run, based on the grant proposal, they’ll delegate and get out of the way, keeping an eye on it.

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  10. @Mark

    Most school choice programs are need based? In what universe? Voucher programs maybe (though there are very few of those). But charters are almost universally lottery based. Now, lottery-based systems are going to attract only those parents that are motivated enough to go through that process. So that’s the first barrier-to-entry.

    Second barrier: Many charters require application materials, including essays or portfolios, interviews, etc. That presents a huge disincentive to less-motivated families (read: poorer families).

    Third barrier: Many choice schools do not provide bus services. This is a huge barrier to poorer children or single-mother families.

    Once you get past barriers to entry, then you have to contend with the quite common practice of firing students. Low achievers and students with behavior problems are routinely pushed out of charter schools and back into the public school system.

    Or take special education – as a whole, charters take on far, far fewer special needs kids.

    Finally, a huge problem even comparing charters to public schools is the foundation money. Many of these schools are funded by corporate or foundation money, giving them a funding leg up that traditional public schools simply do not have. That’s on top of the government money, of course.

    I could go on and on. The fact is, while many charter do serve poor communities, even within those poor communities, the best students find their way to the best choice schools one way or another.

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      • Vouchers are really hardly a blip on the radar of actual school choice programs right now. But they would, if they were implemented, face many of the same problems as charters do, probably more. Milwaukie has vouchers, with mixed results. Oversight is a problem.

        Means-testing is always difficult, but I agree if we do give out vouchers they should be for the poor only. I worry about how that evolves into the broader population.

        But really, charters are the central issue of school choice.

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        • In addition, there is one issue that the concept of voucher seems to ignore: class and status. I think that the main appeal of a private school is the improved education, but I can tell you from someone who is surrounded by both private school grads and parents of private school kids (often the same), the issue of status/perception of class is also a big motivator.

          So my concern about a voucher system is this: if suddenly every parent in Portland, Oregon can put (making up numbers here) $2,500 in taxpayer money to go to a private school rather than a public school, what I DON’T think will happen is that the quality private schools will have a whole lot more kids. What I expect will happen instead is that tuitions in exclusive private schools will just go up $2,500 a year. Because, really, who wants Dylan and Britney to rub shoulders with the poor and dirty?

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          • Bingo. To a certain extent, vouchers are for subsidizing Catholic or other private religious schools. The truly elite private schools either cost more than even the largest vouchers given out or will just find ways to turn down applicants that don’t “fit in” with the culture of thee school.

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        • Isn’t oversight another word for “top-down”?

          Honestly, I consider oversight to be a much important thing when parents can’t pull their kids out of a given school without paying for a private education, homeschooling, moving, or committing fraud.

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              • Literally, sure.

                “Oversight” is interchangeably used with “audit” in the American vernacular, though.

                Audit can be done by anybody. All they need is the authorization to perform the audit. There’s lots of ways to have a process system set up with audit controls that don’t demand top-down structures. They certainly don’t require monolithic top-down structures.

                Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to have an organization audit itself anyway. If educational standards are set at the state level by a BoE, you wouldn’t want the BoE to also audit everyone for compliance.

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          • Trumwill – the thing is, in a traditional public school system you have a basic set of rules, you have an institution with ties to the community, you have transparency and democratic accountability. With charters and voucher schools, a lot of these things are missing. This only gets worse with virtual schools which can be run by basically anyone with a website. Not every aspect of oversight is top-down. Sometimes it just means that an institution is accredited and recognized by the college system so that your diploma isn’t worthless, or that teachers have to have a background check. This is hardly a horrible top-down thing.

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            • With charter schools, you have parental accountability. That, to me, is far more significant than democratic accountability. And the controls you’re talking about are “top-down” controls. Controls from the district, the state, and federal government. Because we can’t rely on the individual teachers, or the principals, or the districts, to do the right thing by their students without a measure of outside influence.

