Reading About Education in the Press: Consider the Source and Demand Documentation

At the end of last week a friend forwarded a column that had appeared in his local paper.  It is short, pithy, and readable.  Unfortunately, although it begins with some facts that are perfectly accurate about the public schools, its author quickly twists her argument, neglects the truth and reflects the bias of her employer.  The article is written by Vicki Alger, a research fellow at The Independent Institute.  It was circulated by the Tribune News Service, affiliated with the Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, Kansas City Star, and Philadelphia Inquirer.  It is just the sort of little column that an editor might pick up to fill a space left on the opinion pages.

Alger begins by noting that scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have been pretty flat for decades now. She is correct that today’s school reforms have failed to raise achievement. However, she quickly jumps to the assumption that, because test scores have not risen, increased spending on education—up, she says, by 140 percent between 1971 and 2012— has failed. There is a very important omission here: she neglects to mention that in 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that brought vastly increased spending on education for students with special needs.  Here is what Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute explained in his 1995 book, Where’s the Money Gone?: “A detailed examination of expenditures in nine typical U.S. school districts shows that the share of expenditures going to regular education dropped from 80% to 59% between 1967 and 1991, while the share going to special education climbed from 4% to 17%. Of the net new money spent on education in 1991, only 26% went to improve regular education, while about 38% went to special education for severely handicapped and learning-disabled children. Per pupil expenditures for regular education grew by only 28% during this quarter century—an average annual rate of about 1%.”

Alger then sets up several straw men: “We were promised that illiteracy would be eliminated by 1984.  We were promised that high school graduation rates would reach 90 percent by the year 2000 and that American students would be global leaders in math and science.  And we were promised that by 2014 all students would be proficient in reading and math. None of this has happened.”

So… concludes, Alger, because we have not arrived at utopia, we must get rid of the U.S. Department of Education and put parents in charge through school choice. “Research shows that when parents have more choices in education, both students and schools benefit, and do so at a fraction of the cost of top-heavy federal programs. The resulting competition for students and their associated funding puts powerful pressure on schools to improve.”

Some pretty convincing evidence shows that putting parents in charge through school choice isn’t working so well and that competition that privileges charter entrepreneurs is undermining public school districts.  In Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, there is evidence that rapid expansion of school choice through charter schools is contributing to the bankrupting of the public school districts and resulting in the closure of too many traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

Even the more respectable academic proponents of school choice are getting worried.  In December of 2014, Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), came to the Cleveland City Club to announce the release of a scathing report from CREDO on Ohio’s school choice marketplace.  Raymond shocked listeners to her City Club address by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

Then, early in 2015 Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—creator of the “portfolio school reform model” that purports to deliver a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods—and that encourages city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—penned a scathing analysis of school choice in Education Next:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

So what is The Independent Institute, whose point of view Alger parrots?  Its 2015 Annual Report brags: “Independent remains at the forefront of truly innovative alternative solutions—far beyond vouchers, charters, or other ‘semi-public’ schools… Allowing parents, teachers and others to take ownership of current public schools under Employee Stock Ownership… Private voucher programs… Education Savings Accounts that enable parents to direct education spending for their children… Low-cost for-profit and non-profit private schools.”

Pauline Lipman, professor of policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago would define the Independent Institute’s theory of education as neoliberal: “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services. People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice…. One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself.'” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City, p. 11)

Alger’s neoliberal argument rests on protecting individualism, parent power, freedom, liberty, choice and competition.  It would seem, however, that in its education system a good society would protect the rights of children who lack the power to compete—children living in homeless shelters, children with special needs, English language learners, children whose parents don’t know how to play the game of competition.  The idea of public education is inclusive if imperfect. While public schools can never make all children proficient, eliminate illiteracy, or ensure that every child graduates from high school, the idea of public education historically has assumed that society is required to provide schooling for all.

Benjamin Barber explains it best:  “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.  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….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

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As the One Percent Insulates Itself and Buys Political Power, Public Education Suffers

One of the things that has struck me about National Public Radio’s three week series on public school finance equity is that it is providing refreshing widespread coverage about the most necessary of basic subjects: how to fund the schools that serve the mass of children across America.  (This blog covered NPR’s ongoing series yesterday.)  Most of our public education conversation today revolves instead about education governance ideas being hatched by wealthy philanthropists, economists at think tanks supported by philanthropic wealth, and business leaders.

