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Peter Greene: Reformers Debate What to Do After You Blow Up the System

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Last week, I posted about a conference sponsored by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, celebrating the destruction of public education in New Orleans. The participants seemed gleeful. One speaker spoke of bankruptcy as a wonderful opportunity to eliminate public education and start over.

Peter Greene decided that it was his civic duty to listen to the entire panel discussion, and he shares his impressions here.

Greene tries to understand the spirit of jollity in the discussion:

The actual title of the panel is “Knocking Out Yesterday’s Education Models,” though Persson reports that Bradford makes a joke about the working title being “What Happens After You Blow It All Up.” If you watch it, I will warn you that the most disconcerting thing about the whole discussion is the jaunty, breezy, jolly, jokey tone of the whole business. As a teacher, it is beyond disconcerting about watching people discuss blowing up the work that you’ve devoted your life to while they laugh and smile and yuk it up like the whole destruction of traditional public education is hilarious….

Greene summarizes the presentations of each of the speakers. Here are a couple of examples:

Katie Beck

COO of 4.0 Schools, Beck has a Teach for America pedigree, and went through the Harvard College. She gets “how do you turn education into a more entrepreneurial space” as a question, so I guess we’re skipping over “why the hell would you want to do that?”

Her outfit likes to work with people who are “obsessed” with a problem and who want to make money from the solution. Okay, I’m paraphrasing, but I’m not loving her message, and she does that thing where every sentence ends like a question? Anyway, her term for institutional isomorphism is “the hairball” because, you know, traditional public school is just a disgusting mess. So, for instance, instead of starting with a charter that will spend $2 million and look like “an iteration of” existing schools, they help little boutique start-ups. Because anything that looks like the old way is obviously bad. I had the hardest time wading through Beck, who is so clearly focused on developing business without much interest in the education side of things. All of her ideas deal with the best way to get a business started up, with no concern expressed for the students who become the guinea pigs for these start-ups.

Bradford asks if for-profit people are any different to work with that the other altruistic folks. But she doesn’t work with “bad actors” who are in it to make a buck. And being for-profit helps those people keep themselves honest because when you’re obsessed with solving a problem, you have to ask “is this solving it enough that someone’s willing to pay for it.” Which I wouldn’t call “keeping honest” so much as “missing the entire point of running a school.”

Rebecca Sibilia

So here comes the lady who’s quote got us interested in this panel in the first place. If we want all of her comments will it, as she suggests, make her sound better. Well, no. The whole thing is even worse than the quoted portion, which tells us a little something about how she sees herself.

Bradford asks her how we pay for all this innovation. And she opens with, “The problem is, we can’t.” Which is a remarkably honest answer [insert my usual complaint about trying to run charter systems without being honest about the true cost.] She will now break down the three problems that EdBuild is trying to solve.

First, the way that we’re funding schools is “largely arbitrary” and “doesn’t make any sense.” And Sibilia seems far too smart to believe that baloney, but just in case, here goes: People set up schools in their community, for the students who live in their community, so they funded them by collecting money from everyone who lives in the community. Later on, state governments got involved in trying to even out the differences in funding inherent in a local-based system. There are lots of things to hate about how this is all playing out, but it’s silly to pretend that the system just fell from the sky for no reason at all. Her criticism about uneven funding outcomes seems to be that by favoring one district over another financially, you’re creating an artificial market bias. One might complain that some students are getting fewer resources than they deserve, but that doesn’t seem to be her concern. It;s the savage and unwarranted abuse of the free market that’s the issue.

Second, she doesn’t like the borders that are created by property taxes, which seems exactly backwards. Municipal borders exist, and folks who live within them are taxed. Not the other way around. She thinks this leads to a mistake– trying to get resources into those borders instead of “focusing on how we can break those borders” which is a less objectionable way to say “how we can get some students out.” Because “breaking the borders” instead of “getting resources into the borders” has to mean that we are going to just let some areas collapse in unmitigated poverty. Which, as we’ll see, is exactly her plan.

See, many states fund schools with property taxes, and in many states property taxes can’t go to schools of choice. “We’ve had charter schools for a quarter of a century, but we’re still treating them like an experiment. And so that’s a problem and we have to fix it.”

