Thursday, December 15, 2016

School Choice Won't Save Education

This piece popped up on my twitter feed this week. It's a hard-core pro-choice argument from David S. D'amato, an attorney as well as a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute who also does some work at Cato now and then-- so seriously Libertarian.

Is it extra-ironic that few useful Libertarian images, including the Heartland logo,  are public domain? Here's a puppy instead

His piece is pretty dry and direct, and as i read it, it struck me as a good piece for exercising a look at where exactly I disagree with the pro-choice crowd. Are my issues matter of fact, interpretation, policy, or principle? Let's see.

The United States is in the midst of an education crisis; this is not news... Almost all Americans seem to acknowledge the failures of the government school system... 

Disagreement on the facts. The education crisis is a manufactured one, including the dogged repetition that we are in an education crisis, a PR push that result in "most Americans" believing that those schools out there somewhere are in trouble, even as survey after survey shows that they think their own schools are actually dandy.

But D'amato wants to first talk about the history leading up to this alleged crisis. So let's go there with him.

In particular, Americans have forgotten the destructive philosophy upon which the government education apparatus was built. The centerpiece of that philosophy is the fallacy that centralization and monopolization equate to quality and results. 

Much more than any high-minded goal of “leveling the playing field,” early advocates of compulsory schooling sought social cohesion through forced conformity.

I'm picking quotes to get at the heart of his argument; in fairness to him, you should probably go read the whole thing. But his central point is that central planning is at the heart of public education in this country.

Disagreement on the facts, sort of. I agree that US education has often been extremely interested in homogenizing the citizenry with some, if not forced, certainly arm twisty conformity. This has not always been an ill-intended goal. Pushing, for example to get "social conformity" around the norm of literacy is not, to my mind, a bad thing. And while characterizing public education as a centrally controlled monolith suits the Libertarian view of their opponents, it doesn't really fit with a loosely connected network of locally-controlled school districts, each responsible primarily to the local voters who elect their controlling board.

Compulsory government schooling—euphemistically called “public education”—was calculated to achieve the goals of cultural and ideological uniformity. Immigrant cultures, languages and religions, perceived as inherently dangerous, were to be suppressed and eventually obliterated.

Disagreement of interpretation and philosophy. There's zero question that US culture has been hostile to immigrant culture, languages and religions. In my own small town, there were briefly schools set up for the Italian immigrants, in part because Italian immigrants who had landed jobs asked the leading employer to help set up an education program that would help their children fit in. D'amato's history of US education ignores the element of opportunity that came from education. When slaveholders wanted to obliterate the culture of Africans, one of their most common methods was to refuse to provide any sort of education that might have made it easier for Africans to find a place in this country or culture. Not sure how that's a better thing.

Classical liberalism, grounded in the ideas of the Enlightenment, had highlighted the common humanity of all people across national divides. Through the 19th century, though, liberalism’s cosmopolitan orientation was increasingly eclipsed by ascendant nationalism, characterized by a focus on, in Dewey’s words, “the realization of the ideal of the national state.” 

Yeah, the 1800's were a rise-of-nationalism kind of time, and clearly that tide is not ebbing any time soon. But I think we disagree about what that has to do with anything.

For D'amato, it connects, via John Dewey, to a progressive dismissal of the free market and limited government.

As historian Michael B. Katz argues, progressive reform efforts are best understood as attempting “to foster modes of social control” in a changing America...

And from there we jump to John King, and his inability understand the awesomeness of homeschooling because homeschooling puts a student outside the reach of government-enforced sameness. Official school remains distrustful of any schooling not certified by "qualified experts."

Difference of philosophy. D'amato says "qualified experts" like it's a bad thing, and yet I'm betting that his families health care and car repair are handled by qualified experts. D'amato became a lawyer by studying at qualified universities and notes that he was "admitted to practice" in Massachusetts and Illinois, presumably by proving that he was a qualified expert, just as he was "certified" to practice some legal specialties. His LinkdIN profile lists his many accomplishments, a method of establishing that he is a qualified expert. My question for him is a frequent question my profession has for many, many reformers-- why exactly is it that teaching is, among all the professions, one that requires no special training or expertise? What is it about teaching, as opposed to doctoring, nursing, lawyering or plumbing, that makes some folks so sure that anyone on the planet is qualified to do it right now, today?

We are in agreement, I think, that schools can too often be too focused on conformity. Some husbands are too focused on controlling their wives' behavior, but I see neither point as an argument for ending either public education or marriage.

But D'amato is ready now to move on to solutions. Here's the thesis:

The dynamism and innovation America’s schools so desperately need cannot come from a failed socialism that promotes more centralization, technocracy and bureaucracy. Rather, genuine solutions will come from the encouragement of competition and the removal of existing barriers to experimentation—that is, from school choice.

