Zombie Ideas and Conventional Wisdom: Why NYC’s School “Reform” Matters to the Rest of Us

Paul Krugman, the Princeton University economist and NY Times columnist, wrote a column earlier this week about myths in economics.  He calls them “zombie ideas.”  Here is how Krugman defines a zombie idea: “one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true.”   Back in 1958 in a famous book, The Affluent Society, another economist John Kenneth Galbraith called such ideas “the conventional wisdom” —“the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.”  Galbraith continued: “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group…. the consensus is exceedingly broad.  Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”

Zombie ideas.  The conventional wisdom.  Bipartisan consensus based on not much evidence and maybe even contrary to the evidence.  Sounds like today’s wave of so-called public education “reform.”

Gene V. Glass, one of the authors of a fine new book on the facts and the evidence about what’s needed to improve public schools, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, recently commented on the conventional wisdom–zombie ideas that dominate today’s theories of school “reform”:

“One narrative prominent these days — the Crisis Narrative — holds that our nation is at risk because our children are dumber than Finland, because our teachers are tools of greedy unions, because incompetent ‘ed-school’ trained administrators are incapable of delivering first-rate education.  And — this narrative goes on — what public education needs is total reform: higher standards, more tests, brighter teachers uncorrupted by the wishy washy ‘education school’ ideologies and above all, choice and competition.  This narrative serves a set of private interests that want to reform our schools.  About ten years ago, Rupert Murdoch — the billionaire owner of Fox News — called public education a ‘$600 billion sector in the U.S. that is waiting desperately to be transformed.’  He might have more honestly said, ‘Public education is a half trillion dollar plum waiting to be picked.’… The purveyors of the mythology have been created by corporations and ideological interests that stand to gain from the coming great reformation.  Enter the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, the Kaufmanns, Bill Gates, and their richly endowed ilk.”

The prevalence of the “zombie conventional wisdom” (ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but refuse to die) about school choice and the superiority of privatizing education has been particularly evident this week in New York’s state budget agreement that will preserve such theories just as they were instituted in the city’s schools during the three terms of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio had intended to prioritize the needs of the 94 percent of NYC’s children in traditional public schools rather than the needs of the 6 percent of children attending charter schools, but the state legislature and New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo have clung to Bloomberg’s policies. (Cuomo and the Assembly lean Democratic and the Senate is Republican, but remember: the conventional wisdom is bipartisan.)  The legislature and the governor have agreed on a state budget law that will require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay the cost of leasing space for them in privately owned buildings.  The state budget agreement also prohibits the city from charging rent to charter schools when they are co-located in public school spaces.

New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is a big supporter of the conventional wisdom about charters. The NY Times quotes Cuomo on the new budget agreement: “We want to protect and grow and support that charter school movement, and this budget does that.” (This blog has tracked the huge investment in Cuomo’s political campaigns by supporters of privatization, charter operators and wealthy members of their boards here and here.)

Mayor de Blasio had resisted New York City’s tradition of accommodating charter schools (funded with public money and in New York endowed additionally by wealthy financiers) with rent-free space in public buildings. While he approved the majority of requests for new space from charter schools in February (the charter school co-locations had been pre-approved by Mayor Bloomberg before he left office), Mayor de Blasio attempted to cancel plans for three schools affiliated with a network known as Success Academy Charter Schools.  Two of the schools would have moved very young children into high schools, a situation de Blasio believed created safety issues.  A third would have threatened space currently housing physical therapy and other special services for disabled students. (This blog covered the NY budget deal here.)

How dare Mayor de Blasio challenge the bipartisan conventional wisdom—the zombie idea—that charters are the answer to the biggest problems for the schools in New York City!  In recent weeks powerful forces have rallied behind celebrity Eva Moskowitz—the politically connected charter operator who runs Success Academy Charters , who is paid $475,000 in annual salary, and who closed 22 schools for the day and bused the children and their parents to a political rally in Albany.  Her friends, board members, and supporters funded a $3.5 million  television ad campaign portraying darling children who claimed they would have no place to go to school if Mayor de Blasio were permitted to deny space for the three schools in question.  These friends have also invested in perpetuating the conventional wisdom by donating over $800,000 in campaign contributions to Governor Cuomo.  Glitz—celebrity—a lot of money—all the “right” people, and voila: the conventional wisdom.

But what if we look at the facts and realities that the conventional wisdom doesn’t acknowledge?   Al Baker, writing for the NY Times on March 31, remembers a speech a couple of weeks ago on the floor of the New York state legislature in the midst of the political fight over charters, an address by Sheldon Silver, speaker of New York’s Assembly: “There are children that are learning in trailers today; nobody has taken up their cause, to get them a permanent seat and a permanent school.”  According to Baker, Silver was unsuccessful  in his effort to secure funds in the state budget deal to rid the city of temporary classrooms in aging trailers, many of them now located on playgrounds next to over-crowded traditional schools in Queens in neighborhoods where immigrants have settled.  According to Baker’s investigation, despite a promise by former Mayor Bloomberg that he would rid NYC of  portable classrooms by 2012, today such supposedly temporary trailers house 7,158 children every day. “Though the Bloomberg administration spent billions of dollars buying land and building new schools, it managed only a modest reduction in the number of school trailers: to 352 today from 371 when he took office.”

Baker points out the obvious: “And the state budget deal reached last week is quite likely to make the task even harder, since it compels the city to find room in public school buildings for new charter schools, or help pay for their space costs.”  One fact that the prevailing conventional wisdom about the rights of charter operators ignores is the scale of the issues in NYC’s schools, which serve 1.1 million children.  In NYC, while 66,000 children are enrolled in charter schools, 1,034,000 children attend NYC’s traditional public schools.   Despite that the the conventional wisdom among New York’s power brokers doesn’t accord traditional public schools nearly so much attention, Mayor de Blasio deserves support as he tries to address the needs of the schools that serve the majority—and the schools most likely to serve the vulnerable.

2 thoughts on “Zombie Ideas and Conventional Wisdom: Why NYC’s School “Reform” Matters to the Rest of Us

  1. “Conventional wisdom is bipartisan.” How true this is, Jan, and that makes our task to protect and progress in public education so daunting.

  2. Pingback: Governor Cuomo Orchestrated Charter School Deal at Behest of Campaign Supporters | janresseger

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