Tag Archives: “privatization”

Stop the “Rhee Scare” of Education Reform Conspiracy Theories

James Cersonsky recently sparked a debate with his piece on the increasing influence of Teach for America alumni in education policy. He discusses the TFA spin-off organization Leadership for Educational Equity, which was created as a resource for TFA alums who are interested in education policy and advocacy. (As someone who absolutely fits that profile, I am proud to call myself an LEE member.) Unfortunately, Cersonsky’s piece ignores the obvious and universally positive consequence of TFA’s growing alumni base–a new generation of leaders dedicated to improving education in this country–in favor of perpetuating conspiracy theories about education reform.

Cersonsky details the various initiatives of LEE, including supporting candidates for public office, providing online trainings for advocacy, and hosting an extensive job bank. He also explicitly acknowledges that the organization doesn’t push any particular ideology or policy. Not too nefarious, right? But that doesn’t stop Cersonsky from diving into paranoia:

And while LEE may be policy-neutral, it isn’t hard to imagine the massive proliferation of Michelle Rhees and, in turn, the entrenchment of education reform geared toward money-soaked charter expansion, “new unionism,” and test-based student achievement. In other words, what began—and is still viewed by many—as an apolitical service corps could be the Trojan horse of the privatization of public education.

Besides the comical contention that something not being “hard to imagine” somehow constitutes an argument, this quote shows that Cersonsky is one of a growing group of people who absurdly view TFA corps members and education reformers as part of a conspiracy dedicated to destroying public education.

Don’t get me wrong: Policies generally associated with modern education reform–charter expansion, tenure reform, merit pay, etc.–certainly should be debated and critiqued, as all policies should be. But opponents of those policies prefer fear-mongering to actual discussion. Worst is the implication that “reformers” are trying to do anything but improve outcomes for kids. Everyone in the education debate needs to understand that we all ultimately have the same goals; what differs is the means towards those goals. And for that reason, anyone who is truly dedicated to improving education in this country should be excited by a generation of young politicians eager to raise the issue on the public agenda, regardless of what that may mean for their preferred policy solution. Resorting to baseless accusations and personal attacks is childish and unproductive.

When reading Cersonsky’s piece, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to absurd anti-Communist rhetoric during the Red Scare. In education today, I suppose we have a “Rhee Scare,” with modern McCarthys like Cersonsky abound. We should approach them with skepticism.

Why Are People Opposed to Investment in Education?

Newark, New Jersey made headlines this past week when its teachers union agreed   to a new system of teacher compensation that would trade certain guaranteed salary increases for merit-based bonuses. The bold plan, backed by union President Joe Del Grosso as well as Governor Chris Christie, is funded by $50 million by the foundation started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg.

This sort of private investment in education has yielded substantial opposition. According to Diane Ravitch, the education philanthropy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is “inflicting incalculable damage on our public schools and on the education profession.”  (N.B. The Foundation’s stated  goal on their website is to make “sure high school students graduate ready for success and prepared to earn postsecondary degrees.” Sounds pretty malicious.) Especially at a time when school districts nationwide are forced to scour couches for leftover pennies, this opposition is illogical and unjustified. Even if every idea funded doesn’t work perfectly, private investment in education provides a great opportunity to encourage innovation and help kids. 

Given budget constraints, it isn’t surprising that school districts are reluctant to diverge from the status quo. Most of the billions we spend on education in this country are already allocated to contracts and other mandatory costs, leaving precious little discretionary funding. To put it bluntly, the money just isn’t there.

Private investment changes the equation. Districts such as Newark have the opportunity to experiment and explore to make the changes that their schools sorely need. Who are Ravitch and others to say that under-resourced districts desperately trying to stay afloat shouldn’t take money that is offered to them? It is traditionalist ideology extended to the absurd.

