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Two Articles Illustrate the Flaws of “Market Based” Public Education

Two recent articles in the mainstream media unwittingly revealed the flaw in “market based” public education: it leads to corrupting and misleading advertising which, in turn, leads to a sorting and selecting process that favors the affluent and well educated parents over the parents who struggle economically but hope for a better life for their children.

The NYTimes op ed article, “How to Make Choosing the Right School Easier“, begins with the assumption that is the basis for “market based” reform: “choice” is ipso fact a good thing and the only thing needed to make it work is better and clearer information. With that pretext, the four ideas presented by Roger Altman and Robert Hughes are eminently reasonable:

  1. Make charter schools reveal their attrition rates
  2. Adopt a uniform and universal application process for both public and charter schools
  3. Distinguish between lottery acceptances and screened acceptances
  4. When a student vacates a charter school, his or her seat should be filled

This kind of “truth in advertising” and rigorous data collection would enable researchers to easily determine whether charter schools “outperform” public schools or whether their performance is based on cherry picking students and/or jerry rigging results. Moreover, it would enable all parents to enter into the “marketplace” on equal footing…

Which leads to the second article in the Atlantic that reports of a disturbing trend in education: the rise of the “public school consultant”. This new jobs been created by virtue of the lack of a uniform and universal application process for schools combined with the misleading advertising that takes place as charter schools make claims based on flawed data collection. The article by Alissa Quart describes the work of Joyce Szuflita, a consultant through the work she is doing with a set of Brooklyn parents who are trying to enroll their child in the most appropriate middle school for their youngster. The process, as described in the article and as I’ve witnessed from a distance as my grandson goes through the process, is very suchlike that of students enrolling in college. Szuflita is one of many consultants who command good money from parents for their expertise:

The people who hire her or consultants like her in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and other major American cities are sometimes applying to private schools, but more often than not are upper-middle-class parents, like the couple whose session I witnessed, who want to put their children into the best possible public-school district. These consultants thrive in cities where anxious parents feel they have nowhere to turn for answers and guidance.

And therein lies the rub: upper-middle-class parents who have the time and money can secure the services of a consultant while lower-middle-class and below have neither the time nor the money nor the life life experience that provides them with the expertise to get their child enrolled in the optimal school. The market works for these parents like it works for them when they go shopping: there are no good grocery stores in their neighborhoods, no restaurants that provide healthy fare, and they can’t afford to have their groceries delivered from grocery stores in better neighborhood or travel to good restaurants let alone dine in them, and so they get what “the marketplace” offers: over-priced bodegas and convenience stores full of unhealthy food. Somewhere on Wall Street, or in a hedge fund manager’s office, or in a graduate school classroom, or in a conservative think tank, “the magic of the marketplace” makes sense… but in the real world the charter schools will take advantage of “customers” the same way chain restaurants do or the same way Walmart does.

In a perfect world, all parents would have the same “choice” as the parents in an affluent suburb like Scarsdale… which is to say no choice at all because no choice is needed. The parents in affluent suburbs know that their child is getting a good education because they’ve paid the taxes needed to make sure that is true and they watch carefully to make certain their children take full advantage of the golden opportunity they’ve been given. If ALL parents had that “choice” public schools would improve by every measure available.

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