Public schools

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


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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.

NEXT: John McWhorter on 'Acting White' and Cultural Barriers to Black Education

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  1. wealthy suburbs (in the evocative phrase of former Mayor Richardson Dilworth) that soak up a disproportionate share of resources.

    Everyone knows how horribly underfunded our big-city school systems are.

    1. This can not be emphasized enough.

    2. The Newark New Jersey School system has had money showered on it from the state and wealthy philanthropists – to the point where there is no state money left for suburban schools and they have to raise property taxes. Yet Newark schools still suck.

      1. New York has proven year after year that throwing money at schools does not fix the problems. We spend per student about twice the national average and still get crap results.

  2. It’s always more, more, more money, isn’t it?

    1. What else could it be?

      1. That plus reinforcing the “Handicapper General” model of education. IOW, we must double down on what hasn’t worked.

        1. How dare you criticize their noble intentions by looking at the results!

          1. Union president, forgive me, for I have sinned.

      1. Oh, it’s the Onion.

        Almost got me.

        1. “It’s sad, but my students don’t even have the supplies they need for an exercise as simple as depicting patriarchal oppression with a mannequin that has been painted orange, set on fire, and then doused with a bucket of warm urine,” said Robert Kessler, a sixth-grade art teacher in Cleveland

          I am still not convinced that that isn’t a real quote though.

    2. Public schools are failing! Let’s dump more money into them.

      And when that doesn’t work, we’ll spend more money.

      And when that doesn’t work, we’ll spend more money.

      And when that doesn’t work, we’ll spend more money.

      And when that doesn’t work, we’ll spend more money.

      And when that doesn’t work, we’ll spend more money.

      And when that doesn’t work, we’ll spend more money.

      And when that doesn’t work, we’ll spend more money…

      What’s the definition of insanity again?

  3. This is not my breakfast links.

    1. Mourning lynx?

    2. Ou sont les liens d’antan?

      1. No parlay voo.

  4. We have completely opted out of public High School for both our kids. Every time we talk to their friends in public schools we think “money well spent” for the private school.

    It would be nice to get some of that state income and local property tax money back.

    1. We home school. You do not want the tax money back. The progs think it is their money. The no-shit argument will then become, “Since we are funding your children’s educaton, we get to tell you what the program must be!

  5. How can you expect children to learn anything from teachers who haven’t been teaching the same material (in the same way) for decades?

  6. It would be nice to get some of that state income and local property tax money back.

    Stealing money from noble government teachers would be perfectly acceptable to you, wouldn’t it?

    1. Funny – If I stopped paying the state and town tens of thousands annually, what would happen next would look exactly like an armed robbery followed by a kidnapping.

      1. No no no, they would have badges on while they siege your house and rape and pillage.

        1. Police don’t rape the coerced. They make love to them.

          1. The same way the Vikings made love to the Irish lasses, English gals and French maides. Such a tender scene …

  7. There are 50 states. We should pick a few and experiment on the idea of actioning off the existing brick/mortor schools to private companies and try out a free market style school in that state in which the parents would pay to send their kids to school instead of paying property tax.

    1. It’s so cute that you think the progs and the union would ever allow one student to escape their control. Even the slightest taste of success of charter schools sends them into fits.

      AND….. You would have to end the Department of NoEducation first because they will never allow a state to run schools the way they want. They might feed them an unhealthy lunch or something.

      1. I am proposing that libertarians agree upon a state or municipality and try out a free market school system. There would be no regulations on healthy foods, common core standards, safety standards, not any requirements whatsoever. The schools, themselves, would offer programs and the parents can pick among them.

        I am proposing that we experiment this idea.

        1. Healthy food and common core makes no sense. They’re not necessary even in a non free market model.

          If you have to pay for services, you expect quality. Thus, even if the government absolved you any any and every regulation (which is not what libertarians advocate), they would have to apply some sort of standard to attract customers.

          You see crappy results and predators teaching at school even WITH regulations. Regulations are meaningless if you don’t enforce them. That’s different from “deregulation”. Liberals often can’t make the distinction.

  8. Unions are for losers.

    If you belong to a union, be it teacher, pilot, cop, firefighter, pipefitter…YOU are a loser.

