It is a great formula: Lobby the nation to go to war over false pretenses. Stir up as much fear as possible. Ignore and discredit those who claim the threat is misrepresented. Destroy the target with impunity. Give huge government contracts to the predetermined private think-tanks and publishing houses and multi-national firms who have some capability to restore infrastructure—and who have friends in high places. Pay them (often former government officials) large salaries and amazing bonuses to reassemble the parts in a form that will continue to reap huge profits for themselves. And the most insidious piece of the puzzle—don’t hold the private contractors accountable for their actions.
No, I am not talking about Iraq. I am talking about the War on Public Education. Same exact formula. Really. As we all now know, in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, our leaders had to convince us that there existed a cause (WMD’s) worthy of destroying a nation. (Just think about that thought for a second!) In the war on Public Education, the new, but just as imaginary, Weapons of Mass Destruction are the oft-reported shortage of scientists and engineers, the so-called deplorable graduation rates, the ever-present low test scores, and the increasing need for remedial classes in college. Each of those charges is as fraudulent as any claims about WMD’s. ( In a recent diary I documented how much of the complaint against Public Ed. is unfounded and often totally fabricated.)
So in any questionable war, the war makers and profiteers need to provide us with a good story, an evil enemy or a fearful cause. STEM gaps, engineer shortages, testing shortfalls are the pitch the fear-mongers hope we buy in order get us to sign off on destroying the infrastructure: “Be afraid. Be very afraid. We are failing to educate our kids for world dominance. We are falling behind other nations who will dominate the world if we are not prepared to do so. Finland, South Korea and Singapore will fling Educational Weapons of Mass Destruction at us and we will be defenseless against their onslaught! Help us tear it down and we will rebuild it for you.” Doesn’t your common sense tell you at some level that this argument is absurd? But the drum beats of propaganda and pervasive dishonesty are difficult to combat. Well-meaning legislators and citizens on all sides of the aisle are moved to entertain and fund this war. They cry: “We must fix Public Education! We must find and destroy the WMD’s!”
Whenever a war like this comes along there are those select movers and shakers who demonstrate their incredible patriotism and commitment to improving our nation. They are standing by ready to do the rebuilding. In the Iraqi War it was Haliburton, KBR, Blackwater. In the War on Public Education it is the American Legislative Exchange Council, Pearson, RAND, AEI, and so many others. These great patriots are prepared to combat the terror that Public Education has inflicted on the nation through a new (but really old) initiative: Market Solutions. (This paragraph brought to you by the Department of Really Bad Satire.)
I am convinced that many in the Current Education Reform Movement, a great euphemism for the War on Public Education, mean well. But they are misguided (I won’t get any nicer than that.) Market Solutions in the field of education are simply a mega-hoax being perpetrated on the American people in the name of large profits for whichever vendors and providers can get in on the earliest waves of the movement. And just as the contractors lobbied hard for their share of the billions of dollars suddenly in the marketplace during Iraq and Afghanistan nation building, the Education lobbyists and corporate reps are ready to get their share of the plunder. They are fighting for their position at the trough.
In order to understand the Market Solution movement in education, it is necessary to get outside of the education world and see what Market Solutions means in the competitive corporate world of profit making. In that world, where the bottom line is paramount and where shareholders’ return is the ultimate test of success, Market Solutions seem to cover a lot of ground. There are, however, several concepts that consistently appear in the literature: efficiency, profitability, sustainability, data analysis, competition, increased market share and promotion. In the business of education these get translated into increased privatization, in the form of both public charter school and private schools. Ironically, Market Solutions often demand an increased accountability in public schools while lessening accountability in charter and private schools. And of course, one hallmark of every Market Solution Plan is the demand for the dissolution of the teachers’ unions. Basically, the Market Solution folks say, if we make these changes, the Market will solve the problems. (Yes, those pesky problems in schools that are already being corrected at record rates.)
