The Unfair Way These Democrats Will Lose on Schools in 2020

The charter-school window is closing fast and many 2020 Democratic hopefuls will likely get hurt as it snaps shut. Part of the phenomenal success of the charter-school movement since 1991 has come from its ideological flexibility. As Queen Betsy stiffens that ideology into a sour blend of Jesus, Koch, and Trump, it looks as if Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker will all face awkward questions.

Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearing, Washington DC, USA - 17 Jan 2017

Kneel before the charter-school Queen!!!

Like many changes in America’s culture-war landscape, this one happened fast. Since 2016, charter schools have been seen more and more as a conservative scam, a way to rob public schools of needed funding. Why? The honors should go to Queen Betsy. Her single-minded focus on increasing “choice” has made it difficult for anyone else to agree.

It wasn’t always this way. Of course, some on the left have always abhorred charter schools. But others haven’t. The unique appeal of charter schools between the 1990s and 2016 was that they appealed to everyone who thought public schools were lacking. And lots of progressive folks have always found big problems with public schools.

Exhibit A: My student-teaching mentor back in the 1990s. He was the best teacher I’ve ever seen, and he was chomping at the bit to start a charter school as soon as Missouri passed its charter law. For him, it was all about cutting red tape and getting educational resources into the hands of underserved kids. He and a small group of fellow progressives had outlined their plan for a wrap-around progressive school, one that would use truly child-centered teaching methods and provide a host of other services for families such as day care, medical care, and meals.

Beto_El_Paso_IVP_TT_PLACEHOLDER

I LOVE–erm…I mean I HATE charter schools.

Or consider activists such as Milwaukee’s Howard Fuller. Though prominent civil-rights groups such as the NAACP oppose charters, Fuller has always seen them as the best hope of low-income African American families. For families trapped in dysfunctional school districts, Fuller argues, charters and vouchers provide a desperately needed escape hatch.

In the past, then, charters and “choice” were embraced by both the left and the right. Anyone who thought the current public-school system was failing could jump on the charter-school bandwagon. For politicians who wanted to be seen as “doing something,” charter schools were the thing to do. That has changed, though, and today’s leading Democrats will find themselves hard pressed to explain their pro-charter pasts.

booker on oprah

…here’s Superman.

President Obama got out in time to avoid tough questions, but his administration pushed hard for charters. Many other Democratic politicians did the same. Beto O’Rourke now tells crowds,

We will not allow our public tax dollars to be taken from our classrooms and sent to private schools.

However, back when it was fashionable for hyper-educated dilettantes to open charter schools, his wife did just that.

Cory Booker might be in an even worse position. Backed by Facebook and Oprah, then-Mayor Booker endorsed a huge expansion of charter schools in Newark.

warren two income

What did you know and when did you know it?

And Elizabeth Warren has recently bashed charters, but until recently she was a huge supporter. Nothing exacerbated the social divides in America, Warren argued in her 2003 book The Two-Income Trap, as much as did the brutal economic and racial segregation of the public-school system. The solution? Charters, vouchers, and “choice.” As Warren argued back in 2003,

The crisis in education is not only a crisis of reading and arithmetic; it is also a crisis in middle-class family economics. At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where you live dictates where you go to school. . . . A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly.

Unfortunately for these Democratic hopefuls, the tide has turned and they will be left high and dry. It’s not fair, of course. Back when Booker, O’Rourke, and Warren touted “choice,” they had every reason to think they were on the side of the progressive angels. Thanks to Queen Betsy, however, supporting charter schools these days feels like a deal with the devil.

Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

Students: Customers, Wards, or What?

The devil stalks the University of North Carolina. At least, that’s the impression I get when I read the progressive Nation’s description of new system president Margaret Spellings. Of all the damning evidence against Spellings, perhaps the worst thing, for these progressives, is that she referred to students as “customers.” I wholeheartedly agree that good education, healthy education, shouldn’t be understood this way. But I don’t think progressives like me have come up with a better analogy. The only other likely candidate makes us even more uncomfortable.

Margaret Spellings

Sympathy for the Devil…?

Spellings has a long career in education. She has been one of the fiercest and most successful proponents of Milton Friedman’s prescriptions for better schools. If markets are allowed to do their magic, this school of thought explains, much of the dead hand of institutional lethargy will be stripped away.

In the K-12 world, market reformers have pushed vouchers, charters, and “choice,” with a lot of success. During her tenure as Education Secretary, President Spellings famously promoted a similar sort of market approach to higher education. The solutions to university blahs, the Spellings Report explained, lay in a new vision of students as “consumers,” with schools competing for their business.