    1. I have no problem with private unions in right to work states. Freedom of association and all that silly stuff. But forced unionization of public employees? That beast needs to die. Reagan could have broken all publics unions after the flight controllers got fired. He didn’t and we the worse for it.

  9. 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.

    I live in a wealthy suburb. It’s the wealthiest county in the country, in fact, and I homeschool, because I’m so underwhelmed by the public school system.

    What I have noticed, is that the Unions have won a large part of the “funding” battle with average voters because the school systems actually blow most of their money on fancy new facilities and zillions of administrators, so teachers can and do plead relative poverty.

    A new high school just opened in my neighborhood, and the (all Republican) Board of Supervisors crowed about being able to put in a $1 million astroturf football field, with a public/private partnership, so the county only had to spend $750,000. And guess what?! Thanks to this model, we can put in astroturf fields in every high school in the county! We have middling SAT scores, but by gum, our football/soccer/lacrosse teams are state champions!

    1. You live in Loudoun, don’t ya?

      The BoS needs to be hung on meat hooks

      1. I grew up in the City of Alexandria, and Fairfax County, so Loudoun is a new kind of crazy for me. I went from being ruled by (and cursing about) Land Rover Liberals, to Range Rover Republicans.

        1. The chamber of commerce owns the bitches on the BoS. Delguadio might be the only one not in their pocket … but he is the different type of crazy. Still prefer him to Buona.

          C’ya around the commentariate

  10. “Venture Capitalists Are Poised to ‘Disrupt’ Everything About the Education Market”

    I didn’t know there was an education market. I mean, I thought that was the problem.

    1. The problem is not venture capitalism. The problem is parenting. And, in the poor neighborhoods, the parent (rarely is it the parents) works multiple jobs or is on public assistance. Either way, they are useless in supervising their kids and assisting with the homework. More importantly, the value of education isn’t there.

      One can argue that this is the result of institutional racism or merely a flaw in the black family culture. I say the failure of the black family culture is the result of the so-called nonexistent institutional racism. Time will mend this wound.

      1. If you haven’t already, watch Waiting for Superman.

        Near the end, there’s an “auction” of the very few charter school spots available in inner city NYC. Mothers start crying as the auction ends, when they realize their children are going to be forced into public schools. The ones who get spots act as if they’ve won a 5-figure lottery prize.

      2. I agree that it is a parenting problem. And, I can’t blame the parents 100% in the INNER CITY.

        I don’t believe that the free market system will help any better than the public system. Both will fail as there’s little you can do with problem kids.

        You can cherry pick or run a lottery. But remember, the parents that even bother or even know to enter their kids into the lottery are good parents. The inner city problem kid is expensive, hard to deal with, and success stories are few.

        1. Inner city problem is expensive? Why? If you can’t fix the problem of educating inner city kids with more money for schools (since parents, not schools, are the problem), then why keep spending more money?

  11. Eliminate the educational industrial complex.

  12. Thanks for the article. To get acquainted with the world movement and what people are actually doing, I would suggest the Libertarian International at

  13. …which produce real no benefits for students.

    I’m guessing whoever wrote that unsigned editorial went to public schools.

    Giving parents more of say…

    And so did Robby, apparently.

    I keed, I keed…

  14. Stanford did an extensive study on charter schools in 2009 and again in 2013. It’s an interesting read if you have time. 2013 Final Draft.pdf

    1. It is an excellent study, and ask should read it.
      But the summary is this: the greatest value in charter schools is that you can close the bad ones. Whereas public administrators treat closing a public school as the greatest tragedy.
      The left wants giant institutions that never change or die; it even creeps into their corporatism.
      Honestly, if the left could learn to let that impulse go, they would become 75% less destructive immediately.

  15. Today, public education lies in tatters, an openly class-based system. Public school districts are being starved of funding and it impacts on teachers and kids as well. Students don’t want to spend time on study, they prefer to have fun. Instead of writing college paper, they search for dissertation writing online. Modern kids think that’s normal thing and is like an arrangement and they don’t feel bad about it. But in fact students gain no knowledge, no benefits and just waste their time\money.

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