School choice can refer to any one of a range of policies designed to promote competition, expanding student options through vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, open enrollment in neighboring public schools, and other similar mechanisms.  

All right. So now we know what he wants to prove. Let's see the argument.

Under these programs, students and resources gravitate toward the schools that get results, measured using uncontroversial criteria on which Americans across partisan and ideological lines agree.

Disagreement of fact, or maybe principle. First, there are no uncontroversial criteria on which everyone can agree, and there never will be, because Americans, for the very reasons D'amato has already suggested, will never agree on what a school is supposed to accomplish. On top of that, many, if not most, of those purposes are impossible to measure. So the idea that there could be cool, clear measurement of results is one I simply don't accept.

But even if I did-- name one sector in any part of the free-ish market that operates that way. Name one product that is sold by simply laying out the clear data on the "results" it gets. There is no such sector. Every single product on the market, from breakfast cereal to automobiles to elected officials, succeeds or fails based on marketing. This is where I trot out Greene's Law-- the free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. Students and resources will gravitate toward the schools with the most attractive marketing. Or are located closest to home.

...perhaps most important of all is the basic fact that school choice “gives parents a meaningful way to hold schools accountable for performance.” 

Disagreement of fact and principle and interpretation and philosophy and I think we see entirely different realities here. School choice does not do this. School choice often provides parents with schools whose management team is nowhere nearby and does not respond to them at all. Choice provides parents with just one tool-- withdrawing the child. And that tool cannot be easily or lightly exercised. It's a simple thing to stop eating at a restaurant you no longer like; it is not a simple thing to yank your child out in the middle of third grade. And because many charter schools operate with next to no transparency, parents often have little information on which to make decisions.

D'amato attaches the "monopoly" label to public schools, but there is no monopoly in the world that has ever operated with a locally-elected board. No local citizen could call up a board member of Standard Oil or Ma Bell and say, "Straighten this out or I will work to get rid of you from the board next election." Local citizens have that coversation with school board members all the time.

But most importantly, choice gives even less power to poor parents. The free market hates poor people because you cannot make money serving poor people because they can't pay you very much. Your only options are A) serve so many poor people that economies of scale are in your favor (see: Wal-Mart) in which case you do best by offering a mediocre product or B) get the government to subsidize the market costs for the poor people so that vendors can make enough money from them, which is how most charter markets currently work and which is, of course, not a free market approach at all.

The goal of public education is to serve every single customer. The free market can't do that. There is not one single product in this country that is sold to every single citizen because that's not how a free market works. But in education, serving every customer is the gig.

Competition and choice motivate teachers and school administrators to serve student interests; ostensibly, for good teachers and administrators, those align perfectly with their own.

Disagreement of fact. The implication here is that teachers and administrators are underperforming because without competitive incentives, they just aren't motivated enough. That borders on insulting, but everything in my experience says it's counterfactual. And the research on merit pay is not promising at all. (Long time readers can enjoy my 1,562,233rd link to Daniel Pink)

School choice is dangerous to the political class precisely because it shifts power and decision-making authority back to the family unit, empowering parents and students over governments, local, state and federal. 

Disagreement of fact. Choice does not shift power to the family unit. It shifts power to the government agencies that oversee the subsidies needed by poorer families, and it most of all shifts power to the charter school operators, who get to choose which customers they serve, how much money they make, when to exit the business, who to hire, what rules to follow (or not) and most of all, which information to withhold from the public so that it doesn't interfere with their branding and marketing.

D'amato wraps up by invoking the holy trinity-- choice, competition, and accountability-- as the antidote to socialism, ignoring the gigantic ocean between those two distant shores. We probably agree that in the last decade or two, socialism has crept much further into that ocean. We disagree that the holy trinity will fix it, not because I hate the trinity because they threaten my political classiness (do I get a membership card? cookies?) but because I don't think they will do any of the things that D'amato claims they will (including reducing government meddling), and I do think they will do other, damaging things. Choice and competition are huge losers, and accountability is necessary, but only helpful if we get it right (which we haven't so far).

I appreciate D'amato laying out this pro-choice argument in clear straightforward terms, providing me with the chance to lay out in similar terms why I think he's mostly wrong. If I were willing to try my readers' patience, we could get into the parts of his argument that even pro-choicers disagree with, but I think this is enough thumb damage for smartphone based readers in one day.


  1. It was always my understanding that education to a certain age was compulsory (compulsory education but not necessarily in public schools) so that children wouldn't be exploited (even by their parents) by being forced into the labor market at an early age, but rather were given the opportunity to learn so they could become self-actualizing human beings, masters of their fates, and to be well-informed citizens so they could participate effectively in our democracy, and so that it wasn't only the rich who had this opportunity.

