Friday, September 7, 2018

Challenging the Legitimacy of Public Education

We're into the next level of the choice and charter school challenge to public education. The old selling points-- charters can do it better, charters can do it cheaper, charters are public schools-- are fading away and a newer approach is emerging: if we care about freedom, public education  as we know it has no legitimate right to exist.

You won't find a clearer expression of this new sales pitch than this piece in the74 by James V. Shuls. The editors have given it the title "Shuls: Do Charter Schools Take Districts Money? Only If You Think Children, and the Funding That Comes With Them, Are District Property?" It's not very punchy, but it certainly captures the way that Shuls and other Reformsters are trying to reframe the argument. (There's also a minor irony attached-- this is written in response to an EWA article, and EWA is not exactly solidly in the public school system camp.)

Who Is Shuls?

James V. Shuls is assistant professor and the graduate program director of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri- St. Louis. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in elementary education and a PhD in ed policy from University of Arkansas (a well-established reformster educator). He's a fellow at some like-minded groups, including the Show-Me Institute ("Where liberty comes first"). To his credit, he has apparently seen the inside of a classroom as a teacher.

He's written old-fashioned "charters do it better" pieces (because they give teachers a noble vision and not just the chance to make a buck) and he has argued in favor of right-to-work legislation. And back when he was a Campus Crusade for Christ college boy, he got the "come on down" for The Price Is Right  (he played Cliff Hanger). Whatever I think of his ed reform ideas, that's pretty cool.

So What's The New Frame?

Shuls lays out the framework pretty succinctly in his first paragraph:

How would you respond if you stumbled across a headline that asked, “How much do farmers markets cost Walmart?” It’s a ridiculous question. It presupposes that the customer belongs to Walmart; that any time the individual chooses to buy cucumbers from a local grower or salsa from an aspiring entrepreneur, he or she is “robbing” the dominant grocer. That’s just absurd. Yet this is the standard frame we use when talking about education. We blithely assume that education is wholly different from any other field.

It's a sharp choice by the writer-- nobody likes Walmart (imagine if he had framed it around a headline that people have seen-- "Walmart drives local merchants out of business"). If you want an even shorter restatement, he delivers that a few graphs later:

It is only in education that we presume the customer is the rightful property of a specific supplier and therefore “costs” the supplier when he or she goes somewhere else.

Yeah, there are all sorts of things wrong with that statement, but I'm going to give Shuls his say before I argue with his larger ideas here.

Shuls also dismantles some of the old-school charter arguments.

If, heaven forbid, parents want to use those educational funds at a charter or a private school, they must prove that "choice" works.

Again, game recognizes game-- "heaven forbid" adds nothing of substance here except to paint those how object to choice as pearl-clutching weenies. But this point is weak-- it is choice advocates who sold charters with the argument that they would work better, that charters would trade "autonomy for accountability" and do a better job than the public system. Shuls' argument here is "How dare you ask that we show you the proof that we always said we should show you." This new argument (which, to be fair, has been made by some Libertarians all along) is "If I want to send my child to Flat Earth White Supremacist Academy, that's my right."

He also drags out a 2013 piece from Slate editor Allison Bernedikt about liberal guilt over the privileged exercise of sending kids to private school instead of public and extracts, free of all context, the notion that you are a bad person if you send your child to private school. It is, I suppose, a way to drag morality backwards onto the stage, as this argument he's hefting often attaches school choice to a sort of moral imperative.

Shuls concludes by once again framing public education as a business.

We can’t presume, as the author of the Education Writers Association piece did, that children and their funding inherently belong to the public school system. Do public school districts have less money when a student goes to a charter school or a private school? Absolutely — as they should. This is what happens in any industry when customers choose to spend their dollars at one place instead of another.

The Myth of the Hostage Children

The rhetoric of charter fans used to favor the phrase "students trapped in failing schools" or students who were "trapped" in the school just because of their zip code. The new rhetoric now ups the ante. The children are no longer "trapped"-- they are captured or held hostage by public schools.

This shift fits the schools-as-business paradigm. Customers aren't trapped in a particular business, but businesses do talk about capturing part of the market. So the "capture" rhetoric does double duty-- it not only casts public schools as nefarious kidnappers, but it's more consistent with the marketplace framing that this argument favors.

It's still baloney.