              To me, oversight is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. But to some extent it’s required. But I don’t see the distinction between oversight and top-down except that top-down is oversight that you are not personally in favor of.

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                    • I do wish people would rephrase the question in terms of “do the students perform better” rather than making the school the subject of the sentence. You see, Tom, in a charter school you can control enrollment, expel a student without much cause, control class size, get outside money and the like.

                      Despite these advantages, students in charter schools often do substantially worse than their public school peers, at least when it comes to standardized testing. Charter schools lack the resources and infrastructure of a public school district.

                      Overhead costs are always higher if it’s a for-profit enterprise and the methodology for places like Uncommon Schools is a one size fits all approach. There are no nice little extras, a music program, art, etc. not that those are routinely available anymore, what with the parlous state of public school funding.

                      The big losers in the charter school are the SpecEd kids and the Gifted kids.

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                    • P.S. to #98. And don’t be fooled by the “nonprofit” status of corporations like Uncommon Schools. They pay their executives very well and their teachers get paid caca.

                      @Trumwill: it’s like that opening line from Anna Karenina “All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Each charter school is a different story, and the only valid indicator for educational success is parental involvement, in any K-12 situation. The parents who turn up at the PTA, their kids always do well. The parents who turn up in the principal’s office, well…. they’re not there for praise and thanks.

                      While throwing money at a bad situation won’t improve it, K-12 education, where it works, has plenty of money thrown at it. Charter schools run by Uncommon Schools and other “nonprofits” are always politically connected, perfectly willing to add more water to the soup and sawdust to the flour to make their numbers.

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                    • National Journal, 2009:

                      But two major studies on charter schools released this year had dramatically different findings. One study found that charter schools nearly closed the achievement gap between students in poor and affluent communities, while the other found that most charter schools deliver academic results that are no better, or worse, than those in regular public schools.

                      http://education.nationaljournal.com/2009/12/do-charter-schools-deserve-the.php

                      Yes, I’ve heard your assertions, BlaiseP. Just haven’t seen enough substantiation, just as I’m not compelled by arguments that charter schools are necessarily better.

                      I’m not a particular fan of “studies” of contentious issues either. The academic establishment is vested in vindicating itself and its prevailing wisdom, and there are so few outside it that I question the validity of their studies, too.

                      “Charter schools have provided enormous opportunities for students who would otherwise fall through the gigantic cracks in the education system.”

                      —Rep. Donald M. Payne
                      D-N.J., Member, U.S. House of Representatives

                      That’s “D” as in Democrat and Payne as in Chairman, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

                      So since I, for one, don’t have a kid in school or enough probative evidence, IMO, I’m just asking a damn question. [As I notice, so is Mr. Trumwill.]

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                    • Mr. Ewiak: I wasn’t addressing Mr. Kain specifically here. He spanks Democrats willingly, as long as there’s a Republican around to swat with the other. This is known as “even-handedness.”

                      No, I’m simply trying to pry the facts out of the partisanship on the charter issue, in my customary quest for clarity.

                      I really don’t have an opinion on this, and am open to anything besides the usual.

                      As for the “authoritarianism” Mr. Kain’s on about, I think duly constituted authority should use it, and use it effectively. I don’t see how “libertarianism” must be the ally of impotence and/or incompetence.

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                    • I think I’ve made my point with enough caveats to state the fundamental problem with K-12 education is parental involvement, not the provenance of the school. I ended up home-schooling my last child: the public school situation completely failed him after his sophomore year. He came home one day, completely enraged, shouting “I am learning nothing in school”, so I pulled him out. I got him the baddest-ass Mac on the market, a copy of Mathematica, a copy of Statistica, a subscription to Questia and he had a high school diploma less than six months later. He went on to do postgrad work in math and physics.

                      I’m more worried about the gifted kids and the teachers, for obvious reasons, I’m married to the teacher and the father of the gifted kid. I know a fair bit about charter schools because we tried to start one. I’m not going to make a big deal of the politics of vouchers and all that, because it’s all so much idle posturing and partisan bullshit talking points. The system this country built to turn boatloads of immigrant children into Americans has very largely failed. Where public education works, it’s been viewed as a national priority, as it once was here in the USA. It will not be replaced by handing someone a voucher.

