Embracing Public Schools as the Very Definition of the Common Good

The 2019-2020 school year is now underway, and in an ironic twist, in a business journal, the academic dean of the college of education at the for-profit University of Phoenix has penned a beautiful reflection on the meaning of public education. Dean Pam Roggeman understands the meaning for families and for communities of their public schools.

Roggeman writes: “This early fall, I’d like to honor the millions of parents who…  send their kids to school for the first time. Critics, possibly a bit removed from their neighborhood public schools, at times try to paint public education as a nameless, faceless bureaucratic institution that is riddled with faults. And like many other institutions, our public schools do have flaws. However, those of us rooted in our communities, with or without school-age kids, do not see our schools as faceless institutions. Rather, we associate our schools with our child’s talented teacher, or the principal greeting kids at the door, or the coach waiting for kids to be picked up after practice, or the mom who became this fall’s crossing guard, or the front office staff who commiserate with us as we deliver the forgotten lunch, and… also with the friendly bus-driver who will not move that bus until every child is safely seated. We rely on and embrace our neighborhood public schools as a community enterprise on which we deeply depend.”

Roggeman defines the reason public schools are one of our society’s best opportunities for establishing systemic justice for children: public schools are required by law to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children: “(T)here is one thing that our American public schools do better than any other schools in the country or even in the world: our public schools commit to addressing the needs of every single child. Our public schools are open to ALL children, without prejudice or pause. Our schools attempt to educate EVERYBODY. American students are students who are gifted, students with disabilities, students who need advanced placement, students who have experienced trauma, students who are learning English, students who are hungry, affluent students, students who live in poverty, students who are anxious, and students who are curious.”

Reading Roggeman’s reflection on public education as an essential civic institution caused me to dig out a Resolution for the Common Good, passed by the 25th General Synod of the United Church of Christ more than a decade ago, when I was working in the justice ministries of that mainline Protestant denomination. The resolution was passed unanimously in 2005, in the midst of a decade when an ethos of individualism was accelerating.

The values defined in the introduction to the resolution mesh with Roggeman’s consideration of public schools as the essence of community: “The Twenty-fifth General Synod calls upon all settings of the United Church of Christ to uphold the common good as a foundational ideal in the United States, rejects the notion that government is more unwieldy or inefficient than other democratic institutions, and reaffirms the obligation of citizens to share through taxes the financial responsibility for public services that benefit all citizens, especially those who are vulnerable, to work for more equitable public institutions, and to support regulations that protect society and the environment.”

The introduction of the resolution continues: “A just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community. In the past quarter century our society has lost this ethical balance. Our nation has moved too far in the direction of promoting individual self interest at the expense of community responsibility. The result has been an abandonment of the common good. While some may suggest that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population. While as a matter of justice and morality we strive always to expand the individual rights guaranteed by our government for those who have lacked rights, we also affirm our commitment to vibrant communities and recognize the importance of government for providing public services on behalf of the community… The church must speak today about the public space where political processes are the way that we organize our common life, allocate our resources, and tackle our shared problems. Politics is about the values we honor, the dollars we allocate, and the process we follow so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order and peace.”

Recognizing “significant on-going efforts to privatize education, health care, and natural resources, and to reduce revenues collected through taxes as a strategy for reducing dependency on government services,” the delegates resolved “that the United Church of Christ in all its settings will work to make our culture reflect the following values:

  • that societies and nations are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens;
  • that government policy and services are central to serving the common good;
  • that the sum total of individual choices in any private marketplace does not necessarily constitute the public good;
  • that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses;
  • that the tax code should be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means; (and)
  • that the integrity of creation and the health and sustainability of ecological systems is the necessary foundation for the well-being of all people and all living things for all time.”

Since that resolution passed in 2005, we have watched an explosion of economic inequality, the defunding and privatization of public institutions including K-12 public education, the defunding of social programs; the growth of privatized and unregulated charter schools, the abuse of power by those who have been amassing the profits, and the abandonment of policies to protect the environment.

A just and good society balances the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. I believe that the majority of Americans embrace these values.  I wonder how we have allowed our society stray so far.

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Neoliberalism Undermines the Common Good by Promoting Vouchers and Charter Schools

When you read about “neoliberalism,” do you clearly understand the term and what people mean when they talk about neoliberal education reform?  It is confusing because “neoliberal” is used to describe policies we typically think of as politically conservative, while political liberals are the people we think of as supporting programs typified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  How is it that we call the people who support school privatization through vouchers and charter schools “neoliberals?”

For those of us who are not political theorists, Robert Kuttner simply and clearly defines “neoliberalism.” Kuttner is the  co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. Kuttner hardly touches on the specific area of neoliberalism as it applies to public education, but his precise definition is invaluable for clarifying our thinking. “It’s worth taking a moment to unpack the term ‘neoliberalism.’ The coinage can be confusing to American ears because the ‘liberal’ part refers not to the word’s ordinary American usage, meaning moderately left-of-center, but to classical economic liberalism otherwise known as free-market economics. The ‘neo’ part refers to the reassertion of the claim that the laissez-faire model of the economy was basically correct after all. Few proponents of these views embraced the term neoliberal. Mostly, they called themselves free-market conservatives. ‘Neoliberal’ was a coinage used mainly by their critics, sometimes as a neutral descriptive term, sometimes as an epithet. The use became widespread in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.”

