Racing to the Bottom through School Choice and Privatization

Here is a third and final reflection stimulated by my trip last weekend to Fort Wayne, Indiana.  (The first two pieces are here and here.)  At an afternoon forum last Sunday on public education—during panel discussions and in informal conversations—I heard people trying to parse out the impact on their lives of Indiana’s rapidly accelerating privatization of public schools.

Indiana has a three-year-old, rapidly growing voucher program that has, according to the Associated Press, doubled in size since last year. And Indiana hosts a thriving charter school sector.  While the sponsors of charter schools persistently refer to them as public charter schools, these schools are public only in the sense that they receive public funding. They are almost always privately managed and often privately owned.

In this post, I will compare comments I heard by individuals last Sunday afternoon with reflections by experts writing from a broader, philosophical point of view.  The experts’ comments are abstract, but they do a good job of generalizing the particular observations of individuals in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  After all, school privatization is neither merely a Fort Wayne issue nor an Indiana issue.  Privatization is a major concern today across America.

On one panel I heard a proponent of privatization extol the supposed benefits of vouchers for children as though we are to view our society’s broad mandate to educate over 50 million children and adolescents one child at a time.  This appealing notion is especially understandable from the point of view of parents who feel responsible for protecting the needs of their particular children.  But what about the public’s responsibility for all of our nation’s children?  The Governing Board of the National Council of Churches considered the public’s moral responsibility for all children, not just to each child one at a time:  “We… affirm that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served. As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.”

One Indiana mother complained to me that she thought she would be able to get more involved by choosing a school for her child, but the first charter school she had chosen pushed out her child, and a second school refused to involve her in creating her child’s special education IEP plan.  Political philosopher Benjamin Barber examines the philosophical and moral implications of privatization in Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (2007).  Here is be Barber’s understanding of the issue raised by the Indiana mother who wondered where the power really lies as public services are privatized. “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.  We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.  We choose what kind of car we drive, but it was the automobile, steel, rubber, and cement industries through their influence on congress that chose a highway-based private transportation system….” (p. 139)

Again and again in Fort Wayne I heard community leaders despair about the sacrifice of public ownership and public oversight. They worried about dollars being diverted from the state education budget, dollars desperately needed by the public schools whose fiscal capacity has been significantly diminished by privatization. They also worried about whether there is adequate public regulation of voucher schools and charters. Here is Barber’s understanding of how market systems undermine our capacity to protect the needs of society itself:  “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 (brute force), personal skills (randomly distributed), and personal luck.  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.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (pp. 143-144)

Pauline Lipman, professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, in The New Political Economy of Urban Education (2011), also reflects on the loss of public ownership when school choice becomes the mechanism for distributing educational opportunity:  “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state.  In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services.  People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice and private pension investments. One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself’….” (p. 11)

I heard parents complain about a system framed through competition which always produces losers as well as winners.  Barber directly confronts the notion of competition: “Inequality is built into the market system, which too often becomes a race to the top for those who are wealthy, and a race to the bottom for everyone else.  Inequality is not incidental to privatization, it is its very premise.  The implicit tactic employed by the well off is to leave behind those who get more in public services than they contribute as taxpayers in a residual “public” sector” (a kind of self-financing leper colony that cannot self-finance) and throw in with those who have plenty to contribute in their own private “commons.’  The result is two levels of service—two societies—hostile, divided, and deeply unequal.” (p. 157)

School choice is always sold through the promise that competition will improve the public schools.  But I heard parents in Fort Wayne describe their sinking realization that school choice is instead undermining the viability of their traditional public school district. State funds are being siphoned away for the private alternatives, but choice itself seems to be privileging the parents who know how to play the game and leaving behind the poorest families.  Education historian Diane Ravitch’s extrapolates these parents’ worries in her new book, Reign of Error: “The federal regulations are like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability.  As worried families abandon these schools, they increasingly enroll disproportionate numbers of the most disadvantaged students, either children with special needs or new immigrants….  Low grades on the state report card may send a once-beloved school into a death spiral.  What was once a source of stability in the community becomes a school populated by those who are least able to find a school that will accept them. Once the quality of the neighborhood school begins to fall, parents will be willing to consider charter schools, online schools….  In time, the neighborhood school becomes the school of last resort not the community school.  When the neighborhood school is finally closed, there is no longer any choice.  Then parents will be forced to travel long distances and hope that their children will be accepted into a school; the school chooses, not the students.” (319-320)

Will We Permit the Theft of Our Democracy?

