How Did the Public Discourse Move from Democracy in Education to Individualistic, Marketplace School Choice?

Robert Asen is a University of Wisconsin rhetorician who studies political discourse. In School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, published in 2021, Asen traces the pivot in public values and political thinking that led from philosopher John Dewey’s definition of progressive public education as the necessary institution for forming our democracy to the adoption in Asen’s home state of Wisconsin of America’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee, followed by Scott Walker’s successful promotion of the statewide expansion of marketplace school choice.

Asen presents four chapter-long “case studies” of individuals and situations that trace the transformation. The first of these profiles explores John Dewey’s thinking about democracy: “Individual and collective represent for Dewey two dimensions of the same vitality of human relationships. Individuals do not grow and mature in isolation, nor do collectives dissolve individuality.” “Individuals may practice democracy as a way of life by building relationships with others. When these relationships bring individuals together in collectives, they enable the creation of community. Community thus represents the embodied practice of organizing public relationships democratically.” “Like democracy, education unfolds through relationships. Dewey criticized traditional pedagogical practices because they fail to build relationships in the classroom.”

Asen acknowledges one absence in Dewey’s thinking about community; he imagined community perhaps as a small New England town. Dewey did not fully grasp what Asen describes as “counterpublics,”—a society  stratified by race and inequality of power: “Dewey and (W.E.B.) Du Bois lived in New York City at the same time, but they did not appear to participate in the same local community… Dewey underscored the importance of face-to-face community ‘without acknowledging any black face or community.'”

In contrast to Dewey, Milton and Rose Friedman “anticipated and influenced a wider neoliberal perspective that has treated markets not as a demarcated realm of society but as a general framework that can be applied to any activity.” “Taken together the Friedmans’ commitments to individuals, freedom, and market-inspired relationships outline a model of publicity and a policy agenda… Freedom orients this public as an ultimate value that elevates individual choice above all while obscuring structured advantages and disadvantages afforded to differently situated people in diverse and unequal societies… (T)his model treats these relationships as free of coercion and the uneven influence of power. In this way, differences between parties to a relationship do not matter in terms of shaping the dynamics of their relationship.”

The book’s third chapter becomes an exploration of the very familiar discourse of Betsy DeVos, but getting there, Asen traces 60 years of public thinking about education beginning with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson—through the 1982 Reagan era publication of A Nation at Risk, which shifted “the focus of education discourse from education as a means of social and political equalization to education as a means to economic prosperity”—to President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Charlottesville Education Summit (chaired by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton) which stressed the need for “an educated workforce… in an increasingly competitive world economy” and launched the idea of national education goals—through the passage, in 2001, of No Child Left Behind, which mandated holding schools accountable according to their capacity to raise aggregate standardized test scores every year.

From my point of view, as someone who has paid attention to public education through this entire history, Asen’s judgment about the pivotal role of No Child Left Behind in setting up the discourse for the subsequent growth of school privatization may be the most significant observation in this book: “In a bipartisan manner, accountability and standards functioned analogously to the roles of central banks and other regulatory market institutions in establishing common measures of educational value and exchange. Various actors, from state education officers to individual families, could participate in educational markets confident that they could exchange with others through commensurable means. Testing and test scores served as market valuations and currency. Individual schools, local districts, and states could market themselves to individual and institutional investors as sound opportunities. Test scores also provided market actors with the information they needed to make comparative choices among various education providers.” (p. 81)

Asen moves from this national history and his profile of DeVos to the operation of the discourse of privatization in his home state, Wisconsin. In the early 1990s, state assembly member and Black activist Polly Williams did not follow the Friedmans’ individualist script. Williams was disillusioned with the slow pace of desegregation in Milwaukee: “In her advocacy of vouchers, Polly Williams balanced individual and community concerns. As a policy tool, vouchers permitted individual Milwaukee parents to choose a private school… Yet Williams supported vouchers to help her community.” Ultimately, however, voucher supporters in Wisconsin adopted the Friedmans’ argument: “Against democratic visions, market-based publics offer alternative alignment of means and ends, foregrounding individual choice as the means for realizing… freedom. Nevertheless, as they supported the statewide expansion of vouchers, the Republican-majority members of the Joint Finance Committee associated various ends with vouchers—improved educational outcomes for all students, cost savings, new incentives for public school accountability—that when amplified, ultimately appeared as corollary benefits of choice.”

Finally, Asen profiles widespread public school advocacy across Wisconsin today, advocacy in the spirit of John Dewey, but explicitly recognizing the racial and ethnic diversity that dominates a state where the voters in homogeneous rural communities must somehow accommodate the needs of concentrations of Black and Brown students in Milwaukee and Madison and the residents of those cities must negotiate racism in the state capitol. Asen conducted focus groups of educators and public school advocates about they ways they are finding to lift up the needs of a student population divided by race, ethnicity, and economic inequality: “The partners in this dialogue bring distinct perspectives that offer new insights through their interaction. In his writings, Dewey underscored the value of everyday action as a mode of critical praxis that can turn coordinated individual action into a powerful collective force. Our interviewees explicated the texture and diversity of everyday action through their practices of community-building, unpacking connections among community, local identity, and difference… (O)ur interviewees explicated the dynamics of race and racism (and other potential sources of unity and division) in the actual processes of community-building. They shared Dewey’s commitment to community but recognized tensions, struggles, and frustrations that accompany community engagement.”

In the end, Asen sums up precisely why the Friedman-DeVos discourse is wrong for a democratic society: “By constructing education as a discrete package that individuals may receive separately and variously, dissociation redirects education away from potentially mediating the individual and the collective in the cultivation of democratic publics and toward a role of preparing individuals to pursue their self-interests in market publics.”

Asen affirms the overall vision of John Dewey as the way to move forward: “A democratic education may support students in living their lives productively in coordination with others, pursuing individual interests while recognizing how relationships shape these interests and build life-enriching collective affiliations… A democratic education may foster recognition of the varied consequences of human action, which Dewey understood as the basis of public formation.  Individuals do not choose only for themselves; their choices carry consequences for others who must live with the potentially ameliorative and baneful effects of these choices… A democratic education may illuminate the transformative power of publics for the people who participate in them.”

