Today’s NYTimes featured an article detailing the deficiencies of the Workforce Investment Act. This $3,100,000,000 expenditure was recently reauthorized by Congress despite the fact that it has no mechanism for measuring its success and despite the fact that it often leaves the presumed “beneficiaries” of the legislation— unemployed workers seeking retraining— worse off than when they started. How does this happen? The short answer is the effects of the unregulated operation of for-profit schools that promise job placement and charge tuitions that far exceed those of public institutions. When graduates are unable to get placed in the higher wage jobs they trained for they are left with debt and jobs that pay entry level wages at best… and in some cases, even the jobs they trained for are low wage.
There was a time not so long ago that employers provided entry-level and ongoing training for those they hired operating on the belief that their training was superior to any “generic” training an outside institution could provide. This required the company to have employees who provided the training, which added to their operating costs, and reduced their profits… but it also resulted in companies nurturing their employees and perceiving them as “human resources” as opposed to replaceable parts. In today’s corporate world, “human resources” is perceived as an oxymoron because of the relatively small investment corporations make in training their staff.
The “free agent nation” that replaced “corporate slavery” benefits those with unique skills: someone with unique skills can make much more money in today’s economy than they could make in the old economy where one worked for decades for one company and worked their way up the ladder or became “stuck” in some mid-level job. But the “free agent nation” paradigm doesn’t work for those who were pushed out of mid-level jobs when the hierarchies in large corporations collapsed and low-level jobs were outsourced.
Here’s the disappointing bottom line: No amount of training can restore the jobs of yore or the wages of yore. We’ve chosen a race-to-the-bottom in wages in order to keep profits high instead of investing in education and training. If the government wanted to help those who lost jobs, they should create incentives for employers to provide on-the-job training for the kinds of displaced workers described in the Times article instead of funding flawed intermediaries like for-profit schools.
Paul Krugman’s NYTimes column today, “Phosphorus and Freedom” rebuts a weekend article suggesting that many “youngish” people are leaning toward the anti-government libertarian movement by citing poll data that shows the opposite is true. The column goes on to provide many examples of problems that the only the government can solve, using the excessive phosphorous in Lake Erie as the paradigmatic example. Several years ago the government banned the use of phosphorous in dish detergents, a ban that helped restore Lake Erie and other water bodies. Despite its effectiveness, this ban was mocked by libertarians as a government intrusion and was not extended into farms. As farmers expanded the use of phosphorous based fertilizers the algae in Lake Erie multiplied and last week resulted in the ban on drinking water in Toledo, Ohio. Krugman offered this advice to the libertarian-minded legislators:
…before you rage against unwarranted government interference in your life, you might want to ask why the government is interfering. Often — not always, of course, but far more often than the free-market faithful would have you believe — there is, in fact, a good reason for the government to get involved. Pollution controls are the simplest example, but not unique.
As a retired school administrator I cringe every time I hear the phrase “government run schools”, a phrase coined by the “free market faithful” who want to de-regulate and privatize public education and “run it like a business”. I believe that “the free market faithful” see de-regulation and privatization as solutions to thorny problems because they believe that democratic decision making is too slow and cumbersome. The “free market faithful” believe centralized decision making by a group of experts (i.e. plutocrats) is faster and more efficient.
Krugman concludes his column with these sentences:
…Libertarian visions of an unregulated economy do play a significant role in political debate, so it’s important to understand that these visions are mirages. Of course some government interventions are unnecessary and unwise. But the idea that we have a vastly bigger and more intrusive government than we need is a foolish fantasy.
My bottom line: Using “the market” to solve the complex problems facing public education is one of the most foolish fantasies held by the libertarians.
Yesterday’s Deseret News ran an article by Eric Schulz that perfectly illustrates the results of thinking of schools as a business. The article, “Charter schools offer high return on investment, study claims”, describes the findings of a research team at University of Arkansas that demonstrate “…charters offer about 40 percent better results in both math and reading scores per dollar spent.” The article offers counterpoint to the study from David Baker at Rutgers who questions the accuracy of the revenues charter schools receive and Gerry Miron from Western Michigan University who questions the practice of “creaming” whereby charters deny entry to special education students. But the article underplays some other counterpoints that are more important:
- The definition of “better results” is based on standardized achievement tests.
- The “better return on investment” is accomplished by spending less on legacy costs, not through the improvement of “results”.
