Tag: andrew coulson

School Inc. Under Attack: Milton Friedman, PBS, and the Quixotic Pursuit of “Balance” in Public Broadcasting

Our departed colleague Andrew Coulson spent the last years of his life producing School Inc., a wonderful and informative documentary about the possibilities of private, choice-based schooling. I highly recommend it. Amazingly, at least to me, PBS agreed to air the documentary, and in April it debuted on PBS stations around the country.

Unsurprisingly, a chorus of critics are angered that PBS would air such a program. Media Matters for America seems to call for the outright censorship of any critique of public education on public television by wondering, “why would a public broadcast channel air a documentary that is produced by a right-wing think tank and funded by ultra-conservative donors, and that presents a single point of view without meaningful critique, all the while denigrating public education?” Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of private schools, complains that “uninformed viewers who see this very slickly produced program will learn about the glories of unregulated schooling, for-profit schools, [and] teachers selling their lessons to students on the Internet,” but “what they will not see or hear is the other side of the story.” Now a petition has been started calling for PBS to air “the other side” of the story by showing the anti-private school film Backpack Full of Cash.

I have nothing against showing the “other side” to Andrew’s series, but we need to put this debate in context. When it comes to PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the “other side” that doesn’t get heard is usually the conservative or libertarian side, and CPB has generally been deeply antagonistic to those ideas. That Ravitch and others are now the ones complaining is at least somewhat ironic.

Critique of School Inc. Illustrates Why Airing It Is Right

Stalwart public schooling defender Diane Ravitch does not like what she saw in School Inc., a three-part documentary series created by former Cato education analyst Andrew Coulson. Of course, she is welcome to disagree with it. But her main complaint—that PBS dared show the documentary in the first place—is concerning from a public debate perspective, while her more substantive critiques of School Inc. illustrate precisely why we need to let all voices engage in debates, not just those with whom we agree.

From the outset, let’s be clear. Neither the documentary itself nor PBS hide one iota what is being presented: the views of Andrew Coulson. Heck, the subtitle of School Inc. is “A Personal Journey with Andrew Coulson.” It leaves it to viewers—not gatekeepers who may just dislike Coulson’s point of view—to decide if the case Coulson makes is persuasive. And if we are after open discussion and truth, what should matter is not who funded the documentary—Ravitch portrays School Inc. sponsors as frightening bogeymen—but the content of the documentary.

Ravitch does address some of the substance of School Inc., but in so doing reveals why it is so crucial that all sides of controversial issues get heard, not just those with which she agrees. Quite simply, many of her knocks on the substance are themselves highly questionable.

Still Unhappy with PBS for Airing School Inc.

Before it even hit the fiber-optics, defenders of public schooling were agitated that PBS stations would be airing Andrew Coulson’s documentary School Inc., which takes viewers on a ride through time and around the world to learn how innovation happens, and why it happens too rarely in education. Last Friday a new critique was published, this time on the website of Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association of educators. In the piece, Loyola University Chicago professor Amy Shuffelton asks, “Why did PBS and its local New York affiliate, WNET, agree to broadcast and distribute such an unbalanced, journalistically questionable series on such a controversial and complicated topic as education?”

Perhaps the answer is that PBS officials thought the series had high-quality content, and discerning viewers could determine for themselves whether they accepted its premise. Writes Shuffelton: “According to WNET’s Specter [Shuffelton does not provide a first name], the second part of the series title, ‘A Personal Journey’ is key to understanding the project. ‘When you read that subtitle, you know that you’re going to get a point of view, and we’re not opposed to presenting different points of view.’”

The documentary certainly is clear that you are getting one person’s perspective. And while I don’t watch a lot of television, PBS or otherwise, it seems unlikely that PBS programs such as Bill Moyer’s Journal or Democracy Now! have been committed to strict, equal time for opposing views. As with public schooling, there is good reason to oppose publicly funded television because it is impossible to represent the views of every taxpayer equally. But PBS exists, and points of view seem to be articulated without having to be balanced out.