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What We All Lose When We Mistake the Market for the Public and Conflate Consumers and Citizens

In Ohio right now, 100 school districts have filed a lawsuit declaring that the state’s EdChoice school voucher program is currently operating in violation of Article VI, Section 2 of the 1851 Ohio Constitution: “The General Assembly…shall secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state…” The Ohio Constitution does not provide for the diversion of public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition.

EdChoice vouchers violate the rights of 1.8 million public school students across our state by extracting tax dollars from the state foundation budget that is intended for the public schools. But in recent years the response of school advocates has been fragmented because—due to the complexity of Ohio’s school funding formula and the design of the EdChoice program—the voucher program has had different implications for different school districts.  The lawsuit filed earlier this month, however, expresses in clear language the interests of all of the children across our state. Right now public school advocates have a wonderful opportunity to defend the lawsuit in language that speaks to protecting the rights and meeting the needs of all of our state’s children.

Today’s post is intended to facilitate that conversation by pulling together some thinking from philosophers of education and scholars who have devoted their lives to considering the meaning, purpose, and significance of a public system of education.

Promoters of school choice celebrate individual parents as consumers looking for a school that will perfectly help each of their children succeed and won’t threaten the values of their particular family. The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber confronts the assumptions underneath this ideology: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars… than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

In the first paragraph of the first page of his 1899 book, The School and Society, our nation’s most prominent educational philosopher, John Dewey declared that public schooling serves a public purpose: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”

In the powerful final essay in the new Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Bill Ayers updates Dewey’s idea by considering what its application would mean if we were to define what the best and wisest parent wants today as the level of services available for the children in a well supplied suburban American public school district: “Let’s move forward guided by an unshakable first principle: Public education is a human right and a basic community responsibility… Every child has the right to a free, high-quality education.  A decent, generously staffed school facility must be in easy reach for every family… What the most privileged parents have for their public school children right now—small class sizes, fully trained and well compensated teachers, physics and chemistry labs, sports teams, physical education, and athletic fields and gymnasiums, after-school and summer programs, generous arts programs that include music, theater, and fine arts—is the baseline for what we want for all children.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 314-315) (emphasis in the original)

What is the public purpose of public education? In a recent short analysis, educational historian Jack Schneider surfaces the hope of many parents that through school choice, they can ensure success for each of their children: “If we all operate as consumers, then we are going to elevate one purpose of schools above all others—the drive to secure for our own kids an advantage over everyone else. But that’s not what schools are designed to do.” Surely all parents hope their children will develop the necessary skills to thrive and succeed, but individual success has never been the primary purpose of those who developed our nation’s system of public schools—located in every community and required to protect the rights and serve the needs of all children.

Benjamin Barber expands on Schneider’s concern by exploring vouchers’ sparkling appeal to individualism and the eventual toxicity for our children, our communities and our democracy: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Bill Ayers explicitly defines the public purpose of public education: “In a free society education must focus on the production—not of things, but—of free people capable of developing minds of their own even as they recognize the importance of learning to live with others. It’s based, then, on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being, constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and conversely that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all. Further, while schooling in every totalitarian society on earth foregrounds obedience and conformity, education in a democracy must consciously emphasize initiative, courage, creativity, self-confidence, mutuality, respect for self and others—the arts of liberty.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 315) (emphasis in the original)

Finally, Benjamin Barber explicitly analyzes how vouchers deny our children and their families the protection of their rights: “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… personal skills… 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; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Barber’s words almost perfectly describe the conditions to which EdChoice vouchers contribute in Ohio. A smaller number of students carrying vouchers extract desperately needed state tax dollars from the mass of Ohio school districts and especially from the poorer school districts which depend on state revenue. The vouchers deprive the much greater number of students remaining in the public schools of the kind of small classes and enriched schools Bill Ayers describes in the public schools in our state’s wealthy exurbs, where higher local property values create a greater capacity to fund the wealthy districts’ public schools. School privatization, as Barber predicts, only accelerates our society’s growing inequality.

Why Our Federal and State Constitutions Protect Children’s Rights over Parents’ Rights

As fall moves into winter, far-right ideologues continue to argue for the protection of parents’ rights. Organized parents have been mobbing school board meetings to demand the right to screen the curriculum, control the books their children check out of the school library, and prescribe the topics that their children will be allowed to discuss in history and civics classes.

In the past month, Republicans in Congress have been trying to protect parents rights through legislation.  In the U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia Fox (R-NC), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and several colleagues introduced a Parents Bill of Rights.  And Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced a  companion bill in the U.S. Senate.

As the blogger Peter Greene explains, these bills mostly seem to want to protect the rights parents already have in the the vast majority of public school districts: “The bullet point version of the (House) bill lists five rights—the right to know what’s being taught, the right to be heard, the right to see the school budget and spending, the right to protect their child’s privacy, and the right to be updated on any violent activity at school.  Most of which seems… kind of redundant, giving parents rights they already have.”

But there are indications that this debate has emerged because some parents—and the ideologues who are organizing parents—fear that some deeper and more complicated kind of parental control is threatened. Theorists are now speaking to the constitutional issues around protection of parents’ and children’s rights.

In late October, in a Wall Street Journal editorial, an extreme libertarian professor of law at Columbia University and the president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, Philip Hamburger made the bizarre, First Amendment argument that public education itself violates parents’ freedom of speech: “Education consists mostly in speech to and with children. Parents enjoy freedom of speech in educating their children, whether at home or through private schooling.” “Although the exact nature of this parental freedom is much disputed, it is grounded in the First Amendment…. (T)he freedom of parents in educating their children belongs to all parents… The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling… (P)arents are… being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own… For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.” (The hotlink is to Diane Ravitch’s blog, where the article is reprinted; the original is paywalled.)

Like many on the far-right, Hamburger prefers to substitute the word “government” for the word “public,” and he seems to believe government is trying to brainwash children with “education” their parents don’t want them to know about.

