Why Is “The Decimation of Public Schools” A Bad Thing?

It’s not enough to simply declare that vouchers and charters are bad…

The same words can have very different connotations to listeners on the right and listeners on the left. When Donald Trump told his supporters that he would soon be sending Hillary Clinton to jail, liberals were appalled. They insisted Trump was behaving like an “authoritarian strongman” who promised to “actively subvert democracy.” Trump’s threat to prosecute Clinton was the stuff of banana republics, where leaders put their political opponents in prison merely for their politics.

Yet Trump’s promise sounded like something quite different to his base. To them, promising to pursue criminal charges was not a subversion of democracy and the rule of law. Instead, it was a promise to uphold it. Trump’s pledged prosecution did not come across as a strongman’s belief that the political opposition should be in jail, but rather as a declaration that even politicians are not above the law. To them, Clinton had committed a crime, thus she should be in prison. Whether you hear the (now-dropped) prosecution threat as a “strongman’s punishment of opponents” or “a promise to apply laws fairly and equally” depends on whether you believe Hillary Clinton did something wrong. And your perception of whether she committed a crime is strongly influenced by your pre-existing political preferences.

People therefore interpret political language through ideological lenses. What sounds obviously appalling to one person may seem totally unobjectionable or even desirable to another. People on the left, however, often fail to comprehend this fact. They condemn “marginalization” and “inequality” as if everyone already agrees that those are bad things. (A lot of people don’t.) The same is true of “privilege” and “neoliberalism,” which are treated as self-evidently undesirable even though many people do not know what those things are, let alone share a hatred of them.

This problem frequently occurs in progressive condemnations of school privatization schemes. Recently, Donald Trump appointed billionaire Betsy DeVos to lead his Department of Education. The general reaction from the left has been horror and disgust, with the consensus view being that DeVos is something like the Education Secretary from Hell (a view I happen to share). This is because DeVos is a longtime advocate of both charter schools and voucher programs, and has spent large amounts of money helping transform Michigan’s public schools into a heavily charter-based system. DeVos apparently believes, like many others in the “school choice” movement, that the government should not really be in the business of running schools, but should hand out credits to parents and have private schools and charters compete over students.

As progressives have correctly pointed out in response to her selection, DeVos’s ideas would fundamentally change the way education is offered in this country. According to her critics, DeVos “wants to dismantle public education” and is” trying to gut public schools” Many strong critiques of the DeVos appointment have been written, and almost all of them spend their time vigorously denouncing her lack of commitment to preserving the country’s public school system in its current form.

But here is a crucial point: these critiques only sound bad to progressive ears. To conservatives, they sound very different. After all, the conservative line is that our public schools are a crumbling, bureaucratic, inefficient waste of money, a handout to the teacher’s unions. Why shouldn’t they be decimated? The argument of voucher and charter proponents is that voucher and charter systems are better than public schools. So unless you are already a committed progressive, there’s nothing persuasive about pointing out that Betsy DeVos plans to “end education as we know it.” Of course she does. Education “as we know it” is ruining children’s lives. The sooner it’s ended, the better.  Thus anyone trying to persuasively argue that Betsy DeVos’s ideas are bad needs to go beyond simply repeating that they are an “assault on public schooling” or that they would “privatize the nation’s schools.” In proving these points, one will only convince the convinced. Instead, one needs to make a clear and convincing case about the social consequences of DeVos’s beliefs.

First, let’s consider what the conservative argument on schooling actually is. It goes like this: government-run institutions tend to function poorly. They are not efficient, like businesses are, because they do not have incentives to perform well. Businesses, because they must compete for customers in a market environment, must offer the best products if they want to stay profitable. Governments, on the other hand, can offer crappy products, and because they are state-imposed monopolies, there is no way for consumers to go elsewhere. School choice will improve schools, because instead of forcing students to attend whatever school the government happens to offer, choice allows parents to decide which school they prefer. Schools will have to strive to be better and better, because parents can pull their students out and go elsewhere if they don’t like them. Introducing a profit motive into schooling offers a powerful incentive for schools to offer a great product. If there is money to be made on being a good school, you can bet businesses will want to provide great schools. Thus private, for-profit schools with vouchers are a highly efficient way of delivering the best-quality education.