This past Sunday afternoon, I had occasion to watch democracy at work.  As I describe here, I was part of the audience in Fort Wayne, Indiana as a panel including the president of the state senate committee on public education, a member of the state school board, and the president of the local Fort Wayne Board of Education discussed state education policy that dictates vouchers, an “A through F” rating system for public schools, and rapid charterization.

Although I am definitely not a political science expert, I could see that representatives of state agencies listened more carefully (or felt more threatened) when they were confronted by the president of the local school board than when the individual teachers and parents in the audience made comments and asked questions.  The president of the elected local school board carried the power of most everyone in the room and the majority of Fort Wayne’s voters, after all.

My recent experience in Fort Wayne reminded me of something I heard in New Orleans during the crisis after Hurricane Katrina, when a state Recovery School District was imposed on the Orleans Parish public school district.  The state seized all the schools with scores below a state-established benchmark, a standard set so high that the state was able to take over virtually all the public schools.  The Recovery School District began a mass experiment in charterization and laid off all of the public school teachers in New Orleans, effectively abrogating a legal contract with the United Teachers of New Orleans, AFT—breaking the union.  Without the power to do anything about it, parents profoundly cried out to name what had happened to them: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy, all while we were out of town.”

Today Governor Rick Scott and the legislature in Michigan have imposed state-appointed emergency managers in many of Michigan’s poorest and most segregated school districts—Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Inkster, Buena Vista, and Detroit.  The emergency managers can nullify local union contracts, bring in private corporations to run entire school districts, fire teachers, radically escalate class size and even dissolve the school district and merge it with the one next door.  Neither the elected school boards, nor the superintendents who report to those school boards, nor the voters can impact what is happening.  In Pennsylvania the state-appointed School Reform Commission has been dictating to Superintendent Hite according to the wishes of those in Harrisburg who appointed the members of the Commission.  In states like Ohio and Indiana, where one political party is gerrymandered to control both the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, one-party government is preventing democratic debate at the state level.

And in a number of large cities, mayoral governance—with the mayor’s appointed school board—has replaced the democratic form of school governance represented by an elected board of education.  We have watched as rubber-stamp school board members, serving at the pleasure of the mayor who appointed them, vote in lock-step with the mayor’s wishes.  Examples are New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland, and Providence,

Democracy as represented in local school boards is a stable form of school governance.  Instead today’s school reformers prefer disruptive change of the sort deliberative local school boards are less likely to approve—portfolio school reform, school closure, and privatization.  In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch discusses the importance of democracy as represented through elected boards of education:

“The reformers are correct when they say that elected school boards are an obstacle to radical change. They move slowly. They argue.  They listen to different points of view. They make mistakes. They are not bold and transformative. They prefer incremental change.  In short, they are a democratic forum.  They are a check and balance against concentrated power in one person or one agency… Authoritarian governments can move decisively…  They are able to make change without pondering or taking opposing views into account…  There is an arrogance to unchecked power.  There is no mechanism to vet its ideas, so it plunges forward, sometimes into disastrous schemes…  No reform idea is so compelling and so urgent that it requires the suspension of democracy.” (Reign of Error, pp. 287-288)

“A-F” School Ranking Systems—Exacerbating Racial Divisions and Inequality

Yesterday afternoon I spent five hours in Fort Wayne, Indiana at an interfaith gathering where nearly a hundred people discussed the challenges for public schools in a state that quite recently imposed a rash of corporatized, test-and-punish school reforms.  Indiana has lots of new charter schools, a huge voucher program, and a very controversial, econometric, “A through F” rating system for its schools.  The discussion heated up during a panel featuring the president of the local school board, the chair of the state senate committee on education, a member of the state board of education, the newspaper editor, a professor of urban education, a charter school principal, and the principal of a parochial school.  Fortunately a skilled moderator kept the discussion moving.

The president of the Fort Wayne Board of Education bluntly explained how all these changes have affected particular neighborhood schools. He explained why the Fort Wayne Board of Education has refused to implement the “A through F” school rating system and wondered how the state could have imposed such a system that ruins the reputation of certain schools and neighborhoods by reinforcing racial and economic stereotyping and segregation.

