The School Reform Debate: An Outsider’s Perspective
There exists some confusion on the implementation of a business model to address the issues of public schools.
Despite the moral default among libertarians and conservatives of the accepted notion that school reform is needed and vouchers are the answer, there are two obstacles to maintaining consistent free-market thought for overcoming this issue through privatization.
In a typical business model, a company that manufactures a product has control over their raw materials via contract accountability with its supplier.
For example, if I have a company manufacturing dining room tables and the supplier of the wood has delivered an inferior shipment of oak, either covered in mold, rotted, or worse, not oak at all but Pine, then by the good faith demands of our business agreement and legally binding clauses within our contract, that supplier must be held harshly accountable for the supply they delivered.
We do not have this option in education—the option to return to sender.
Our raw material consists of human beings, and we have the obligation to accept them however they arrive, whether of superior or inferior quality, broken, or of a material other than the one the company has requested.
The application of business principles already grows unstable.
The other extra-capitalist issue with advocating voucher schools is that in doing so we are supporting a system of crony capitalism of the worst kind— we’re not privatizing education with vouchers, we are simply subsidizing it under an indirect rather than direct tax. Other than the lack of adherence to a business model, the inconsistency in touting this as a free market solution is that school vouchers are made from tax dollars, a fact conveniently forgotten in the rhetoric of the neo-liberal school choice movement.
Vouchers are a corporate subsidy by another name. We cannot support tax-payer funded vouchers while, with any good faith, still claiming to to institute free market solutions to the manufactured crisis of public education. Capitalists, as a rule, despise corporate subsidies, and yet even the most die-hard anarcho capitalists and supposedly principled libertarians are falling all over themselves to support public education by another name.
Not to sound indecent, but we need to back off on this. If we are genuinely desiring school reform within a business model, we need to advocate affordable, private, non-voucher, non-subsidized education which will not lend itself to the gross abuse of public money by the crony capitalists of the school reform movement who are seeking to profit from tax dollars.
This cognitive dissonance represents a disparity within libertarian thought—one which we ought to confront and reject—call it for what it is—a subsidy.
Whatever the ideology, vouchers are made of tax dollars and are therefore not a truly private venture. With all the charities and non-profits fighting for ineffective school vouchers, couldn’t those same forces funnel their efforts and capital to private non-profit (or for-profit) schools?
Also, the narrative of failing public schools is a carefully constructed crisis, framed by funny numbers, and data gathered and funded by think-tanks who are shamelessly in the pockets of education reformers who have ties to testing companies and stock in charter schools; leeches who are growing rich from, again, tax-payer-funded vouchers.
Even Cato and Reason, the heavy-weights of modern libertarian thought, are advocating this subsidized crony capitalism, and no one is pointing out that vouchers are tax dollars.
It could be that those touting school reform care no more for the consistency of neo-liberal values than they care for on believe in the consistency of their own arguments insisting upon the abject failure of public schools.
A failure they are only too happy to address with tax dollars in the form of vouchers. The constant comparison to the Nordic models of education, especially by the left, also distort the numbers to perpetuate the narrative of crisis.
For example, as decades of data indicate, American schools from middle-class or better neighborhoods produce test scores that are as good as or better than national scores for countries [that] purport to be superior to our failing American schools (Carnoy and Rothstein, 2013 qtd. in Hatch p. 3) . . . [and] American students who attend schools where less than 10 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch do as well or better than students anywhere in the world, and US students who go to schools where the poverty rates are less than 25 percent score better than all but four other countries” (Berliner, 2014 qtd. in Hatch p. 5).
As much as I hate to admit it, when adjusted for poverty, American public education is doing fine.
We don’t have an issue of failing schools; we have an issue of poverty, and perhaps this can be at least partially alleviated with private reforms, but this solution of charter schools is not one of them.
This is a manufactured crisis, a carefully created false problem, the solution for which involves funneling billions of dollars of taxes to the testing companies and charter school stock holders who perpetuate this narrative of crisis for government money.
They cry that “they are your tax dollars, they are your kids, it should be your school choice.” However, vouchers are made of tax dollars forcibly seized from far more people than parents of students, financing a school the same as any public institution and this is all done in the name of private solutions.
The narrative of failure also cites the inability of schools to conform to the arbitrary standards of NCLB, which included AYP to be set at 100 percent of students achieving proficiency by 2014 (Hatch p. 16).
Obviously, this 100 percent efficiency standard was not met, and was routinely cited by voucher advocates as indicative of the failure of public schools. However, please find any place in recorded history, science, or physics where a business model has achieved 100 percent efficiency; find it for me so that I can buy all of its stock.
Not accounting for the lack of control in raw material (i.e. the diversity of human beings), if an entity is achieving 100 percent efficiency in its production there is only one reason: their accountant is cooking the numbers.
The efficacy of this perverted, mixed economy solution is also in question. Documenteries like Waiting for Superman lament the sorry state of public education and advocate the utopian magic bullet of charter schools.
However, despite the long and loud monotony of this story, data from across the ideological spectrum indicate otherwise. For example, a 2007 study by the Rand Corporation investigated Educational Management Organizations (EMOS), who were employed to manage public schools in Philadelphia. “The report concluded that “in short, after four years of intervention, the achievement gains in Philadelphia’s privately managed schools were, on average, no different than Philadelphia’s district-wide gains” (Gill, 2007 p. 26).
The online charter schools are no better either. For example, in 2012 over 70 percent were identified as academically inferior (Berliner and Glass, 2014).
Further, Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago and coauthor of the iconoclastic Freakonomics, argued that the voucher system and the school choice movement has little to do with a student’s academic achievement.
Levitt and Dubner write that students who went to a charter school via lottery did no better than the equivalent students who remained at their neighborhood schools after losing the lottery. Statistically, these students gained no academic benefit by changing schools and tested at similar levels (212-213).
Stanford university conducted a study in 2009 which only shows 17 percent of charter schools having superior outcomes to public schools; 46 percent were the same, and 37 percent were worse. Can we truly support this model when 83 percent of its supposedly superior schools are either stagnant or worse?
Fellow libertarians, we need to back off on this one; in terms of educational reform we’re allowing ourselves to embrace group-think because this model of cronyism has screamed privatization long enough and loud enough, when it is only thinly veiled subsidization.
In the spirit of continuity and consistency of our philosophy, we need to keep the public public and the private private when it comes to schools.
Perhaps, we’ll see a truly private model employed on a wide scale so long as we reject this voucher system. Until then, we need to back off; we’re advocating a system which runs counter to our philosophy and becoming apologists for entities which offer no improvement in quality, perpetuate a false narrative, and, perhaps most importantly, want our tax dollars, all while doing so in the name of privatization.
Berliner, D C. “Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling of America’s Youth.” Teachers College Record, vol. 116, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1–14.
Carnoy, M, and R Rothstein. “What Do International Tests Really Show about U.S. Student Performance?” Economic Policy Institute, 28 Jan. 2013, www.epi.org/publication/us-student-performance-testing/.
Gill, B. “RAND Review – Spring 2007.” Rand.org, The Rand Corporation, 2007, issuu.com/rand_corporation/docs/rand_cp22-2007-04.
Hatch, J. Amos. Reclaiming the Teaching Profession: Transforming the Dialog on Public Education. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Allen Lane, 2011.
* Brian M DeLoach is a teacher at Cleveland High School. He holds a Master of Education degree from the University of Tennessee and is pursuing a PhD in literary studies at the same institution. Brian is a gun owner and advocate for small government and freedom.