On Monday, a professor of law at West Virginia University, Joshua Weishart published a profound response to the controversy about parents’ rights—an explanation that identifies what it is at school that has frightened so many parents. Weishart doesn’t worry so much about parents’ rights, because, he explains: “In our constitutional order, children’s freedoms take priority over parental freedoms. Given the overriding importance of schooling to democracy, our laws elevate and protect the rights of all children to learn and grow as citizens.”

Weishart believes today’s frenzy about parents’ rights can be traced back, as controversy about civil rights often is, to America’s oldest problem—racism: “Remember that the demand for equal educational opportunity crystallized in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which then sparked opponents’ cries for parental freedom. Many saw then and see now that parental freedom meant the freedom to preserve a racist structure of schooling. Segregation indeed remains our most disgraceful yet enduring sacrifice on the alter of parental freedom. Time and again, the Supreme Court has revered the residential and private school choices of parents even as they have exacerbated segregation and widened school funding disparities, leaving far too many of our schools separate and unequal—essentially upending Brown‘s declaration that both segregation and unequal educational opportunities subvert the equal protection of the laws.”

But some of the state supreme courts have more carefully protected the rights of children to learn from their experiences in diverse common schools. Weishart reviews the Clark v. Board of Directors case decided by the Iowa Supreme Court soon after the end of the Civil War: “The Clark decision offered a stern rebuke to the notion that the law protects the choice to segregate in public school settings. Underlying the court’s reasoning was the notion that segregation denies children the freedom to learn through a unifying school experience open to all, one meant to cultivate a core of shared values, sense of community, and mutual understanding essential for the common good in a democratic society. Segregation, the court thus concluded, deprived all children, Black and white alike, of ‘the privileges and benefits of our common schools,’ guaranteed to them under the state constitution.”

Weishart concludes: “Unbounded parental freedom serves only to stratify students, divide communities, and undercut the mission of public schools.” He adds: “Parents, of course, retain the privilege, under the U.S. Constitution, to decide whether their children will receive a public or private education and, in a more general sense, control their children’s education. But that ‘control’ has always been subject to reasonable state regulation and must yield to state compelling interests in a democratically educated citizenry. In no case does it secure parents the right to dictate the curriculum, restrict the flow of information from the school, or jeopardize the health and well-being of other children. What’s more, parents’ freedom to select a publicly subsidized school of their choice enjoys no constitutional protection whatsoever.”

The American philosopher of education and the father of progressive education, John Dewey believed that children learn not so much from what they are taught but from their experience of society as it is embedded in the school community. The purpose of public schooling is, according to Dewey (in 1897), to provide the social experiences children need to prepare them for American citizenship:

“I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned.” “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through those demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.”

Dewey would advise today’s American parents to encourage their children to participate freely in the school community without fear, for the public school is the microcosm of our society.

Can We Hold onto Our Values As We Struggle to Survive in the Trump-DeVos Holding Pattern?

I was dismayed recently when I sat down to read some excellent proposals for addressing child poverty in the United States.

Here are two alternative proposals from the National Academy of Sciences. Both are prescriptions for cutting our national child poverty rate in half within a decade. Each proposal would combine a different set of policy strategies; each combination of ingredients would achieve the same very laudable result:

  1. “Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit along the phase-in and flat portions; convert the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to a fully refundable tax credit and concentrate its benefits to families with children with the lowest incomes; increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by 35 percent…; and expand the supply of Section 8 Housing… Vouchers to supply affordable housing for 70 percent of eligible families.””
  2. “Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit by 40 percent; convert the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to a fully refundable tax credit and concentrate its benefits to families with children with the lowest incomes; replace the Child Tax Credit with a monthly child allowance of $225 per month…; establish a new child support assurance program that provides a minimum payment of $100 per month per child; increase the federal minimum wage to $10.25 per hour… and index it to inflation; and restore program eligibility for non-qualified legal immigrants for Medicaid, SNAP… TANF…, SSI, and other benefits.”

I am sure that, if the people at the National Academy of Sciences who wrote the report say so, either of these prescriptions on its own would cut child poverty in half within the decade. My despair when I look at these plans, however, is that today there is an utter absence of national political will to ensure that Congress would move on any one of the specifics, let alone any combination of them.

Nor do I have any hope that even well-informed people on the street could possibly get a handle on what all these programs are and how they would work together to help our children. We need leaders who can help us understand what each of these programs is, how they would fit together, and—most important—why they matter.  And for those of us who care about the future of education, we need to be reminded that child poverty—not failing public schools—is what threatens the future of too many of our children.

Our collective ignorance about what such programs are and how they would help our children is particularly worrisome today, because the best we can look for is to be trapped in a holding pattern right now.  It is dangerous that we are forgetting the very tools that someday may help us address child poverty. We are obligated today merely to be grateful when things are not quickly getting worse.

In the area of K-12 public education—which directly affects 50 million of our children—President Trump’s education budget proposal flat-funds Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These are the huge formula programs that help schools serve children in poverty and children with disabilities. The President’s proposed budget also flat-funds Head Start.  For two years now, Congress has agreed to maintain these programs, and there is some assurance Congress will continue to do so. (House Democrats recently proposed adding $4.4 billion to the FY 2020 federal budget for education, including an increase in Title I, although any House education budget is unlikely to be approved by the Republican-dominated Senate.)  We must find ourselves grateful for the preservation of the status quo, even though all this flat-funding means the programs are falling behind in inflation-adjusted dollars.

On Sunday, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler described today’s holding-pattern in stark terms.  What she portrays is a crisis in leadership and values, not merely a paucity of programs. In a profile about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Meckler assures us that DeVos has emerged as among the few survivors in Trump’s Cabinet: “(‘T)he president shows no signs of asking her to resign, reflecting in part his lack of interest in the issue of education and the department responsible for it… This account of DeVos’s endurance in the Education Department’s top job is based on interviews with eight people with direct knowledge of the secretary’s relationship with the president and with an understanding of the inner workings of the White House and education agency… DeVos has benefited from Trump’s lack of interest in education, officials say… Also bolstering DeVos’s standing: She hasn’t had a single personal scandal. She’s a billionaire and travels by private plane, but she pays for it herself. She donates her salary to charity. Even detractors say that in person, DeVos is pleasant and easy to be around.”