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              • Parental accountability? That depends on the model for the charter school. I went through this with my wife (teacher) and several of her teacher peers. We wanted to get a charter school set up in Illinois, only to get mired in the politics of the State Board of Ed.

                Frankly, it’s just about the same process as starting up another public school. I can’t speak for all states, but Illinois is not particularly charter school friendly, not even when the teachers and parents are on the same side of the fence.

                Charter schools are pretty much a bad joke. They’re either the for-profit pets of some political power base or they’re last-gasp attempts to keep a public school open after it’s failed its remediation process.

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                  • “five teachers getting together and starting a school.” The bureaucracy shouldn’t stand in the way of that.

                    Does it? It probably does to some extent, and I agree it shouldn’t. But what you describe those teachers doing sounds to me like starting a private school. I thought we were talking about charter schools — you know, private schools that recieve the imprimatur, not to mention funds and students, of the public education authority where they are established? Why wouldn’t dealing with public bureaucracy be involved in attaining a state “charter” (read: $) for a private school? Are you suggesting any public school should be able to receive public dollars via some automatic-approval process — just fill out a few forms? Wanting the charter is a choice that private schools make. There are going to be hoops involved; there are going to be standards to meet; rigorous inspections etc. There ought to be. Perhaps the government gets in the way of starting private schools too much as well, but that is a discussion that comes under the title “Bureaucracy Getting in the Way of Starting Private Schools,” not “Bureaucracy Getting in the Way of Starting Charter Schools/Turing Private Schools into Charter Schools.” Unless your position is that any five teachers (or is it just “adults” — do they need to be state-certified teachers, BTW?) ought to be able to get together, call themselves a school, and receive public educaiton funding, then it seems to me that you need to say that your “Five Teacher” pitch is really an argument to get bureaucrats out of the forming of private schools — and I agree, they should. But you want to say it is an argument about forming charter schools. But do you really believe that? Get bureaucracy out of charter formation? That pretty much takes all inspection/accountability out of the process of disbursing state funds. Because bureaucrats are the people government uses to inspect the things it spends money on. If you see a someone somewhere inspecting something and he says he’s inspecting the thing because it’s his job, and his job is with the government to inspect things to make sure they meet the requirements to have the government spend money on them (or grant them a license, or etc.), are you going to accept an rgument that, “Neverthess, I’m not a bureaucrat!” No. that dude’s a bureaucrat.

                    So what’s your position? Charters without bureaucracy — ie. free public money for Five Guys Schools? Just fill out this form and you’ll receive your annual check? Or private schools sans bureaucracy — if five guys want to start a school, cool, let ’em. I’m with you (to a large degree) if it’s the latter. Not if it’s the former.

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                    • There’s a more complete discussion to be had here, but I’ll try to keep it short.

                      So in short, yes, I mean charter schools. At the very most, I would want a set of rather basic criteria that, as long as you meet that criteria, approval is guaranteed. From there, it’s a matter of assessments to keep the school open.

                      The problem with having a lot of bureaucratic interference is that it favors the well-connected and full-pocketed. I don’t like this because (a) it’s the basis on which “my side” is accused of ill-motivation, and (b) I genuinely believe that five teachers (not guys, teachers – or some pre-defined education background) should not be left out of the loop because they don’t have big sponsors (they’ll have enough trouble getting students start-up loans if they don’t have a reputation that precedes them).

                      But as with most things on this subject, I am flexible. I would be very interested in having discussions that address the concerns of charters. I frequently find, however, the concerns are often a pretense for canning the whole idea rather than something to attempt to find a solution for.