Kuttner traces the history of neoliberalism: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

“Beginning in the 1970s, resurrected free-market theory was interwoven with both conservative politics and significant investments in the production of theorists and policy intellectuals. This occurred not just in well-known conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Cato, and the Manhattan Institute, but through more insidious investments in academia. Lavishly funded centers and tenured chairs were underwritten by the Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and other far-right foundations to promote such variants of free-market theory as law and economics, public choice, rational choice, cost-benefit analysis, maximize-shareholder-value, and kindred schools of thought.”

Kuttner traces the impact of neoliberal theory on the broader economy: “By the 1990s, even moderate liberals had been converted to the belief that social objectives can be achieved by harnessing the power of markets… Now, after nearly half a century, the verdict is in. Virtually every one of these policies has failed, even on their own terms.  Enterprise has been richly rewarded, taxes have been cut, and regulation reduced or privatized. The economy is vastly more unequal, yet economic growth is slower and more chaotic than during the era of managed capitalism.  Deregulation has produced not salutary competition, but market concentration.  Economic power has resulted in feedback loops of political power, in which elites make rules that bolster further concentration… This is a story of power using theory.”

Moving closer to what has happened in the area of public education, Kuttner adds: “In addition to deregulation, three prime areas of practical neoliberal policies are the use of vouchers as ‘market-like’ means to social goals, the privatization of public services, and the use of tax subsidies rather than direct outlays. In every case, government revenues are involved, so this is far from a free market to begin with. But the premise is that market disciplines can achieve public purposes more efficiently than direct public provision.”

Kuttner skims only briefly the role of neoliberalism in various areas of public policy including healthcare, housing, incarceration, transportation and education.  Providing the direct link from neoliberal economic theory to its consequences for our nation’s public schools, last Friday, Diane Ravitch posted a commentary by Shawgi Tell, a professor of education at Nazareth College in New York, who examines the role of neoliberalism in public education policy. Tell is responding to a recent Washington Post column in which David Osborne argues: “‘Privatization’ doesn’t make charter schools bad. It makes them like Obamacare and Medicare.” Tell condemns Osborne’s column as the epitomy of neoliberalism. David Osborne is the Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Tell describes Osborne’s work: “David Osborne is one of America’s foremost neoliberal demagogues. He is a major representative of the so called ‘Third Way,’ a clever label for destructive neoliberal aims, policies, and arrangements.  His constant attacks on public right can be found at the website of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is not progressive at all…. Osborne has spent much of his life attacking the public sector and pushing for its privatization (‘reinvention’) as fast as possible.  He has long been heavily funded by wealthy private interests that support neoliberal policies in every sector and sphere of society.  In the sphere of education, Osborne has been a relentless supporter of privately-operated, low-transparency charter schools, which are notorious for being unaccountable, segregated, deunionized, and corrupt.”

Tell condemns the distortions he notices in Osborne’s recent Washington Post column: “The core and stubborn error with Osborne’s entire ‘argument’ here and elsewhere, is that it rests mainly on thoroughly and deliberately confusing the critical difference between the private and public spheres, including the very different aims, roles, and purposes of each in a modern society….  Osborne desperately wants people to believe that it is more than OK if public goods, programs, and services are operated, ‘delivered,’ or owned by the private sector. He claims that such an arrangement does not render something privatized or problematic, and that it should not really matter who runs things, as long as ‘the results’ are ‘good.'”

Tell explains why it is so important to understand that public and private mean different things. “Public and private mean the opposite of each other… Public refers to everyone, the common good, the general interests of society.  Public means inclusive, open and non-rivalrous.  A public service, for example, is usually free or close to free so that it is accessible by all. A public good is one that benefits everyone, whether they use it or not.  Private, on the other hand, means exclusive, not for everyone, not inclusive, not shared… Private wealthy interests and the common good are not identical; they actually contradict each other… In reality, public goods, services, and programs are not commodities.  They are not ‘consumer goods’ or ‘costs.’  They cannot be reduced to mere budgetary issues. This is a capital-centered way of viewing things. They are basic social human responsibilities that must be provided in a way that ensures the well-being of society and the economy. Approaching social responsibility as a business, contract, or commodity enriches wealthy private interests and lowers the quantity and quality of services for the majority. It also increases corruption and impunity.”

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber provides the clearest definition of the distinction between public and private purposes and the central flaw of neoliberal theory: “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… 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)

A Society with Armed School Teachers and “Hardened Schools”: What Can Trump Be Thinking?

At the end of last week President Donald Trump prescribed a solution for tragic school shootings like the one in Florida on Valentines Day.  Arm school teachers.