- Many charters receive substantial per pupil allocations from foundations, which is appears were not factored into this analysis
The most telling quote on this “accomplishment” by charter school was one offered by Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute:
Most people recognize that public school systems have been around for decades, and that there is lots of accumulated detritus. That is a recipe for inefficiency in any sector. It seems plausible that schools that start fresh without decades of rules, and regulation and contract provisions can educate kids more effectively and more cost-effectively.
The “accumulated detritus” is what I refer to as legacy costs: pension payments to retirees, negotiated agreements that provide “generous benefits” , “rigid work rules”, and “unreasonably high wages”. This is the “accumulated detritus” that the US auto industry accumulated in the 1950s and 1960s that made it possible for Japanese automakers to undercut prices and provide consumers with a “better return on investment”. It’s also the same “accumulated detritus” that US corporations accumulated that led to the situation we have today where it is rare to find an american manufactured appliance or piece of electronic equipment. And… it is the same “accumulated detritus” that created a strong middle class in our country.
If those seeking a good “return on investment” in public education want to accomplish it by cutting costs as opposed to improving results, please don’t try to tell the public that it is “for the children”. Only adults benefit when costs are cut: taxpayers pay less and shareholders of privatized charter schools get more. Oh… and teaching is no longer a middle class job: it’s akin to being a sales clerk at a department store.
I’ve read way too many articles of late that give examples of the failings of privatized charter schools and seen way too many articles touting them as the cure-all for the failings of “government-run” schools. Two recent examples are Allie Gross’ Jacobin article “The Charter School Profiteers” describing her experiences working as a Teach For America staff member in a Detroit Charter that received glowing publicity despite its shortcomings and Jeff Bryant’s recent EducationOpportunityNetwork article “The Truth Behind the New Orleans School Reform Model” which describes how charter school profiteers “juke the stats” to “prove” that their privatized schools are performing well.
Gross’ article describes how a charismatic self-promoter, Jesse Kilgore made large sums of money through various “consulting services” he provided to schools in Detroit. Gross describes Kilgore as the “paradigmatic example” of the “education entrepreneur”, an individual who can thrive in the for-profit education word as described below:
In the chaos of the Detroit school system, education entrepreneurs see an opportunity for experimentation, innovation, and venture capital. And the decentralized nature of charter schools works to their advantage. With little coherence across schools, the issue of serial education entrepreneurs emerges. Those with limited track records of success are able to wedge their ways into school after school, with nobody checking up on past performance.
Kilgore. like many “education entrepreneurs”, has the ability to raise huge sums of money through foundations and hedge funders and the ability to sell politicians and the public on the idea that “the market” can cure all the ills of public education. In the most telling paragraphs of her essay, Gross writes:
When we welcome schools that lack democratic accountability (charter school boards are appointed, not elected), when we allow public dollars to be used by those with a bottom line (such as the for-profit management companies that proliferate in Michigan), we open doors for opportunism and corruption. Even worse, it’s all justified under a banner of concern for poor public school students’ well-being.
While these issues of corruption and mismanagement existed before, we should be wary of any education reformer who claims that creating an education marketplace is the key to fixing the ills of DPS or any large city’s struggling schools. Letting parents pick from a variety of schools does not weed out corruption. And the lax laws and lack of accountability can actually exacerbate the socioeconomic ills we’re trying to root out.
Urban school districts were generally not well managed. Some board members and politicians rewarded loyal supporters and campaign contributors with positions in schools ranging from custodians to central office administrators and the competence and commitment of those appointees varied widely. But board members and politicians are democratically elected and an informed and engaged electorate combined with a free and open press could insist on changes and improvements. Instead of having a flawed democratic system that allows politicians to provide patronage jobs to loyal supporters we now have a flawed market-based system that encourages greedy entrepreneurs to provide patronage to equally rapacious politicians.
Bryant’s article details the way the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) manipulated reporting data in a way that SHOULD be monitored by the State Department of Education… but is standard operating procedure in today’s deregulated state department environment. In the lengthy rebuttal-to-a-rebuttal he demonstrates:
- how the State department manipulated cut scores on standardized tests to create higher “grades” for the privatized RSD schools,
- how the NAEP scores have remained unchanged despite the alleged “gains” made as a result of privatization
- how pre-Katrina and post-Katrina comparisons of New Orleans are flawed because of the outmigration of a substantial number of needy students following the storm, and
- how the notion of “choice” is virtually non-existent since the higher performing schools have no seats available for students seeking entry.