Charters will not liberate all of these children (more on that in a moment). Some will still be "trapped" in public schools; heck, some will find themselves "trapped" in a charter school that does not fit them but which for various reasons (transportation, special needs, time of year and its effect on their ability to change schools) they cannot escape.

Nor are any students held captive in public schools. It's true that many, many public schools have invested a great deal of money in security systems, video monitors, security officers, key-card locked doors, even hardened structures. But not one of these security measures has been deployed to keep students in. It's true that there such things as truancy officers and truancy fines, but with the exception of bad actor charter schools (the kinds with ghost students), charters don't change any of that.

It strikes me that charter supporters are not arguing against public schools so much as they're arguing against mandatory attendance laws. If you don't want students to be "trapped" in schools, that's the ticket. Just don't make anybody attend.

Also, just so we're clear-- there is no district anywhere in the United States that thinks the students are its possessions. Nowhere. It's an absurd exaggeration.

The Myth of the Education Business Model

Education is not a business. Nor should it be. I know some progressive supporters of public ed are also not huge fans of the free market system, but I like it just fine. However, while the free market is good at a great many things, but it is ill suited for running education.

There are many reasons for this.

First, a school doesn't make money. Properly run, it spends every cent it receives on educating students. The minute you reframe it as a business, you acquire a whole new set of expenses, particularly as charters have been practiced in the last twenty years. Advertising. Administrators who are paid vastly more than their public counterparts. In the cases of the many shady operators that current charter laws allow, a whole host of other pay-outs. And because a school's revenues are fixed, none of these expenses can be "passed on to the consumer." In any school run as a business, the interests of the students and the interests of the business are in direct opposition. Charter fans are going to say, "Public schools do that, too, neener neener," but A) that's not really true-- no teacher or principal gets an annual bonus for cutting classroom expenses and B) when that tension does arise, say during contract negotiations, the issue is settled by elected representatives of the taxpayers (who are all able to be informed because all financials are public and transparent).

Second, no business has ever undertaken a similar mission. As Shuls himself says, "Our commitment to educating every child, regardless of wealth or ability, is a reflection of our highest and noblest ideals." Our mission, as a country, is to educate every single child. There is no business, or even business sector, that has ever undertake such a mission. The auto industry has no binding commitment to get every single citizen in his or her own car. McDonald's has no binding commitment to feed every citizen a Big Mac. There is no business that has a commitment to serving everybody. In fact, an important part of running any business is deciding which customers you will not serve, either because they are too expensive or too difficult to deal with.

The US education system is meant to serve everybody. Yes, some public schools ultimately turn certain students away-- but that district still shoulders the obligation to make sure that child gets an education. Yes, some public schools come up way short with certain difficult students, and they end up in court because the parents can take them to court because that school still has an obligation to make sure that child gets an education.

If you want US public education to be a business, you must change the mission. If you accept that serving all children is the mission, US public education cannot be a business.

The Myth of the Money

Charter fans like to say, as the 74 headline writer does, that the money does not belong to the district. I do not disagree. But it doesn't belong to the student, either.

It belongs to the taxpayer.

The taxpayer handed over that money for a specific purpose-- to set up and maintain a public school to educate all the children in our community. The taxpayers expect this to be done well and cheaply, but they expect it to be done. They also expect the government to report back on how the money was spent. They do not expect to have a version of this conversation:

Taxpayer: So, I gave you $100 to prepare a good wholesome meal for these 20 kids.

Government: Well, we mostly did. We gave $40 to some guys who said they were going to feed them something, somehow, and with what was left, we did what we could for the rest of the kids.

Taxpayer: You gave which guy forty bucks? What did he spend it on? Did he just drive through Micky D's, get two big macs, and pocket the rest? What the heck happened?

Taxpayers are told that they are helping fulfill the promise to provide a decent education for every child in their community. Charter fans would like the government to tell them, "Well, we mostly did that for some kids. And the rest... well, we don't know."

I sympathize with Reformsters of a Libertarian bent, because this is a narrow line to walk. On the one hand, they'll say that the families should get to pick whatever school they want, and it's not the government's damn business. But they will also say that taxation is theft, and if the government is going to steal my hard-earned money in the form of taxes, it damned well better be able to show me how that money was used and whether or not it was used well.

