Wednesday, December 5, 2018

FL: What Competition Gets You

Florida is supposed to be the Great Exemplar of ed reform. Charters, vouchers, ESAs-- every brand of reform under the sun runs free and unfettered under the bright Florida sun.

There may be no state that has more effectively set loose the Invisible Hand or market forces and competition. And what does that get you?

Well, it gets you unqualified scam artists like Eagle Arts Academy charter school hovering up tax dollars for their owners. You get thieves like the recently-convicted Marcus May, who stole over five million dollars of taxpayer money to finance his glitzy lifestyle. You get legislators who write the laws from which they themselves profit. You get tax dollars being spent just to advertise. You get schools appearing and disappearing and public schools barely surviving as their financial support is stripped. You get schools focused on their A-F grade and the test-centered culture that turns schools upside down-- if the school culture is not strong enough and resistant enough, they stop worrying about how to serve students by meeting their needs and start worrying about how to get students to serve the school by generating A-worthy data. You get schools that bar six-year-olds for wearing dreadlocks, because they have to protect their brand and make it clear to their potential customers exactly what kind of students aren't tolerated there.

It creates an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. And mistrust and fear do not make people behave better.

I'm plenty hard on charter schools, but the most massive, terrible failure of a school belongs to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and the public school system of which it is a part.

It's not just that they dropped the ball with a student who went on to murder seventeen members of that school community. That they dropped it is self-evident, both in how they ignored warning signs and in how they shuffled Cruz around. We may never know exactly how the system failed; many teachers read the list of warning signs and feel a chill thinking of many of those signs they've seen in students of their own. The task that fell into their school was not an easy one, but seventeen people are dead-- there is no question that the system failed, but we can legitimately question whether any school system could have saved Nikolas Cruz or his victims.

What is absolutely inexcusable is how the school district has handled everything since the murders.

As this report from the Sun-Sentinel shows, Broward County district has tried to "hide, deny, spin, threaten" its way forward. They have dropped tons of taxpayer money on lawyers to fight information requests, PR firms to massage the message, and consultants to tell administrators and staff to keep their mouths shut. They have put forth a huge effort to keep their own hands clean of any blame in this tragic murder of seventeen innocents.

The handling of Cruz as a student was obviously flawed. The handling of his murderous rampage has been an inexcusable indefensible disaster, a display of epic wrong-headedness, a massive display of how badly a public school district can lose their way.

I want to be clear on this point-- I don't think anything excuses what Broward district officials have done. Nothing.

I don't think that, under some better circumstances the district officials might have handled this so much better. You don't make this kind of disastrously bad response unless you had already long since lost the thread. But I have to wonder how much Florida's atmosphere of distrust and fear contribute. I have to wonder how badly it breaks down the management of a district when administrators must be most concerned about the competition, about how getting caught in a single misstep could leave them in dire circumstances.

After all, isn't this what competition also gets you-- an atmosphere in which people don't dare to show vulnerability or admit a mistake because one false move and the competition will Get You. And so seriously messed up students aren't a call for extra help and support for the child, but instead represent a potential liability to the district. It's not "how do we help this children" but "how do we manage this liability." And if, God forbid, the situation blows up, you don't dare say, "We screwed up and we want to sit down with everyone and figure out what went wrong so we can do better." Instead, you stonewall and stall and defend so that your mistakes don't cause you to lose a step in the competition.

Institutions are prone to self-preservation anyway, even in the best of times. Add an atmosphere of zero-sum dog-eat-dog competition, and the institutions Number One Priority becomes not the students it serves or the taxpayers that it serves, but its own survival.

It's no excuse. Professional educators should be better, should shrug off the invisible hand of competition and stick to doing what's right. We should always expect people to do the right thing. But we should also create policy that pushes them toward the right thing-- and competition pushes schools away from it. We can do better.

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