In our increasingly unequal society, institutions are becoming more stratified by class with the public schools (the focus of NPR’s current series) serving poor and middle class children, while elites buy exclusive, private services—a privilege they seek to replicate for what they consider the deserving poor through the expansion of market choice through charter schools. One need only read Rick Perlstein’s stunning new piece on the creation of Chicago school reform by the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago to see how elites are controlling the policies that shape the so-called “public” schools that serve the majority. (This blog covered Perlstein’s article here.)

In a NY Times column yesterday, How the Other Fifth Lives, Thomas B. Edsall describes how those at the top are insulating themselves while shaping the institutions that serve the rest of us.  Edsall examines the updated research of Sean Reardon and Kendra Bishoff, sociologists who have been examining these trends: “The self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.”  Summarizing Reardon and Bishoff’s data, Edsall explains: “In hard numbers, the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent. At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.  (This blog recently covered the updated research of Reardon and Bishoff.)

Edsall quotes Reardon and Bishoff, who worry about the implications for the rest of us of the growing migration of the wealthy to insulated enclaves: “Segregation of affluence not only concentrates income and wealth in a small number of communities, but also concentrates social capital and political power. As a result, any self-interested investment the rich make in their own communities has little chance of ‘spilling over’ to benefit middle-and low-income families. In addition, it is increasingly unlikely that high-income families interact with middle-and low-income families, eroding some of the social empathy that might lead to support for broader public investment in social programs to help the poor and middle class.”  It is also entirely possible that, lacking understanding of their poorer no-longer-neighbors’ lives, the rich might come up with educational policies that make problems worse. (Take another look at Rick Perlstein’s piece on Chicago.)

Edsall notes that between 1972 and 2007, there was “a threefold increase… in top-decile spending on children, an increase that suggests that parents at the top may be investing in ever more high-quality day care and babysitting, private schooling, books and tutoring, and college tuition and fees.” However, the investments the wealthy are making to cultivate their own children are only part of their power.  According to Edsall:  “Political leverage is another factor separating the top 20 percent from the rest of America.  The top quintile is equipped to exercise much more influence over politics and policy than its share of the electorate would suggest.  Although by definition this group represents 20 percent of all Americans, it represents about 30 percent of the electorate, in part because of high turnout levels… Equally or perhaps more important, the affluent dominate the small percentage of the electorate that makes campaign contributions.” Edsall concludes: “The trends at the top and the bottom are undermining cohesive politics, but more important they are undermining social interconnection as they fracture the United States more and more into a class and race hierarchy.”

Marketplace school choice has been the primary prescription of business and philanthropic elites for improving education and most particularly the schools that serve the poor, but such policy fails to address directly the documented impact of poverty on the children who struggle at school, and it glosses over the (however limited) protections democracy has traditionally provided to protect the rights of the vulnerable.  Pauline Lipman, an education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, summarizes one of the serious failures of policy designed by elites: “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services.  People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice and private pension investments.  One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself,’ (cultivating the image, persona, resume that enhances one’s competitive position in the marketplace of ‘human capital’).” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 11)

The rush toward market competition in education that has transformed America’s poorest big cities—with the rapid growth of charter schools and the closure of many neighborhood schools— exemplifies the power of the wealthy who are designing policy according to the rules of the business world.  The political philosopher Benjamin Barber captures the power dynamic among the elites who create and the rest of us who may participate in marketplace school choice: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture

Cass Sunstein, in an opinion piece in Monday’s NY Times, explores the role of choice in people’s lives.  Does choice work better if we are allowed to assume full responsibility by choosing to opt into something or is it better if the choice is made by others and if we don’t agree, we can merely opt out?  For me the important question emerges about two-thirds of the way through Sunstein’s reflection: Are there times when it’s better not to have a choice?  “In ordinary life, most of us delegate a certain amount of choice-making authority to spouses, doctors, lawyers, engineers and financial advisers.  We do so when and because we do not want to take the time and trouble to make decisions ourselves, and when and because we know that we lack important information… A fundamental reason is that it frees us to focus on our deepest concerns.”  As a mother, for example, I was glad to be able to take my children to the public school to which our school district assigned them. I didn’t have to worry about being an education consumer; I could focus on being a parent and, as a citizen, ensuring support for our community’s strong and diverse public schools.