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  11. Here’s the thing (not sure exactly relates): education is something that has been going on for thousands of years, probably just by virtue of children being around elders and mimicking them; schooling, on the other hand, is about 100 years old in many parts of America and considerably more recent in several others. For some reason, it’s an article of faith among the schoolers that it should be compulsory for nearly all children and fairly standardized and that we should be able to quantify the results to know if it’s working. Then we debate about whether it’s working even though we’re not clear on what ‘working’ means or what’s at stake if it isn’t working.

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  12. Personally I think a whole bunch of the “school choice” dialogue would go away if private schools had to take the same standardized tests that the public schools take.

    Come to think of it, those standardized tests would become a lot less popular in a giant fishing hurry.

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    • In a voucher regime (which I somewhat support) any school accepting vouchers should be required to take the same standardized tests. The same for charter schools. That, and the requirement that they accept only the voucher money (so that they can’t just use that to ratchet prices up) – to address RTod’s concern – are the principal two requirements I would have.

      At this point, charters are just easier except in relatively rural locations. I don’t mind means-testing them, but I would rather have charters without means-testing than bolting kids down to their local school (except for those that can afford better, of course)

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      • I should add here that better than means-testing is Mike Stick’s idea above, which is to require charter schools to provide transportation (or for really small schools to only accept students within walking distance). And anything else that the school needs that a regular school provides, but transportation is all that really comes to mind. I could see the formation of education centers housing multiple charter schools. Or alternately, charter schools renting out areas next to traditional schools where bus transportation is provided.

        As I said elsewhere, though, this is a problem to be overcome and not a reason to have to move or commit fraud to change schools.

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      • In a voucher regime (which I somewhat support) any school accepting vouchers should be required to take the same standardized tests. The same for charter schools. That, and the requirement that they accept only the voucher money (so that they can’t just use that to ratchet prices up) – to address RTod’s concern – are the principal two requirements I would have.

        I’m kind of ambivalent about the first of these two requirements – I think testing requirements are window-dressing at best and more likely dreadfully harmful and should be eased in all schools. But, if we are to keep testing in public schools, then I’m not necessarily opposed (though not supportive either) to requiring it in any private schools that accept vouchers as a relatively objective means for determining accreditation.

        However, requiring that private schools accept no payments other than vouchers if they accept vouchers at all would probably destroy what little access to private education exists as it is for lower income families. Since the goal of any voucher program is to increase this access, this is a dealbreaker.

        For starters, most voucher programs are of necessity going to be only for a percentage of a student’s per capita funding rather than for the full amount. So the effect would be to require private schools to educate children for significantly less than the state does or not educate children at all absent sizable charitable contributions.

        Keep in mind that in the existing market, the schools that are affordable for lower income families (mostly Catholic and religious schools, admittedly) are generally able to stay open only because of parishioner donations. If those donations dry up, the school closes because the families it serves aren’t going to be able to afford the tuition hike. The result is that such schools are comparatively small – even if they wanted to take more students (and I’ve no doubt that they do), they couldn’t because they’re operating on a shoestring budget as it is. As an example – there is no better known parochial school in the country than St. Anthony’s HS in Jersey City. Yet it only has about 60 kids in each class year.

        Create a voucher system where they can still separately charge parents tuition and they no longer have to operate on such a shoestring budget. They can probably even expand (and maybe even cut the tuition paid directly by the parent a little bit from existing levels). This is a good thing: it means more openings for parents in the area to get their kids out of schools that aren’t able to serve their kids’ needs.* And this is exactly what would happen – if turning a profit were a goal for these schools, they’d be better off not opening their doors at all.

        But here’s the kicker. Add the vouchers on a large enough scale (but, again, still heavily means-tested) and maybe you make it so that it’s at least theoretically possible to run a secular school without relying too heavily on private donations backed by a feeling of religious obligation. One can imagine a situation where such schools would perhaps be slightly more expensive than the parochial schools with which they compete since they don’t have that donor base. But they would still have to be affordable enough for parents eligible for the vouchers. Again, the result is increased access to educational options for lower-income parents. And of course it is these parents who most need educational options.

