Tag: diane ravitch

Power Yes, Trigger No

There is little question that parents have too little power in elementary and secondary education. In fact, they have almost no power: they can vote, but are otherwise usually relegated to being class moms, or holding bake sales, or some other fluffy “involvement” that gives them no real say over how their children are educated. Adding insult to injury, that doesn’t often stop professional educators from blaming parents when students don’t do so well.

To remedy the problem, the trendy thing seems to be “parent trigger” laws that would, generally speaking, allow a majority of parents at a school declare that they want to fire the staff, or bring in a private management company, or some other transformation. It’s been the spark behind some especially heated conflicts in California, as unions and parents of different stripes have been doing battle with each other. It is also the subject of a New York TimesRoom for Debate” exchange today.

While I sympathize—obviously—with those who advocate giving parents more power, I cannot help but conclude that the parent trigger is a very poor way to do this. For one thing, it is inherently divisive: what about the 49 percent, or 30 percent, or whatever percent of parents who don’t want the changes the majority demands? They’ve got no choice but to fight it out with their neighbors. It is also inefficient: individual children need all sorts of options to best meet their unique needs and abilities, but the trigger would just exchange one monolithic school model for another.

The trigger, quite simply, is no substitute for real educational freedom: giving parents control of education funds, giving educators freedom to establish myriad options, and letting freedom, competition and specialization rein.

There is, however, one gratifying thing about the parent trigger: it has made historian Diane Ravitch—who constantly decries the destruction of “democracy” were we to have educational freedom—express outrage about ”51 percent of people using a public service hav[ing] the power to privatize it.”

Um, isn’t majority rule what democracy is all about? Or do government schooling defenders really just invoke the term because it sounds so nice and is such a potent rhetorical club?

The answer, it seems, is getting more clear.

Democracy - Whatever That Is - and Education

Democracy is inherently good, and since public schools are democratically controlled they, too, are inherently good. Right?

You’d think so from the way many people invoke “democracy” when championing government schools, but thanks to a recent blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, we might have a rare opportunity to actually scrutinize that assumption. A few days ago, Petrilli questioned the value of local school boards in light of what seems to be frequent capture by teachers unions, and was immediately accused of attacking “democracy” by historian Diane Ravitch.

“Gosh, Mike,” Ravitch wrote in the comments section, “it sounds as though you have identified the real problem ‘reformers’ face: democracy.”

With that the battle was on, and it’s one I’m happy to join: A huge problem we face in education is, indeed, democracy.

Before I go further, the first thing that’s necessary to do is define “democracy.” Unfortunately, that’s something rarely done by those who wield the term like a rhetorical chainsaw, swinging it wildly at anyone who might question government schooling.  Typically, it seems the word is employed to just vaguely connote some sort of action by “the people” – whoever they are – as opposed to “elites,” or to indicate that popular voting is in some fashion used to make laws.

That said, the most basic definition of democracy – the one you probably learned in grade school –  follows these lines: “Control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.” You might also assume the word means representative democracy, where people vote for their representatives and majorities of reps make the laws, but usually the word’s use isn’t even that precise.

This lack of precision leads to numerous problems, and a big one was illustrated in an exchange between Bob Bowdon – of Cartel and ChoiceMedia.tv fame – and Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker. Bowdon had a Flypaper post pointing out numerous cases in which ”the people” enacted education policies disliked by teachers unions, and the unions, instead of accepting the “democratic” outcomes, headed to the courts to thwart the new laws. Baker would have none of this argument, in the comments section of Petrilli’s post calling Bowdon’s entry an “absurd and misinformed rant.” Why? Largely because Bowdon failed to acknowledge that courts in Georgia – where one of the legal actions cited by Bowdon occurred – were taking perfectly legitimate action in striking down a charter school law that violated the state’s constitution.

Of course, Baker isn’t talking about democracy, at least in any precise way (or the feel-good, “people rule” sense I think Ravitch meant to convey) but a constitutional republic with separation of powers. That’s a very different thing, with a very different goal, from simple majority rule. As The Federalist discusses with great insight, a constitutional republic with checks and balances is a system intended to minimize the threat government poses to individuals, while enabling it to do those things that government must do.  That does not at all seem to be the “democracy” Ravitch and company were lauding, and you can’t reasonably blame Bowdon for turning that against them. Live by the loaded, imprecise definition, die by the loaded, imprecise definition. Unfortunately, that makes it much harder to have a useful debate about education governance.

But why don’t we want pure democracy?

