2011/10/16

Privatizing education - a zombie idea that just won't die

(I wrote this in response to a piece in the Inky, gave it to a buddy of mine to check and he never got around to reading it. With the news that Rupert Murdoch' of the News Corporation (NY Daily News, Fox News, Wall St. Journal, etc.) giving the keynote speech at an education summit, I've decided the piece is just too relevant to continue to hold back.)

Re: "School choice programs are making inroads" Aug 28

Y'know, it would sure be nice if the Inky would expand their explorations of certain issues beyond simply reprinting right-wing think-tank handouts. A perfect case in point is a piece from the Heritage Foundation "
School choice programs are making inroads" that they published on August 28th. A better explanation of the article's thesis comes from a piece from a Heritage Foundation blog ("FamilyFacts.org: Education Spending Skyrockets While Achievement Remains Flat" March 29th of this year) makes the more detailed case that while spending on education has gone up, achievement by students has remained flat. The New York Times, however, took a detailed look ("Growth in Education Spending Slowed in 2009" May 25th) at why education spending has gone up.

As economists have pointed out, the main driver of the growth of federal budget deficits is America's health care system. Not surprisingly, health care for teachers and other school personnel is a major factor in the rise of schooling costs. We also might keep in mind the rise of mandates in education, things that parents would like to see schools do and teach. The Heritage Foundation blog is correct, there are many, many more persons working in positions in schools today that weren't there 100 or even 50 years ago. 

As far as costs go, however, it's important to keep in mind that once a school has paid for things like their grounds, their building and their furniture, there are standard yearly expenses like books and uniforms and sports equipment and daily expenses like cafeteria food.
But the vast majority of money was, and I believe still is, spent on salaries for the teachers, the administrative staff, the janitorial staff and others.

I worked as a secretary for a private school from 1985 to 1990. Computers were just beginning to become standard equipment (Popular use of the Internet was still a long way off) and I used a typewriter for most of the documents that I produced for some of the teachers. These included tests and student evaluations.

When, near the end of my time there, I brought in a laptop computer, I produced student evaluations for teachers faster and better, but as I had a lot of free time anyway (I got lots and lots of reading done on that job, sometimes finishing big hardback books in a week), it didn't make much difference to the workloads of the teachers. They still gave me drafts written in pen and I still typed them out on paper with carbons. Technology was a nice thing to have, VCRs were helpful and although photocopiers were in use, lots of paper reproductions were still done via the mimeograph
(slide projectors weren't replaced with computer slideshows until long afterwards), but as teaching was mainly done through teachers talking to students from the head of the classroom and with students writing their thoughts and answers and essays on paper, technology didn't make a whole lot of difference to the teacher's workload.

Education simply is, was and always will be a very labor-intensive field.
Obviously, money can make some difference, students can achieve more in a clean, well-lit and physically comfortable classroom then in a place where the roof leaks and books are in short supply. But once a certain level of spending is reached that enables classrooms to reach that level, a point is quickly reached where the school's spending hits the point of diminishing returns. At that point, money continues to be helpful, but ceases to be critical to whether a school can teach children effectively.

So the idea
that the educational system is simply throwing money at the problem of bettering education is not very credible.

There's no question that the school choice movement is a growing one. The real question is why that is. From a generally rah-rah piece on privatizing schools ("
Julia Steiny: The Excellent School-Choice Movement Accidentally Leaves Vulnerable Children Behind" June 9th):


Mind you, research shows that apart from a few truly great schools, the choice movement hasn’t boosted academic performance overall.  Charter schools, for example, have roughly the same range of good, bad and indifferent as regular district schools.

And from a question and answer session with the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute ("Frederick Hess: Questions and answers" January 23rd):

So far, charters have had mixed results. They haven’t been shown to be consistently better than traditional district schools...

A piece in Z Communications ("The History of the School Privatization Movement" March 15th) states:

However instead of improving funding to these struggling schools, the one intervention supported by statistical research, they continue to aggressively shift education funding from public schools to private charter schools – despite the Stanford study showing that charter programs don’t improve achievement levels...

So if proponents of charter schools/school choice aren't delivering better quality schooling for our youngsters, then what's the point? Z Communications makes the case that the movement is a neoliberal attack on liberal activist government generally.

It's a very generously-funded movement (Counterpunch "The Future of Charter Schools" August 26th, 2009) that forces teachers to be mere

...technicians, dispensaries of information for memorization purposes in accordance with the testing regime of NCLB

As I suggested in my opening, there is very considerably more to the school choice issue than any right-wing think-tank hand-out will ever tell you.

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