President-elect Donald Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos are all devotees of the privatization of public education. That’s the reason it is so fascinating to read Samuel Abrams’ analysis of their ideas about federal education policy. Samuel Abrams is the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. And just last year he published Education and the Commercial Mindset, a book about the failure of Edison Schools and the challenges faced by KIPP along with some other charter school networks.
Abrams is not an ideologue and in the book as he concludes his in-depth examination of KIPP schools, he doesn’t reject the idea of charter schools out of hand—nor, unlike many other critics, does he reject the punitive, behavior-modification discipline that dominates many of these schools. But he cautions there are no quick or simple ways to solve the problems poverty poses for our children, our schools and our society. Here is how he concludes the book: “Organizations like Achievement First, KIPP, and Mastery do great work despite the force of poverty, but their dependence on a finite supply of generous philanthropists, tireless teachers, and students as well as families capable of abiding by rigid academic and behavioral expectations limits their reach. These organizations have led the way in showing what can be accomplished for a subset of students by granting administrators significant autonomy, extending the school day, providing intensive remedial help, and raising expectations. The next step is to make these strategies work for all students in disadvantaged communities. Such replication would necessitate substantial public investment to hire additional staff. The result would ultimately comport with the community school concept, with afternoon programs in art, music, crafts, sports, and homework help as well as associated medical, dental, and counseling services. This paradigm would be all the more successful if schools were granted the freedom to broaden their curricula. That could happen if we reversed course and abolished our current accountability system, which we undoubtedly should… Much of our mistaken thinking about education policy derives from our commercial mindset.” (Education and the Commercial Mindset, p. 303)
So, what does Samuel Abrams think about the nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education? Last weekend he told us in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times: “Donald Trump never tires of reminding us that he is a businessman, and in Betsy DeVos, he has nominated a Secretary of Education who endorses a business model for improving elementary and secondary schooling. The problem is it’s the wrong model. DeVos’ prescriptions include for-profit school management, taxpayer-funded vouchers to cover private school tuition and parental choice as the primary vehicle for regulation. Yet where such free-market remedies have been tried, they have yielded disappointing results.”
As evidence, Abrams examines the case of Chile in the thirty years since privatization was expanded in the 1980s: “Socioeconomic segregation… intensified, the academic achievement gap among disadvantaged children and their middle-and upper-class peers persisted, for-profit school management provoked protest and reform, and teacher pay remained low.” He also examines Sweden, where a “full-fledged voucher system” was adopted in the 1990s: “When investors financed the opening of hundreds of for-profit private schools there, many native-born Swedes opted for the new schools, leaving immigrant children behind. Sweden’s performance on international educational assessments declined, for-profit school management provoked protest and reform, and teacher pay fell.”
Abrams traces America’s interest in school privatization to Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who suggested in a 1955 essay that education is a commodity like groceries. Abrams counters: “The fundamental problem with the free-market model for education is that schools are not groceries.” On vouchers, Abrams explains: “Only a few cities in the U.S. implemented voucher systems, but results in these cities—notably, Milwaukee, leading the way in 1990, followed by Cleveland and Washington—have… not vindicated Friedman’s forecast.” Neither have charter schools—publicly funded but privately managed—improved education. Charter schools have, “posted uneven results, led to greater student segregation and in large part depressed teacher pay. In no state has this been more true than DeVos’ home state, Michigan, which thanks to her efforts is home to far more commercially managed charter schools than any state in the country. After controlling for demographics, Michigan, according to a recent Urban Institute study, ranks 47th of all states in reading and math.”
Why does a school choice marketplace not work very well? “Education is complex and the immediate consumer, after all, is a child or adolescent who can know only so much about how a subject should be taught. The parent, legislator and taxpayer are necessarily at a distance. Groceries, by contrast, are discrete goods purchased by adults who can easily judge each item according to taste, nutritional value and cost. Supermarkets can likewise be easily judged according to service, atmosphere and convenience.”