Sunstein’s article is about the broad issue of choice in human life.  As I read it, I found myself disturbed, as a citizen who cares about attacks on public schools by advocates of market choice, that Sunstein—like too many commentators who could potentially weave the consequences for public schools into consideration of a broader topic—just omits to think about the relevance of his topic—choice—to our education system where choice has recently become a primary issue of concern.  I found myself wondering if education has slipped off the radar because all the far right Republicans seeking the nomination for President are, by their very numbers, setting the terms of our public conversation.  Or maybe the problem is that, while those on the far-right are relentlessly re-defining the civil right to education as a parents’ right to choose, we supporters of schools as public institutions have forgotten about the big picture as we have focused on what are, admittedly, important details—the Common Core—too much testing—the evaluation of teachers.  We need to continue to proclaim the broader vision: the importance of public schools for expanding the rights of children in the institutions we have some power to control because they are public. Why? Because education organized around school choice presents insurmountable problems for our society and for the children and families schools are intended to serve.

Consider charter schools.  Expansion of school choice through charters sucks money out of public school budgets across the states (and in states like Pennsylvania directly out of local school budgets).  While public schools across the United States enroll roughly 50 million children and adolescents, charter schools enrolled 2.1 million students by the end of 2012.  Cyberschools, the largest on-line, for-profit charters, alone suck billions of tax dollars out of the state education budgets responsible for paying for the mass of children in public schools.  According to David Berliner and Gene Glass: “Cyberschooling at the K-12 level is a big business.  K12Inc., one of the largest companies in cyberschooling and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, reported revenues of approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars in fiscal year 2012.  The industry is projected to have revenues of approximately $25 billion by 2015.”  (50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 34)

Besides taking money from the public schools that serve the majority of children, school choice is driving racial segregation, as this blog described yesterday.  And there is evidence in study after study that charter schools engage in obvious and subtle forms of cream skimming—attracting children of parents who are engaged enough to complete sometimes complex applications—lacking specialized services for autistic or blind or deaf children—serving fewer extremely poor children and homeless children—lacking the services to help immigrant children learn English—finding ways to push out students with behavior problems—neglecting to replace students who drop out and hence building a smaller and smaller cohort of high scorers as children move through the grades. Across America’s big cities where the experiment in charter school choice is primarily located, all of these factors concentrate the children with the greatest needs in what are becoming public school systems of last resort for the children who are least attractive to the charters, which are themselves highly engaged in “choice” through subtle and frequently invisible selection screens.

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

Enormous and widespread problems are arising from poor regulation of charter schools.  Part of this is by design; charter schools were originally conceptualized as places where educators would be free to experiment, without the rules that are part of large school systems. Lack of regulation is also part of the way the charter movement spread across the states. While the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan required states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools as a condition for qualifying for Race to the Top grants and while the Department of Education has been making federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has never dealt with the need for academic or financial oversight of charter schools.  Charter schools are regulated in state law, with enormous variation in the quality and quantity of oversight.   Robin Lake, a pro-charter promoter of “portfolio school reform”at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, acknowledged the urgent need for more oversight after she visited Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Schools in the public sector are far from perfect. Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, acknowledges the need for public school improvement, but she points out that only in a system accountable to the public is such reform possible: “There is an urgent need to transform public institutions, starting with a thoroughgoing critique of the racism, inequity, bureaucratic intransigence, reproduction of social inequality, reactionary ideologies, disrespect, and toxic culture that pervades many public schools and school districts…. This critique was long made by progressive critics of public education.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 45) “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p.11)

But what claims for any kind of control can be made on a marketplace that is the mere aggregate of private choices?  And who ultimately does drive the choices made available in the market?  Here we must turn to the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.”  (Consumed, p, 139)  A serious problem is that the school choice marketplace emerged as a sort of experiment patched together from place to place.  It is a marketplace where charter operators are making huge private profits which they are investing in political contributions to prevent public regulation of the marketplace after the fact.  The biggest and frequently the most unscrupulous charter operators are the people with the power to set the menu.

A traditional system of public schools owned by the public and accountable to the public is more likely to meet the needs of our nation’s 50 million children and to protect their rights.  Barber explains: “Private choices rest on individual power…. 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.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Chicago Cuts Funding for Neighborhood Schools, Continues to Implement Unproven Reforms

Last week Chicago’s school board passed a budget for the 2014-2015 school year that, according to the Chicago Tribune, “cuts funding to traditional schools by $72 million while increasing spending by the same amount for privately run charter and contract schools.” The Tribune reports that this budget reduces funding for neighborhood schools for the second year in a row.