NPR broadcast what he said: “We have to harden our schools, not soften them. A gun-free zone to a killer or somebody who wants to be a killer, that’s like going in for the ice cream. That’s like ‘here I am, take me.’  We have to get smart on gun-free zones.  When they see ‘this is a gun-free zone,’ that means that nobody has a gun except them, nobody’s going to be shooting bullets in the other direction. And they see that, it’s such a beautiful target. They live for gun free zones.  Now what I’d recommend doing is the people that do carry, we give them a bonus, we give them a little bit of a bonus, because frankly they’d feel more comfortable having the gun anyway, you give them a little bit of a bonus, so practically for free you’ve now made the school into a hardened target… You want a hardened school, and I want a hardened school, too.”

In the Washington Post, James Hohmann juxtaposed the President’s and Wayne LaPierre’s words to demonstrate that a lot of Trump’s ideas came directly from a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, (CPAC) earlier in the day by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association:

“‘Our banks [are] more protected than our children at school,’ said LaPierre. ‘I want my schools protected just like I want my banks protected,’ said Trump.

La Pierre said ‘gun-free zones’ are ‘wide-open targets for any crazy madman bent on evil.’ Trump said ‘a gun-free zone to a killer or somebody who wants to be a killer [is] like going in for the ice cream’ because, ‘when they see this is a gun-free zone,’ that means that nobody has a gun except them, nobody’s going to be shooting bullets in the other direction.

The NRA chief spoke of  ‘hardening’ schools.  ‘God help us if we do not harden our schools,’ LaPierre said.  ‘Schools must be the most hardened targets in this country.’ ‘We have to harden our schools, not soften them,’ Trump said a little later. ‘You want a hardened school, and I want a hardened school too.'”

Few people besides Trump and LaPierre seem to think arming teachers is a good idea.  Lots of teachers have explained why they believe teachers carrying guns would make public schools more dangerous and they and others have described all sorts of concerns that arming teachers poses for possible violations of students’ civil rights.  Disagreement with Trump’s crazy idea is so widespread that for the first time I’ve ever heard, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and his former arch-enemy in the NY City Council and now New York’s charter school czar, Eva Moskowitz emphatically agreed.  Mayor de Blasio declared: “I suspect the president doesn’t know anything about public schools.  There’s nothing more terrifying than the notion of putting more guns in our children’s schools. The last thing I want to see is more guns in our schools.” Here is Eva Moskowitz: “Having teachers running around schools with loaded guns in close proximity to students may be the dumbest idea I’ve heard in my entire career in education.”

I have been trying to analyze the depth of my own distress about Trump’s suggestion, because while I’m sort of getting used to bizarre tweets and weird statements coming out of the White House these days, this one seemed like a new low.  And yet, the people at CPAC cheered these ideas.

Paul Krugman’s NY Times column helped me put Trump’s response to the Florida tragedy in a broader context—clarifying that this is also about something beyond guns and the NRA: “Trump’s horrible idea, taken straight from the N.R.A. playbook, was deeply revealing—and the revelation goes beyond issues of gun control.  What’s going on in America right now isn’t just a culture war.  It is, on the part of much of today’s right, a war on the very concept of community, of a society that uses the institution we call government to offer certain basic protections to all its members… No other advanced nation experiences frequent massacres the way we do. Why? Because they impose background checks for prospective gun owners, limit the prevalence of guns in general and ban assault weapons that allow a killer to shoot dozens of people before he (it’s always a he) can be taken down.  And yes, these regulations work.” (Emphasis mine.)

Krugman echoes the analysis of political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in a recent book written to define the appropriate role of government: “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 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…. Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

In last week’s column, Krugman correctly links President Trump’s crazy idea about arming school teachers with other trends in the United States, including the failure of many states to set safe speed limits and the privatization of programs that can be universally and most effectively provided as the public responsibility of government: “What I’d argue is that our lethal inaction on guns, but also on cars, reflects the same spirit that’s causing us to neglect infrastructure and privatize prisons, the spirit that wants to dismantle public education and turn Medicare into a voucher system rather than a guarantee of essential care. For whatever reason, there’s a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom.”

In The Good Society, Robert Bellah and colleagues trace the idea of individualism back primarily to the seventeenth century political philosopher John Locke, whose thinking looked away from rule by an absolutist monarch and idealized individuals who agree to buy into a social contract.  Bellah writes: “The founders of our republic imagined that the civilizing tasks of creating a democratic society and opening up unheard-of economic opportunities could go hand in hand.”  But Locke’s theories, which strongly influenced the founders writing the Declaration of Independence, can be be read to affirm the social contract’s protection of our freedom or to emphasize personal liberty itself: “It is possible to interpret the fundamental commitments contained in the Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal, they are endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—in either way.” (The Good Society, pp. 86-87)  Today there is a strong pull against emphasis on the social contract in American society and toward “liberty” defined as the rights of the individual—with this mantra: “Don’t tread on me.”

