Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Truce (Part II)

As a guest blogger over at Rick Hess's EdWeek blog (everyone still with me?), Mike McShane started last week with a call for a Christmas truce. You can find a link to that original piece here in my response to it.

McShane promised a follow-up, and he delivered. It was kind of a disappointment; if the first truce call wasn't really a call for a truce, the second is even less of one.

McShane is an edu-guy at AEI, home of conservative market-style education advocacy. You can see him walk-and-talk his way through some ideas about how to gut public education right here.

In Part I, McShane floated the idea that people on different sides of the education debate share a desire to disempower large stupid impersonal institutional approaches to education. In Part II, he's going to offer some concrete steps to turn that philosophical alignment into real world action. It's a couple of winners and a huge whiff.

1. Dig deeper than the party label

Win. "If you are interested in understanding where the real fault lines are in education debates, party ID will probably not help you." Many of us have said as much in a variety of ways. There are plenty of reformsters wearing a Democrat label, and there are plenty of Republicans who actually value the traditional institution of public education. You have to pay attention to what people actually do if you are going to identify your allies.

2. Argue on the right terms

Win. McShane argues that the debate about what works has become a hopeless mess with the toxic side-effect of testing run amok. We need to refocus on the question of who needs to know what and how we could best collect and distribute that information. I suspect McShane and i have huge disagreement about the answers to that question, but I agree that it's a better to start with that question than to continue insisting that a couple of high stakes tests will provide useful information about students, teachers, schools, programs and educational techniques that can be put to good use by teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, government agencies and parents.

3. Let old wounds heal

Win. This is really another version of #1. Being opposed to anything that Talky McBlabsalot says because you've decided he's always wrong, and besides, that son-of-a-bitch once wrote something that really hurt and pissed you off-- that's always a mistake. It is always a mistake to evaluate what somebody says before they actually say it. There are reformsters who I suspect are going to be wrong 99.9% of the time, but I will still hear them out. Ideas should rise and fall on their own value, not on the value of their source.

4. Choice might be the answer

Fail. After all this fairly well-reasoned and thoughtful writing, McShane wraps up by veering off into choice territory. In other words, the final part of McShane's argument is "The way to achieve truce is for you to recognize that my side is actually correct." His analysis of the argument over choice is fair:

But, in order to find common ground, liberals have got to internalize that many conservatives support charter schools and school vouchers because they see them as an opportunity for community organizations to get involved and create new schools in neighborhoods. They like churches and non-profits and want to empower them to help serve kids. To put it another way, in school choice they see Edmund Burke, not Gordon Gekko. It would also help if more conservatives understood that most liberals oppose school choice programs for the exact same reasons. They think that school boards are a better guarantor of community input and values than markets are. They worry that for-profit companies or even far-away non-profit entities are trying to invade communities and instill their values and their vision on children, whether families like it or not. They see charter schools or voucher systems as cold, impersonal, and destructive.

He has missed a point or two here. First, while "many conservatives" may pursue choice out of these values, many conservatives are, in fact, Gordon Gekkoing all over the ed business. The biggest players in the charter school biz are not community groups-- they are hedge fund operators.  And that has led to the spread of charter and choice schools that are devoted to making money, and specifically by making money by serving only a portion of the community. There is a huge gulf between the mission of serving some students and serving all students, and public and choice systems sit on opposite sides of that gulf.

McShane offers three "safeties" to make charters more palatable and representative of the shared values he believes are there.

First, vouchers or stipends or whatever we're going to call the money that follows kids around has to be scaled to the kids. In other words, the high cost students that charters currently dump would come with more money to make them less dump-likely. Second, community groups get "first crack" at charters, before the outside operators come in. Third, schools should be free to do as they wish pedagogically; students will vote with their feet.

Why that doesn't work for me

That still doesn't close the gap for me, though I'm going to keep mulling over that sliding cost scale for students. I've written tons about this, but let me see if I can hit my main objections in short lines.

In my universe, any charter operator must contract for an extended period. Twenty, thirty, fifty years-- I'm not sure I can think of a period that would be too long. No shutting down after two years or one year or six months because it just isn't making enough money any more. Public schools don't just promise to educate every child-- they promise to be there for every child that ever lives in that community in the years to come. "We'll be right here as long as it suits us," is an unacceptable vision for a public school.

In my universe, we do not disenfranchise the taxpayers. Every choice and voucher system ever created has one thing in common-- it tells all childless taxpayers that they are no longer stakeholders in public education. That's wrong. Dead wrong, completely wrong, absolutely unjustifiable. Every citizen of this nation is a stakeholder in public education. Are parents stakeholders? Certainly. Are they the only stakeholders? Absolutely not. Charter advocates keep trying to shade this with the market-tested idea of having the money follow the child so that families can choose the educational option they prefer. That's baloney.

Christmas is over

So, I don't think we're getting a truce, exactly. Personally, I'll keep reading and listening and trying to make sense of people all over the map on the issue of public education, so maybe I've already been observing a kind of truce all along (and that may also be affected by the fact that I have no real power or ammunition other than whacking away at this blog).

I appreciate the effort, Mr. McShane, and I think you've drawn some important connections, but no truce yet.

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