One can therefore see why saying that DeVos wants to “dismantle public schools” is not an effective argument against the conservative position. If privatization makes better schools, then we should dismantle public schools. DeVos has argued that she is “driven by compassion for the less fortunate rather than any covert theocratic or elitist agenda.” If charter and voucher proponents are right about the effectiveness of choice and competition, then that isn’t a crazy position. And the pro-privatization position does not, on its face, sound ludicrous. After all, government is pretty inefficient, and many public schools do somewhat suck. Understanding why DeVos is the Education Secretary from Hell therefore requires examining a more basic set of principles, to understand just why the persuasive-sounding conservative case on education is actually deeply horrifying.

Let’s start with the dangers of profit. In Michigan, where DeVos’ education reform efforts have been concentrated, many charters are operated for profit, meaning that private companies can enter the schooling business just like any other business. To the right, “profit” isn’t a dirty word. If we can pay people to offer great education to kids, why isn’t this win-win?

But introducing profit into the school system is very dangerous, for a simple reason: it creates a terrible set of incentives. If we hand a voucher to a for-profit private school, or give a large grant to a for-profit charter school, there is a strong incentive for the school to give as little in return as possible. After all, since a for-profit corporation exists to maximize value to shareholders (not value to students), for-profit schools should try to spend as little money educating students as possible, in order to reap the largest financial gains. If you don’t have to spring for new lab equipment or new textbooks, you have no incentive to do so merely because it would benefit the students. A for-profit school is no longer concerned with the interest and wellbeing of those who attend it. They are just a means through which money is redistributed from state governments to CEOs and shareholders. Adding a profit motive to things that are necessarily highly unprofitable, like helping the poor, is dangerous, because it’s going to be very tempting for companies to take the government’s money and provide little in return. The existence of for-profit online charter schools shows the nightmare this can turn into. Pay a company to set up a school, and they may just stick the student in front of a computer screen all day. By creating a system in which there is money to be made by figuring out how to create the appearance of education without actually providing it, you are sending out an open invitation to con artists and profiteers.

Privatization advocates have a compelling response to this argument. They reply that it misses the full picture. Yes, corporations have an incentive to maximize shareholder value. But they can’t do that without satisfying their customers. The interests of shareholders and consumers are brought into alignment through the existence of choice. In the case of schools, because parents have a voucher, if the school is not prioritizing its students, parents can simply go elsewhere. Nobody is making them send their students to this particular school. The theory of school choice is about choice, and choice creates competition, which creates quality. A school that simply funneled money to its executives and shareholders would not long maintain its enrollment.

But the theory of choice here is a romantic fiction. In reality, parents will not have many options among which to choose (there are only so many schools within a feasible distance of one’s home, after all) and moving schools can be an extraordinarily disruptive and complicated process that hurts the child. We can also see how, even in theory, it is easy for a privatized school system to simply enrich the wealthy, while making schooling for poor children worse. In a public school system, all money is spent on the schools. In a for-profit school system, at least some portion of that money is directed instead toward the pockets of shareholders (if it wasn’t, the for-profit schools couldn’t continue to exist). And if we have a school district comprised in total of three for-profit elementary schools, and all of them simply pocket most of the voucher money while failing to educate the children, then no matter what “choices” among schools parents make, they won’t be able to improve the quality of the schools. One might expect new operators to enter the market, but if the only way to make any real money on the children is to neglect them, then new operators won’t be any better than the old ones.