To be honest, I find it puzzling–and somewhat comical–that many of the same people that lament poor education funding are trying to stop private investment into education. Corporate conspiracy theories aside, I have trouble understanding why more money in education is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it is a great sign that philanthropists and business leaders are finally acknowledging the urgency of creating an educational system that serves all students. I hope that other districts follow Newark’s lead and welcome outside investment as an opportunity for innovation.

The Urgency of Fixing Schools

This week at school, I took a bit of my prep period to introduce myself and get to know one of my 5th graders who just transferred to the school. (Let’s call him Jim.) Born and raised in Philadelphia, he loves playing football, eating hot wings, and riding bikes with his brothers. I was immediately struck by his warmth and ease in conversation, despite being approached by a stranger. At that age, I tended to start counting the dots on floor tiles when adults tried to talk to me.

After a bit of small talk, I asked him about his old school. Exasperation exploded across his face, and he sighed. “That place was crazy. They was always fighting, and teachers never made us do nothing. We used to walk out of class and play in the hall.” His academic progress matched the school description: the baseline one-on-one reading test administered to him when he arrived at our school showed that he reads at a mid-1st grade level. In other words, after only 5 years of attending school he is 3.5 years behind, a chasm that statistics show is rarely closed.

I’ll put it bluntly: the fact that Jim had to attend his old school is a moral failing for which we are all culpable. Each day that ineffective, unsafe schools operate is a slap in the face to our society.

Opponents to school turnarounds cite the dangers about corporate involvement in education and spin romanticized, nostalgic tales about “traditional” public schools. While I’m not suggesting nefarious intent from those people, their concerns don’t help Jim and the thousands of other students attending schools that deny them their right to a quality education. For me, it is a simple question: Would you want your own child to attend that school? If not, something needs to be changed, and quickly.

My credentials as a “liberal” have been repeatedly questioned for my support of turnarounds, but what could be more liberal than wanting the same for all kids? As I’ve written previously, pointing to poverty as the root cause of educational equity doesn’t help kids attending terrible schools right now. We need to remember that Jim and his family aren’t interested in a sociological debate about whether poverty is the main cause of educational inequity; they just want good, safe, schools–an unquestionably reasonable request. And until it is fulfilled, we should cast unproductive debates and pie-in-the-sky policy goals aside.

School Effectiveness, Not Labels

Last month, I went to the ER for a head injury I sustained while playing basketball. (Caught an elbow in the forehead, though naturally I told people that I hit my head on the rim while dunking.) Though the wait was inconvenient and the co-pay hefty, it was a necessary cost: I needed stitches, and  had neither the skill nor the resources to take care of it myself.

Education works in basically the same way, though hopefully with fewer lidocaine injections. Society has decided that an educated community is a public good that is worth paying for. And since it is both impractical and inefficient for individuals to be responsible for educating their own kids, we pay for somebody else to do it for us; we call these public schools. Sure, we have to fork over the money and deal with some inconvenience, like transporting our kids to and from school. But we agree that it’s a necessary cost.

That is why I am continually frustrated by arguments about whether charter schools are public schools. Besides being a ridiculous argument in the first place–even the NEA definition of charters calls them “publicly funded elementary or secondary schools”–it is a distraction from what actually matters in education: whether kids are learning.

The basic reasoning for public education is that it is in the community’s interest to shoulder the cost of educating children, just as it was in my interest to shoulder the cost of an ER visit to get medical treatment. Expanding use of charter schools does not alter that model in any way; all kids are still receiving an education on the taxpayer’s dime. Is the money diverted from the established bureaucracy? Sure. But it isn’t dismantling or destroying anything except old appropriation decisions.

Instead of wasting our time on labels, we should be ensuring that schools are effective. Whether traditional public, charter, or alternative, if schools aren’t educating our kids there is no reason to have public education at all. If I weren’t confident that a doctor could have stitched up my head, I wouldn’t have bothered to go. Yet as education in this country continues to hemorrhage,  people are more concerned about the names of the stitches than whether they can stop the bleeding.