“In this consumer-driven environment,” the report argued,

Students increasingly care little about the distinctions that sometimes preoccupy the academic establishment. . . . Instead, they care—as we do—about results.

A good college, from this perspective, is one that gives students good financial pay-back for their tuition investment. The “results” for “consumers” should be significant, in terms of higher salaries and better economic prospects for families.

Colleges, the Spellings Report insisted, need to adapt or die. If a for-profit college can deliver marketable skills better and faster, it should be encouraged, not deplored. Such law-of-the-jungle competition would push colleges in the right directions, toward “improving their efficiency.” A good higher-education system, the Spellings Report concluded, would give “Americans the workplace skills they need to adapt to a rapidly changing economy.”

Those of us who don’t like this vision of the proper form and function of higher education are not without alternatives. But for progressives, the primary alternative would not be an improvement.

For long centuries, colleges and universities operated on a very different model, what we might call the “family” plan. Students were not consumers, but rather more like apprentices. They entered into higher education with an understanding that they would be shaped according to the guidance of the school.

As historian Roger Geiger explained so clearly in his recent history of higher education, this system persisted much longer than did the apprentice system for young workers. Well into the nineteenth century, students had very few rights, very few choices to make.

They didn’t like it. As Geiger relates, the 1810s were a far more turbulent decade on American campuses than were the 1960s or 1970s. Indeed, if today’s students at North Carolina don’t like Spellings’s consumer model, they might learn a lesson from their predecessors. In 1799, UNC students held a week-long riot, in which they captured and horsewhipped their unpopular presiding professor. (See Geiger, pp. 116-129.)

What made these students so angry? The family model of higher education insisted on draconian rules for student life, including onerous daily recitals and endless rounds of mandatory chapel services. Students did not “consume” higher education in this family model, they submitted to it.

During the 1960s, student agitation against in loco parentis rules represented a late protest—and a very successful one—against the persisting vestiges of the family model. Students demanded an end to mandatory curfews and even core curricula.

The family model never totally disappeared, of course. Indeed, today’s “safe space” protests are usually built on an implicit assumption that the university will protect and shield students, implying a continuing authoritative family relationship.

In general, though, progressive students, faculty, and administrators don’t like the family model. They don’t want to impose a set of readings or experiences for students. They want students to be empowered to design their own educational experiences, to a large degree.

But if we don’t like the old family model, and we don’t like the new consumer model, what else is there?

As usual, I don’t have answers, only more questions.

  • If we don’t want to think of college students as customers, and we’re not willing to re-impose an authoritarian system, what should we call them?
  • Put another way: If the family model is out, and the consumer model is out, what’s left?
  • What could it mean to think of students as producers, rather than consumers?
  • If the nature of consumption has changed radically in the past fifteen years with online shopping and etc., might it mean something very different these days to call students “consumers”?
  • Is there wiggle room in the consumer model? Think of the differences, for instance, between equipping someone with tested, high-quality gear for a life-long expedition and equipping them with shiny junk they really don’t need.

School Choice: Failing

We don’t normally hear criticism of school privatization from free-market conservative types.  But a recent essay by Michael Q. McShane in National Review included some harsh talk about vouchers and charters.

McShane, Education Fellow at the staunchly free-market American Enterprise Institute, complained that free-market solutions were not working.

Seems like a shocking admission for a conservative intellectual, until we get into McShane’s argument.

Vouchers aren’t working, McShane argues, because they are not being pushed hard enough.

McShane looks at the example of Milwaukee.  For twenty-five years, as McShane points out and as academic historians have agreed, Milwaukee has been one of the most “choice-rich” big cities in the nation.

The result?  As McShane notes, Milwaukee’s student test scores lag far behind Chicago and other big cities.

Some critics might conclude that “choice”—vouchers for parents to send children to private schools, charter schools that use public funding but avoid public-school bureaucracy, and rules that encourage parents to move their children between schools—has been proven a loser.

McShane says no.  What school systems really need, he argues, is a more thorough-going application of the principles of “choice.”  Ultimately, cities such as Milwaukee have only tinkered around the edges of the destructive public-school mentality.  Free-market solutions won’t really work, McShane believes, until cities allow the “creative destruction” that the market demands.

Private schools must be encouraged, he writes, to create new schools and new capacity, not merely fill existing seats.  In conclusion, McShane writes,

Private-school choice will drive positive change only when it creates high-quality private schools within urban communities. New schools and school models need to be incubated, funding needs to follow students in a way that allows for non-traditional providers to play a role, new pathways into classrooms for private-school teachers and leaders need to be created, and high-quality school models need to be encouraged and supported while they scale up. In short, policymakers, private philanthropy, and school leaders need to get serious about what’s necessary to make the market work.

