Thursday, January 28, 2016
Power and Order
It's School Choice Week and all the usuals have to check in, and I've been trying to read the work of the more serious choice advocates. And that would have to include Andy Smarick.
Smarick's entry at the Fordham Institute blog is School Choice: The end of the beginning in which he would like to suggest that charter-choice systems are a done deal, and he has a lesson from his years of pushing choice that he wants to share:
But probably the most important lesson I’ve learned over the last fifteen years—the reason why school choice progress moves so slowly—is this: An education system without school choice makes perfect sense from the point of view of central administrators.
Thas's probably true in the sense that it's true to say that I married my wife because she smells nice-- it's true, but a rather incomplete picture. Or to phrase Smarick's observation another way-- we have the traditional pubic system we have because the trained professionals who have devoted their adult live to working in the ed biz have, in their constant work at growing and testing and refining, have settled on several best practices. Smarick might as well complain that the only reason that surgeons like to operate on tables instead of floors is that it makes it easier to operate safely and accurately.
Smarick observes that a centralized authority for a large cityful of students (like most people in the ed debates, Smarick is really talking just about large urban school systems) is efficient and sensible, except when it isn't.
When there’s a single school operator, it’s a big problem if it’s not good at operating schools. Large, centralized bureaucracies remove power from practitioners. A single political governing board can be captured by interest groups. Monopolies are able to resist unwelcome reforms and find it difficult to evolve to meet changing circumstances. A family may not like the school to which its children are assigned. A teacher may not like the school to which she is assigned. A school assignment system, as Senator Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, reinforces residential segregation. A single-provider model, as Ashley Rogers Berner argues, undermines pluralism while implying ideological neutrality. And so on.
All of these are, again, sort of partially legit kind of. Large centralized bureaucracies are nobody's favorite thing, though as a classroom teacher, you can appreciate a large central bureaucracy that is too lumpy and slow to really interfere with you. A school board can be captured by special interests, but the election process allows them to be UNcaptured-- and a charter operating company IS a special interest, and it cannot be changed by the voters. Teachers and students "may not like" their school. I'm not sure that rises to the level of a Big Problem. School assignment systems may reinforce residential segregation, but the charter record on fixing segregation is crappy. You know who could fix school segregation? A centralized school administration. And I think Berner is full of baloney.
There are actually other legit complaints about a centralized single-payer-provider for education, particularly states and systems that exacerbate the effects of segregation along racial and class divides on purpose through policies loosely described as Let's Not Spend Any Money on Schools for Those People. That's a problem. I'm just not convinced that a choice system offers any solution to it instead of, say, "rescuing" a small handful of students from underfunded schools while making those schools even more severely underfunded for the many students still there.
Smarick is ideologically predisposed to be in favor of "our transition from a highly legible, single-provider model to a decentralized, choice-based model." But we have a pre-existing model for a decentralized choice-based model for providing a human service, and that would be the world's most expensive, inefficient and mediocre health care system.
Smarick sees a tension between the orderliness of our traditional system and a system that "empowers families and educators." And this may be one of the key points on which we disagree, because I'll be damned if I can see how a choice system empowers anybody except the people who want to run (and profit from) a choice system (also, a good public system allows for a great deal of energizing anarchy under the surface, but that's a topic for another day.)
Smarick is one of the few people to make the claim that a choice system empowers educators. Most choice fans correctly note that it's a great system for Putting Teachers in Their Place by getting rid of unions and job security from day one.
But choice doesn't empower families, either. In fact, it takes away one of the most fundamental powers a family has when it comes to education.
It's the power to make a school take your child. Show up at the school in your community with your child in tow, demanding that she be educated. The public school cannot say no. In fact, if your child comes equipped with challenges or disabilities, not only can the public school not say no, but they must provide your child with the necessary tools and instructions. If you don't like what the school is doing, you can call school officials, and if you don't like their answer, you can call a school board member. If you're really unhappy, you can attend a meeting where, by law, all decisions must be made in public view. You have the power to do all that, and in many cases you can even follow your complaint up by dragging the school district into a court of law.
What power do families have in a charter choice system? The power to take their business elsewhere. That's it. You do not have the power to demand that a school take your child, or that they teach your child in the most appropriate way. If a charter decides that it wants to push you out, you have no recourse. Information for judging choice schools is limited and mostly parents face a barrage of marketing rather than useful information.
Smarick is, finally, interested in assuming the sale. He lists some legitimately important questions about how a choicey chartery system would work (how do we do decentralized organization? who owns the buildings?) as a way of saying, "See! Choice-charter systems are a done deal. We just need to work out the details." That is perhaps premature, given that no charter-choise system has yet proven to actually work well at anything (other than making some charter operators a bunch of money) and none answer the question "How do you have redundant educational systems without ending up with a system that is an inefficient money-sucking tax dollar black hole?"
I agree that many centralized school systems need a great deal of work, and there are some problems that some public school systems need to solve. What remains unclear is how a choice-charter system solves any of those problems.