Aside from the towering logistical problems, uninhibited majority rule is an existential threat to individual liberty, the true foundation of American society. Should my ability to drum up support from 50.1 percent of voters be all that’s needed to have your house taken from you, your speech quashed, and your family imprisoned? Of course not, but pure democracy would not only allow that, it would give it complete legal sanction.

So a constitutional republic, with its checks, balances, and enumerated powers, is infinitely preferable to pure democracy. However, it is a much harder concept to employ when you just want people to feel good about public schools, or angry about efforts to change them. “For crying out loud, they are democratic schools – schools controlled by the people – you evil 1-percenter!” (Cue foreboding tyranny-of-the-majority music.) And just because a form of governance is better than democracy doesn’t mean it works well.

Why does this superior form of government still largely fail? To really get into this question I recommend Cato’s Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice, available free online! I’ll just briefly hit the main, inherent pathology of government that constantly leads to skewed results.

Ultimately, it comes down to concentrated benefits and diffuse costs: The people who get the greatest benefit from a policy will be the most motivated to participate in the politics of that policy, while the costs are usually highly diffuse, giving the people paying for it relatively little incentive to politick. In education, the greatest benefit is accrued by the school employees – the people whose very livelihoods come from the system – hence they exert hugely disproportionate power. They are also much easier to organize than parents or taxpayers.  

In light of this basic inequality of incentives, it is no surprise that teachers unions (and other education employee organizations) wield disproportionate influence. Teachers and administrators aren’t bad people, it’s simply that normal incentives give them much more reason to constantly engage in education politics than the average voter, taxpayer, or even parent, for whom there are many other major concerns than trying to influence the district, state, of federal government on education policy. 

To deal with the effects of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in school districts, Petrilli suggests a couple of possible options: a move toward greater mayoral control of the schools, as exists in New York City, or having states control education. But these are fraught with at least as much peril as local control.

At the risk of violating an Italian corollary of Godwin’s Law, the mayoral control argument seems to come down to this: Mussolini made the trains run on time. Essentially, if you can put someone with dictatorial power in charge he won’t have to worry about special interests and can do what needs to be done. Plus, in the case of mayoral control there wouldn’t be real dictatorship – Il Duce could be voted out in four years.

Obviously, though, there’s a reason the term “dictator” doesn’t enjoy the same esteem as, say, ”chocolate,” or “Betty White” – people generally don’t like the way dictators turn out. Maybe you’ll get one who’s benevolent and wise – in which case you’ll just be troubled by your ultimately nonexistent freedom – but more likely you’ll get one who’s stupid, or cruel, or a combination of the two. And what do you do when the dictator imposes a bad reading curriculum on your kids, or closes a school that might have served them well? Just suffer.

But there’s the election – you can hold a mayor responsible then! Of course, that puts us right back in the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs problem, where the special interests are likely to be much more active in politicking than the average voter. And the problem isn’t just that: When the public votes for mayor, the vote is based not only on education policies, but also law enforcement, sanitation, sodium speakeasy crackdowns, and myriad other things. In other words, it is almost impossible to send an unambiguous message that the public is angry about education when so many issues affect who votes and why.

All these problems remain with state or federal control. There’s a reason the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, etc., have big headquarters in the Washington, DC, area, and their state affiliates run hefty operations in state capitals: they are wielding political power! And, like mayoral elections, voting in state or federal elections isn’t just about education, but taxation levels, wars, roads, bridges to nowhere, extramarital affairs, “do nothing” congresses, birth certificates, and so on.

At this point you might feel that democracy really is bad, and generally doomed to failure. And you’d be right, which is why government should be restricted to doing only those things that private individuals cannot do, and one of those things is not furnishing education. We know that private individuals can and do supply widespread education from our own history, in which education and literacy had very broad reach before government schools existed, and in which private schools often thrived – including a huge system of parochial schools – despite having to compete with “free” alternatives. Perhaps even more compelling, we can see it in the massive for-profit schooling industries that out-teach government schools in the poorest places in the world.

So what is the viable solution to our education governance problems? To end government control of education, setting both educators and parents free. Move to a system of universal school choice, in which funding is controlled by parents, educators have the autonomy to run their own schools, and all involved have equal power because free, voluntary exchange – not wielding political influence – is how business is done. Don’t make parents and taxpayers engage in endless, plodding, political warfare in which they’ll always be outgunned. Let them exercise immediate power by taking their kids – and the money to educate them – out of schools that do not satisfactorily serve them and put them into schools that do.

