|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.