Suddenly several academic experts who have previously endorsed market reforms for education seem to be grasping the wisdom best expressed by the political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. In a 2007 book about our society’s consumer culture, Barber writes:
“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)
First Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—creator of the “portfolio school reform model” that purports to deliver a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods—and that encourages city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—went to Detroit earlier this year to see how all this is working. In early November, Lake and the Center for Reinventing Public Education published a scathing analysis in Education Next: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival. It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school. ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”
Then last week Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), came to the Cleveland City Club to announce the release of a scathing new report from CREDO on Ohio’s school choice marketplace. This blog reported that Raymond shocked listeners to her City Club address by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.” You can watch the video of the event here, with the comment quoted here beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.
So… even the academic staffs of far-right think tanks are looking at the research and realizing that Benjamin Barber is correct: “Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.”
Is there any way to undo the damage to public education left behind by the tsunami of school privatization that has been washing across our states now for a quarter of a century?
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute must hope so. It is the national organization that has been promoting marketplace school choice for years, with a model introduced in Dayton, Ohio, and it is the organization that paid for CREDO to come to Ohio to conduct the new evaluation of charters. Representatives of the Fordham Institute have been pointing out that a poorly regulated education marketplace filled with bad players in Ohio is undermining the whole movement for school choice.
According to Politico’s Morning Education last Friday, another pro-charter nonprofit, Charter Board Partners has created an online toolkit “to train charter school board members to exercise better governance.” And on the other side, the pro-public education Annenberg Institute for School Reform recently created a helpful guide to improving oversight of charters and school choice: Public Accountability for Charter Schools: Standards and Policy Recommendations for Effective Oversight.
And in Detroit, Robin Lake at least comes up with some words about oversight. She proposes that thoughtful community activists, parents, and community agencies should engage in “strong civic leadership” and create “a plan for investment and action, and creative problem solving. It will need to be strategic about what’s required to solve these complex problems, but also opportunistic about when and how they are solved.” Advocates will need to “address negligent charter authorizers and persistently low-performing charter schools,” “develop a strong core of high-quality schools in the charter sector,” help “parents and communities to push authorizers and the district to increase performance accountability,” “double down on recruiting talented school leaders and teachers (Teach for America is the example provided.), and engage leaders “like the mayor and local developers.”
And then there is Margaret Raymond who concludes. “I think there are other supports that are needed… The policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement. We need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools, but I also think we need to have more oversight of the overseers… the authorizers.”
These are all such nice ideas. The problem, however, in Ohio and Michigan and many other states is that our politics is awash in money. The owners of the for-profits, the on-line charter schools, the shady Charter Management Organizations and other proponents of school privatization including major philanthropists are spending buckets of money to influence the politicians who would have to be responsible for requiring charter operators to be more transparent and for legislating more regulations to protect the public from unscrupulous or ineffective charter school authorizers and boards.
Do you remember Pandora who was sent to earth by Zeus with a jar she had been warned never to open. Pandora peeked under the lid, however, and out flew myriad plagues and evils to wander forever among mankind. How to get the lid of regulation and oversight back into our system of education now that the myriad plagues and evils of privatization have been loosed across our states? The question for us, now that academic research increasingly demonstrates the pitfalls of a school choice marketplace, is whether we can create the political will to force our elected representatives, in spite of all the money and political power behind privatization, to restore the social contract with well regulated public schools that serve the needs and protect the rights of all of our children.