On Saturday, the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown reported that Carl Paladino, a Buffalo, NY real estate developer and surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, went to the annual meeting of the Council for the Great City Schools and told the leaders of the nation’s largest school districts that a President Donald Trump, “would seek to do away with ‘corrupted, incompetent’ public school systems in America’s cities, replacing them with charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Such an approach would ‘encourage competition in the marketplace and eventually dismantle the corrupted, incompetent urban school districts that we have in America today.'” One can imagine that—while such words would impress Jeb Bush and others who love vouchers and would please Arne Duncan and our current Secretary of Education John King, who have promoted of the explosive growth of charter schools—Paladino and Trump’s market-based vision of education was poorly received in a room filled with big city school superintendents.
While we can hope that after November 8, we will not have to take seriously the threats of Donald Trump, attacks on government and prescriptions for privatization remain at the center of our political rhetoric. These days market-based education strategies dominate the public policy of both political parties.
In their recent book, American Amnesia, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker and Berkeley political scientist Paul Pierson remind us of what we have forgotten during the past forty years—the important role of government: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion… We live in an era of profound skepticism about government. Contemporary political discourse portrays liberty and coercion as locked in ceaseless conflict. We are told that government is about ‘redistribution’ and the private sector about ‘production,’ as if government only reshuffles the economic deck rather than holding many of the highest cards… We suffer, in short, from a kind of mass historical forgetting, a distinctively ‘American Amnesia.'” (p. 1-2)
While Hacker and Pierson’s book does not examine the history of the vast privatization of education that has expanded right along with attacks on government more generally, the lessons of this profound book speak directly to many of the problems with school choice. For example, Hacker and Pierson explain, while modern societies are complex, the market fails to inform citizens accurately and adequately: “(W)here informational demands are high, the sources of market failure grow.” Behavioral economics has identified the problem of “consumer myopia,” a widespread inability of people to discern their own best interests—and something that the marketers of charter schools know how to manipulate as parents look for schools: “We are easily distracted by shiny objects and thus vulnerable to being ‘primed’ to attend to particular aspects of a choice situation… We are overconfident, typically expecting our own experience to be better than average… We are biased toward avoiding losses rather than achieving gains. We are very bad at assessing risks… We are prone to inertia.” (p. 81)
How should we expect government to correct for this widespread problem? “In a culture that celebrates freedom of choice, the overwhelming evidence of gigantic, systematic lapses in judgment carries uncomfortable implications… Think of a whole series of consumption choices that might be categorized as investments: in your health, in your education and skills, in your savings for retirement. Research results are clear: On their own, citizens will underinvest in all these areas. And this underinvestment is on top of the underinvestment that occurs because people don’t take into account the social benefits of their individual choices… (W)e need government nudges, or even firm pushes, to make sound long-term decisions. (p. 82) Government’s role? “It’s about setting up basic rules, institutions, and policies that correct the market’s most serous failures… Moreover, government has sources of expertise (scientists, statistics, specialized agencies) that become more capable as societies become more complex. Increased complexity and interdependence make the case for a capable, informed public sector, not for letting markets alone deal with these challenges…” (p. 86)
We take for granted that public schools, owned and operated by government, are regulated to meet the needs and protect the rights of all children, and we demand careful stewardship of public dollars. When parents or citizens believe these important protections are being violated, they have a legal right to demand redress. But what about charter schools?
Here is what has been happening at the federal level. The coercive power of government has been utterly lacking in the federal Charter Schools Program, which has been granting billions of dollars for states to expand the number of privately managed charter schools. Swept away by the myth of the power of markets, first Arne Duncan and now John King have led the U.S. Department of Education to define its role as promoting innovation but have utterly failed to provide the kind of oversight of charter schools that government is expected to exert. The Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General has repeatedly castigated the management of this program because neither the Department of Education nor the state departments of education which have received the grants have been required even to keep accurate records. The Department of Education has failed to protect each child’s right to an education and to prevent conflicts of interest, fraud and waste. Last year the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a group of national educational and labor organizations, asked Arne Duncan impose a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until the Department of Education establishes adequate regulation and oversight.
Last week U.S. Secretary of Education John King, whose tenure will, thankfully, end as a new president appoints (we hope) a stronger Secretary of Education, tried to pass the buck, by insisting the states themselves do a better job of vetting charter school quality.
King was responding to a recent action by the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization which, on October 15, joined critics who have raised concerns about the federal government’s and the states’ widespread failure to regulate the charter school sector. The NAACP ratified a very strong resolution calling not only for more regulation but also for protection of the rights of students in charter schools and for steps to ensure that rapid expansion of charters stops destroying the big city public school districts that have continued to serve the very poor, immigrant, and disabled students who are expensive to educate. The NAACP demands a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools until: “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools. Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the pubic school system. Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate. (And charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest-performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”
In their academic analysis of the role of government and the damage wrought through decades of ideological attacks on government, Hacker and Pierson call for a correction, not for cynicism and paralysis. Like the leaders of the NAACP, they seek to strengthen government’s capacity to do what is required: “Government often performs tasks less well than it could or should. That doesn’t mean, however, that we would be better off without government performing those tasks… We should be critical of government performance when it falls short… But we should be appropriately critical. Government sweats the big stuff: the hard challenges that decentralized private action can’t solve, the essential investments that market actors won’t make, the vexing choices that individual minds don’t handle well.” (p. 367)