Krugman instead traces Trump’s newest idea that we ought to arm school teachers back to that other seventeenth century social thinker—the more pessimistic Thomas Hobbes.  Here is Krugman: “In short, you might want to think of our madness over guns as just one aspect of the drive to turn us into what Thomas Hobbes described long ago: a society ‘wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them.’ And Hobbes famously told us what life in such a society is like: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'”

I am not sure Trump’s idea about arming teachers really harks back to any debates by political philosophers, however.  Trump’s idea probably derives from a far more recent source: the myth portrayed day after day in the cowboy movies he watched after school on TV in his youth or at the Saturday movie. Isn’t his armed teacher “solution” really just a fantasy about a Lone Ranger with a six shooter standing up to the madman with a semi-automatic rifle?

How pitiful is this as a serious proposal for what is becoming a recurrent tragedy in today’s increasingly unregulated, individualistic America? And what does it mean that the President seems compelled to pander to the N.R.A. when all the polls show that the vast majority of us want responsible gun control?

Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Get It: Catering to the Desires of Individuals Won’t Serve the Common Good

Betsy DeVos is a libertarian. One cannot drill this concept often enough. DeVos believes in the freedom of individuals to make the choices that benefit themselves and their children. It is the kind of thinking that promotes the rights of individuals above all else. Wikipedia’s definition of libertarianism perfectly describes the thinking of Betsy DeVos: “Libertarians seek to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association, individual judgment, and self-ownership.”  Libertarians don’t believe government should interfere with individual liberty.

The other day, Betsy DeVos made people in the audience mad when she addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (We’ll ignore for a minute the fact that charter schools are, as a form of private contracting, not really public schools.), because she didn’t seem fully to endorse charter schooling. Here is what she said: “Charter schools are here to stay… But we must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child. For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter… school works for them… I suggest we focus less on what word comes before ‘school,’ whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed… and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve… We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.”  She also emphasized “the parents’ right to decide.”

She also criticized the bureaucracy and red tape that she believes are hampering charter schools, a critique meaning that DeVos rejects the role of government to protect our society through regulation. For DeVos, government regulation is the enemy, which is why the Great Lakes Education Project—the Michigan lobbying organization founded and funded by DeVos and her family—strong-armed the Michigan legislature to defeat the plan for a Detroit Education Commission to bring Detroit’s out-of-control, for-profit charter school sector under some oversight and to ensure that schools open in neighborhoods that need schools instead of neighborhoods with an oversupply of schools.

Betsy DeVos’s libertarianism allows her to ignore the concept of opportunity cost in education. She worries about liberty and freedom for each particular parent and child, but the mechanics of how we’ll pay for all this elude her. Economists call it “opportunity cost” when, because the budget is fixed, we have to  choose what we can afford. If we choose one kind of publicly funded school, we can’t also fund private alternatives unless we increase the budget. Opportunity cost in education is obvious to parents of children in public schools whose classes are getting larger, for example. Our problem is threefold, but Betsy DeVos doesn’t notice: (1) the overall federal budget for education has declined due to austerity budgeting and the sequester, (2) state budgets, a primary source of education funding, have fallen in nearly half the states since the 2008 recession, and (3) we have at the same time added publicly funded, privatized alternatives—charter schools and vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Hence, we’ve lost the opportunity to spend as much on the public schools—which continue to educate 90 percent of our society’s children.

There are a mass of other negative spillover costs for society as a whole from school privatization—problems Betsy DeVos chooses not to see because she worries about individuals, not institutions. We judge the privatized educational alternatives by test scores (the mis-measure our society uses exclusively these days to evaluate schools), but even in cases where students’ test scores rise  and we brag about the “successful” privatized alternatives, we know there is other negative collateral damage from the privatization. Bruce Baker and Gordon Lafer have documented that in big city school districts, when the number of charters is rapidly expanded—particularly when charter operators choose the neighborhoods where they want to open schools—the charter sector operates as a parasite on the host public school district. After charters drain neighborhood public schools of children as parents are lured by charter school advertising, some public schools empty out and are closed. As the process proceeds, there is nowhere for children to return if the charter school proves academically deficient or is later closed.  The neighborhood has at the same time lost the public schools as institutional anchors. When students leave for privatized alternatives, there are also stranded costs for the public schools, stranded costs for building staff, facilities, and transportation that cannot be recouped. Unlike public schools, private schools are not required to serve all children. Private schools  accepting vouchers are able to pick and choose the students they accept, and privatized charter schools can push out students with behavior problems or low test scores. Charters and schools accepting vouchers are rarely staffed to serve severely handicapped children and English language learners, the children who require the expensive services the public system must continue to provide. And the federal civil rights laws that protect the rights of such children can be ignored by private schools.