Thanks again to Mike Petrilli for daring to question “democracy,” and I hope it spurs a truly thoughtful, honest discussion about this absolutely crucial topic.

All You Have to Do Is Let Go of the Monopoly

I don’t have to prove my bona fides when it comes to opposing top-down, standards-based education reforms. I’ve been highly critical of the No Child Left Behind Act; very aggressive in attacking the reckless drive for national curriculum standards; and have repeatedly noted the importance of educator autonomy. So when you read the following, keep in mind that it is definitely not coming from a command-and-control aficionado: The weakest position in today’s big education war is the one opposed to both standards-based reforms and school choice. It’s the one enunciated yesterday by the Washington Post’ s Valerie Strauss, but which is most firmly staked out by historian Diane Ravitch.  It’s the position that essentially boils down to “don’t touch my local, teacher-dominated monopoly!”

Why is this so weak? Because it gives parents and taxpayers – the people who pay for public education and whom the system is supposed to serve – the fewest avenues to get what they want out of the schools.

Outraged over your neighborhood school because it is dangerous, the staff apathetic, and the building crumbling? Too bad – you get what you’re given and can’t even appeal to a higher level of government. And as we’ve seen in far too many places where the residents aren’t rich enough to exercise choice by buying expensive homes in better districts – the District of Columbia, Compton, Detroit, etc. – Ravitch’s utopian vision of school districts as places where “people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors” is just so much gauzy rhapsodizing. Reality is much harsher.

Of course, there are gigantic, fatal flaws with the standards-and-accountability movement, and people like Ravitch and Strauss have very compelling reasons for concern.

The standards movement, for one thing, is completely reliant on standardized testing. Indeed, it is heading for a single, national test, despite well-established evidence that tests are highly constrained in what they can tell us about learning.

In addition, as Ravitch and others regularly lament, the standards movement seems to be dominated by present and former business leaders who have tended to treat education as just another uniform-widget production problem. But children are not uniform; they are individual human beings with widely varied interests, rates of maturity, educational starting points, and life goals. But that never seems to enter into the standards equation, rendering it wrong from the start. Add to this that standards-based reformers tend to treat the education system as a single entity to be engineered, rather than an industry in which schools are the firms and competition is essential for sustained innovation and improvement, and standards-based reforms are as hopeless as teacher-dominated mini monopolies.

Unfortunately, top-down standardizers seem unlikely to join the fold of the one reform that includes both necessary educator autonomy and powerful accountability to parents: educational freedom. Yes, they often like school choice as long as government dictates what chosen schools teach, but they don’t embrace real freedom. Perhaps, though, the Ravitches and Strausses of the world can be brought on board. They won’t be able to keep the local monopolies they cherish, but they’ll be able to get most of what they want: much less stultifying uniformity; considerably more freedom for teachers; and the flourishing of communities, though communities based on shared norms and values, not mere physical proximity.

The flimsiest position in our great education debate is the one held by opponents of both top-down accountability and educational freedom. But if they’ll  remove the rose-tinted glasses through which they see local public schooling, there is an option that should appeal to them, one that injects essential parent power and competition into education while giving educators the professional autonomy they crave. It is school choice – educational freedom – and it is the reform that wins the great education debate.

It’s All In How You Define ‘Community’

Every week, the National Journal’s Education Expert blog tackles a different issue, and from hereon out I’ll be weighing in on many of them, crossposting at Cato@Liberty. I sent in my first entry today, which appears as a “guest response” while they set me up to appear as a regular. It’s on my favorite topic – education and social cohesion – so hopefully I’ve started with a bang.

Enjoy, and thanks to the National Journal for bringing a libertarian perspective on board:

Looking at the evidence suggests that school choice is the best educational system to build strong communities. A lot, though, depends on how you define “community.”

Diane Ravitch essentially defines a community as a “neighborhood,” and certainly neighborhoods can be a form of community. But neighborhoods are hardly close to the only type of community, and to the extent that neighborhoods – or, given education reality these days, school districts, states, and the federal government – often include people with very diverse backgrounds, desires, and norms, public schools can be very destructive to social cohesion.

Start with simple logic: If diverse people are required to support a single system of schools, is it more likely to result in unity or conflict? The answer, of course, is conflict. If people cannot agree on what math curriculum to use, they have to fight it out politically. If they cannot agree on whether or not there should be school uniforms, they have to fight that out. Indeed, any disagreement has to be resolved in a political arena, and the term “arena” certainly does not connote cohesion.