        *This is not necessarily the public school’s fault – those schools are often in a position where creating an environment conducive to learning is more or less impossible.

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        • > I think testing requirements are window-dressing
          > at best and more likely dreadfully harmful and
          > should be eased in all schools.

          Ditto.

          However, a lot of people are mesmerized by window dressing. They might not be so much if all the windows in the neighborhood had the same window dressing.

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        • It has been demonstrated, has it not, that schools can educate kids for the same cost as per-pupil spending at public schools? Like Charter Schools do? I’m not sure why it would be so that they can’t make it on the voucher money alone. Or, if they’re unwilling to, that new schools that can do it won’t pop up.

          I have a feeling we might be talking past one another on this.

          Re: Testing requirements

          They would be mostly for assessments. Parents can heed them or ignore them at will. As I mentioned elsewhere, when going to a school is voluntary, I don’t think you need the apply the same kind of standards as you do when it’s your local school.

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          • The issue is that AFAIK voucher programs are of necessity always going to provide vouchers in a percentage substantially below the average per pupil spending in their district. Some of this is a matter of just political compromise, but if you’re going to keep the public schools open (and you kind of have to in any voucher system, at least initially, and I suspect permanently) then you have to factor out at a minimum the public school’s substantial overhead costs. Private schools still have overhead costs, of course, but: 1. the public school’s overhead costs obviously take precedence; and 2. I don’t see how you could design a voucher system that would adequately take care of private schools’ overhead costs.

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            • Why is this the case with vouchers and not charter schools? I’m pretty sure charter schools can’t charge a premium. Or do they? It would seem to me that the same dynamics would exist. Other than “money we give charter schools stays within the district (if charter schools are considered part of “the district”), I am not sure why they would be treated differently?

              On a sidenote, perhaps it’s due to coming from the south, but I consider the “overhead” argument to be somewhat moot in the long run. The schools in my home city have their playgrounds populated with temporary buildings to accommodate the excess of students.

              It’s been a while since I’ve been in school, though. Maybe that’s changed. Is “school overcrowding” still a salient issue?

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          • The money isn’t really the issue. In point of fact, better schools do cost more if you want any of the extras: music, a science lab, sports, art. To make ends meet, or supply the extras, the school nickels and dimes the parents. The public schools always win that struggle: they have the infrastructure, the playing grounds, the band room etc. No such advantages for a charter school.

            Vouchers are mostly bullshit, a political ruse. Where they’ve been tried, they’ve failed, as they failed in the DC Experiment. Anyone who’s serious about educational reform knows they’re just an end run around regulation, the very reason school boards and boards of ed arose in the first place.

            Education isn’t about the money. It’s about pedagogy, actually educating a child, each child, that’s the only valid perspective. When you consider the schools that produce the best students, the parents are willing to pay the property taxes so their kids have a well-rounded education, and it cannot be done by constructing some nonsense fraction wherein the average reading level is the numerator and the cost per student is the denominator. It just doesn’t work that way. The schools that do well are well funded, they provide each child with a quality education, they have lower class sizes, they have individual remediation, they have the extras.

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  13. I’ve been thinking about this post throughout the day. EDK is right that there is a lot not to like about the current reform movement. I’m against a lot of the things they want to do.

    But the biggest problem, for me, is that the anti-reform side is not offering a compelling alternative. The suggestions they’re rely on the notion that, if given the room, teachers and active parents will make it right. Right in an unmeasurable way, for the most part. We just have to trust.

    So the choices are, in a nutshell, the pre-NCLB status quo versus imperfect and sometimes problematic reforms. I choose the latter, warts and all. Those are really the only two choices I have. I do wish that there were better ones.

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    • That’s because you’re starting from the point that schools actually need reform. As I said above, most schools outside of the deep inner city and isolated educational basket cases do a pretty good job of educating American children by actual standards.