In summary, Bryant debunks every claim of success made by politicians in the state, claims of success that Bryant laments have been hailed by politicians in both national parties.
Privatization is, again, shown to be a cheap, easy, fast but BAD solution to a complicated problem that will require time, money, and hard work. In the end, cheap-easy-fast ALWAYS appeals to voters more than expensive-hard-slow…
Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University, has a powerful essay in today’s NYTimes. The title, “Detroit’s Drought of Democracy” could just as easily been “Efficiency Undercuts Democracy”, for his primary argument is that the decision of MI lawmaker to appoint an “emergency manager” with dictatorial powers is based on the premise that efficiency can only be achieved by assigning unquestioned authority to one individual. While there are other factors at play (e.g. the racism that exists in MI that is manifest in the demographics of communities in that state), Stanley focuses on the creed that efficiency is good… and shatters it completely. Stanley uses the emergency manager’s decision to shut off water to Detroit residents as the example of how efficiency does not result in public well being… but the same logic applies to the takeover of public schools, as noted in my comments to several quotes I gleaned from the essay:
The discretion inherent in executive power is being exercised to maximize financial efficiency. But there is no obvious connection between financial efficiency and the public good.
The use of part-time staff by McDonalds and Walmart are financially efficient… but not serving the public well. The practice of inversion as noted in earlier posts is financially efficient… but not at all connected to the public good. Privatized schools that hire untrained and low wage teachers to prepare students to do well on standardized tests are financially efficient… but do nothing to help the public good.
The 19th-century French political philosopher Benjamin Constant worried that appeals to the common good were often not made for democratic purposes, but rather served to “supply weapons and pretexts to all kinds of tyranny.” One may suspect Michigan’s appeal to financial efficiency has a similar purpose.
The “reformers” civil rights arguments are an appeal to the common good that are used to justify the privatization of public schools and the governance of those schools by shareholders instead of elected school board.
Singapore is a state that values efficiency above all. But by no stretch of the imagination is Singapore a democratic state. A society ruled by technocrats who make decisions on behalf of the masses is, since Plato’s time, regarded as a system that is opposed to democracy, rather than one exemplifying it.
The technology CEOs value the wisdom of technocrats over the wisdom of practitioners and virtually all CEOs value the fast decision-making that comes from top-down leadership over the messy, plodding deliberations that are a part of democracy.
This is not to deny that the Detroit emergency manager’s policies are efficient for some people. For example, they are efficient for the banks that are being paid back for what look to be ethically dubious loans, as well as for those who stand to benefit from the potentially huge profits of privatizing one of the world’s great freshwater supplies at a time of increasing global water scarcity.
The banks may not benefit from the privatization of schools, but there ARE huge profits that could be made from making schools “financially efficient”… and when the “financially efficient” profit motive trumps the public good, our country is wasting one the world’s greatest untapped resources: our students.
It is simply no surprise at all that a democratic state can be less efficient than some nondemocratic states. In a democracy, someone who would be a good doctor is allowed to be a bad lawyer. Autonomy cannot be subsumed to efficiency in a democracy.
A democratic state accepts some messiness and some inefficiency as a trade off for allowing everyone to have stake in determining the direction the government is taking. And here is the most telling quote:
The chief values of democracy are freedom and equality. The willingness to subsume freedom to claims of efficiency is one sign of an undemocratic culture.
I drew on this quote in making a comment I wrote, noting the parallel between what is happening in Detroit and what is happening in public education:
This article describes the rationale used by “reformers” to privatize public education. By using standardized tests as the basis for determining which schools and districts are “failing” states proclaimed the existence of an “emergency”. The states and/or mayors then took the authority to govern schools away from locally elected officials and shifted it to mayors and governors many of whom, in turn, gave authority to unelected shareholders of privatized schools. Jason Stanley writes: “The chief values of democracy are freedom and equality. The willingness to subsume freedom to claims of efficiency is one sign of an undemocratic culture.” The willingness to ignore inequality is another sign… and our decision to ignore the impact of poverty on schools and undercutting locally elected is corroding our democracy and not helping our children.
If taking power away from locally elected officials (e.g. school boards) made a difference, Newark NJ, Chester and Philadelphia PA, and Chicago IL schools would be outperforming all schools in the country. By ignoring the inequality of wealth between those urban areas and the surrounding suburbs and exurbs and emphasizing the need for “financial efficiency” we’ve delivered two blows to “the chief values of democracy”.