Earlier this summer, Pauline Lipman and researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, released a report that examines the impact on Chicago’s families of the city’s school governance changes in the past two decades that have rapidly opened unregulated  charter schools while closing a mass of traditional public schools.  Here is the summary that begins that report:

“On May 22, 2013 Chicago’s appointed Board of Education voted to close 50 schools, turn around five others, and co-locate 17 elementary schools, affecting roughly 40,000 students.  This was the largest number of schools closed at one time in the U.S.  Since 2001, Chicago Public Schools has closed, turned-around, phased-out, or consolidated over 150 neighborhood public schools in low-income African American and Latino communities.  This policy has disproportionately affected African American students and communities.  At the same time, CPS has expanded privately run charter and turnaround schools.  These actions should be understood in relation to CPS’ ‘portfolio’ district agenda in which schools are part of a market of largely interchangeable public and private services, rather than stabilizing neighborhood institutions.”

Lipman and her colleagues conducted qualitative research based on extensive interviews with the parents whose children were affected by the most recent school closures and reassignments.  They conclude: “School actions have hit African American students disproportionately.  Some shuttered schools were iconic institutions of African American cultural and intellectual life… Closing a school is a drastic action.  Schools are stable institutions in communities facing the destabilizing effects of public and private disinvestment, poverty, high unemployment, and housing insecurity.  Closing a school may result in children traveling outside their neighborhoods, siblings attending different schools, trauma to children, and the loss of jobs for teachers, as well as other education workers who are often community residents… Nevertheless the trend of closing schools (and replacing public neighborhood schools with charter and ‘choice schools’) is increasing despite very limited data about either its effectiveness in increasing academic performance or the impact closings have on children, families, and communities.”

Another study released in June by a task force appointed by the Illinois General Assembly to study the impact of changes in school facilities and student reassignments raised similar concerns: “In both the 2012 and 2013 School Actions and Closings, communities of color and the most vulnerable students, including those experiencing homelessness and those with disabilities, were impacted the most by CPS’ Actions.  Approximately 90 percent of the students directly impacted by School Actions and Closings in 2012 and 2013 were African American.  An estimated 2,615 homeless students attended the Welcoming Schools and the schools that CPS closed in 2013; 2,097 Special Education students (those with disabilities and Individual Education Plans or IEPs) were impacted.”

The legislatively appointed Chicago Education Facilities Task Force Report concludes overall: “Since the Illinois General Assembly granted Mayoral Control over Chicago’s public school district in 1995, there has been a concentration of decision making about the nature and direction of public education in Illinois’ largest city, and the nation’s 3rd largest school system.  These decisions have had substantial and sometimes drastic immediate and long standing effects on students, families, neighborhoods and the city.  Once former Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his ‘Renaissance 2010’ initiative in 2003 to create 100 new schools by 2010, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has not only opened new schools (mainly charters); the district has also been closing neighborhood public schools and drastically reconfiguring the public school system in other ways.  Since 2008 alone, four different CPS administrations with average tenures of less than 3 years made far-reaching changes and decisions that Chicagoans will live with for generations.  These decisions have determined which students get to go to which schools; how to maintain school facilities; what the district’s capital spending priorities should be, and determined how and when to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on school repairs, renovations, and new construction.  Yet Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has been making these decisions without adequate educational facilities planning or public input.”

The Sun Times reports that, ironically and perhaps understandably, in the new budget just passed Chicago Public Schools will be spending $1.8 million on its communications department.  One would hope this money will support extensive two-way communications with families and community leaders and not merely slick promotion of what has become known as Chicago School Reform—the type of portfolio school governance plan that Arne Duncan managed in Chicago and subsequently brought to us all, when as U.S. Secretary of Education he launched Race to the Top and a series of related “portfolio” school policies.

Racing to the Bottom through School Choice and Privatization

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

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

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

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

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

Again and again in Fort Wayne I heard community leaders despair about the sacrifice of public ownership and public oversight. They worried about dollars being diverted from the state education budget, dollars desperately needed by the public schools whose fiscal capacity has been significantly diminished by privatization. They also worried about whether there is adequate public regulation of voucher schools and charters. Here is Barber’s understanding of how market systems undermine our capacity to protect the needs of society itself:  “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power (brute force), personal skills (randomly distributed), and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (pp. 143-144)

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

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

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