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Paul Horton: The Irrationality of the Market in School Reform

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Paul Horton, history teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School, has written a powerful essay explaining why the free-market is an inappropriate model for school reform.

He writes about the history of “neoliberalism” and the free market reforms it encouraged:

Though the newly formed Carter administration’s Department of Education refused to grant federal money to parochial schools because it feared that vouchers would only further encourage rapid white flight from desegregating public schools, especially in the South, the nascent religious right began to organize around the issue of vouchers. Richard Viguerie famously energized the Moral Majority around such related wedge issues desegregation, vouchers for religious schools, and “family values.”

Not surprisingly, market ideas about education were embraced by a Reagan administration that rode the wave of the “Moral Majority” and “the southern strategy” pioneered by George Wallace and Richard Nixon to victory in 1980. Initially supporting a policy of education decentralization and local control, the Reagan Education Department shifted to supporting standardized testing following the publication of the 1983 Nation at Risk report that portrayed public education in the United States as rapidly deteriorating.

In fact, however, the 70s push to integrate schools had resulted in the highest gains to date achieved in closing the achievement gap between African American and Latinos and whites. But the Nation at Risk report focused on declining ACT and SAT test scores and the threat to economic development and national security that would result from a decline of American education. Corporate and Reagan administration leaders like William Bennett sought to use the Nation at Risk report to push a Sputnik like response in a national education program that emphasized national standardized curricula and tests, vouchers, and merit pay.

Clearly, the Reagan administration proposed Friedmanesque market solutions in legislation, but congress did not buy in. But Reagan’s second Secretary of Education, Bennett, created the model for Federal education policy that is pretty much followed today by the Obama administration: Federally supported standardized testing, support for charter schools, data driven teacher assessments, and merit pay. Under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act these ideas were institutionalized and supported famously by a coalition of liberals led by senator Edward Kennedy and Republican senators and governors who demanded an end to the “liberal racism” of low expectations.

President Obama has embraced all of these ideas and added his support with Secretary Duncan’s “Race to the Top” that also incentivizes state support for charter schools and state adoption of the Common Core Curriculum that attempts to build a foundation for linguistic and mathematical literacy. (Valerie Strauss, “Ronald Reagan’s Impact on Education Today,” Washington Post, 2-6-11) Obama, however, has stopped short of endorsing vouchers even though vouchers would accelerate the growth of charter schools.

Horton points out that the major mainstream media has swallowed the free-market reforms: The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal. Anything called “reform,” no matter how noxious, is supported by them.

Furthermore, financiers have become enthusiastic supporters of the profit making possibilities of privatization:

Here in Chicago, for example, President Obama’s best friend, Martin Nesbitt, has started a venture capital firm called the Vistria Group that promises to create portfolios for investment in charter schools. Not surprisingly, he and many of the members of Chicago’s Commercial Club (known to locals as the “billionaire’s club), including Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and current Republican governor Bruce Rauner are very enthusiastic about charter school investment based only their experience in organizing and operating the Noble Charter chain. Another of Chicago’s wealthiest families, the Crowns, who own controlling interest in the Chicago Bulls and the Empire State Building, actively invest in charter school “portfolios.” (Google “Crown Foundation”).

In portfolio managed schools like the Noble Charter Schools, the emphasis in teaching and learning is on “practices and discourses of test preparation, including regular test practice, routinized and formulaic instruction, emphasis on discrete (tested) skills, substitution for test prep materials for regular texts, and differential attention to students based on their likelihood of passing high stakes tests,” according to sociologist Pauline Lipman in her book, The New Political Economy of Urban Education. (128)

My teacher informants who decided that they could no longer teach at the Noble Charter schools confirm the above description and insist, “the stress is on rote learning to increase scores and not on what could be called deeper levels of learning. The Noble Charters are not looking for creative teachers, they are looking for teachers who will simply read from a script.”

The rallying cry of the neoliberals is “choice” but for most parents, “choice” is not real. The schools choose, the parents don’t.

Why are the powerful so interested in promoting privatization?

The pressure to require choice that discourages meaningful political change is more often than not top down: reformers like Gates supply funds for astroturf organizing in favor of school choice and hedge fund managers fund “reform” front groups like Democrats for Education Reform and staff them with successful African American strivers who are true believers.

The prominence of education choice ideology is primarily the product of the demands made on politicians by the wealthy. A private equity manager told Chrystia Freedland, author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, about a heated exchange between a leading Democrat and a hedge fund manager: “Screw you,” he told the lawmaker. “Even if you change the legislation the government won’t get a single penny more from me in taxes. I’ll put my money in a foundation and spend it on good causes. My money isn’t going to be wasted in your deficit sinkhole.”