In contrast to DeVos’s libertarian worldview, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson consider education a social and civic project, something that can’t  be shopped for by individuals in a competitive marketplace: “(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… and the means… to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.”(American Amnesia, p. 65)

In a column published this week, Arthur Camins, a lifelong public school and college educator, explains that we cannot counter Betsy DeVos’s libertarian philosophy of education simply by reciting these arguments about the ways privatization does not work. It is the philosophy of individualism itself that must be rejected: “It is time to care about the education of other people’s children. Other people’s children are or will be our neighbors. Other people’s children—from almost anywhere in the United States and beyond—could end up as our co-workers. Other people’s children are tomorrow’s potential voters. How, what and with whom they learn impacts us all. That is why we have public schools, paid for with pooled taxes. They are designed to serve the public good—not just to suit individual parents’ desires… I refuse to accept the ethos of selfishness and winning in a world of ruthless competition.  Education policy focused on the educational choices of individual parents is not just morally repugnant but stupid and shortsighted.  Does anyone really think that giving every parent the right to choose which school to send their children to is a recipe for raising the next generation of knowledgeable, capable, caring Americans?”

Camins condemns not only the kind of individualism Betsy DeVos promotes but also our broader political climate for tolerating inequality of opportunity across American school districts, educational inequality that grows from our society’s economic inequality: “Of course, some schools do a better job than others…. (T)he big differentials in education outcomes are the result of political decisions about local, state and federal policy and funding. More significant, they are the result of our country’s refusal to do anything substantive about the residential segregation and distrust that continually enable, perpetuate, and exacerbate inequity. The differences are the result of growing inequality, concentrated poverty, and the purposeful oblivion of those who live comfortably stable, if insulated lives. The differences are the result of an intentional political campaign to convince folks in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum—whose lives are hardly easy or secure—to blame other people who struggle even more, rather than the wealthy 1% who wield the levers of economic and political power.”

None of the world’s major religions has an ethical system based on the prowess of the individual and the survival of the fittest. Ethics is always about the way we conduct our relationships with other people in community. Here is the way a Christian, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman defines the concept of justice in a civic institution like our public school system: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”

Betsy DeVos: When an Opponent of Government Joins the Government

Are you tired of hearing Betsy DeVos repeat her one idea about education—that parents should have the right to choose their children’s school? Why does she not branch out a little bit at least and consider the issues that are supposed to be within the purview of the U.S. Department of Education, the agency of which she is now in charge? Why does she never seem really to appreciate the work of public school teachers in the schools she visits? (To read about Betsy DeVos’s Senate testimony on Tuesday about her department’s federal budget proposal, read Valerie Strauss’s report.)

Sitting on my desk are copies of two recent reflections on Betsy DeVos’s beliefs and how her ideas shape her leadership.

First Peter Greene, the Pennsylvania school teacher and blogger, critiques a statement from the American Federation for Children (AFC), the advocacy organization that Betsy DeVos founded and whose board she chaired until she became our U.S. Secretary of Education.  Greene is bothered by this statement from AFC, a declaration that sounds exactly like Betsy DeVos: “It is school choice—directly empowering parents to choose the best educational environment for their child—that is the most democratic of ideas.”

Green responds:  “Nope, nope, nope, nopity nope. There are arguments to be made for parent choice, but ‘it’s the essence of democracy’ is not one of them…  Democracy is not, ‘My fellow taxpayers have to pay for whatever I decide on my own that I want.’…  It is the taxpayers’ money, and the taxpayers have given it to support a system that will educate all students in the community through an institution managed by elected representatives of those taxpayers…. Democracy is about coming together as a group to discuss, debate, (hopefully) compromise, and elect folks who will decide how best to manage our resources.”

Second, Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect reflects on charter schools, economic inequality and a belief in free markets: “The billionaires, apparently, we shall always have with us—even when we decide how to run the state-funded schools where they rarely send their own kids… Indeed, we have to go back to the economic polarization of pre-New Deal America to find a time when the super-rich felt so compelled to better the lot of the poor, as they understood it. Andrew Carnegie, who grew mightily rich by building the American steel industry, famously established libraries in thousands of cities and towns. Though, unlike today’s charter backers, he wasn’t draining off funds that could go to public libraries in the process. What Carnegie and today’s pro-charter rich have in common is a belief in individual betterment…. They also share a fierce opposition to collective betterment, manifested in their respective battles against unions and, in many cases, against governmentally established standards and services. Living in separate eras when the middle class was—and is—embattled and the gap between rich and poor was—and is—immense, billionaires have largely shunned the fights that might truly narrow that gap: raising the minimum wage, making public colleges and universities free, funding sufficient public investment to create genuine full employment…. As the billionaires see it, it’s the lack of skills, not the dysfunctions of the larger economic system that… is the cause of our national woes.  Pure of heart though some of them may be, the charter billionaires have settled on a diagnosis, and a cure, that focuses on the deficiencies of the system’s victims, not the system itself.  How very comforting for them.”

Unrelated as their statements at first appear, both Greene and Meyerson are condemning the kind of libertarian education philosophy embraced by Betsy DeVos.  Libertarianism situates individuals as competitors in a market-driven world and rewards persistent and determined strivers.  Greene castigates the libertarian idea that parental choice is the essence of democracy, because he knows that the mass of private parental choices will not, as libertarians assume, come to define what’s good for all of us. Likewise Meyerson attacks libertarian assumptions as he contrasts the idea that marketplace school choice will be the path for individual betterment to the theory that public policy should compensate for the deficiencies and excesses of an alarmingly unequal market economy.