      The problem is poverty. You fix child poverty, the problem fixes itself. You don’t need to destroy teacher unions or give massive amounts of money to private corporations who see a part of society they haven’t profited from.

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      • I think a lot of schools are fine. I’m not worried about those schools. I’m perfectly happy giving those schools that are fine a great deal of autonomy. Of course, to differentiate between those schools and the other schools you need tests. Or you can let all parents decide if their school is fine or not. I can go either way.

        It may well be true that “you have to fix poverty to fix public education in impoverished areas.” It may well be true that there’s nothing we can do any which way. But I am presently not content not to try. And waiting on a solution to be found and implemented to a much, much larger problem, is the equivalent of not trying.

        A part of me is fine with shrugging it off. My kids will be well educated wherever we are. We will be able to afford private education. I’ll homeschool if I have to. We can relocate to a nice district. But then I read articles about parents committing fraud in order to get their kids into a better school, and I think about those that don’t have the options that we do, and I desperately want to try.

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        • The problem is, the motivation of most “education reformers” that have any actual traction in this country seems to be the slow destruction of the public school system so the people they work for can pick up the pieces at a profit all while destroying teachers unions.

          As I and ED said, there’s plenty of proposals out there from the “anti-reform” educators to improve the American education system. But, those proposals tend to actually empower teachers and students instead of administrators and outside reformers.

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          • Of course, the problem with the anti-reformers is that they are hellbent on protecting the educators from having any form of accountability and making it so that every failure is merely an opportunity to ask for or demand more money under threat of “harming our children”.

            No, I don’t believe that. But ill-motivation of our opponents is always easy to assume. I have no doubt that EDK firmly believes his proposals will work. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. But I don’t find them to be compelling and I do not believe they will change as much as he does.

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            • But I just said I didn’t think my proposals for positive change would do all that much. Education is a slow-moving thing. Real reform will take decades probably. It’s statistically unlikely to do much good at all. But I do think I know something about desirable professions, and if we don’t take at least that step toward teaching – making it a respected, desirable, professional career that people want to do for a long time – then I don’t think we will ever improve our schools.

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                  • I don’t have a problem with teaching being a desirable career. I came close to being a teacher myself (and currently spend 2-3 days a week substitute teaching)!

                    But if ever there is a conflict between teacher job satisfaction and student performance, I give more weight to the latter. I think that there very well may be such a tradeoff. At least, I put the likelihood of it somewhere as being greater than EDK does.

                    I agree that any reform is likely to take time to succeed.

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      • The problem is poverty. You fix child poverty, the problem fixes itself.

        To an extent, yes. More specifically, though, it is the geography of childhood poverty. Public schools are by their nature captives of the geographic environment in which they exist; private schools somewhat (but far from entirely) less so.

        We’ve been fighting the War on Poverty for 50 years (and unfortunately, we’ve taken that “War” term a bit too literally at times). Success has been limited. This isn’t an argument for putting an end to social welfare spending, etc. But we also should not be insisting that parents wait until the War on Poverty (not to mention the War on Drugs) is won before they are able to send their children to a school with an environment more conducive to learning (as “conducive to learning” is defined by the parent). To the contrary, voucher programs should be viewed as an attempt to further strengthen the social safety net. Especially in larger districts, this is exactly what voucher programs are, amounting to a net wealth transfer from the district’s wealthier areas to the lower income areas.

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        • Well, I’m also for restructuring the entire schooling system so suburban schools can’t basically segregate themselves from the poorer schools.

          But, I have a better solution that’s much simpler than vouchers for redistribution – school busing.

          Oh, and as a side note, the War of Poverty worked quite well (50% drop in the poverty rate) for the couple of years it was fully funded, before it was cut unfortunately by LBJ to pay for Vietnam and then further cut to ribbons by further administrations.

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          • Busing is simpler.

            It also means that people pull their kids out of public school rather than have them sit on a bus to go cross-town to where the scary people live.

            Or (if you’re feeling generous) to prevent their kid from having to spend an hour and a half on the bus every day.

