A book like Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms from the National Education Policy Center—a compendium of two decades’ of academic research on today’s public school ideology, policy, and trends—is invaluable even for a non-expert, citizen-reader who just wants to get informed. After all, most academic research is published in the paywalled academic journals, and more specialized books are unlikely to appear in smaller, regional libraries. There is a lot that I miss, even though I do a lot of searching around in books about education.
One book that I have always felt I ought to read is The Public School Advantage, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois. Here in NEPC’s new compendium is a chapter from the Lubienskis’ book—“Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education,” (pp. 365-391 in NEPC’s compendium). The Lubienskis conducted an enormous study of the practices and student achievement in public, private and privatized schools. Their finding: “Despite what many reformers, policy makers, media elites, and even parents may believe, public schools are, on average, actually providing a relatively effective educational service compared to schools in the independent sector.” The Lubienskis continue: “(O)ur analyses indicate that public schools are enjoying an advantage in academic effectiveness because they are aligned with a more professional model of teaching and learning.” One reason people turn away from the public schools, they write, is simply that many believe that if people are willing to pay for private schools, they must be the superior model.
Other reasons people desire school choice? “Obviously, some parents will prioritize safety…. Many parents consider extracurricular options or perceived pedagogical fit…. (F)or many families, finding a school that reinforces their values may be more important (religious schools)…. Some children enroll in schools that their friends are attending or where other families look like they do.”
What about the belief that expanding charters and school vouchers is a good way to boost achievement for the children our society has left behind? “Although marketists believe that choice will open up opportunities for disadvantaged children, the data show that private and independent schools under enroll such students… (D)isadvantaged and minority students who are in most such schools are on average, no better served then they are in public schools, diminishing hope that private sector-based strategies have much potential to reduce achievement gaps between groups… Once we account for the SES (socioeconomic status) differences between the populations of students served in the different sectors, it is clear that the variables that differ between sectors are not significant predictors of achievement… The extended infatuation with vouchers for private schools, for instance, or the nationwide effort to expand charter schools, regardless of the thin empirical basis for these policies, speaks to the power of… belief to guide policy.”
The Lubienskis summarize a half century of economic theory and the role of organizations representing economists’ ideas to normalize assumptions about the benefits of privatization—Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and their neoliberal philosophy, and free-enterprise organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute. “When the traditionally centrist Brookings Institution began producing pieces favorable to private/independent models, as with Chubb and Moe’s seminal 1990 work, the agenda really moved into the political mainstream. Now advocacy groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and the Alliance for School Choice actively promote evidence that they see as favorable to private and independent models.”
Philanthropists—notably Gates, Broad, and Walton—“have been instrumental in shaping the policy climate around education issues by providing political and financial support for pilot programs, stipulating particular policies from grantee districts, and underwriting researchers and research organizations that are predisposed toward their agendas.” These philanthropies are underwriting think tanks that mask themselves as academic departments at major universities: “(T)hese major funding agencies have also directed strategic support to individuals and units at respected institutions, such as the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard or the Hoover Institution at Stanford. In this way, they are able to capitalize on recognizable institutional brands in adding legitimacy to their policy claims, regardless of whether or not the rigor of research coming from these institutions merits the weight that is given to the studies in media and policy-making circles… The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to the PEPG at Harvard, which is run by a stable of pro-voucher scholars and public figures on its board. Similarly, the Walton Family Foundation was instrumental in creating the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which is led by a PEPG associate and staffed with pro-voucher theorists and researchers.”
What are the assumptions underneath the movement to privatize public education? First is the belief in public sector failure. Second is the belief that consumer choice ought to be a right: “This recasts the beneficiaries of public education from the wider community to a focus on more immediate chosers…. Fundamental to the theory is that parents are wise and informed consumers acting on behalf of their children, and many are. However, much evidence suggests that many parents do not have access to useful information on school options.. and that such information—and the tendency to use it—is unequally distributed, with children most in need of better quality options least likely to have parents willing or able to effectively advocate for their children.” The third assumption is that competition spurs school improvement. In response to this third assumption, the Lubienskis recognize a reality that is neither acknowledged nor examined by proponents of school choice: precisely because of their public mandate, public schools cannot cut costs to be competitive or emphasize the mere elevation of overall test scores as their sole mission. “(M)arket theory misses the fact that the multiple responsibilities placed on public schools as institutions created to serve common, nonmarket goals often require that they be shielded from the competitive pressures of the market.”
For me, the Lubienskis’ most important critique of privatization is their attack on the privatizers’ contention that school choice will expand opportunity by offering power to families and children who have heretofore been left behind. The Lubienski’s remind us that research documents the impact of peer effects on children’s school achievement: “Regardless of school type, having a child in a school with students from more affluent families with higher academic aspirations can have a beneficial impact on that child. Yet, choices based on such criteria can also lead to greater social sorting… As policy makers increasingly seek to shift students en masse from public to private or independent schools, or to privatize public schools, our analyses and the analyses of others indicate that such efforts can create a less effective (and more socially segregated) system of schooling.” “Even when they are working well markets can lead to inequitable outcomes, since those with resources are better positioned to use markets to increase their advantages and pass them on to their children.” This gets at the ethical dilemma in competition-based school choice, a problem pointedly described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would 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.”
NEPC’s inclusion of this chapter from the Lubienskis’ book motivates me to locate and read The Public School Advantage.