So, there is a ton of Wrong packed into that. First of all, the modern corporate charters these guys are talking about haven’t been around for twenty-five years. Second, they are experiments, and not very successful ones, at that, having not yet figured out how to stop some charters from being Ohio-style nests of incompetence and corruption. Third, charters have used their fledgling nature as part of their excuse to avoid the same oversight and accountability that public schools enjoy. Every time a charter wants to set up a new rule for itself, its argument is, “We’re a charter. We should be free to experiment and Try Stuff.”

Sibilia’s argument is that charters should get lots of sweet, sweet public tax money. Neither she nor other charter advocates make a convincing case for that.

But she’s going on about the evils of property taxes being linked to public schools, and she and Bradford share a laugh at how it’s still called millage, which apparently proves that it’s just so antiquated and uncool. Har. And she goes on to try to make a point that funding is based on the teacher, and not the student and their needs, but somehow property tax locks this in, and so places where the charters are getting a new teacher corps (young? cheap? unprofessional? she doesn’t explain the critical differences) are locked in. But until we can bust up the whole funding system (she also does not say what she wants to replace it with), none of the cool reforms being discussed here will be sustainable. And that much is probably true.

Bradford sets up her next bit by observing that some school districts are in trouble and he would argue most can’t afford to stay open, and that would be awesome, and I say, you know what would help with that? What would help is to stop allowing charters to suck the blood out of the public system. And all that brings us to the quote that has circulated, where she envisions bankruptcy as a great way to blow up a district, specifically getting rid of all its “legacy debt” so that they no longer have to pay for like buildings and pensions, which is totally cool because having a school district go bankrupt is no problem for students, just the adults. Which is just– I mean, I imagine that students would notice that their district is collapsing financially and cutting programs and teachers and resources with a chainsaw. “Bankruptcy is not a problem for kids,” is a statement that in the best of contexts is still grossly tone-deaf and reality-impaired. In the context of Sibilia’s discussion of how to blow up public schools so we can has charters, it’s even more tone-deaf and reality-impaired.

And while the tone of the whole panel is, as I said, disturbingly light and happy, Sibilia is just so thoroughly gleeful about the prospect of districts becoming bankrupt, their pensions zeroed out and their teaching staff scrubbed. I have seen people less excited about getting engaged to the eprson of their dreams.

Greene discovers that the most thoughtful member of the panel is Andy Smarick, who has frequently spoken of the urban school district of the future as one that has no public education. But Smarick in this panel reflects on the danger of unintended consequences.


What he says is, yes, we’ve got an old hide-bound system, and we might want to blow it up and replace it, but when you do that you break a lot of systems and policies that are tied to it. “When you tug on that thread, you see a lot of the fabric start to warp. This is not to say we shouldn’t pull on that thread–”

But.

There is a downside to all this that should not be ignored. And he brings up Chesterton’s fence. Which is an old British notion that you don’t take down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place.

‘So, some of the worst changes to the revolutionary evolutionary point are when we, with great hubris, with great certainty, look at something and we think is messy, untidy, inefficient, and we don’t see the wisdom, we don’t see the long-standing virtue, value, that is in it that has been tested over time, that has evolved, and we technocratically with great brilliance the best and brightest among us decide we’re going to change that thing.’

He tells a story about forest management and mistakes made in the name of commoditized lumber. Or knocking down swamps and then discovering we’d made a mess. Or the human social capital destroyed with high rise public housing. So, he says, as we tinker with all the pieces parts of schools, “let’s at least have a little humility and recognize that with that change comes a casualty.” And that those casualties often are the least advantaged.

So, first time I ever wanted to give a certified reformster a round of applause. And I’ll add that I’ve known actual conservatives my whole life, and as I have watched ed reform unfold, I don’t understand why more alleged conservatives do not share Smarick’s point of view.

A few years ago, I dared Andy Smarick to read James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State.” He got the point. It is about “the best and brightest” imposing their grand ideas on the little people–with disastrous results.

He is thinking. That is a good sign.

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