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          • Jesse,

            I go back and forth on busing. Socio-economic based busing is shown to work BUT it alienates the parents of the poor kids being bused and leads to other ancillary problems that come from long commutes. In spite of that i still see it as the best solution for failing low-income reside schools.

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        • Heh heh. Not bad, MT:

          ” To the contrary, voucher programs should be viewed as an attempt to further strengthen the social safety net. Especially in larger districts, this is exactly what voucher programs are, amounting to a net wealth transfer from the district’s wealthier areas to the lower income areas.”

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          • Thanks. And I really do mean that. Except to the extent based on grounds of separation of church and state, which I understand even though I disagree, the reflexive opposition of liberals to voucher programs, as actually proposed honestly perplexes me. The schools that would be affected by a voucher program are generally speaking schools that teachers don’t even want to work in. I don’t remember the exact figure, but IIRC the turnover rate in those schools is something absurdly high and the average teacher age quite low.

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    • I don’t think that’s at all fair. Lots of alternatives have been proposed, and are constantly being proposed. This is not even an either/or choice. My preferred model is to attempt however we can to emulate Finland. We need to make the teaching profession a professional one, with respect and autonomy. We need to provide a high standard baseline for all schools, including free transportation and free meals for all students. We need rigorous teacher training and mentorship, and we need to provide teachers with ways to grow in their careers that go beyond monetary gain.

      Essentially, we do need to create a culture of trust in education, and the faux-accountability movement is not the way to do it. We need to spend far more money on education, but that alone won’t be enough. We need to have a strong national common standard, which still leaves lots of room for teachers to hone their own expanded curriculum and pedagogy. If we have choice, it ought to be choice provided within the larger framework of the public system – not choice that works against that framework. We need lots more collaboration, not lots more competition. We need to give teachers more autonomy and we need to have high standards for entering the teaching profession to begin with, not arbitrary tests to find ways to fire teachers once they’re already in.

      In other words, we need a massive effort to change the culture surrounding education, and to rebuild it from the ground up. It can be done, but it won’t make anyone any money now. It will be a huge investment in the future of our children, but it will cost lots of money upfront. I could go on.

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      • Well yeah, if you want to make American schools world class, do something like the above. But, the idea that if we continue on our current road, the average middle class suburban school is doomed is asinine.

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      • This reminds me a bit of the health care debate. Liberals say “We propose X!” Conservatives: “We oppose X!” Liberals say “At least we’re trying to address the problem! You’ve come up with bupkis!” Conservatives: “Excuse me! Health Savings Accounts!” Liberals: “That’s not a serious solution! Bupkis!”

        I’m sure that as far as you are concerned, your proposals constitute a concrete change likely to lead to success. For me, it’s not a very compelling alternative in terms of being likely to succeed (Finland is Finland, we are not Finland).

        I’m not worried about making the investment for returns that won’t come around for some time in the distant future. I’m worried about making the investment for returns that will never be realized, with a whole lot of failure in the meantime because the “change in culture” required for the plan to work doesn’t actually come.

        Which is why I end up siding with people you believe are acting in bad faith. And why saying “These people are acting in bad faith!” doesn’t really change my mind.

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        • Frankly I think my solutions have very, very little chance of success. They are rather ideals, guiding lights, not solutions. Not magic bullets. The school choice movement promises much more than I will ever promise.

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          • I stipulate to all of the problems you decry with school choice.

            I still think it’s right at the marginal level. If a parent who doesn’t like her child’s school sends her child to a school she likes better, the world improves. If the school choice “movement” gives more parents this freedom, the world improves. Why would anyone require more?

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  14. I haven’t brought out Evil Jaybird for a while. Might be time to bring him back…

    Evil Jaybird:
    Let’s say that I have a handful of kids. My three kids are, sadly, average. Soul-crushingly, heart-breakingly average. Right down the middle of the road. Average smarts, average athletes, average ambition, average everything.