That libertarian Betsy DeVos seems out of place leading a government bureaucracy should not be surprising; after all she is not an educator and she has called government-operated schools “a dead end”  She married into Amway, the family business that most perfectly defines the libertarian idea of the entrepreneurship of the individual.  The very name of the company, “Amway”—where individuals contract to sell products door-to-door and recruit other individual sales associates—is short for “the American Way.”

Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson reject the market-driven, libertarian direction that now pervades DeVos’s Department of Education. In their 2016 book, American Amnesia, they make the case for government as an absolutely necessary balance for markets in a mixed economy: “The mixed economy is a social institution, a human solution to human problems. Private capitalism and public coercion each predated modern prosperity. Governments were involved in the market long before the mixed economy. What made the difference was the marriage of large-scale profit-seeking activity, active democratic governance, and a deepened understanding of how markets work (and where they work poorly)” (American Amnesia, p. 7)

Hacker and Pierson explain: “That markets fall short under certain conditions has been known for at least two centuries… Adam Smith wrote enthusiastically about the ‘invisible hand’ of market allocation. Yet he also identified many cases where rational actors pursuing their own self-interest produced bad outcomes: underinvestment in education, financial instability, insufficient infrastructure, unchecked monopolies. Economists have been building on these insights ever since to explain when and why markets stumble and how the visible hand of government can make the invisible hand more effective. The visible hand is needed, for example, to provide key collective goods that markets won’t…. reduce negative spillover costs that parties to market exchanges don’t bear fully…. encourage positive spillover benefits that such parties don’t take fully into account…. regulate the market to protect consumers and investors…. provide or require certain insurance protections…. and soften the business cycle and reduce the risk of financial crises.” (American Amnesia, p. 4-5)

So how does all this help explain our dilemma today as we live with a government-despising libertarian as the leader of our government’s Department of Education?

We’ll start briefly with Hacker and Pierson, who speak specifically to education: “(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… and the means… to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.”(American Amnesia, p. 65)

Then there is the matter of the role of government to protect civil rights. In hearings before Congress Betsy DeVos has persistently (and frustratingly) skirted questions about the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Education for protecting students’ civil rights.  DeVos almost always responds to such questions with a defense of parents’ personal right to choose a school for their children. She doggedly explains that if things are not going well at school, parents should have the right to choose another school. Pauline Lipman, a Chicago education theorist, responded several years ago to what she calls the “neoliberal” (libertarian) thinking of the school privatizers promoting the rapid expansion of charter schools in Chicago. Lipman does not idealize the public schools. In fact she believes that privatization initiatives like Arne Duncan’s Renaissance 2010 were a response to the poorly funded, under-staffed and overwhelmed neighborhood public schools.  But privatization has not, she believes, addressed the needs of Chicago’s children: “The Keynesian welfare state framed people as citizens with certain civil rights and the state as responsible for a minimal level of social well-being. 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, p. 11)

The late Benjamin Barber reminds us, however, that as consumers of services, we lack the rights of democratic citizens who can, at least in theory, choose representatives with the power to protect our interests.  With privatization, “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)  In Chicago and Detroit, a primary source of inequality has been that charter operators themselves, without public oversight, have been permitted to choose the neighborhoods in which they have sited their schools—without any consideration of the overabundance of schools in some neighborhoods and the shortage of schools in other neighborhoods.

Tony Judt, the late British historian, reminds us that one of the failures of libertarian privatization is that the public seems always to have to keep on subsidizing the services which have been privatized: “What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatization is inefficient.  Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss: whether they were railway companies, coal mines, postal services, or energy utilities, they cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue.” (Ill Fares the Land, p 109)  If DeVos is able to lead Congress to expand the privatization of education, Congress, state legislatures and local property taxpayers will commence sending more public funds to pay tuition at religious schools whose students would likely never have attended public schools in the first place. And taxpayers will pay for the outrageous profits for the owners and operators of behemoth online virtual schools like K-12,Inc.

How can Betsy DeVos be confident that parents are well enough informed to make good school choices for their children? Here are Hacker and Pierson worrying about uneven access to information: “Even more widespread are issues related to consumer myopia, when consumers know too little or focus on the wrong things or don’t look far enough into the future to make wise choices… The emerging field of ‘behavioral economics’ incorporates insights from psychologists about the many ways in which actual human decision making falls short—way short—of the traditional economics assumption of perfect information, perfectly processed.” (American Amnesia, p. 81)  In huge charter school marketplaces like New Orleans and Detroit, a primary criticism has been poor information made available to parents about the array of schools.

Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine worry that privatization, in the form of rapid growth of charter schools, has worsened inequality in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities.  The best charters may be a lifeboat for a few children, but only for a very few: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas. This intensifying disinvestment is accompanied by ever more symbolic forms of private education reform that substitute modest investments in a small number of communities and schools for needed levels of targeted investment. Clearly the conditions necessary to reinvent learning and instruction… for a majority of poor students of color cannot be achieved within this intellectually arid and fiscally degraded reform box. The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention… Ultimately, charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, p 87)

None of this alleviates our dilemma posed by the appointment of a libertarian who despises government as the leader of our government’s education department. It is helpful, however, to keep in mind all of this thinking from the critics of libertarian education theory.  At least it explains why many of us are so frustrated and so angry.