It is in the context of the Fort Wayne school board president’s remarks that I have been reading Division Street, U.S.A., Robert J. Sampson’s  fine article in this morning’s New York Times.  Sampson explores the role of “the neighborhood as a consolidating feature of American inequality.”  “We don’t talk much about ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ in public anymore, but the distinction between one place and another is implicitly understood and often explicitly specified.  That location matters greatly for housing values, for example, is taken for granted.  Less appreciated is the persistence of neighborhood inequality and its extensive reach into multiple aspects of everyday life.”

Sampson’s statistics are stunning, even though they describe situations we pass by every day.  A third of African American children are being raised in high-poverty neighborhoods while only 1 percent of white children are being raised in extremely poor neighborhoods.  “I was taken aback to learn,” writes Sampson, ” that the highest incarceration rate among African-American communities in Chicago was over 40 times higher than the highest ranked white community.  This is a staggering difference of kind, not degree.  And it does not go unnoticed, even by children.”  Sampson presents data to show how being raised in an area where poverty is concentrated diminishes academic achievement. If you are born in a very poor neighborhood, it is hard to get out: “almost 70 percent of black adolescents raised in concentrated poverty areas remain there as adults.”

Sampson reports “that approximately 60 percent of blacks or whites in metropolitan areas across the United States would have to relocate to achieve racial integration.  In New York City, an eye-popping 81 percent of whites or blacks would have to move.”  Such statistics seem overwhelming.  How can we change what has come to define just how things are in America?  Sampson’s piece made me remember Jonathan Kozol’s description of what happens when people move to New York: “They might say that they have simply come to New York City, found a job, and found a home, and settled in to lead their lives within the city as it is. That is the great luxury of long-existing and accepted segregation in New York and almost every other major city of our nation nowadays.  Nothing needs to be imposed on anyone. The evil is already set in stone. We just move in.” (Amazing Grace, 1995, p. 164)

What to do?  It can get a little overwhelming, but one concrete step is to follow the lead of the president of the Fort Wayne Board of Education. Yesterday he examined the implications of test-based, corporatized accountability on the larger trends of inequality and segregation.  He was insistent in the way he pointed out how Indiana’s “A through F” school rating system would further stigmatize the poorest children, schools and neighborhoods of Fort Wayne.  It may be easy for policy makers who may themselves live high on the hill, on the right side of the tracks or the right side of Division Street not to notice how policy further marginalizes the vulnerable, but yesterday they must have heard, just as I did, the personal investment of the local school board president as he explained the implications of their policies for Fort Wayne’s neighborhoods.

Here is how Harvard professor Robert Sampson in the NY Times piece describes the way burgeoning inequality is affecting our society: “We live in a free society, of course, but the high-end spatial concentration of income and its associated resources, like well-endowed schools, security, abundant services and political connections, in effect pulls up the drawbridge from our neighbors.”

What seemed more important to me than anything else I learned at yesterday’s meeting is that for the president of the Fort Wayne Board of Education, these are not abstract political issues.  He will not be silent as policy makers try to pull up the drawbridge.  For him it is about particular neighborhoods and schools and people he respects who are principals and teachers.  I am encouraged that he is speaking to the public about how our ideological, politicized school reform is further segregating his community and threatening to marginalize particular neighborhood schools.  As Sampson tells us, our neighborhoods are the places where we live. They matter a lot.

I Wish We Had Reached a Tipping Point in the Education Reform Conversation

Last Friday, Anthony Cody, the fine Education Week/Teacher Magazine blogger about justice for children and respect for teachers, wished aloud what public school supporters everywhere have been quietly hoping:  Tony Bennett’s Day of Reckoning Has Come: Is Corporate Reform Far Behind?  Cody hopes we are reaching a tipping point when political opinion will shift against high-stakes accountability.  Embedded in his blog post is an important film clip of Chris Hayes and PBS reporter John Merrow discussing on MSNBC the meaning of the Bennett scandal.  And today Diane Ravitch circulated a National Review critique of Bennett by conservative columnist Michelle Malkin; Ravitch hopes that even the far-right is beginning to see the error in accountability-based ideology.

