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Amy Shuffelton: Why Did PBS Air a Three-Hour Series that Promotes Free Market Schooling?

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Amy Shuffelton, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, asks why PBS chose to air “School Inc.” when it was so clearly biased and evidence-free. The three-hour program began to air in April, although some local PBS affiliates chose not to show it. In New York City, it is airing now, on Saturdays.

She writes of its thesis and its many errors of fact and interpretation.

Episode One, The Price of Excellence, starts with Coulson wearing 1970s attire and holding an early Sony Walkman. When the Walkman was invented, he points out, it was expensive, but thanks to entrepeneurial inventiveness it soon became widely affordable. Because competitors were hard at work on cheaper replications, Coulson explains, quality improved as prices dropped. Why hasn’t education followed this trend?…

Over the course of three hours, Coulson revisits the story of Jaime Escalante, the real-life Los Angeles teacher whose success preparing low income public school students for the AP Calculus exam was made famous in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. He visits Cranbrook Schools, an elite private institution in Michigan. Then he turns to charter schools, which aren’t limited by commitments to tradition as schools like Cranbrook are.

What makes the series truly provocative is that Coulson doesn’t stop there. In Episode Three, Forces and Choices, he visits for-profit private schools in Hyderabad India, Sweden, and New Orleans. And in the last ten minutes of the series, he brings his argument to its conclusion: the key to scaling up educational excellence is free market competition between for-profit schools.

The answer is as obvious as Andrew Coulson’s devout belief in the free market as the answer to everything: Follow the money. The series was paid for by a group of libertarian foundations that are hostile to government and specifically to public schools.

The central thesis of Coulson’s series is that public schools are the same as they were 100 years ago because they don’t compete. Competition, he says again and again, drives innovation. Yet, he does not show a single example of innovation in the private sector schools he lauds. Not one, unless you count the class sizes of 12 at the private Cranbrook School in Michigan, where tuition is $29,000 a year and the endowment is $200 million. The private sector schools, at best, look just like public schools, but without the drama club, the marching band, the robotics classes, the sports teams, and the many activities other than drilling students to take tests.

Please email PBS and let them know how you feel about airing bought-and-paid-for rightwing propaganda.

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