We see this forced conflict manifested constantly in education. States and communities are regularly inflamed over the teaching of human origins, whether we’re talking Scopes Monkey or Intelligent Design. We have disputes of which religious groups will get their holidays off from school. And then there’s the ever contentious teaching of U.S. history.

And conflict is only one manifestation of the division caused by trying to bring diverse people under a single government umbrella. Renowned social capital theorist Robert Putnam has found that where there is significant diversity there is also major atomization – people “pull in like a turtle” – quite possibly because they have few recognized, shared norms to hold onto. So not only don’t you have cohesive – but separated – groups, you have seriously compromised intra-group cohesion as well. Communities of all types are weak.

How do you overcome these very real problems through the education system? Let people choose schools – especially private schools – with the money that currently all goes to public schools. Then, not only can you phase out the inherently adversarial system that is public schooling, you can empower people to choose schools based on their shared norms and values.

But won’t this “balkanize” Americans? Maybe, in that many people will choose to attend schools with people like themselves. That, though, is certainly preferable to forcing us at each others’ throats. Moreover, there is evidence that allowing people to choose schools helps to meaningfully overcome serious divisions. Research by Jay Greene and Nicole Mellow, for instance, found that lunch tables – where students sit by true, voluntary choice – at private schools were better integrated by race than those at public institutions. Why? There could be many explanations, but a very reasonable one is that the ties that bind kids at private schools – common religious values, perhaps shared interest in a particular curriculum – help to overcome divisions such as race.

Does more work need to be done to prove that choice is crucial to building communities? Absolutely. Unfortunately, for the most part we haven’t even considered that government schooling might be more divisive than unifying, despite the very real – and painful – evidence that that could indeed be the case. Well, we need to seriously consider the possibility that choice is better mortar for building communities than government schooling because, respect for “neighborhood schools” notwithstanding, the evidence in favor of choice – and against government schooling – is both real and mounting.

Diane Ravitch Is Right on Republicans and NCLB

Writing in yesterday’s WSJ, education historian Diane Ravitch laments that Republicans have abandoned their earlier defense of federalism and limited government in education, embracing vast and expanding powers for Washington over the nation’s schools. In particular, she faults the No Child Left Behind act for demanding public school improvements that have not been forthcoming and for imposing “corrective” measures that will not correct the problem.

Though I depart from Ravitch on most education policy matters – and not just on conclusions but also methodology – she is right in both of the above observations. Over the past decade, many Republicans have championed new federal powers in education that have no basis in the U.S. Constitution, no plausible empirical justification, and no evidence of success. NCLB demands higher achievement without creating the market freedoms and incentives that would actually allow it – asking, in other words, for the impossible.

With the current resurgence of public interest in limited government, Republicans have an excellent opportunity to rekindle their commitment to the limited federal role in education laid out by the U.S. Constitution. Phasing out NCLB would be a good place to start.

Sorry — Ravitch Not Ridiculous

In a fit of pique, I intemperately suggested in the title of my last post that the content of Diane Ravitch’s recent Washington Post op-ed was ridiculous. That was over the top: As is obvious, I disagree with Ravitch on school choice, and my review of her latest book makes clear that I am dubious about her various policy prescriptions. But, heck, we agree on much about what ails the No Child Left Behind Act, and her thoughts on choice are hardly on the fringe. So even though I think her choice critiques very wrong, one’s opinions can be thought wrong by me without qualifying as ridiculous.

That said, we do still need to talk about such things as federal teacher-quality demands…

More Ravitch Ridiculousness

Great post by Chris Edwards responding to historian Diane Ravitch’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post. For a good ripping apart of Ravitch’s reality-free thinking from an education-policy standpoint, check out my review of her new book over at School Reform News.

Oh, and let’s please get something straight: Ravitch has never been the one-time “strong supporter” of school choice she claims to have been. Sadly, this claim seems designed mainly to make it appear that she’s had some sort of serious “come (back) to public schools” moment. But as she writes in her new book, she had never really given much thought to choice until she joined the George H.W. Bush administration in 1991, and then she just tried to cram it into her “worldview.”

“The issue of choice had never really been important to me,” she writes, “but I found myself trying to incorporate the arguments for choice into my own worldview.”

Does this sound either like a strong supporter of choice, or someone who had really thought choice through and understood why and how it would work? Nope, and that comes right through in her simplistic conclusion that because really limited choice like charter schools and tiny voucher programs don’t make huge differences, all choice should be abandoned.