Of course, the best way to judge the quality and merits of School Inc. is to view it yourself, which you can do here, or by watching this space for future airings in your market. And you should of course read opposing views like Shuffelton’s, though don’t expect objectivity there, either. For instance, Shuffelton says that Coulson quotes Horace Mann and Thomas Jefferson out of context, but does not say how. Worse, she suggests that Coulson believes discrimination in government funding is a solution to religious conflicts in education:

Coulson does consider the possibility of civic discord in the last ten minutes of the series, but his answers are not convincing. School Inc. turns to Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer’s dissent in the case Zelman v Simmons-Harris, which upheld an Ohio voucher program. Breyer worried that publicly financed voucher programs, which funnel federal funds to religious schools, raise the possibility of religiously based social conflict.

Coulson’s response should raise concern for anyone worried about First Amendment rights. To show that social conflict is unlikely to follow, he uses the example of a voucher program proposed in New Orleans. One of the schools eager to participate was a Muslim school. When Louisianans got wind of this, controversy followed. So the Muslim school dropped out. In Coulson’s eyes, the problem was thereby solved.

Wait, I found myself thinking as I watched, that’s discrimination, not a defense of First Amendment rights. I expected Coulson to explain why it was not, but the series moved on to clips of jazz performances, which, according to Coulson, demonstrate Americans’ ability to get along.

This is just incorrect. For one thing, Coulson devotes nearly half of the final episode to social conflict, choice, and equality. And far from condoning exclusion of the Muslim school, he explains that a fundamental problem with vouchers is that while they create more freedom and equality than majority-rules public schools, they can still unjustly compel people to furnish funds for teachings they oppose, opening choice up for government discrimination.

The solution, Coulson suggests, are tax credits for people who choose to donate to groups that award scholarships. Want to give to a group providing scholarships for Montessori students? Go ahead! Catholic schools? Sure! Muslim institutions? Absolutely! This maximizes freedom for both families and funders, and minimizes incentives to legally exclude groups.

I think there is a huge amount of value to be found in School Inc., but others can certainly disagree. What they should not try to do is squelch the documentary, or misrepresent what it says. Oh, and if they want to learn even more about Andrew and debate his ideas, they can check out this new book. After all, the more open discussion we have, the better!

Yes, Randi Weingarten, Public Schooling Is an Innovation “Dead End.” Just Watch School Inc.

Today education secretary Betsy DeVos is paying a visit to an Ohio public school at the invitation of one of her most vociferous critics, and one of the most ardent opponents of school choice: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. The AFT is the second largest teachers union in the country, and Weingarten has repeatedly complained that DeVos has called public schools—institutions heavily influenced by union power—a “dead end.” One purpose of the invitation is to prove otherwise.

So are public schools dead ends? Of course not. Tens of millions of children attend them every year, and most will do fine in their lives. Of course, most likely would do well no matter where they went to school, and probably at a fraction of what we currently pay. But DeVos did not actually say that the schools themselves were dead ends. She said that the public schooling system—a government monopoly—is a dead end for entrepreneurship and innovation. “We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market,” DeVos said in a 2015 speech. “It’s a monopoly, a dead end.”

Is DeVos right? To see for yourself, watch Andrew Coulson’s School Inc., now showing on PBS stations around the country. Why we have so little innovation in education is the central point of the highly engaging documentary. Coulson examines education and other industries both historically and around the modern world, and illustrates that freedom for people who make things, or perform services such as teaching, coupled with paying customers and an ability to make a profit—yes, a profit!—are the keys to unleashing innovation at scale, to the benefit of all.

At the touch of a screen, you and I can now listen to tens-of-thousands of different pieces of music stored on a device that also makes telephone calls, lets you play video games, empowers you to surf the Internet, and much more. That is a quantum leap from how we listened to music even just a couple of decades ago. Yet education is pretty much the same instructor-in-front-of-kids model it has been for centuries.

Apple, HTC, Samsung, all work for profits. Public schools? Not so much.

Essentially, profit shows that something is in demand—that freely choosing people find it of value—and that others could make money by producing something similar, or better. This takes innovation to scale while driving prices down. Not only is that not evil, as emotionally charged critiques of profit imply, it is a classic win-win!

Today’s DeVos-Weingarten confab is likely to be a nice show for public schools, illustrating that they are not dead ends. But DeVos did not say they were, and what she did say—a government monopoly suffocates innovation—is grounded in extremely well documented—and documentary—reality.