Public education is among our society’s largest and most pervasive civic institutions. It is, therefore, also helpful to keep in mind a definition of institutional justice from an ethicist, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society. It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” Justice in education must be systemic; it cannot be achieved through competition in a privatized education marketplace that produces losers as well as winners.

Mitt Romney Speaks Up for Governance by Plutocrats

Mitt Romney had a preposterous op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend.  He suggests that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire, is ideally qualified to be U.S. Secretary of Education because she is so rich she doesn’t stand to benefit from any kind of future employment in a public school.

Romney’s argument is that the One Percent ought to be in charge of making public education policy, because unlike the the rest of us, billionaires lack the bias that might be carried by somebody who needed work—as a schoolteacher, for example. While the rest of us might worry that Betsy DeVos lacks relevant experience as a public school student or public school parent or public school teacher, and lacks training in pedagogy or school administration, Romney believes her vast wealth is her best qualification for the job:  “Essentially, it’s a debate between those in the education establishment who support the status quo because they have a financial stake in the system and those who seek to challenge the status quo because it’s not serving kids well… First, it’s important to have someone who isn’t financially biased shaping education. As a highly successful businesswoman, DeVos doesn’t need the job now, nor will she be looking for an education job later.”

Profiling DeVos in the Washington Post, Emma Brown describes the political giving of the DeVos family. In contrast to Mitt Romney, Brown explains that Betsy DeVos is biased: DeVos has a financial stake in a clear political agenda that has for decades been represented by her and her husband’s political giving. Brown reports that DeVos told Roll Call in 1997: “that she had decided ‘to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American values.”

Romney also claims there is substantial academic research proving that charter schools in Michigan—where Dick and Betsy DeVos have invested millions of dollars in lobbying against responsible state oversight of charters—are academically surpassing their public school counterparts.  In December Stephen Henderson, editorial page director of the Detroit Free Press, penned a column about the very research Romney describes.  Henderson contradicts Romney’s interpretation of the research. Comparing the academic record of Michigan’s charter schools and traditional public schools, Henderson reports that research conclusions are much more nuanced and complex: “For 20 years, DeVos and her family have funded a charter school lobby that protects the industry from reasonable oversight and accountability, in part, through gross exaggeration and fibs of omission about school research. In their telling, charter schools have achieved great success in Michigan and especially Detroit. They’ve transformed public education.  But the data—even the data that DeVos’ lobby so often cites—tell a different story. They show that charter schools do not substantially outperform public schools, and even where they do, the difference is so slight that it’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about what it means. It’s another facet of DeVos’s unfitness for the job president-elect Donald Trump has nominated her to do. Research is a key component of the nation’s education infrastructure, and that research has been telling us for years that charter schools in Michigan have not yet delivered on their promises.”

In a column for Lafayette, Indiana’s  Journal and Courier, Ed Eiler, Lafayette’s retired school superintendent, presents the strongest rationale for confronting Romney’s bizarre column as well as opposing Betsy DeVos’s political philosophy that glorifies school choice: “In his book, Justice, Michael Sandell makes the observation that, during the past 30 years, we have moved from being a market economy to a market society, where increasingly everything is being turned into a commodity and is for sale to the highest bidder. Sandell contends that when dealing with material goods, a market economy is a valuable and productive tool, but we should not trust markets with our civic lives. He observes that economists assume markets are inert and do not touch or taint the goods they exchange.  This assumption may be true of material goods but may not be true for non-material goods and social practices related to education, health care, politics, law and civic life… The question is how do we want to live together?  Do we want a society where everything is up for sale or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”

Late last night, the Washington Post’s Emma Brown reported that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s  confirmation hearing on Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education has been delayed until Tuesday, January 17, because, “the Office of Government Ethics, which has said it is overwhelmed by vetting Trump’s nominees, has not yet completed its review of DeVos’s financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest.”

The delay means that DeVos’s hearing will not be jammed together on the same day as numerous other confirmation hearings along with a major press conference by the President-elect. The delay also gives those of us who believe Betsy DeVos is unqualified to be Secretary of Education a little more time to make our calls and encourage colleagues and friends to do so. Please continue to make phone calls to the offices of your Senators and to the offices of the Senate HELP Committee.

We must continue to raise questions about DeVos’s disdain for government and public service, her dogged belief in competition and marketplace school choice, and her distrust of the public school system that serves 50 million children across the United States. That’s the system the Secretary of Education is expected to oversee.

