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Donald Cohen: “Market-Based” School Reform Has Failed

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Donald Cohen is the executive director of “In the Public Interest” and co-author of an important new book The Privatization of Everything. He titled this column, which originally appeared in the Washington Post.

He writes:

Trying to fix public education with market-based reform is like using a hammer to cook an omelet. It’s just the wrong tool.

That’s one of the main points in The Privatization of Everything, a new book that I co-authored with Allen Mikaelian, which explains why market rules don’t apply to every single aspect of human activity—including education.

The recent announcement by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg that he’s investing $750 million to expand student enrollment in charter schools was a harsh reminder that the decades-long experiment with market-based education reform isn’t working. Charter schools have been in existence for decades, but they haven’t proved to be the panacea their supporters claimed.

To the contrary, many communities see charter schools (and voucher programs) as harming district schools that educate most American schoolchildren.

That’s why what a growing number of public schools are doing to actually improve educational outcomes—and create strong ties among families, students, educators, and communities along the way—is so promising and refreshing.

Over the past few years, public schools from places as diverse as the suburbs of Tampa and Los Angeles have been implementing what’s called the “community school” approach.

Community schools bring together local nonprofits, businesses and public services to offer a range of support and opportunities to students, families and nearby residents. Their goal is to support the entirety of a student’s well-being to ensure they are healthy, safe and in a better position to learn.

These benefits then extend to the surrounding community—which has been especially crucial during the pandemic.

Like, Florida’s Gibsonton Elementary, which organized an effort to have the local government install new streetlights near campus, immediately increasing attendance—which, among other things, helped improve test scores.

And Texas’s Reagan High School, which doubled enrollment, increased graduation rates, and avoided closure by launching mobile health clinics and parenting classes, changing its approach to discipline, and expanding after-school activities.

And so many more community schools around the country.

Many of these schools are succeeding because the community school approach treats public education as the public good that it is. Like with coronavirus vaccines and other public health measures, no child should be excluded—there should be no winners and losers.

In his recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg concludes, “We need a new, stronger model of public education that is based on evidence, centered on children, and built around achievement, excellence and accountability for all.” I agree.

Read the full version of this article in the Washington Post.

You can buy The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back at your local independent bookstore or from Bookshop.org.

Stay in touch,

Donald Cohen
Executive Director
In the Public Interest

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