Wednesday, October 2, 2019

What Is The Real Promise Of School Choice

AEI hosted a pep rally for the DeVos $5 million scholarship tax credit, and afterwards, Rick Hess put up the latest entry in AEI's 60 second that "reminds" us of the "real promise" of charters and choice:

Yes, apparently the real promise of choice is that it will empower educators to start up schools where they can do their thing. This has to be the six gazillionth tweaking of the charter argument, and one of the least convincing to date. [Note: Hess wrote after I posted that he has been making this point  for a very long time. That would make him, by my count, the only one, but it would still mean that this is not  a new tweak after all.]

After all, the argument for the longest time was that choice was necessary to rescue students from failing public schools and the failing teachers who failed there. Hess says that the real promise of choice is not higher math and reading scores, but  of course that was exactly the promise of school choice; if it was not a real promise it was certainly a marketing promise. These score-raising  charters would be staffed by Teach For America folks, or other alternative path folks, because public school teachers were not desirable. One selling point for many charters has been that they are teacher-proof-- the charter system's program is set in cement, sometimes scripted, sometimes enshrined in computer software so that the teacher is just a coach.

Feeling empowered yet?
There have been other real promises of charter schools articulated. Mike Petrilli was willing to say out loud the promise that charters would allow strivers to get away from Those Other Students. And as study after study showed that choice didn't raise scores, some advocates switched over to the idea  of a moral imperative for choice; iow, it doesn't matter what the educational effects of choice might be, because parents should be free to choose. Lately, that argument has been given a religious spin. And while not many put it down anywhere outside of tweets and conversation, do not underestimate the number of people who simply want to see "government" schools crushed (and those uppity teacher unions with them).

It is hard to think of a choice or charter program that has made any attempt to empower teachers. "Empower teachers" in a charter setting usually means "free them from evil union rules that interfere with their freedom to donate an extra sixty hours of work of free" or "liberate them to be paid poorly." Instructionally, charter and choice schools often are less likely to give teachers power and more likely to put them in a straightjacket. Teachers who have any objections to working conditions are scolded for putting  adult concerns ahead of the children's interests; unsurprising from a movement that has been dominated by education amateurs who belittle the expertise of actual teachers.

While I am sure that there are good individual examples here in there, if the empowerment  of teachers has been a major purpose and theme of charters and choice, I missed it somehow.

This new rationale is not completely out of left field for Hess, who wrote The Cage-Busting Teacher about how individual teachers could break loose and become forces for educational good wherever they are. But it's important to note that in the video, Hess is talking about "educators" and not "teachers,"and by current standards, anyone who wants to get involved in the education business can call himself an educator. Heck, put in two years with TFA and you are suddenly an education policy  expert.

In fact, one piece of the video is not new at all. Hess notes that these reformy educators hit a "wall" created by government officials, central offices, school boards, and the community. It's an odd but familiar complaint-- "I want to launch my new edubusiness idea but all these stakeholders are acting like they have some kind of stake in this, like they've been elected or hired to watch over public education. They are harshing my entrepreneurial buzz." But with a Secretary of Education devoted to dismantling public education, and who considers business interests the most important interests of all,       it's a timely complaint.

Actually, on reflection, it's possible I'm not being fair here, and that Hess is actually talking about what has truly been the first and foremost real promise of school choice all along-- the promise that businessmen, hedge fund investors, and any other entrepreneurial education amateurs will finally be given a way to tap into that giant mountain of taxpayer education money, a way that will circumvent elected officials, government regulation, and the judgment of actual education professionals.

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