Those of us hoping to make sense of conservative attitudes toward American education must grapple with this free-market thinking.  To scholars such as McShane, data that seem to prove the failure of free-market reform really only means such reforms have not been implemented thoroughly enough.

 

Why School Choice?

As National School Choice Week moved into the history books, we have to ask: Is school choice a “conservative” issue?

There is no doubt that conservatives support choice.  Stalwart conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation make choice a centerpiece of their education policy platforms.

But the arguments conservatives usually make in favor of school choice often sound more traditionally “progressive” than anything else.  Is this mere political strategy?  Or a more profound commitment to social justice for those without economic resources?

The stereotypically “conservative” reasons for school choice are fairly simple.  First, opening up a variety of schools that receive tax dollars will enshrine the principles of free-marketism into public education.  Second, a thriving choice system will send more tax dollars to religious schools.

And we do occasionally see such arguments by conservative intellectuals.  The Friedman Foundation, for instance, legacy of free-market guru Milton Friedman, argues that choice will fix America’s public-education system.  According to Milton and Rose Friedman, that system has too often been “deprived of the benefits of competition.”

Similarly, Notre Dame’s Richard Garnett recently argued that school choice could help save struggling Catholic schools like the one that educated US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

More often, however, conservative activists argue for school choice using different themes.  Most commonly, choice is presented as the best hope of low-income families in neighborhoods with sub-par public schools.  During National School Choice Week, we saw an outpouring of such rhetoric.
For instance, the Heritage Foundation publicized a speech in favor of choice by former Alabama Congressman Artur Davis.  Choice, Davis argued, could give options to a seventh-grader who submitted the following barely literate argument:

“[Y]ou can make the school gooder by getting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.”

According to Davis, this student from Highland Park, Michigan was passed into eighth grade despite his struggles with basic writing.  Choice, Davis argued, could help.  It could offer parents, teachers, and students better schools now.  According to the Heritage Foundation article, Davis believed that school choice offered “the education [children] need right now, instead of simply pouring more money into the program or waiting for some new reform plan.”

Similarly, a writer at the social-conservative Family Research Council insisted that the main reason to support school choice was that “School choice gives students an opportunity to achieve a quality education and helps them not to fall through the cracks. We should all be in favor of helping children reach their fullest potential.”

Perhaps the most compelling statement of this conservative argument for the progressive virtues of school choice came over twenty years ago in an essay by Berkeley Law School’s Professor Emeritus John Coons.  As Coons argued in his 1992 essay, school choice advocates too often focus only on choice as a free-market device.  Instead, Coons insisted, such choice must be seen as “Simple Justice.”  Despite efforts to desegregate schools and make schools less imposingly Protestant, Coons wrote,

“we still arrange education so that children of the wealthy can cluster in chosen government enclaves or in private schools; the rest get whatever school goes with the residence the family can afford. This socialism for the rich we blithely call ‘public,’ though no other public service entails such financial exclusivity. Whether the library, the swimming pool, the highway, or the hospital—if it is ‘public,’ it is accessible. But admission to the government school comes only with the price of the house. If the school is in Beverly Hills or Scarsdale, the poor need not apply.

Choice is the obvious remedy for such maldistribution and discrimination.”  

Coons argued that non-elite parents deserved the right to send their children to schools that matched parents’ religious and cultural beliefs.  Such parents did not write op-eds in the New York Times.  Such parents did not have the option to influence the greater culture by making award-winning films or prize-winning books.  “Children,” Coons wrote, “are the books written by the poor.”

Yet despite such protestations among conservative intellectuals and pundits, school choice remains its reputation as a conservative issue.  As one angry commenter noted on the Family Research Council website,

“you see, school choice is really about getting as many students to pray to God each day. And, how many of these school choice advocates would have pressed for integration back in the 50’s? Very few. It’s about supporting religious schools through taxpayer dollars.”

Similarly, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has protested,

“It’s about funding religious and other private schools with taxpayer dollars and ultimately destroying the public school system.

“If you think the Heritage Foundation, the Koch Brothers and Betsy DeVos are in this just to help to some poor kid in the inner city, they’ve got a privatized bridge in Brooklyn they want to sell you.”

We ask again: Why school choice?  Do conservatives support school choice because choice will crush teachers’ unions?  Because choice will promote a freer free market?  Because choice will get more students praying in schools?

Or do conservatives support choice in order to help more children faster?  Because choice offers a way to deliver better education to low-income students?