On this, I side with the taxpayers. We handed over our money for a specific purpose. "It belongs to the kids, so shut up," is not an adequate explanation for how it was used.

This problem is compounded by the biggest lie of the charter movement-- the lie that two or three or ten school systems can be run for the same costs as one. This is simply not so; doubly not so in districts where there isn't enough money to fund a single system. If charter fans really believe in the charter system, they should have the guts to go to the taxpayers and say, "We think this would be really awesome, but we need you to fork over more money so that some select students can get to attend a private school at your expense." If anyone ever had the guts to do this, and they succeeded in convincing the taxpayers to do it, we could stop having all these fights.

The Reality of Zero Sum

Charters and public schools are not on a level playing field. Public schools have a binding obligation to serve all students. Charter schools do not. Public schools have little-to-no control over their expenses. Charters can pull scams where they take low-cost, high-yield students, even as they cut whatever corners they feel like cutting. Public schools must take every student who shows up in their neighborhood, including the ones who left charter schools after the reimbursement cut-off date. That also means that charters can control their capacity and the costs that go with it, but public schools never get to say, "Sorry, we're not accepting registrations because we're full."

Despite the fact that charters and public schools are operating under two separate sets of rules, states have set them up to play a zero-sum game.  If one wins, the other has to lose. It doesn't have to be this way. See above "biggest lie of the charter movement."

An Explanation of Leaving

Perhaps I shouldn't have saved this till last, because this has dragged on for a bit and if you're still reading, God bless you.

However, Shuls's opening analogy is fatally flawed.

In the Walmart vs. Market example, the customer starts out at home. The customer leaves home, taking their money with them, and they drive to either Walmart or the Market.

But because public education has been the model in place, that's where the students are. And so, the "leaving." The students leave the public school because that's where they are. His analogy might work if, I don't know, the customers lived in Walmart. But they don't, so there is no leaving. Now, if one business opened up and customers who regularly shopped there suddenly stopped shopping somewhere else, the first business might notice that they have a lot less revenue, which they might express as a loss. This, of course, is the story of how Walmart has put thousands of local stores out of business.

Public schools don't inherently "possess" the students or money, but they did previously account for both, so if this year is different than last year, well, that's a change. A "gain" or "loss."

When students leave public schools, the public schools get less money. Sometimes less money comes in, and sometimes the district has to write a check to the charter school. The reduction in cost to the school is rarely equal to the loss in revenue (a loss in revenue which is often not tallied up until after the school board must complete their budget, which makes them a little touchy about the whole operation-- another example of how the charter regulations exacerbate the issues). Of course, what we've seen in some states is that when voucher programs start, voucher money goes to students who were never in public school in the first place, so the public school gets less revenue with literally $0.00 reduction in cost.

Again, if we were discussing a newly created city on a previously uninhabited island, and the public school and the charter schools were just opening for the very first time, and the taxpayers had agreed to be taxed enough to finance both a public and private system, it's possible nobody would talk about leaving or losing anything. But that's not where we are. And so, we use words like "leave" and "loss," and we do it without anyone seriously thinking they possess live human students.

Possessions and Obligations

Have I mentioned that it's insultingly absurd to say that public schools think they own their students? Because it is.

It's more accurate to say that public schools feel and obligation and a commitment to their students, that public schools feel an obligation to make good on the promise that every single student, no matter what zip code they live in, no matter what issues they do or don't have, no matter how much money their family has-- every student is entitled to a free education at a public school. No student in this country is suppose to have to try to find a school or hope that a school will take her in. No matter where the student is, no matter who the student is, there is a school somewhere that is obligated to take them in.

That has nothing to do with possessing and everything to do with promising. Yes, absolutely, some schools have failed to live up to that promise. But you can't live up to it until you make it, and the next step is to make sure the schools have the resources they need to make good on that promise-- not to say that since they fell short, we're going to reduce the resources they have and give them to someone who has made no promises at all.


  1. This should go on Forbes, especially the section about The Myth of the Education Business Model.

  2. Let's destroy the business argument. If an L.L. Bean customer decides to shop Land's End, the customer takes their personal resources and spends it at another company. But nobody thinks that entitles Land's End to force L.L. Bean to hand over money that L.L. Bean's investors put into Bean. Why do we get that argument in education? Taxpayers and their dollars are the investors in public education. They are running one system of schools. Those who would like to operate others need to find their own investors.