    Competition is not a necessary ingredient for experimentation. One has nothing to do with the other.

    D'amato says students will "gravitate toward the schools that get results", meaning that get better standardized testing scores, without realizing that that is not necessarily parents' priorities, and mandating that it be is not granting "choice". Standardization goes more with the concept of totalitarian socialism.

  2. Here is a link that covers a lot of the same ground as the article but in more detail since it is not a response to the rose colored glasses of libertarianism.

  3. True libertarians pay their own way. They do not believe in using other people's money to pay for their personal benefit. What we have here are not libertarians but people who want to use public funds and public resources free of responsibility to the public.

  4. (possible duplicate)
    I believe that Ms.DeVos (IF she is confirmed) will institute several changes. First, I believe she will push for school choice. She will push for giving parents the power to withdraw their children, from failing public (government) schools, and enroll these children in alternative schools. These alternatives will be public, private, parochial, and home-schools. School vouchers, and educational savings accounts, will "break the back" of the government/public school monopoly.

    Now, children are assigned to a government school, based on their zip code. If parents do not like the government school, then they have few options:

    1-Withdraw the child, and place the child in a private/parochial school, but continue to pay the taxes to support the school that they do not use.

    2-Home school the child, and continue to pay taxes for the school they do not use.

    3-Move to a different school district, and hope that the new government school is better than the old one.

    4-"Suck it up" and continue to send the child to the government school that is not providing an adequate education.

    I also hope that our nation will take a long hard look, at the entire educational program of our nation. Currently (2015 data from OECD) the USA is spending 6.4 percent of our GDP on education. We need to examine and audit the books. We need an accounting of how we are spending this money, and what value we are receiving.

    We need to examine K-12 education, and see how it can be improved, altered, modified, to keep pace with the economic needs of the 21st century. We all have to live with the product of our educational system.

    We need to have alternate certification for teachers. I am an engineer, but I cannot teach electronics in a public school in Virginia. Bill Gates cannot teach computer programming. Albert Einstein cannot teach physics. I speak French and German (I lived in France for one year, and Germany for two years, and I was a technical translator for the US Air Force). I cannot teach German in a public school. States should be able to conduct "boot camps", where scientists and engineers can obtain the necessary training to conduct a high-school class, and how to complete the required government paperwork.

    We need to break the backs of the AFT/NEA, and enable qualified people to teach in America's schools, without the interference or approval of any third party.

    We need to improve and expand vocational/technical education. Not all students have the aptitude or intelligence to cope with college. We will need air conditioning technicians, and automobile mechanics, and jet-engine mechanics. We need to observe and emulate some of the vo-tech programs used in other nations. Germany has a vibrant public/private apprenticeship program, that places vo-tech students in apprentice programs.

    We need to expand university education in STEM programs. (I am a telecommunications engineer, so I feel very strongly about this). We need to invest more in educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, computer programmers, robotic engineers, and all of the high-tech specialties, that will enable the USA to compete with other nations, in the 21st century.

    We need to diminish the number of students who are spending many thousands of dollars (often borrowed) to obtain a liberal-arts education, that will not garner them employment. Do we really need so many people with degrees in History, Italian Literature, and recreation?

    Lastly, we need to abolish the federal Department of Education in its entirety. There is no specific authority delegated to the federal government, to have any involvement in education at all. Educational policy and education should be entirely a state/county/municipal function. Some poorer states could be considered for block grants, if their tax base is inadequate to support a modern educational program.

    These are some, not all, of the changes I would like to see in education in the USA. I hope that Ms. DeVos can get on it immediately.

    1. 1. Chuck, any school supported by tax dollars, including charters, are "government schools" (the new propaganda aimed at the unsophisticated).
      2. The reason you or any expert can't walk in off the streets and teach in a school is because subject matter expertise does not mean you are expert in the way children learn or should be cared for, or that you have been sufficiently vetted so as not to pose a danger to them, which is the primary compact we have with their parents.
      3. Apparently, you did not avail yourself of the opportunity to expand your mind beyond the job training aspect of a university education. Otherwise you would know why we need so many people with degrees in History and Italian Literature and any number of 'useless' subjects.

  5. Charles,

    Does your advice extend to Finland, Germany, Japan and other countries rife with "government schools" and teachers' unions?

    PS: Since I can tell you've done a lot of research on this subject and aren't just spouting off based on preconceived ideological prejudices, I'm sure you're familiar with the privatization experiments in Sweden and Chile. What do you think of them?