If you are tracking the education blogs or if you are following scandals arising from cheating to make school rankings and ratings look good, you probably know about the school reform scandal that caused Tony Bennett, the state school superintendent in Florida to resign last week.  Bennett who came to Florida earlier this year when Indiana voters replaced him as their elected state superintendent, was exposed last week by an Associated Press reporter who searched Bennett’s e-mail to discover that, during his tenure in Indiana, Bennett lobbied for a change in Indiana’s A-F school rating system to raise the grade from a C to an A for a charter school owned by a powerful political contributor who had heavily supported not only legislators but also Bennett’s own campaign.  Bennett had brought the A-F rating system for schools to Indiana and added consequences including school funding, school closures, and state takeovers for the schools with low grades.  Valerie Strauss’s column from last Friday is the best I exploration I’ve read of the implications of Bennett’s resignation in Florida.

I’d like to hope we have reached a tipping point, but I think we have a long, long way to go.  Tony Bennett’s resignation in Florida has dominated the blogosphere, but I suspect it was neither gossiped about at coffee hour in many churches this morning nor discussed much over after-dinner coffee last night.

I know something about changing a public conversation.  My understanding is local, not national, but still relevant, I think.  Twenty years ago, after our inner-ring suburban school levy failed in May by a margin of over two thousand votes, I agreed to co-chair a levy set to appear on the November ballot.  We found chairs who recruited over 700 volunteers to go door-to-door to talk with neighbors and got those people trained along with a whole speakers’ bureau.  We established a letter writing campaign in which members of churches and synagogues and members of the faculty at universities and doctors and nurses at Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals and musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra personally wrote to explain the importance of the levy to all of their colleagues residing in our school district.  We secured and published hundreds of endorsements. Volunteers held signs on busy corners and held a parade.  Local artists designed the logo and the campaign literature. Hundreds of brochures were printed and delivered personally by the street captain on each block, and if we couldn’t get a street captain, sports teams from the high school and Scout troops delivered levy literature after we secured their parents’ permission.  Telephone answering machines were relatively new at the time, and we got everybody in the campaign to change the message to say, “I’m sorry I can’t answer the phone right now because I’m too busy working for the school levy.”  Nobody could forget the very simple message: “The future of our community depends on our schools.”  That  campaign produced 9,742 votes for the levy; 7,686 votes against, a positive margin of two thousand votes.

I learned that summer and fall that changing public opinion is possible but I also I learned the amount of work and disciplined focus required.  Something I worry about in the night these days is what will be required to change the national conversation about public education.  Are the reductive and often inaccurate A-F grading systems that are being promoted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and its companion group, Chiefs for Change, the vehicle for shifting the conversation?  Can we accept Anthony Cody’s logic that the Bennett scandal added to the Rhee scandal added to the Atlanta cheating scandal added to the Rod Paige Texas miracle that turned out to be a lie will convince the public of the folly of corporatized reform?

How the school accountability agenda is being moved forward federally and across the states is pretty complicated even for someone like me who has spent a lot of time learning about today’s school reform.  Tonight I searched the internet to try to find out which states have adopted the A-F school “grades” as Chiefs for Change have encouraged states to do.  I found the following list in Lyndsey Layton’s August 3 Washington Post article: Florida, Indiana, Arizona, Alabama, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and, in 2015, Virginia and Ohio.  My search also unearthed articles that appeared in local newspapers in each of those states, but nothing until the Bennett scandal that connected the A-F school grades across the states or to Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education or Chiefs for Change.

In my own clipping file I discovered an article from page 21 of the  May 12, 2012 Education Week reporting that several states were incorporating A-F school rating systems into applications for waivers from the penalties of No Child Left Behind.  I cannot discern from this article whether the U.S. Department of Education was awarding points for inclusion of A-F rating systems. I do know that in many cases the A-F rating systems were included in proposals written and submitted by state education departments without democratic, legislative oversight.  These applications were submitted for a waiver program that has never had Congressional oversight.  Waivers are, after all, the U.S. Department of Education’s end-run around a Congress that has been unable to agree on the reauthorization of a deeply flawed No Child Left Behind.

In many states, however, corporatized reform has been enthusiastically embraced by legislatures and governors.  Defeating A-F school rating systems, a rush to charters, and the wave of new voucher programs washing across the states will require a mass of disciplined political organizing.

As someone who has recently taken up blogging, I am certainly not in position to criticize such work, but blogging alone cannot turn around the national school reform conversation.  Before the political will can shift, it will be necessary to agree on goals and strategy and to organize lots of real people to insist that state legislators and Congress begin once again to focus on investing in and improving the public schools in our poorest communities.  Building political will with that kind of disciplined organizing will be really hard work.