Foundations that funnel large sums of investment into promoting market “reforms” in education provide both a tax benefit to the wealthy and create emerging markets for investment in stocks that the wealthy are betting on.

Neoliberal education reform is thus pushed by the work of foundations that cater to the whims of millionaires and billionaires, and they are having their way. Many of the presidential appointees to Arne Duncan’s Department of Education were former employees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, most prominently James Shelton III and Joanne Weiss. Large numbers of representatives from the Broad Foundation that trained Secretary Duncan as an administrator were present at meetings to determine how education policy could best benefit from the proposed American Recovery Act. Silicon Valley executives and Wall Street brokers who want a piece of the emerging privatized education market are gung-ho on heavy charter school and STEM programs for schools. And Pearson Education has done its best to corner every sector of the emerging education marketplace while managing to avoid having to write competitive impact statements when winking at a friendly Justice Department that has been told by Mr. Gates and Mr. Duncan that “scaling up” and standardizing will introduce more market efficiencies and will lead to the greater economic good, the Chicago Law and Economics mantra.

Horton cites several books that demonstrate the superiority of public schools over charter schools. But no one in the Obama administration is listening.

Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown, in her well-reviewed recent book, Place not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America agrees, and argues that Obama education policy has “failed.” She insists that public and charter schools do not overcome the neighborhood effects that Milton Friedman said they would. “I call it undertow. A child surrounded by poverty is not exposed to other kids with big dreams and a realistic understanding of how working hard in school will translate into success years later.” (31)

A more recent longitudinal peer reviewed study supports Cashin’s point. Sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood, argues that resources in African American neighborhoods do not match resources available in blue collar white neighborhoods, especially when it comes to mentorship and networking that will match 14 and 15 year olds with job prospects. The authors of the Long Shadow Report argue that impoverished schools need more supports and that the country’s leaders need to restart a serious discussion about integration that goes beyond the selective enrollment and magnet school approaches. (http://releases.jhu.edu/2014/06/02/how-the-long-shadow-of-an-inner-city-childhood-affects-adult-success/)

The fact that our political leaders refuse to promote policies that would integrate schools beyond race and class lines, or as Ms. Cashin says by “place not race,” is the most profound indictment of the market approach to education.

This critique is echoed by Economist Ha-Joon Chang of the University of Cambridge who argues that the pure market approach of neoliberals is shortsighted because “they use rules of thumb (heuristics) to focus on a small number of possible moves, in order to reduce the number of scenarios that need to be analysed, even though the excluded moves may have brought better results.” (23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, 175)

Chang also has doubts about the idea that increasing test scores will lead to higher rates of productivity or more wealth for the United States, “Education is valuable, but the main value is not in raising productivity. It lies in its ability to help us develop our potentials and live a more fulfilling and independent life…the link between education and productivity is rather tenuous and complicated.” (189)

Horton adds that the privatizers refuse to admit that their ideas have failed. Instead, they step up their efforts to test more, privatize more, as we now see in frenzied efforts to copy New Orleans, Tennessee’s Achievement School District, and incessant testing. Market reform has failed, but its sponsors refuse to see the results of their policies.

The biggest problem with the education privatizers is that they have no sense of limits. They have invested a great deal of capital in ideas that do not work as well as they had hoped. They do not want to think that they are throwing good money after negative results, so they are manipulating the levers of power and the national press to create the impression that their efforts still have potential.

The big question at this juncture somewhat desperately becomes, when will they simply accept their losses? As usual, philosopher and poet Wendell Berry offers us sage advice on the issue of education privatization or anything else:

“The danger of the ideal of competition is that it neither proposes nor implies any limits. It proposes simply to lower costs at any cost, and to raise profits at any cost. It does not hesitate at the destruction of the life of a family or the life of a community. It pits neighbor against neighbor as readily as it pits buyer against seller. Every transaction is meant to involve a winner or a loser. And for this reason the human economy is pitted without limit against nature. For in the unlimited competition of neighbor and neighbor, buyer and seller, all available means must be used; none may be spared.” (What are People For?, 131)”

Opting out of standardized testing for many thus is a very “rational choice” to combat the irrationality of the market “reform” of education in the United States. Opting out of irrational, profit-driven “education reform” is rather simply a measure of the persistence of sanity within a society that instinctively resists the slimy tentacles of plutocracy.

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