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.

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.” 

Addressing the Critics of This Purportedly No Good, Very Bad Chart

For the past few years I have charted the trends in American education spending and performance (see below). The goal is to see what the national data suggest about the productivity of our education system over time. Clearly, these data suggest that our educational productivity has collapsed: the inflation-adjusted cost of sending a student all the way through the K-12 system has almost tripled while test scores near the end of high-school remain largely unchanged. Put another way, per-pupil spending and achievement are not obviously correlated.

Not everyone is happy with these charts, and in this post I’ll respond to the critics, starting with the most recent: Matt DiCarlo of the Albert Shanker Institute, an organization that honors the life and legacy of the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. DiCarlo finds the chart “misleading,” “exasperating,” and seemingly designed to “start a conversation by ending it.” Since we’re actually having a conversation about the chart and what it shows, and since I’ve had countless such conversations over the years, perhaps we can agree that the last of those accusations is more of a rhetorical flourish than a serious argument.

Subscribe to RSS - andrew coulson