We have a President who doesn’t care about education, and we can extrapolate: a President who doesn’t care about children.  Fortunately Congress has refused to go along with an ideological agenda that features education as an exercise in individual freedom, privatization, and marketplace choice.  We have to be grateful for the holding pattern even as we worry about the plight of poor children.

At the same time those of us concerned about a crisis in urban public schools also know that school achievement is affected by factors in the lives of children outside school. The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel delineate many of the primary challenges for children that threaten their engagement with school: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities…  Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism… (S)tudents in many… communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

These are, of course, the problems the National Academy of Sciences suggests we can address with either of their prescribed mixtures of policy investments. Nobody in this holding pattern of Trump Times, however, has been able to frame poignantly our public responsibility for addressing the needs of what First Focus identifies as 13 million children living in poverty today in the United States. Good leadership is desperately needed to develop the political will in a society barely coping with an executive branch gone mad.  As the Mueller report and its implications wash over us, at a time when our president foments hatred at the southern border, and in a society driven more and more by individualism and entrepreneurship, can we recover some kind of commitment to the public good and our collective obligation to our society’s children?

Here are some values we ought to be thinking about.

The late Benjamin Barber describes today’s realities for children and their schools—a reality that has grown more serious than it was when he wrote these words in 1998: “In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred. That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

John Dewey names the principle that has traditionally grounded our society’s commitment to the well being of our children and their public education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, 1899, p. 1)

Over the past year, there was one public outcry on behalf of children that was loud enough to overcome the inertia of just trying to hold on for two more years.  Thank you teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland for your walkouts—state by state and district by district.  You who spend your days in our public schools helped us see the damage being imposed on children by huge classes along with the absence of counselors, school nurses, social workers and librarians. And you reminded citizens in many states that their taxes are needed as a public obligation to support their children and to keep a well-qualified and experienced staff of teachers in the public schools that serve their children.

There was also one simple public protest that may point to a strategy for changing the conversation. Before the 2018 election for governor of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools supplied thousands of parents statewide with very simple yard signs that said: “I Love My Public Schools and I Vote.” Without sinking into the policy weeds, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools very plainly confronted and replaced Scott Walker’s years-long agenda to privatize and otherwise undermine public schools. Perhaps a wave of yard signs helped reframe the agenda: Tony Evers, the state school superintendent, defeated Walker and now serves as Wisconsin’s governor.

A Primer for the Public Education Voter in this Fall’s Midterm Election

The midterm election is only weeks away. The airwaves are filled with attack ads that sensationalize and distort the issues.  Even in states where public education has not emerged as a central issue, it ought to be, because K-12 education and higher education are among the biggest lines in every state’s budget.  Without naming states and without naming candidates or particular ballot issues, today’s blog will serve as a voters’ primer about what to consider on November 6, if you think of yourself a public education voter. These reports present simple information about each state.  If a candidate for your legislature or governor, for example, claims to be an “education” candidate, having invested significantly in education, you can check his or her promises against the facts.  I hope you’ll take a look at how your state has been supporting or failing to support the mass of children who attend public schools and the teachers who serve them.

The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education put the importance of public schools into perspective: “In fact, the overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools and a 10.2% enrollment in private schools, with the majority (75% of private school students) attending religious private schools.”

In 1899, the philosopher of education, John Dewey explained the public purpose of education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Public schools are the institutions most likely to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.  Public schools are publicly owned, publicly funded, and democratically governed under law.  Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that public schools provide access for all children. No school is likely to perfectly serve all children, but because public schools are subject to government regulation under law, our society has been able to protect the right to an education for an ever growing number of children over the generations.

Key Resources for Voters in Fall, 2018—Public School Funding

The current decade began as the Great Recession devastated state budgets. While some states have recovered, many have struggled, and some have further cut taxes.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ most recent update on public K-12 funding across the states is A Punishing Decade for School Funding, dated November 29, 2017.  This is the essential annual report comparing public K-12 investment across the states. The numbers remain discouraging: We learn that 29 states continue to provide less total state funding for public schools than they did in 2008, prior to the Great Recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also just released its annual report on higher education funding: Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity, which notes that in 31 states, per-student funding for public colleges and universities dropped between 2017 and 2018, while average tuition has continued to rise. Along with its report on higher education, CBPP even provides an online tool by which you can call up a short, detailed brief on higher education funding trends in each state.

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers published its own fine report on funding of public education across the states, A Decade of Neglect, which concluded: “(C)uts states have made since the Great Recession have led to reduced student math and English achievement, and this was most severe for school districts serving more low-income and minority students, especially in districts that saw large reductions in the numbers of teachers.”  The report describes overall trends followed by a series of two page briefs summarizing and presenting graphically the public school funding trend in each state since the 2004-2005 school year.

Key Resource for Voters in Fall, 2018—Marketplace School Privatization Undermines Democracy and Robs Public Schools of Essential Resources

In his 2007 book, Consumed, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the commodification of public institutions: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars… than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

Not only is school privatization undemocratic, but it also drains state funding away from public school districts into charter schools and various kinds of tuition vouchers for private school. School privatization laws differ across the states along with the amount of money driven out of state public education budgets into the various school privatization schemes. In June of this year, the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education jointly published Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools. The report’s introduction states its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers. The report ranks the states by the degree to which they have privatized education.

Barber summarizes privatization’s corrosive role—fragmenting and undermining our society: “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… personal skills… 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; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

As you vote in this fall’s election, please consider the resources suggested here as well as the principles that define public education’s public role in our society.

