Monday, December 13, 2010

When schools are profit centers, wreckage will be the norm

(Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/12/10)

A recent poll of Indiana parents revealed that 80 percent are satisfied with their local schools. To listen to Gov. Daniels or Education Sup. Bennett talk about Indiana public schools, those parents must be mistaken, duped, or school teachers. This is a problem for radical education reformers. While parents might believe there are some problems with the “education system,” the vast majority are satisfied with their local schools. Those that are not, approximate the percentage of students and families underserved by our public schools. Herein lies the need to paint Indiana schools in as bad a light as possible.

Why? An easy answer is that the “take no prisoners” approach is about Gov. Daniels’ presidential aspirations and Sup. Bennett’s gubernatorial aspirations. While I think those factor somewhat into it, I think the reasons lie more in conservative ideology.

Don’t be fooled. While Gov. Daniels hasn’t pursued a socially conservative political agenda, avoiding those hot button issues has permitted him to pursue an otherwise very conservative agenda. He has cut spending, capped property taxes, privatized great swaths of government, with both positive and negative outcomes. Keep in mind that conservative ideology is about smaller government and lower taxes. The inevitable outcome of such an approach is a reduction in “public goods.” For Gov. Daniels significantly reducing the size of government requires altering the state’s relationship to education, both K-12 and higher education. States have been getting out of the higher ed business for years. Tuition rises as state support declines. If current trends continue, public universities will probably be put up for sale or lease to education management companies (think the toll road in Northern Indiana). If conservative ideology continues to prevail, the same will be true of K-12 schools.

It’s easy to see the coordinated and persistent propaganda campaign against public education beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan and his message of government is the problem, not the solution. The aim of that campaign is to undermine public support for public education.

And conservatives are impatient. NCLB and Indiana’s PL 221, brought us more school ratings. The performance standards are ultimately unreasonable eventually leading all schools to fail and/or it will lead to “cheating” and the cheating scandals will help fuel the undermining of the public’s support for public education. Yet, despite many years of annual reporting in the papers, this effort to undermine public education has not translated to great reductions in individual’s support for their local schools and transfers “out” of failing schools have not happened the way the radical conservative reformers hoped. So, in response, Indiana will assign a single letter grade to each school.

We do not give a student one letter grade for their entire academic performance. Rather they receive a grade for each subject or skill. As has been reported in these pages, sometimes schools are struggling, “failing,” in a particular area. Why not issue a more detailed report card, actually providing better information from which parents could judge their school’s performance. “Better” information does not serve the underlying goal.

The conservative vision for public schools, if not ending them, is public finance of private schools. It will start with vouchers, and then the funding for vouchers will shrink, either absolutely or relatively, private schools will charge tuition beyond the value of the vouchers and the inevitable inequities in a private school market for education will help to ensure the reproduction of current social inequalities. This is the model for public universities and what has transpired over the last 30 years. The current public school system doesn’t eliminate social inequality, it reproduces current social inequalities, but with some notable progress that is less likely under a mostly for private school system. Social inequality relative to a public good is a moral problem, but not for a private good. By decoupling education from government, the moral imperative to address social inequalities in education, which is where so much of the problems lie, is eliminated. Conservatives don’t see social inequality as a problem, it is just the inevitable outcome of the market. In fact, it is a necessity.

When schools are profit centers, there will be mom and pop versions, franchise versions, Wal Mart versions, “exclusive country club versions,” and out of business versions. Just as we see one company buyout another one and strip it of its assets, leaving wreckage in its wake, that will be a regular occurrence in a future where education is a private, rather than, public good.

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