‘Twas the night before de-regulation

The controversy over the recent New York Times front-page slam of K12 Inc. was ostensibly about the company’s inability to deliver online education (see CEO Ron Packard’s reply here), but one of the more interesting parts of the ensuing debate was not about computers and education but about delivering education for profit – which is what Packard’s company does. (Full disclosure: I have done some editing work for K12.)

This morning Walt Gardner, who writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week, penned a letter to the Times editor that seems to sum up the anti-profit school of thought pretty well:

Agora Cyber Charter School [the K12 school that was the Times’ whipping post] serves as an instructive case study of what happens when schools are run like businesses. The profit motive always assures that the education of students takes a back seat to the enrichment of investors.

Nevertheless, free market advocates have managed to exploit the frustration and anger felt by taxpayers over the glacial progress of traditional public schools to advance their agenda. In the end, it will become clear that it’s impossible to provide a quality education and show a profit at the same time.

This is a brief but concise compilation of some of the misguided beliefs about business and education, and it reinforces a working theory of mine: that many education establishmentarians lean far to the left on governance issues other than those affecting education. (See my post from last June.) This is unfortunate. E.D. Hirsch, a political liberal, was one of the first to call attention to the ideological split in education between process and pedagogy: in his 1999 book The Schools We Need he noted that the respected 1930s Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci advocated a "conservative" education (facts and content) as the best way to avoid "perpetuat[ing] social differences." I do not want to put words in Hirsch's (or Gramsci's) mouth here, but there are plenty of well-meaning educators who seem not to appreciate that the way of producing great education outcomes in the classroom (content, content, content) is decidedly different than that of delivering great education to lots of kids (choice, choice, choice).

Regarding the latter, I would suggest that the fear of the free market leads to some bizarre statements; e.g. that “[t]he profit motive always assures that the education of students takes a back seat to the enrichment of investors.”

If this were true, Gardner would be attacking the current system, which is filled with for-profit motives: just ask the textbook companies, the bus companies, the testing companies, the consultants, the building contractors, the computer manufacturers. Even the teacher unions, which do their best to ensure that their members are earning a living from the education system, are part of the for-profit school syndrome. So, either Mr. Gardner is proposing a soup-to-nuts government-owned education system or he completely misunderstands the nature of the modern education beast.

Thus, before we can even discuss the impact of the profit motive on education outcomes, we need to understand how that profit motive affects what Gardner says is “the glacial progress of traditional public schools."

Have free market advocates “exploited” taxpayer anger or have they done what good free marketeers do: offer alternatives? And have those alternatives worsened children's educational prospects or saved the education lives of thousands of children?

My friend Robert Pondiscio over at Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation rightly suggests that we should perhaps be debating de-regulation rather than profits:

What if education was essentially deregulated, and its quality was assured not by the Department of Education, but the Federal Trade Commission? Would KIPP or Achievement First emerge as the Clear Channel of education, becoming the dominant provider? Someone else? Those who favor deregulation tend also to favor free markets and local control.

I’m not so sure I want the FTC running education, but Pondiscio is on to something here. What would public education look like if it were de-regulated?

One thing is certain, the nation can ill-afford to continue to put up with the glacial pace (but is it backward or forward?) of our current system. In fact, I would argue that it may be only because of the reform experiments and acceptance of standards of the last ten years -- including accountability for student performance, charter schools, and online education – that we have not fallen further behind. We need more reform, not less. More free market not less..... 'Twas the night before Christmas and not a creature was stirring, not even a de-regulating education reformer....

Merry Christmas.

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