Social Efficiency, Workforce Development, and the Threat to the Humanities and Social Sciences

In Aristotle’s Wrongful Death , NY Times columnist Frank Bruni contemplates the retreat by colleges and universities from the liberal arts: “History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please. It’s an intellectual heirloom: cherished by those who can afford such baubles but disposable in the eyes of others. I’m talking about college majors, and the talk about college majors is loud and contentious these days. There’s concern about whether schools are offering the right ones. There are questions about whether colleges should be emphasizing them at all. How does a deep dive into the classics abet a successful leap into the contemporary job market? Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?”

Bruni describes how the University of Illinois is combining majors like anthropology and linguistics with computer science, how Assumption College is eliminating majors in art history, geography, and classics and adding data analytics, actuarial science and a concentration in physical or occupational therapy. He reminds us that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is considering dropping 13 majors in the liberal arts and adding “clear career pathways,” and that the University of Wisconsin at Superior is ending majors in sociology and political science and seven other majors in the humanities and social sciences.

The same trend is affecting K-12 education here in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and his allies have been trying to move a bill through the legislature to collapse the Ohio State Board of Education and the Ohio (Higher Education) Board of Regents into Kasich’s own Executive Workforce Board. (See here and here.) Kasich also attempted to get the legislature—in the 2018-2019 biennial budget no less—to require that, to renew their state certification, all teachers would have to sign up for workplace externships to expose them to the “real” world of work. Fortunately, after many people pointed out that teaching is itself a form of work, that initiative was removed from the budget.

In some cases the substitution of workplace-relevant majors is part of an effort by struggling colleges to stay alive. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been tracking what it calls a “sweeping redesign of academic programs at tiny Hiram College. At the end of May, the trustees approved the plan to add criminal justice, international studies, and sports management; and to consider adding majors next year in data analytics, computer engineering and gaming, and interactive media and information technology. The major in religion has been eliminated.  Economics, philosophy, math, French and Spanish are no longer academic majors, although students can earn academic minors in these fields.

All the news about the abandonment of the liberal arts and social sciences, the attention to computer driven skills, and an almost myopic focus on workforce development as the goal of education took me back to David Labaree’s brilliant and very complex 1997 article published in the American Educational Research Journal: Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals. This is a paywalled article and available primarily in college and university libraries. If you can find access to it, you’ll be amazed at its timeliness 20 years after its publication.  It is a largely a descriptive analysis in which Labaree dissects and identifies the frequently competing social goals our society holds for education.

Labaree names three competing goals which he believes over the centuries have been thought to define the broad social purpose of education in the United States: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. The first is what many of us claim to be the purpose of public education—forming a democratic citizenry and promoting equal access and equal treatment for all students. The third—social mobility—is less often named, but certainly practiced by parents positioning their children by purchasing homes in particular suburbs or grasping for access to the Kindergartens in New York City known to be the path to Stuyvesant High School and the Ivy Leagues. Many public schools reflect this third goal institutionally, set up as many are to reinforce our society’s already existing social stratification. And promoters of marketplace school choice incorporate this goal in their arguments. This third goal positions education as something of value primarily to individuals, not society as a whole.

Labaree’s second goal—social efficiency—is the May, 2018 goal-of-the-month—the one that concerns Frank Bruni. Here is Labaree’s definition: “The logic is compelling: Schooling supplies future workers with skills that will enhance their productivity and therefore promote economic growth. This logic allows an educational leader to argue that support for education is not just a matter of moral or political correctness but a matter of good economic sense. Schooling from this perspective can be portrayed as a sensible mechanism for promoting our economic future, an investment in human capital that will pay bountiful dividends for the community as a whole and ultimately for each individual taxpayer.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Labaree describes proponents of social efficiency as: “policymakers (politicians and educational bureaucrats) who are worried about the high cost of supporting many parts of the educational establishment when the economic utility of this investment is slight.  There are employers and business leaders, who fear that their immediate manpower needs are not being filled by persons with appropriate skills or that they will have to provide training for employees at their own expense…  In addition, at the most general level, social efficiency in education is a concern for any and all adult members of American society in their role as taxpayers. As citizens, they can understand the value of education in producing an informed and capable electorate; as consumers, they can understand its value in presenting themselves and their children with selective opportunities for competitive social advantage; but, as taxpayers, they are compelled to look at education as a financial investment—not in their own children, which is the essence of the consumer perspective, but in other people’s children. The result is that adults in their taxpayer role tend to apply more stringent criteria to the support of education as a public good than they do to their role as consumers thinking of education as a private good… Thus the taxpayer perspective applies a criterion to the support of education for other people’s children that is both stingier than that arising from the consumer perspective and loaded down with an array of contingencies that make support dependent on the demonstrated effectiveness of education in meeting strict economic criteria—to boost economic productivity, expand the tax base, attract local industry, and make the country more competitive internationally, all at a modest cost per student.”

He continues: “For taxpayers in general and for all of the other constituencies of the social efficiency goal for education, the notion of education for social mobility is politically seductive but socially inefficient. Sure, it is nice to think that everyone has a right to all the education he or she wants, and of course everyone would like to get ahead via education; but (say those from the social efficiency perspective) the responsible deployment of societal resources calls for us to look beyond political platitudes and individual interests and to consider the human capital needs of the society as a whole. From this pragmatic, fiscally conservative, and statist perspective, the primary goal of education is to produce the work force that is required by the occupational structure in its current form and that will provide measurable economic benefits to society as a whole.

Labaree describes considerable interaction over the decades among the three goals, and it is clear that today in our high-tech economy, the third—social mobility—is also driving at least a lot of talk across K-12 schools about STEM preparation—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Students want jobs with status, and hi-tech is where it’s at. Colleges, of course, are lured to provide what students think they need to qualify for lucrative, high-status jobs.  In the state universities, however, especially in the all-Red states engaging in austerity budgeting after tax cuts, the motive of social efficiency conspires with market-based social mobility against the humanities and the social sciences.