School Choice via Charter Schools: Individualism vs. the Common Good

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced new grants of $245 million (a quarter of a billion dollars) under its Charter Schools Program (CSP), for the creation and expansion of charter schools. The federal government awards these grants to what are known as SEAs —state educational agencies or, in common parlance, state departments of education—and to charter management organizations—the big chains of charter schools, many of them for-profit. But while the U.S. Department of Education continues to operate the Charter Schools Program as though nothing has changed, there is a whirlwind of controversy these days about the impact of charter schools.

In Ohio, everybody is waiting to see what Franklin County Common Please Court Judge Jenifer French will decide in the case brought by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—a huge online school being investigated by the Ohio Department of Education for collecting hundreds millions of tax dollars over the years for phantom students—students who sign up for ECOT but log-in for only about an hour every day, when the state requires five hours of active participation.  Why has ECOT sued for a preliminary injunction to block the state’s demand for records of students’ computer log-in times?  Because ECOT has not bothered to set up a comprehensive system for collecting this seemingly important information.  On Monday of this week, the Ohio Department of Education reported on an audit it has conducted with a sample of ECOT’s supposed students. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “ECOT was paid about $106 million in state funding last year for a reported 15,322 full-time students.  But after a preliminary attendance review in March and a final review in August that required the school to verify its enrollment through student log-in durations, the department has concluded that ECOT’s actual verified enrollment is 6,313 students.  Based on the final determination, the department could try to force ECOT and its politically influential founder, Bill Lager, to repay about $60 million to the state.”  And potentially much more if there is a retroactive claw-back for over-payments in previous years.  Much hangs on Judge Jenifer French’s decision in what is rapidly becoming an outrageous scandal.

Then on Thursday, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published the second installment of Carol Burris’s blockbuster report for the Network for Public Education on financial and academic abuses in California’s charter schools. California serves more students in charter schools than any other state, and the problems described by Burris astonish.  She describes Desert Sands Charter High School with 2,000 students, a four-year graduation rate of 11.5 percent and a dropout rate of 42 percent: “Desert Sands Charter High School enrolls nearly 2,000 students; almost all are Latino. It is part of the Antelope Valley School District, but you will not find it listed on Antelope’s website. Nor will you find Desert Sands at the Lancaster, Calif., address given on its own website.”  Burris describes a Desert Sands Charter School student whose “classroom was located in an office building across from a Walmart nearly 100 miles away from both Antelope Valley Schools and the Desert Sands’ address. Desert Sands is one of 15 independent learning center charter schools, which are defined as non-classroom-based independent study sites, connected to Learn4Life, a network of schools that claim to provide personalized learning.”  Former students “found their experience at the charter to be anything but ‘personalized.’  They described education at Dessert Sands as no more than a continuous cycle of paper packets, optional tutor appointments and tests that students continue to take until they pass. Three calls to three different Learn4Life charter schools confirmed that the instructional program was driven by paper packets that students pick up and complete. After packet completion, students take a test to earn credit… The schools are in reality a web of resource centers sprinkled in office buildings, strip malls and even former liquor stores.”  Burris, the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education and a retired, award-winning high school principal, knows what she is looking at when she evaluates a school. I urge you to read this week’s stunning critique, to go back and read her first post, and to anticipate upcoming releases.

Finally this week, In the Public Interest published a new report, How Privatization Increases Inequality and reached the very same conclusion about charter schools as Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who clarified her position in opposition to Massachusetts Question 2, a constitutional amendment that, if passed, would raise the state’s cap on the number of new charter schools that can be started up each year. In the Public Interest emphasizes two negatives as charter schools proliferate: they increase economic and racial segregation, and they drain money from the public schools that serve the majority of students and concentrations of children with special needs: “The introduction of private interests into public goods and services can radically impact access for certain groups.  In some cases, privatization can create parallel systems in which one system propped up by private interests typically serves higher income people while another lesser quality system serves lower income people. In other cases, the creation of a private system siphons funding away from the public system meant to serve everyone. In some situations, poor individuals and families can lose access to a public good completely… The rapid growth of charter schools in the landscape of public K-12 education has ignited many concerns, including their financial impacts on public school districts, the ability of state and local governments to hold charter schools accountable, and whether they provide a quality education to students. However, another related and serious concern is the evidence showing that charter schools create and perpetuate racial and socioeconomic isolation and segregation among students.”

Jeff Bryant, in his weekly commentary for the Education Opportunity Network, quotes Senator Elizabeth Warren as she rejects Massachusetts Question 2 for the very same reasons: “I’m just concerned about the proposal and what it means for the children all across the Commonwealth… Public officials have a responsibility not just to a small subset of children but to all of the children, to make sure that they receive a first-rate education.”

Warren echoes the ethical concern formulated by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a Washington, D.C. town hall in 2011: “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.” There should be no losers built into the system: Jackson points to public education as the very definition of public responsibility for “lifting” all children—not just the children we might consider the winners and not merely the children whose parents know how to play the school choice game well enough to make their own children the winners.  As money is sucked out of large public districts in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Cleveland to serve the relatively few children who can “choose” their way into a charter school, more and more people are considering the very premise of school choice in the context of their most basic values: support for the common good vs. endorsement of the pursuit of self-serving individualism.