My hunch is that, for many conservatives, the best answer is all of the above.  No doubt many conservatives want freer markets and a more Christian public square.  And school choice promises to deliver those things.  But choice might also be attractive because it gives better schools to more people faster than any other measure. 

School Choice: Not Just for Conservatives Anymore?

Have you seen the yellow scarves around?

Image Source: Huffington Post

Image Source: Huffington Post

They are the symbol of National School Choice Week, going on right now.

In a one-minute off-the-cuff interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, scarf-clad Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker claimed that the issue of school choice had outgrown ideology.  Support for school choice, Walker insisted, now “transcends party lines, it transcends ideological beliefs. . . .”

Walker himself is not exactly the poster child for post-culture-war dialogue.  His anti-union policies led to an unsuccessful recall attempt in Wisconsin.  In early 2011, Walker’s moves to curb collective-bargaining prerogatives led to a virtual caricature of the culture wars descending on the Capitol in Madison.

The history of “school choice” has been an ideological mishmash.  On one hand, one of the earliest and most influential proponents of vouchers has been free-market guru Milton Friedman.  As I argued in an article in Teachers College Record, Friedman saw vouchers as the single biggest reform to fix American education.  The quest for more school choice has been enthusiastically embraced by leading conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation.

Many liberals have offered across-the-board denunciations of vouchers and “school choice.”  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for instance, calls vouchers a thinly disguised propaganda program to divert tax dollars to religious schools.

However, some progressive leaders have supported vouchers and charter schools as a way to deliver better education to students who felt trapped in bad public schools.  Recently, however, outspoken voucher supporter Howard Fuller insisted that voucher programs must set clear limits.  If the programs did not specifically target low-income students, Fuller argued, they became just a shill for rich people.

Some education scholars have argued that the rhetoric of school choice has mainly served to redefine American democracy.  Instead of promoting equitable education choices, these authors contend, “school choice” tends to assume that free-market solutions are the only solutions, the best possible educational goals.

So is Governor Walker’s claim just a conservative pipe dream?  Has the goal of “school choice” overcome all ideological resistance?  Or will we see yet another split, between “progressive” supporters of school choice and “conservative” supporters, with “progressive” choice focusing on greater equity, and “conservative” choice emphasizing the God of the Free Market?

Fundamentalist Homeschoolers Seize Control of American Pop Music!

I am happy to say I don’t know anything about the Jonas Brothers.

I survive the shame of my ignorance by putting them in a mental category along with Hannah Montana, Barney, and all other noxious pop culture targeted at America’s youth.  As far as I am concerned, these are things I do not need to know about.

So imagine my surprise to learn that this pop group has become a leading advocate of school choice.  Imagine my surprise to learn that this leading pop group learned about the world and everything in it from their conservative evangelical Protestant homeschool curriculum.  It appears the Jonas Brothers have been educated with the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, one of the most ferociously conservative Protestant curriculum choices available.

But let’s start at the beginning.

This morning, I came across a story from the libertarian Reason TV.  The Jonas Brothers headlined a National School Choice Week kickoff event.

Curious as to why such a high-profile pop band would sign up for an event so popular among conservatives, I looked into the Jonas Brothers.  As usual, everyone but me seemed to be already aware of the Jonas Brothers’ deep commitment to conservative evangelical religion.  Slack-jawed comedian Russell Brand, for instance, earned some opprobrium for mocking the Brothers’ virginity pledges.

When I checked out a “Day in the Life of the Jonas Brothers” video, I was surprised to see (check out the video at 3:58) that the homeschool curriculum they used was from Accelerated Christian Education.

Image Source: Accelerated Christian Education

Image Source: Accelerated Christian Education

As I argued a couple years ago in the pages of History of Education Quarterly, among Christian fundamentalist school publishers, ACE stands out for its rigid traditionalism and strict sectarian notions in every subject, from creationism to the religious meanings of the US Constitution.

I have no beef with conservative religious families who choose to use ACE materials to teach their children.

But I am surprised to find that young people educated with such materials have had such a meteoric rise to the peaks of pop culture.  After all, one common theme among conservative educational activists is that American pop culture peddles filth and trash.  Long before the Beatles, long before Elvis, conservatives worried about the sex and loose morals associated with such pop singers as Jimmie Rodgers.

Yet with the Jonas Brothers, we find a group doing very well in the choppy seas of pop music.  As far as I am aware, the Jonas Brothers did not come to fame as a particularly “Christian” music group, but rather as a particularly saccharine tween-idol music group.

Is it fair to say that conservative worries about the anti-Christian nature of American pop culture are overstated?  Or are groups like the Jonas Brothers simply exceptions that prove the rule?