Labaree’s primary purpose is to define and describe the many goals that compete from era to era to drive education policy.  Frank Bruni takes a position—flatly rejecting what seems to be the dominant goal right now—social efficiency through workforce development.  He worries about a fourth goal—one that many of us hold: intellectual development itself.  Bruni writes: “I worry that there’s a false promise being made. The world now changes at warp speed. Colleges move glacially. By the time they’ve assembled a new cluster of practical concentrations, an even newer cluster may be called for, and a set of job-specific skills picked up today may be obsolete less than a decade down the road…. (I)t’s a balancing act, because colleges shouldn’t lose sight of what makes traditional majors—even the arcane ones—so meaningful, especially now. And they shouldn’t downgrade the nonvocational mission of higher education: to cultivate minds, prepare young adults for enlightened citizenship, give them a better sense of their perch in history and connect them to traditions that transcend the moment. History, philosophy and comparative literature are bound to be better at that than occupational therapy. They’re sturdier threads of cultural and intellectual continuity. And majoring in them—majoring in anything—is a useful retort to the infinite distractions, short attention spans and staccato communications of the smartphone era.”

Bruni agrees with our society’s greatest proponent of progressive education, John Dewey, who, in 1897, published a Pedagogic Creed, in which he declared: “((T)he only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers. With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work….”

All this is to malign neither fine vocational training nor workforce preparation in fields where students will find employment opportunities—including teaching. But one should be alarmed if, as is being considered at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, future teachers will still be able to earn state professional certification even though the future high school teachers among them will no longer be able to earn academic majors in the subject areas in which they plan to teach.

Defining workplace prep as the single, dominant goal of education is merely another example of how out-of-kilter things have become in America.

Big Data, A.I., ‘Personalized’ Learning: A Solution for Eliminating Poverty and Improving Schools?

Tuesday’s NY Times featured a commentary whose author promotes artificial intelligence, big data, and “personalized” learning—algorithm-driven computer programs said to tailor learning to a student’s needs and interests—not only for reinventing education but for powering a new war on poverty. It is a glowing article framed as problem-solving: “Poverty, of course, is a multifaceted phenomenon. But the condition of poverty often entails one or more of these realities: a lack of income (joblessness); a lack of preparedness (education); and a dependency on government services (welfare). A.I. (artificial intelligence) can address all three.”

Clearly the author, Elisabeth A. Mason, the founding director of the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab, isn’t a fan of dependency on government programs to provide support for people trapped in poverty, and she believes big data and artificial intelligence can match people who are out of work to, “good middle-class jobs that are going unfilled.  Today there are millions of such jobs in the United States…. A.I can predict where the job openings of tomorrow will lie, and which skills and training will be needed for them.” Mason adds: “(B)ig data promises something closer to an unbiased ideology-free evaluation of the effectiveness of… social programs.”

Mason denigrates what she believes is our education system: “We bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best.”  The solution?  A.I. tutors that, “can home in on and correct for each student’s weaknesses, adapt coursework to his or her learning style and keep the student engaged.”  The so-called tutors are computers—not human beings.  Mason continues: “Today’s dominant type of A.I., also known as machine learning, permits computer programs to become more accurate—to learn, if you will—as they absorb data and correlate it with known examples from other data sets. In this way, the A.I. ‘tutor’ becomes increasingly effective at matching a student’s needs as it spends more time seeing what works to improve performance.”

I am skeptical about Mason’s brave new world even though I acknowledge the value of social research that employs big data. Stanford’s Poverty & Technology Lab is tiny part of much larger collaborative, cross-discipline work at the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality, where sociologist Sean Reardon has been using big data to inform us about economic inequality and its effects on students’ educational achievement. My skepticism does not extend to Reardon, who has done more to help us understand the impact of poverty on children than perhaps any other social scientist. With the kind of big data Mason advocates, Reardon has found a way (here and here) to document nearly a half century of growing residential resegregation by family income across America’s metropolitan areas along with a widening academic achievement gap that reflects children’s segregation by income.  And recently, Reardon published a new study, once again based on big data, that teases out the impact of family and neighborhood factors in education from other indicators of the quality of a community’s schools. All this helps define the scope of our social problem of widening and deepening hypersegregation by race and poverty across America’s communities and schools, but so far, at least, it has helped us face neither the logistical challenge of what to do nor the moral problem of motivating our society to want to do something. Here in metropolitan Cleveland, Ohio, for many years I have been watching the growth of interstate highways that take the wealthy farther and farther into white, outer-ring suburbs. Reardon’s data helps me see the phenomenon in a new and more structural way, but so far nobody seems to know what to do or how to develop the political will to stop our economic segregation.

It would be helpful if big data and artificial intelligence could help us with a new war on poverty, but once again, the challenge is not so much a matter of the technical capacity to measure the problem. Despite that politicians today do not even mention poverty, its depth and growth are well documented. The Washington Post recently reported on a new study from the United Nations on U.S. poverty: “With welfare reform in 1996, poor single parents with children now have a lifetime limit of five years of assistance and mandatory work requirements… The number of families on welfare declined from 4.6 million in 1996 to 1.1 million this year.  The decline of the welfare rolls has not meant a decline in poverty, however. Instead, the shredding of the safety net led to a rise in poverty. Forty million Americans live in poverty, nearly half in deep poverty—which U.N. investigators defined as people reporting income less than one-half of the poverty threshold. The United States has the highest child poverty rates—25 percent—in the developed world… Declining wages at the lower end of the economic ladder make it harder for people to save for times of crisis or to get back on their feet. A full-time, year-round minimum wage worker, often employed in a dead-end job, falls below the poverty threshold for a family of three and often has to rely on food stamps.” Poverty in America remains politically and morally invisible despite the presence of big data.

And finally there is the proposal that our society can personalize education with A.I. tutors—computers driven by algorithms said to respond to children’s prompts with material that addresses their educational needs and feeds their interests. Yesterday this blog explored the education philosopher John Dewey’s 1897 pedagogic creed. Dewey believed that education is not merely for the kind of individual intellectual growth that is promoted by advocates for so-called “personalized” learning. The school, as the place where the student works with teachers and peers, is also instrumental for socializing human beings. The school and the family are the social institutions where, through relations with others, children learn to be moral beings and citizens: ” “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.” “(E)ducation is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness.” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.”

