The Nation Explains How to 'Save' Public Schools, Scare Quotes Necessary


Wikimedia Commons

The traditional public school system is an ailing beast, and many of us at Reason would like it to succumb to its wounds as quickly as possible. But if you are of the sort that would like to save American K-12, preserve the tyranny of the teachers unions, and continue funnelling millions of dollars into the coffers of what is perhaps the most alienating government bureaucracy of all, The Nation's latest special issue is just for you.

The "Saving Public Schools" edition contains nearly a dozen articles with such scare-quoted headlines as "Venture Capitalists Are Poised to 'Disrupt' Everything About the Education Market" and "The Secret to Eva Moskowitz's 'Success'" (emphasis mine). An unsigned editorial titled "Our Public Education System Needs Transformation, Not 'Reform'" gets the ball rolling:

Charter-school advocates and others who claim the mantle of education reform have now seen their ideas put into practice in a number of areas—from high-stakes testing to digital learning to the takeover of struggling public schools. The results are in. How are they doing? Suffice it to say, if this were a high-stakes test, they'd fail.

As the articles in this issue illustrate, the strategies pursued by education reformers frequently dovetail with those of austerity hawks. The latter burnish their conservative credentials by cutting budgets and defunding schools. The reformers sweep in to capitalize on the situation, introducing charter chains like Rocketship and K12, which produce real no benefits for students. The chains do, however, generate cash for investors, as a new trove of public money is directed to private coffers. Far too many poor kids, meanwhile, are consigned to schools like Philadelphia's Bartram High: buffeted by violence, wracked by relentless budget cuts and choked by the "white noose" of wealthy suburbs (in the evocative phrase of former Mayor Richardson Dilworth) that soak up a disproportionate share of resources.

As always, the comparison between charter schools and public schools is no comparison at all. At least when charter schools fail, they go out of business. Public schools, on the other hand, flourish financially even as they languish academically. Despite the vast sums of money poured into public schools in America's big cities, results seldom materialize. That's because the money doesn't go toward rewarding innovative instruction in the classroom. Many public teachers receive "lockstep" pay increases that correlate to time on the job and degree attainment rather than classroom effectiveness. Studies confirm the uselessness of such an approach—and can you think of a well-run private company where bad employees continue to draw automatically increasing salaries despite lack of results?—but it remains nevertheless.

The difference is that traditional schools have to put up with public teachers unions: cartel-like organizations that vastly exceeded any legitimate need for unionization eons ago. The organizations publicly denounce dissenters and push a stridently far-left political agenda of dubious benefit to their rank-and-file members. Remember, competent teachers aren't getting paid any better than incompetent teachers, and that's the way the unions want it—in fact, they routinely fight tooth and nail to protect the jobs of bad teachers.

Meanwhile, union leaders—like the imperious Karen Lewis of Chicago—draw huge salaries while somehow still disparaging income inequality, as if the income gap were between regular people and teachers (public teachers actually get paid quite well), rather than between union bosses and other teachers. But criticize the union and it will hit back; even impersonal disagreements are treated as declarations of war. Just ask Michael Mulgrew, president of the New York City United Federation of Teachers, who menacingly told opponents of Common Core that "I'm going to punch you in the face and push you in the dirt."

If this kind of system sounds great to you, well, I would guess you're in the union and at the top of its food chain. For everyone else, traditional schooling shackles kids to learning environments that are stifling at best, and at worst, wholly inadequate or even detrimental. The social cost of this folly is enormous; the financial cost is obscene.

Thankfully, the libertarian approach to education is winning the long game. People increasingly agree that school reform is a liberating force with the power to rescue kids from the death sentence of public education. Giving parents more of say in their children's futures has a better success rate than ritualistically increasing the pay of Lewis, Mulgrew, and their cronies.

With any hope—and with heartfelt apologies to The Nation—it is too late to "save" traditional public education.