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)