The Importance of Public Education and the Danger of Privatization: Remembering Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, died last week. Over the years, his writing has spoken poignantly to the civic principles that have defined our society’s commitment to public education. In today’s American ethos—defined by individualism, competition, and greed—his thinking calls us back to the values to which our society has traditionally declared a commitment. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

A short essay, “Education for Democracy,” published in Barber’s 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remains remarkably timely 20 years later.

“Although a fifth to a quarter of all children under six and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from school lunch to after-school programs is being slashed at the federal and state levels… There is nothing sadder than a country that turns its back on its children, for in doing so it turns away from its own future.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 225)

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

“America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony.  Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

Barber’s  2007 warning, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, explains precisely what is dangerous about the thinking of school privatizers like our voucher-supporting Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and others who dismiss as harmless the twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools.

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

“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)

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

Barber’s 1992 book about education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, feels dated, with much of it addressing the culture wars raging a quarter century ago. What’s timely today in this book is Barber’s challenge to what has become a dominant assumption among many parents that education is a zero sum game. Today, very often, parents have been taught to believe that education is a competition—a race to the top for those who can run fastest.  School choice—driven by an ethos of individualism—encourages parents to fear that, “If your kid wins, mine will lose.” Barber confronts and contradicts that assumption even in his book’s title: everyone can be part of an aristocracy of the educated.

“This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Barber articulates abstract principles, ideals we should aim for. I realized how important it is to think about these principles when— after Hurricane Katrina led to the “shock doctrine” takeover and privatization of New Orleans’ schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at a public meeting. As the keynoter described the hurricane as a opportunity to “reform” the public schools, a woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted out: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town!”

The New Orleans mother understood exactly what Benjamin Barber explains here: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Duncan’s Problem: Education Philosophy, Not Overreach

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been widely criticized for federal overreach—federal grant competitions (Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, School Improvement Grants) dangled as an enticement for state legislatures to adopt Duncan’s pet policies merely to qualify to submit a proposal—and waivers (from the most onerous penalties of the old No Child Left Behind Act) conditioned on states’ adopting additional punitive policies narrowly defined by Duncan’s department. The Department of Education brags that it is responsible for the adoption across state governments of widespread reform designed and promoted by the U.S. Department of Education.

Although I am concerned that Duncan has been pushing his agenda (quite legally) through federal administrative rules without public debate in Congressional hearings and without the check and balance of a vote by Congress, I urge you to read Arthur Camins’ profound diagnosis of what ails today’s federal education policy:  “The problem over the last several decades of education policy is not overreach.  It is that the federal government has been reaching for the wrong things in the wrong places with the wrong policy levers.”  Valerie Strauss reprinted Camins’ profound analysis in the Washington Post yesterday.

Our problem is our values not mere governance strategy. The Department of Education has been promoting public policy based on individualism at the expense of the common good: “Community and individualist values have been in tension throughout U.S. history. The diminishment of inequality that characterized the 1930s-1970s was the result of empathetic community responsibility values and strong unions.  The growing inequality of the 1980s through the present is the result of the dominance of competitive individualist values… When competition is the norm among parents for their children’s schools and among teachers for professional advancement, narrow individual solutions undermine broad systemic solutions.”

How has school choice worked out as a strategy for empowering parents living in poor communities?  “The rhetoric to support current education reform is that individual poor families should have choices about which schools their children attend just like rich folks.  Tellingly, this does not mean that rich and poor or black and white children attend the same schools.  Instead, new charter schools are located in racially and economically isolated communities so that poor families compete with one another for admission. The result has been increased segregation with no effort to ameliorate resource allocation differences between wealthy and poor communities.”

Camins believes that mistaking our much deeper philosophical dilemma in education policy for a governance problem of federal overreach will only further undermine the plight of children in our poorest communities. Efforts of the current Republican majority in both houses of Congress to reduce the federal role in education and return power to the states will further  “undermine efforts to support the nation-wide, democratically governed public system that is essential to successfully prepare students for life, work and citizenship…  Great advances for economic and social justice, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and civil rights laws are the result of federal legislation and Supreme Court decisions.  All of these benchmarks of progress have been initiated by local social and political action, but they have been achieved nationally.”

We must be especially wary, writes Camins, because “virtually unlimited political contributions and lobbying, the growing influence of wealthy foundations and recent undermining of voting rights have all eroded progressive equity-focused… policies,” not only at the federal level, but also across the states.