This gets at the fundamental mistake of free-market economic thinking, which is the fallacious belief that the choices we make in a market situation necessarily meaningfully reflect our “preferences.” But what my choices say about my preferences depends on what those choices are to begin with. Defenders of free markets argue, for example, that people’s “choice” to work in unsafe conditions shows that they prefer unsafe jobs with high pay to safe jobs with low pay. But choice does not occur in a vacuum. Choices only tell us something significant about preferences to the extent that they are meaningful choices. “Would you rather be stabbed or shot?” is not a meaningful choice. Sophie’s Choice was not a meaningful choice. Thus in order to understand how much meaning to attribute to choices, it’s necessary to understand how choices are structured. Likewise, if we create a private, for profit, school system, I might have to choose between sending my child to FedEx Junior High to have them train to pack boxes, or Burger King Junior High to have them train to flip Whoppers. If I decide to pick FedEx, that doesn’t mean we have a school system that reflects my freely-made choices. My real choice would be to have taxpayer money paying for arts programs, English classes, and math, rather than being handed directly to the CEO and shareholders of FedEx. But that choice hasn’t been made available to me on the free market. The poorer and more desperate a person is, the less meaningful their choices are. If I am rich, and I can easily move wherever I please and enroll my children in any school I like, then my choice of some academy in Switzerland is strongly indicative of the fact that I think it is the best school. But if I am poor, and live in Detroit, my choices are curtailed by my conditions and my capacities.

Free market capitalists totally fail to understand how a lack of money can operate as a form of coercion. Thus they can make arguments (as made by the organization DeVos is a board member of) that child labor is a good thing, because they see the choice to go to work as freely made, failing to see how people’s levels of economic despair can cause them to make “choices” that they very much do not want to make. My decisions are only freely made to the extent that my other options are realistic. If my choice is to send my child down a mine or have my family starve to death, then I will send my child down a mine. But I still don’t want to send my child down a fucking mine.

There are other serious problems with the “gutting” of public schools. As we have argued before in Current Affairs, converting public schools to a voucher system makes education operate similarly to food stamps. After all, SNAP benefits operate roughly the same way: instead of giving people food, we give them the equivalent of money, which they then use to go and buy food. A voucher program does the same for schooling: instead of giving them schools, we give them a voucher, which they can use to go and find a private school. But look what happens with food stamps: the moment you start handing out a “voucher,” conservatives start seeing it as some kind of unearned “handout.” Pressure then develops to cut the handout. Is there any reason to think that “education stamps” would be subjected to less cost-cutting political pressure than food stamps? A serious problem with voucher programs is that they erode the idea of education as a fundamental right, instead making it seem like a privilege that one does not necessarily deserve. But education should be a right, because children cannot help the circumstances of their birth, and should therefore not be punished for their parents’ poverty.

Privatization schemes are also heavily dependent on the existence of highly astute parents, who have the time and inclination to carefully study schools. The most vulnerable children are unlikely to have such parents. And we can imagine a system in which private schools offer parents $100 out of the voucher money if they agree to enroll their children. Desperate and uncaring parents might snap up the cash, with the neediest children ending up in the most vicious, uncaring, profit-grubbing schools.

Betsy DeVos is a hellish choice for education secretary, because her ideology would create a hell for children. But that’s not because she’s in favor of the “private” rather than the “public.” It’s because the things needed by poor people, if done well, will never be money-makers. Introducing an incentive to make money will necessarily mean exploiting and neglecting the poor, whose “choices” are highly constrained by their circumstances. I fear privatization not because of some mystical devotion to the inefficiencies of government but because I fear the erosion of the idea of education as something that isn’t win-win, that we give to children because they deserve it rather than because we can profit from it. I worry that the sort of people who run things “like a business” do not really care about children very much, and are motivated by the wrong incentives. I am concerned about what would happen if they ever faced a choice between doing the right thing and doing the lucrative thing. It seems a fragile and fantastical (almost religious) hope to think that a market for schools will produce good schools rather than simply a new means for parasitic corporations to engorge themselves on government money. However bad our public schools may be, I will always trust those who see children as an ends above those who see them as a means. And people like Betsy DeVos, who think of the world as a series of mutually beneficial business opportunities, strike me as the sort who should least be entrusted with the awesome responsibility of caring for and educating needy children.

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