    These kids won’t particularly have any special advantages given them by the genetic lottery *APART* from having been born to me, Evil Jaybird. The Number One thing that I care about is making sure that my kids have a leg up against the competition. That’s it.

    My income puts me above the national average but nowhere near the top quadrile. I’m in the middle of the 2nd one… and I’ll be darned if my kids go down a single percentage point.

    What is my gameplan?

    Well, the first thing I’d do is make sure that not only do my kids go to a pretty good school, I’d make sure that it was difficult for people who are below me on the economic ladder to get into this same school. I’d probably push for something like districts and say that you have to live in the district to send your kids there *AND* say that the district gets its funding based on property taxes rather than from the capitol. I would oppose, absolutely, any attempt to change this as “stealing from our children”.

    When it came to teachers, I would make *CERTAIN* that we had a very strong union… because while I would want the best and brightest teachers for *MY* kids, I’d want to make sure that the bad teachers from my school district were reassigned to the bad districts rather than fired outright. The teachers from the bad districts that are pretty good will be promoted up to my school once they’ve got some experience teaching under their belts, the ones from my school that are bad will trickle down to those cruddy schools. I would paint this as solidarity with Unions, the importance of a Strong Middle Class, and I’d do this where the teachers of *MY* kids could see.

    There’s a handful of things that I could also do to tweak the standing of my kids in the classroom… the kids of engaged parents will always have a leg up on the kids of unengaged parents (all other things being equal) but those don’t really fit my goal of making sure that my kids live as if they were part of a class while the bright kids from the crappy part of town who might exceed, all other things being equal, live as if they were part of a caste.

    So now I ask you:
    What is wrong with Evil Jaybird’s plan? Will it fail?

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    • I don’t know if it will fail. That’s not really your question.

      You do raise good points, though. The way schools are funded needs to be changed and made more equal. Perhaps we should rethink the district model altogether, and make choice within the public school system more of a reality. That could work a number of ways.

      And teacher unions could stand some reform as well, though if you look at the numbers you’ll see that over 50% of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years. The “bad teacher” problem is largely a myth, consigned to anecdotal evidence at best. The problem with keeping good teachers at so-called bad schools is often because burnout is super high there, and more resources are needed for support, safety, etc.

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      • I don’t know that funding “equality” is the issue. As I’ve mentioned before, in my home state the urban and poorer districts actually get *way* more money (per-pupil) than the posh suburban ones (whether you’re looking within a school district or between districts). It’s a question of need. The poor districts, though, need more money. They have more learning-disabled kids. More ESL kids. More hot lunch vouchers needed. After school programs.

        Making funding equal would, arguably, be disastrous. Which is one of the problems. Because if “equal” doesn’t do it, then how much is enough? If equal funding were needed, this would be a way simpler discussion.

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  15. That’s the beauty of proposing solutions with no chance of success, Mr. Kain. [I charitably take it you meant to say no chance of ever being implemented.]

    Submitted for your approval [or consternation], Central Falls High School Rhode Island, where the “culture” was changed, the teachers were all fired, many rewon their jobs through lawsuit.

    http://www.danagoldstein.net/dana_goldstein/2011/03/report-from-central-falls-ri-how-do-you-change-a-schools-culture.html

    Oh, and the state gave them a million bucks and the principal just quit.

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  16. I’ll throw my 2 cents in here. I have been an inner city school teacher for the past 11 years. No burn out yet but damn close. The major reason? Not the kids that’s for sure. It’s the lack of autonomy and disrespect by from “the powers that be”. ED’s plan, although ideal now, can be implemented over time as long as those at the top of the hierarchy have a background in educational thought, theory and practice. Someone who is the antithesis of say…Arne Duncan. My classroom is a referendum of how 30 kids of poverty can love and achieve success as long as good pedagogy is in place. Pedagogy that is reflective of authentic practice rooted in good educational theory. Theory that takes into account everything we know about how the brain works best.

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