Camins’ solutions will require changing the philosophical frame. Instead of reducing the federal role, Congress needs to leverage the full power of the federal government behind a public system that serves the needs and protects the rights of all children—expanding opportunity through school funding equity, school integration, creation of well-paying jobs, a living wage, stronger support for families with children, increased support for the education of special education students and English language learners, more support for teachers’ professional growth and collaboration, and better teacher preparation programs. “Improvements will only come from a national commitment to the values of equity, democracy, empathy, respect and community responsibility….”

I urge you to read and re-read Camins’ thoughtful column.

A Peek into How the Education Sector Works

Many of us have the sense that profit has become increasingly involved in the world of education, but while the term “education sector” has come into our lexicon, we have only the vaguest idea about the many ways profit is driving privatization in and around our public schools.  Nor do we really understand how the for-profit education sector is wound together with the operation of laws and policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

A new article, For Education Entrepreneurs, Innovation Yields High Returns: Learning from Larry Berger, Jonathan Harber, and Ron Packard, posted on the website of conservative Education Next, helps fill in the gaps about the growing role of venture capital and for-profit corporations in education.

Writer Julie Landry Petersen describes the struggles and frequent failures of many private education companies over the past 25 years, but contends that, “the economics of education investing are changing.  Schools are now wired and have accountability incentives to invest in technology to boost student achievement, while teachers are ready to experiment with new tools.  For start-ups, hardware costs have come down and software is cheaper than ever to develop.  Longtime education banker Michael Moe of GSV Capital says a higher quality of entrepreneurs is entering the space. Consequently, education technology companies raised $1.1 billion in funding from venture capitalists in 2012, more than double the amount raised the prior year and nearly 10 times as much as a decade earlier.”

Peterson profiles education technology entrepreneurs Larry Berger of Wireless Generation, sold in 2010 for $390 million to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation as the anchor of its ed-tech division Amplify, headed up by former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein; and Jonathan Harber, founder of SchoolNet, sold to education publishing giant Pearson in 2011 for $230 million.

Both start-ups initially grew when they scrambled to discern ways to fill a technological niche when new federal laws or policies were enacted.  “Wireless Generation employees poured over the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) the night it was signed, looking for potential opportunities, and found that the act’s Reading First component ‘created an unusual amount of liquidity centralized at the state level (about $200 million per year) that did not already have a bureaucracy trained to spend it,’ as Berger has written.  Wireless Generation went on to secure at least 18 state contracts….”

SchoolNet, on the other hand, planned to cash in on Race to the Top as well as the need for data demanded by NCLB.  “In 2009 and 2010, states competing for Race to the Top grants began looking for ‘instructional improvement systems’ that would earn them points against the grant program’s criteria for providing teachers, principals, and administrators ‘with the information and resources they need to inform and improve their instructional practices, decision-making, and overall effectiveness.'”  SchoolNet filled the niche with “systems that could capture, analyze, and report formative data quickly to allow teachers and principals to make instructional changes accordingly, a gap that grew even wider when NCLB began to shine a spotlight on the dismal progress of student subgroups and put pressure on schools to improve their performance.”

Petersen also profiles Ron Packard, the founder and CEO of K12, the huge, for-profit, on-line academy.  Petersen’s profile of Packard and K12 acknowledges the serious criticism of this company that has made enrollment growth its priority, while ensuring neither student achievement by any generally accepted measure nor an acceptable course completion or graduation rate.  She quotes investor Whitney Tilson who advised other investors against K12: “K12’s aggressive student recruitment has led to dismal academic results by students and sky-high dropout rates.”  K12 has succeeded as a for-profit company, however, “with revenues skyrocketing from $141 million in 2007 to $848 last year, drawn mostly from its management contracts with states and districts to operate virtual and blended-learning schools, but also from operation of three private online schools paid for by parents and from direct sales of its courses to schools and districts.”  Packard’s annual salary was $670,000 plus stock options.

Those promoting privatization in education value individualism, competition, efficiency, deregulation, innovation, profits and creative disruption.  These are, of course, the values of the marketplace.

Entirely different core values underpin the public school system that has historically served our children in the United States. We have long valued public schools for civic as well as personal benefit and we have counted on a vast and stable publicly owned system designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children.  We would do well to consider the warning of political philosopher Benjamin Barber—who reflects on the loss of public ownership and public oversight—as we contemplate the implications of the growing privatized market for education technology and services:

“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 a social contract.”

On a less philosophical level, there are also several really basic things that the three entrepreneurs profiled in  Petersen’s article never consider as they look for a corporate niche in our public schools. What about the school children and their need for personal connection with teachers who will nurture their learning and development?  And what about the stewardship of our tax dollars?  Should we be spending public funds for services from tech companies, for on-line schools, and for corporate profits, salaries and bonuses when we might instead, for example, hire more classroom teachers and thereby lower class size?