Kevin G. Wellner, professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, School of Education, specializing in educational policy and law, and Director of the CU-Boulder National Education Policy Center (NEPC), put it this way:
The Duncan-Obama approach should sound familiar, even to those who do not follow education policy discussions. Defund, deregulate, de-unionize, and shift to the private sector. Reallocate policy-making authority from democratic institutions to a wealthy oligarchy. Corporate-endowed think tanks like AEI have been successfully promoting this road map for everything else, so why not education? (Wellner, 2011)
Should parents and communities be paying careful attention to those who would “fix” education’s ills using Market Solutions as the guiding principles? Of course. But many of these ideas seem on the surface to be reasonable. Do taxpayers have a right to demand accountability for how their taxes are spent? Yes. Should classroom teachers, school building administrators and district level superintendents have ongoing, consistent methods of data assessment to help them reflect on the success of their practice? Absolutely. Should parents have choice in a competitive system of schools where those competing schools and programs offer a variety of experiences and focus? Yes, if done right. Should profitability have anything to do with providing learning opportunities to children? Definitely not.
The research confirms that American Public Schools are doing a better job of educating our children that ever before. Yet we know that we can do a better job of meeting the needs of all students. But will these “solutions” actually solve anything? According to Helen Ladd, Edgar Thompson Professor of Public Policy Studies and professor of economics at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy:
Overall, the evidence suggests that the economic model of markets does not translate easily into the provision of compulsory education. Nonetheless, many of the concepts underlying education markets, such as consumer choice, flexibility for schools, and incentives for them to raise the quality of education, are worth pursuing. The challenge for urban policy makers is to find ways to introduce these ideas while at the same time promoting the public interest that, ultimately, provides the rationale for a publicly funded and compulsory education system.
Ladd goes on to state:
Like public school systems in many other large U.S. cities, the Washington, D.C. school system faces serious challenges, many of which are related to its high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. Because one size school does not fit all and because students from low-income families tend to have far fewer schooling options than do students from higher income families, I support efforts to give low-income families more choice. The argument for greater choice is far more compelling, however, when it is cautiously applied to schools within the public sector than when it is extended to private schools, as would be the case under HR 684. This conclusion follows because policy makers are in a better position to assure fair access to public than to private schools and to hold schools that are publicly operated or publicly chartered and funded accountable to the public. (Ladd, Market Based Reforms in Urban Education, 2002)
The real problem with Market Solutions is that they have no humanity. Profits based on efficiency and large economies of scale will require changes that are truly frightening. In the name of efficiency, students will have to get seriously tracked by academic levels. That will be determined by test scores. If you are quick to say, “This is good. We will finally challenge our very best and brightest.” Are you willing to see the other side of that coin? Efficiency will demand that there are winners and losers. What kinds of schools will we end up with? Some very good ones, no doubt. But there will be some very bad ones, no doubt. For most students it will be much worse. You doubt me? Remember that Market Solutions demand efficiency and efficiency demands specialization. Specialization demands narrow focus. Schools will want to keep up their statistical claims to be the best because competition will be strong and people are going to choose based on the best story line out there. Potential losers—students with IEPs, a history of discipline issues, students in poverty—will be too risky to enroll. The actuaries will start an entire new cottage industry rating students as risk potentials for schools. If you rate an 8-10 you’re in. 1-4 won’t even get you in the door. And so Market Solutions tries to eliminate people from the business of people. Much like the health insurance companies, when left to decide for themselves, have shown a strong desire to refuse to provide health care, Market Solutions in education, left to decide for themselves, will show a strong desire to refuse to provide educational services. In the name of efficiency.
Market Solutions are big business—literally. So do we want to turn over the reins to those whose Market Solutions are built on profitability and high return on investment? Should we “Reallocate policy-making authority from democratic institutions to a wealthy oligarchy”? What would that wealthy oligarchy’s motives be? What would their goals be?
Consider this: When profits are the rule and efficiency is the way, then learning is not the goal. It is only a happenstance.
Ladd, H. F. (2002). Market Based Reforms in Urban Education. Economic Policy Institute.
Ladd, H. F. (2003). School Vouchers Don’t Make The Grade.
Wellner, K. G. (2011, Spring). Re-Imagining Education Reform. Retrieved from Dissent: http://www.colorado.edu/education/faculty/kevinwelner/Docs/Welner%20Dissent%20Original.pdf