Nobody ever really pinned down the meaning of Arne Duncan’s cliche that our schools must stop being “trapped in the 20th century.” John Dewey’s long life spanned the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. I hope nobody will try to tell me that Dewey’s wisdom is just so “yesterday.”

An Urgently Needed New Year’s Resolution for Those Who Care About Public Education

A worthwhile New Year’s resolution would be to honor educators—the people who feel called to help others realize their promise. We live in an era of attacks on the public schools and school teachers, and even on higher education in America’s world-renowned colleges and universities.

A resolution to honor educators would mean we consult educators about the public policies that shape our schools, but in recent years we have listened instead to politicians, philanthropists,  business leaders, and tech titans—Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eva Moskowitz—or Eli Broad, Jeb Bush and Betsy DeVos.

As it happens, John Dewey—a professor of education, perhaps America’s most famous education philosopher, and an education psychologist as well—published a short, readable education creed in 1897. As an exercise for the new year, indulge yourself by comparing Dewey’s pedagogic creed to the ideas and principles that underpin today’s public education policy driven by business, philanthropy, the tech-savvy, and politicians. Imagine how different our schools might be if school teachers who have studied the philosophy and psychology of education were trusted by the education committees in Congress and across the statehouses.

Here are just four of the concepts explored in Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed.” Dewey’s thinking directly confronts what is happening in our schools driven by high stakes test and punish—charter schools dominated by no-excuses compliance—schools with unworkable ratios of students per teacher—schools oriented to college-and-career prep.

First, Dewey, the psychologist, explains that because all learning comes from within the learner, school must be child- or student-centered.  “I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities.  Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator. I believe that these interests are to be observed as showing the state of development which the child has reached. I believe that they prophesy the state upon which he is about to enter. I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.”  Therefore, “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.  Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative.”

Second, Dewey challenges the idea of school as career prep or college prep. “I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed.  The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation.  As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.” “But on the other hand, the only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers.  With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means to to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”

Third, what about the role of the teacher and the student’s peers?  “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms… For instance, through the response which is made to the child’s instinctive babblings the child comes to know what those babblings mean; they are transformed into articulate language and thus the child is introduced into the consolidated wealth of ideas and emotions which are now summed up in language.” “I believe that moral education centres about this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of worth and thought… I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of the neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.  I believe that the teacher’s place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis.  The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

And fourth, all education must be social; it cannot happen merely in front of a computer screen. “I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness…” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.” “I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. I believe that the community’s duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty… I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment to perform his task… I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.”

John Dewey, Paul Wellstone… and Betsy DeVos?

Betsy DeVos has weakened, through rule changes, protection for the victims of campus sexual assault, reduced protections for transgender youths, shortened and made more superficial the investigations of civil rights complaints, and reduced some of Obama’s sanctions against for-profit colleges. There also seem to be changes coming in the administration of student loans. But as far as the operation and funding of K-12 public schools, she hasn’t been able to move major changes through Congress.

I would argue, however, that the most serious damage she is inflicting is her use of her power as Secretary of Education to undermine the philosophy of education most of us have merely assumed was true, because it has always been the explanation we’ve heard as the reason for public schools. Most of us can’t articulate that philosophy because we’ve merely taken it for granted.

Here are two simple statement, by experts, of what most of us just accept. Philosopher John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  The late Senator Paul Wellstone made it even simpler: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy.”  Leave aside for a moment the fact that these are aspirational goals: Our society has not fulfilled these promises for the most vulnerable children, but we have made some progress over the years expanding the provision of education for the children we’ve left out or left behind simply because we have believed in the broader principles of equal access and opportunity.

Dewey and Wellstone promoted a philosophy of social responsibility. Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, promotes a philosophy of individual freedom. It is a very different way of thinking.

In a major policy address in July, here is how Betsy DeVos described her philosophy of education: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them… Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me… ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’… I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’”  Finally, DeVos summed up what she has learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

As a description of schooling for children, DeVos’s statement makes little sense. She doesn’t explain anything about the operation and funding of school schools—I guess, because she doesn’t believe in any kind of system. DeVos’s statement is merely a declaration of libertarian ideology.  This must be what she meant back in 2015 when she said, “Government really sucks.”

In addition to her words, the venues where DeVos has been speaking about her education philosophy tell us about her philosophy of education.

The speech about Margaret Thatcher was a keynote at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange  Council (ALEC).  Economist, Gordon Lafer explains that ALEC is “the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level.”  It “brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.  Ultimately, the ‘exchange’ that ALEC facilitates is between corporate donors and state legislators.  The corporations pay ALEC’s expenses and contribute to legislators’ campaigns; in return, legislators carry the corporate agenda into their statehouses.” (The One Percent Solution, p 13)

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s collaboration with ALEC: “For decades, DeVos has been working at the state level, in philosophical alliance with the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push state laws that expand school choice and privatization.  That agenda scored a victory recently in Illinois, where… Gov. Bruce Rauner (R)… had thrown his support to DeVos’s nomination as education secretary in January.  It was no surprise when Rauner managed to push through a new school funding law recently in the state legislature that included a new program that uses public dollars to fund private and religious school tuition and educational expenses.”

Another recent example is the Mackinac Island address DeVos just delivered to the 32nd biannual conference of the Michigan Republican Party.  Here is Nancy Kaffer, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press: “There’s something really through-the-looking-glass about DeVos addressing a room full of legislators whose campaigns she has funded, lobbyists whose work she has paid for, and activists whose movements she launched.  This is, in a very real way, a room DeVos built, in a state her family has shaped, in a country whose educational policy she now plays a key role in administering… The DeVoses are by no means the only big-money donors, on either side of the political aisle.  But in Michigan, it’s difficult to find a significant state-level policy change the DeVos family hasn’t backed: right-to-work, pension reform, unfettered school choice… DeVos is now in a powerful position to spread her philosophy of unconstrained school choice to the rest of the country.  But Michigan is left to deal with the mess that the charter movement has wrought.”