A Year Gone by Since Andrew Passed, a Big Year to Come for His Ideas

Today marks one year since the death of former Cato Center for Educational Freedom director, and later senior fellow, Andrew Coulson. Many friends and colleagues had wonderful things to say about Andrew upon his passing, and we invite you to read all the testimonials that we were able to assemble.

Today, however, is not only a day for looking to the past, but to the future. Because Andrew’s ideas are about to enter their biggest stage yet. The project to which Andrew devoted most of his final years, and that encompasses the heart of his thought on education, has been accepted by PBS. School Inc., Andrew’s three-part documentary series on how free markets bring transformative innovation to countless parts of our lives, and how to achieve such dynamism to the world of education, will air on WNET in New York in June, and may begin airing on PBS stations around the country as early as April. We’ll keep you posted on all stations and times as soon as they are available.

As a supplement to the documentary—and for anyone who wants to explore the ongoing debates about Andrew’s ideas on education—Cato will soon be publishing Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas, a free ebook that will be available on the Cato website, featuring essays by many education thinkers who knew Andrew and his ideas well.

As we said last year, “Andrew Coulson is no longer with us. Thankfully, his ideas remain, and they will always illuminate the pathway forward.” Indeed, they will.

Setting the Record Straight on the Coulson Education Productivity Study

A recent op-ed in the Times Herald took aim at a study by our dearly departed colleague, Andrew J. Coulson. In short, the author claimed that the study’s “flaw” was supposedly failing to take into account something that Andrew actually did take into account, as he explained in his study. Since Andrew is no longer available to address specious attacks on his research, it falls to his colleagues to do so. What follows is the letter that Rachel Reese, a research associate at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and I submitted to the Times Herald:

In an op-ed urging support for a bond proposal for the Port Huron school district, Professor James Clatworthy took issue with a Cato Institute study by the late Andrew J. Coulson that found no correlation between spending and achievement. We take no position on the bond, but stand by our colleague’s research.

Despite a near tripling of the inflation-adjusted cost per pupil in public schools nationwide between 1972 and 2012, the performance of high school students on the SAT and National Assessment of Educational Progress has been flat. Coulson’s study compared state-level SAT scores, controlling for changing participation rates and student demographics, to the total, inflation-adjusted cost of a K-12 education, finding no discernable link between spending and performance.

Clatworthy erroneously claimed that Coulson’s findings did not account for SAT scores being periodically “mean centered,” meaning that the average scores were reset. In fact, contrary to Clatworth’s assertion that the test was recentered “multiple times” over the period of the study, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) only recentered the SAT once between 1972 and 2012 and Coulson used ETS’s own formula to compare the pre- and post-recentering data.

Ironically, Clatworthy also criticized Coulson for supporting policies empowering parents to choose schools, claiming that choice would “return us to the status of the 1700s.” But choice is clearly the right model for the 21st century, in which a quickly changing world will need a nimbly adapting education system. That requires choice and decentralized control, not a bureaucratic system that demands evermore money without measurably improving results.

Andrew Coulson, In Memoriam

Earlier this week, we lost a giant. Andrew Coulson, Senior Fellow in Education Policy at the Cato Institute, passed away after a fifteen-month battle with brain cancer. In the days that followed, colleagues, friends, and admirers paid tribute to his achievements, reminisced about his character and virtues, and reflected on his legacy. What follows is a compilation of those tributes.

Neal McCluskey remembers Andrew in an interview with Caleb Brown:

Adam B. Schaeffer, former colleague and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute:

There is no one else beside Andrew Coulson that you must read to discover what reforms we need in education and why they will work. That is not hyperbole. There are many very sharp people who have contributed important thoughts on education reform, but you will get everything essential that you need from reading through Andrew’s collective works. […]

Andrew was a fine thinker and passionate advocate. But, as many have noted, he was also a kind man with a splendid sense of humor and relentless optimism. He remained immovably committed to his principles and the conclusions to which his great mind had led him. But he always engaged with a sense of magnanimity and humor, never bitter or angry. Even when I made a good deal of trouble for him with my lack of these qualities, Andrew stood by me. When he faced difficulties because of his principles, he always stood firm on those as well.

Adam concludes his tribute with a recommended reading list of Andrew’s works, which are among “all the wonderful gifts he’s left us.”