The Fallacy of the Charter School “Movement”

It is no secret that the number of charter schools in the US has been rapidly increasing. The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991; today there are over 5,600 charter schools serving over two million students. And with decreasing municipal revenues and the impressive success of many charters across the country, that growth should continue.

Unsurprisingly, charter schools have become a common target of supporters of the educational status quo, particularly teachers’ unions. Charters, they claim, directly attack the public education system by draining resources from “real” public schools. The dangerous and malicious charter school “movement” needs to be stopped.

I’m not going to counter that critique of charters here; that is for another post. But it is worth pointing out that referring to charters as a “movement” is a fallacious oversimplification that unfairly presents charter schools as an opponent, rather than a component, of public education. 

The reality is that charter schools in the US are incredibly diverse from one another, and hardly synchronized or connected. According to the National Education Association, charter schools are “publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school’s charter.” Charters can differ from other public schools by emphasizing foreign languages and cultures, prioritizing certain areas of study, or using different instructional models. Though charter approval works differently in different areas, the basic idea is that someone in the community suggests that it would benefit the kids in the community to have an additional public school option; the specific proposal must then be approved by a representative body in the community. Of course, applications for charters are routinely rejected as well.

What is NOT happening, despite what charter opponents may have you believe, is some kind of coordinated attack on public education by charter school advocates. There is no concerted “movement”; it is just becoming more common–and rightfully so–for active citizens to realize that kids in their community are not receiving the education they deserve. Lumping charter schools together may make for easier sound bites, but that doesn’t make it valid. We should call the description of charter school expansion as a “movement” what it is: a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory intended to manipulate public opinion to preserve a broken status quo.

Diane Ravitch Doesn’t Understand Philly

Today in EdWeek, education scholar and commentator Diane Ravitch joined the fray of alarmist outsiders lamenting the impending “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Her concern stems from the recently released “blueprint” for school reorganization in Philadelphia  which includes closing 64 schools—they will presumably either be reopened as charters or consolidated–and dividing the district into “achievement networks” led by teams of educators or nonprofit organizations. Though her EdWeek piece (and comment on it on her blog) carry a dramatic, passionate tone, she proves little more than her proficiency at the use of logical fallacy.

Ravitch considers this reorganization to amount to an “abandon[ment]” and “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Money quotes:

The death of public education in any city or district is a tragedy. Education is a public responsibility. If some choose to pay to go to non-public schools, they have the right to do so. But for the vast majority of our kids, public education is their right and our responsibility. Any who whittle away that sense of public responsibility are doing damage to our society and our kids and our future.

As we abandon public schools, we abandon any sense of public responsibility for a basic public service. That’s worse than a mistake. It’s a tragedy. What will be privatized next? Police protection? Fire protection? Clean air? Potable water?

In other words, she argues that education ought to be a public responsibility, and shirking that responsibility would be damaging to society. That is a statement with which no one in involved in the Philadelphia reorganization disagrees. How could they? This is a  classic “straw man” argument, which misrepresents an opponent’s position. (Her claim that privatization of education could result in privatization of other areas in the second passage I quoted is also a perfect use of the “slippery slope” fallacy. Actually, I am somewhat thankful–it is a great example to use when I teach critical reading of nonfiction in my classes.)

In truth, Ravitch is ignoring a basic reality: the reorganization in Philadelphia does not remove the public responsibility for education. Whether she likes it or not,  charter schools are still public schools. They are funded by tax dollars, and students do not have to pay to go there. Sure, some charter organizations receive additional funding from private donations. But is more money in the system a bad thing? All students in the city will still attend school regardless of their financial situation. The means of implementing the public responsibility for education is changing; the responsibility itself is not.

Now, Ravitch is spot-on in her argument that inadequate funding in the district is largely to blame for the dire situation in Philly. But given her prominent position in the education reform world, she needs to double-check her facts and logic before resorting to alarmism. Otherwise we might as well  just hand her a bell and a sign: