After I finished college, I went to teach first grade at a charter school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, so I have complicated, conflicted views on education reform that are at once personal and political. Nothing bothers me so much as attempts to reduce these serious policy debates to a fight over pejorative rhetorical categories. As I’ve written before, this is a recipe for a pathetic, embarrassing stasis that serves none of the relevant stakeholders.
But here’s Elizabeth Stokes, at the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal, making precisely just that sort of argument:
Market-based school reform is focused on the idea that by structuring schools like business enterprises, we can inject them with stereotypical private sector virtues like innovation and efficiency. According to this view, this is sorely needed because “traditional” public schools are supposedly ineffective. By removing barriers to entry for different types of educational organizations, market-based reformers believe we can incorporate some healthy competition into the state-run system and overcome drawbacks allegedly caused by the state’s monopoly control. This approach positions parents and students as consumers of education, free to choose which types of schools best meet their individual needs and preferences. The rhetoric of “choice” implies that marketization will enhance liberty as well as efficiency.
Stokes goes on to chronicle a number of supposedly “market-based” education policies that undercut public self-governance:
Efficiency considerations aside, the real problem with championing marketized models in education and other areas is the damage it does to democracy. We should not be upholding a model based on turning citizens into consumers. Democratic citizenship does not simply involve an individual’s choice from a platter of options. Rather, it requires active participation in collective decisionmaking.
To sum up: Stokes claims that the “market-based” approach to education is antithetical to democratic ideals, especially local, participatory discourse. There are a few problems with her argument.
One first (and simple) point: the CREDO study that Stokes cites in her article is far, far less conclusive than she’s realized. She snags one stat and moves on:
First, despite the grand intentions behind marketized programs, they do not get better results on average than traditional public schools. A study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, 46 percent showed no difference from public schools, and 37 percent were significantly worse.
Boom! Charter schools are always a bad idea! School choice doesn’t work!
But this casual aside misrepresents the data by treating it only at the level of national aggregation. See, the study also says that charter school performance varies widely by state: “Differences across states in their charter school policies help to explain part of the observed differences in student results.” The study doesn’t show that charters “do not get better results”—it shows that badly designed charter school policies don’t work as well as better ones. For example, a later CREDO study found that New York charter schools were much more successful than traditional public schools. In addition, if you’ve read the original study, you know that it showed that students at traditional public schools outperform their peers at charters only for their first year. In years two and three, charter students outperform traditional students. Here’s a critical paragraph from page 32 explaining why this is so, and why it’s good news for charter schools’ future (emphasis added):
Because the number of students attending charter schools grows each year, the experience of charter school students reflected in each state’s data is skewed toward first-year charter students. More than half of the records in this analysis capture the first year of charter school experience. Given the improvement trends shown in Figure 10, the overall charter school effects would be expected to improve if the same cohort were followed for additional years.
In other words, the data on charter schools suggest that students who remain at charter schools over a period of time actually outperform students at traditional public schools. The nationally aggregated averages are distorted by the skewed sample set—something noted by the CREDO researchers. Stokes’ one-off reference to the CREDO data is dodgy at best and misleading at worst.
Next: it’s disingenuous to lump all charter schools backers as “market-based” reformers in Stokes’ narrow sense. It’s one thing to push for school choice as part of a cynical attempt to convert public education into “corporate franchises” and quite another to push for school choice in order to provide dramatically better education for the nation’s underserved students (By the way, it’s a huge failing by the Left that people with the latter goal often find it more congenial to partner with conservatives than progressives.). In other words, if you can’t tell the difference between Scott Walker and KIPP, you’re ideologically blinded.
It’s simply wrong to charge all charter school supporters with the intention of reducing parents (or students) to market consumers. Many support charters because they offer freedom from the extraordinarily restrictive, unhelpful rules in teacher contracts and district rules. For these parents and teachers, charter school support has nothing to do with educational “markets”—and everything to do with making an immediate difference in students’ lives. That was certainly true for me when I taught in Brooklyn, and it’s doubly true now that I have a child of my own.
The most problematic part of Stokes’ argument, however, is the amorphousness of what she’s terming “market-based” reform. Whatever it is, such a reform project isn’t necessarily pro- or anti-school choice. Sure, in a certain way, school choice establishes a market for parents and students. But it’s not evident that all of the broader education reform arguments correspond to that distinction—it actually obscures more than it helps. In fact, there are major trends in education policy that suggest that the push for school choice is better understood as a grassroots movement—not a corporate campaign.
Here’s an obvious example: the forces arrayed against charters and school choice almost always oppose so-called “Parent Trigger” laws. These laws allow a majority of parents to petition for their students’ school to be closed when they believe that it is broken beyond repair. They allow parents, in other words, to organize, debate, come together, and actively participate in collective decisionmaking regarding their community schools. Surely that sort of grassroots empowerment would be congenial to the opponents of “market-based” reform? Well…American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten loathes “market-based” reform but still stringently opposes empowering parents with Parent Trigger laws. Does this make her an occasional “market-based” reformer? Of course not.
This isn’t a logically determinative line of argument—nor is it meant to be. It’s only intended to illustrate that it’s unhelpful to reduce education policy to “market-based” reformers vs. the democratic public. It attempts to impose a philosophical—and ideological—fault line on policy debates where it doesn’t exist. Approaching arguments through that lens doesn’t advance them in the least—vilification without precision rarely does. It’s worth noting that Parent Trigger laws are only one example of related education policy arguments that don’t correspond. Here’s another: what’s the “market-based” approach to employing teachers who sexually abuse their students? Or: what’s the “market-based” approach to determining the appropriate length of a school day or school year? As is the case in so many of these debates, there is no specifically “market-based” response, because that’s rarely a motivating policy consideration. It’s a distraction to frame the discussion in that way. The relevant question (obviously): what’s best for the students involved?
In other words, there’s nothing actually inconsistent with Weingarten’s position, if we understand her as an actor motivated by protecting existing teacher privileges. Same goes for Stokes—if she happens to share Weingarten’s views in this particular instance. There’s only a problem if Stokes or Weingarten ask us to oppose grassroots education reform while they extol it. There’s only a problem if they want to indict charter schools as un-democratic while simultaneously opposing parental involvement when it doesn’t suit them.
Here’s the kicker: there’s nothing actually or inherently ”market-based” about school choice. Charter opponents are free to support participatory grassroots education policies when they’d like and oppose them when they’d like—but they can’t pretend that they present a clean, distinct philosophical alternative to the supposedly “market-based” reformers with whom they disagree.