Finally there is the conference beginning today at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  It is important to note that the conference is part of Paul Peterson’s right-wing funded think-tank, the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is situated in the Kennedy School; this is not the university’s college of education.  Betsy DeVos is one of the keynoters at this particular conference, which, reports Graham Vyse of the New Republic, is being sponsored primarily by the Charles Koch Foundation and EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The title of the September 28-29 conference transparently identifies its libertarian slant: “The Future of School Choice: Helping Students Succeed.”  Here are some of the presenters beginning, of course, with Paul Peterson, the program’s host: Paul DiPerna (EdChoice), Robert Enlow (EdChoice), Matthew Ladner (Charles Koch Institute), Jason Riley (Wall Street Journal), Betheny Gross (Center on Reinventing Public Education), Robert Pondiscio (Thomas B. Fordham Institute), Macke Raymond (The Center for Research on Education Outcomes and The Hoover Institution), Brian Gill (Mathematica Policy Research), Chris Cerf (New Jersey Department of Education and formerly of Joel Klein’s operation running the NYC schools), and Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools). Not surprisingly, as Vyse points out, on this conference’s agenda there are no presenters who are critics of school choice.

We are hearing a lot these day from the far, far right when it comes to education and much less from those who believe that public education is part of our nation’s historical commitment to social responsibility. It is worth contemplating seriously the rest of Senator Paul Wellstone’s definition of our society’s obligation to do much better for our most vulnerable children. Here is what he said in March, 2000 in an address at a very different kind of venue— Teachers College, Columbia University: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

What the Washington Post’s Editorial Promoting School Privatization Neglects to Consider

In an editorial earlier this week, Fred Hiatt the editorial page director of the Washington Post, endorses marketplace school choice along with Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. Trump and DeVos are both strong supporters of private school vouchers and the rapid expansion of unregulated charter schools. Hiatt writes from the point of view of individual parents and endorses the ethos of the American Dream, the individualistic notion that school choice should not be merely the privilege of the rich who can afford to move to exclusive suburban school districts or to enroll their children in private schools.

Advocates for school choice like Hiatt propose to reward poorer parents who demonstrate gumption by searching for a school, filling out what may be a complex application, and then, in many cases providing their own transportation to a distant school or letting their children ride the subway. Embodying America’s ethos of individual success, school choice is designed to reward strivers. But such a plan also concentrates, in what quickly become schools of last resort, the children in families who are doubled up or moving from shelter to shelter and isolates these children in even poorer public schools. Are these children less worthy than the children of the parents who have the time and stability to enter the school choice marketplace?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson identifies the primary flaw in school choice: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  Marketplaces are races—competitions to see who can get a place. Races and competitions reward winners and leave the losers behind.  These days as states evaluate (and even close schools) according to the test scores their students produce, the schools themselves have an incentive to steer away (sometimes reject and sometimes quietly counsel out) students who struggle academically and children with behavior problems. It has been demonstrated again and again that in many places the charter schools that are a central part of the school choice movement, serve fewer students with serious disabilities—blindness and autism, for example—and fewer English language learners.

In cities where school choice has been in place for a while, such expensive-to-educate children have become concentrated in the traditional public schools, even as more and more money has flowed out of these districts to follow children through vouchers and to charter schools.  In Chicago and Detroit, where charters have been rapidly expanded, there is evidence that the parasite charters are killing the host school district. As schools compete for students and low scoring schools are closed, some neighborhoods in both cities have found themselves without, for example, a comprehensive high school ready to serve all the adolescents who live in the area.  For this very reason, in the November election when data were made public to demonstrate the likely fiscal impact on the Boston Public Schools of Massachusetts Question 2—the ballot issue to lift the cap on the authorization of new charter schools—the voters definitively blocked the expansion of school choice.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, explains what happens, even when the consequences are unintended: “(P)rivate choices do inevitably have social consequences and public outcomes. When these derive from purely personal preferences, the results are often socially irrational and unintended: at wide variance with the kind of society we might choose through collective deliberation and democratic decision-making.” (Consumed, p 128)

In his recent editorial, Fred Hiatt correctly identifies a serious problem with today’s de facto school choice, the byproduct of America’s explosive inequality. Parents with money—who choose the expensive private schools they can afford and wealthy exurban school districts—have driven the acceleration of income-based housing segregation across America’s metropolitan areas, with the mass of poor children concentrated in cities and inner-suburban schools while their wealthy peers grow up in exclusive enclaves. Here is Barber’s observation (describing the consequences of urban flight by the wealthy as well as their retreat to private schools): “What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy…. Certainly that is not what we opt for when we express our personal wants with respect to our own kids. Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

There are a number of reasons, however, why expansion of marketplace school choice is not the solution to today’s economic and educational inequality. Charter schools were designed to be free from bureaucratic regulation and free to innovate.  Public schools, regulated by law and overseen by democratically elected boards, can be required to protect the rights of the public and the civil rights of the students. We are all familiar with the disastrous lack of regulation of charter schools in many places. In Ohio, for example, thanks to generous political contributions, the legislature has refused even to regulate attendance to ensure that the state is paying tax dollars for the students who are present at online charter schools for at least five hours per day. The state education department is set to claw back $60 million in over-payments (due to inflated attendance reporting) from  one online charter school last year alone, but the legislature has refused to crack down. The political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson bemoan our fading understanding of the role of government oversight to correct the excesses of the marketplace: “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. Government can tell people they must send their children to the school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends. But there’s no getting around it: Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p 1)

Barber also confronts the failure of the marketplace to provide oversight on behalf of the public: “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.” (Consumed, pp 143-144)

Hacker and Pierson are explicit in defining education as a public function: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive (attracting residents, responding to voters) and the means (tax financing of public schools, compulsory attendance laws) to make that investment happen.” (American Amnesia, p.65).

Finally, universal public education—not a fragmented education marketplace—is important because our public schools define our society’s highest ideals. Here is John Dewey, from The School and Society in 1899: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  Public education represents our commitment to community, not merely to rugged individualism.