Monday, December 13, 2004

READER RESPONSE -- Privatization Zealots

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:08 PM |  

My controversy with Nick Coleman certainly has upped the interest in the site. And I have no doubt that many of the those new visitors smell blood in the water and simply want to be part of frenzy feeding on the carcass of Mr. Coleman’s exhausted excuses for progressive programs. I would hope that there are many more who realize that the issue of school choice is more important that Mr. Coleman’s ranting.

And, it’s important to remember that for every partisan ideologue, there are many more very reasonable people who are concerned that “school choice” advocates are out to destroy the public schools. These are the people preyed upon by Mr. Coleman, teacher union leadership, district superintendents, state government officials -- any one in danger of losing power or acquiring accountability if the government school monopoly is questioned.

I received an e-mail from one such reasonable, intelligent person. I’ve met her. She’s a grandmother with grandkids in public schools. She’s active in educational organizations and deeply concerned with the state of education. She recognizes there are problems and struggles with solutions. She supports public education because she believes in it -- and she doesn’t understand school choice.

She recently sent me the following article, which deserves analysis, for these are the types of articles that denigrate a philosophy of school choice that is as fringe a conception as the contrived visions of a Nick Coleman. The article was written by retired University of Kentucky professor Dr. Marty Solomon. Let’s have look.

Dr. Marty Solomon

Dr. Solomon begins his article thusly --

It is clear that followers of Milton Friedman, such as Checker Finn, Bill Bennett and George W. Bush have an agenda to destroy our public schools. Friedman writes, "I believe that the only way to make a major improvement in our educational system is through privatization."

Unfortunately, privatization zealots substitute agenda for facts and emotion for analysis. And it is difficult to understand how, in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, they still promote privatization as THE answer.

First, there is not any ONE answer. Even if privatization were beneficial, it could not be THE answer.
Not only is it not “clear” that mainstream school choice advocates have “an agenda to destroy public schools,” it is clearly their intention NOT to do so. At his recent presentation in St. Paul, former Milwaukee School Superintendent Howard Fuller uttered remarks that basically agree with Solomon -- “School Choice will not transform public education. No one thing will. But public education will never be transformed without school choice. Parental choice must be in a parent’s arsenal to secure for children the opportunity to succeed.”

Solomon then goes on to offer the standard excuses for government run schools (I might add using the same tactics as Mr. Coleman -- you haven’t been to the school so you don’t know what it's like).

People like Friedman have likely not stepped a foot into a public school within the past 40 years. If they have, they must have gone there blindfolded. If they had taken off the blindfold they would have seen many kids from dirt-poor families who come to school hungry, have hearing, speech, visual and dental problems. Too many come from homes with a single, working parent and receive no nurturing, support or encouragement. No school system can attend to these kinds of difficulties.
“No school system can attend to these kinds of difficulties.” How more discouraging can you get. If that’s the case, then for the love of Pete let’s stop dumping money into government schools. If there’s no hope, why bother? Fortunately, Dr. Solomon is wrong.

Jay Greene and Greg Forster of the Manhattan Institute have put out a working paper on something they call the “Teachability Index.” They have quantified the problems that Dr. Solomon describes and translated them into a scale for rating how difficult a cohort of students is to teach. They go a couple of steps further. They also calculate what one might expect students to achieve based on how difficult they are to teach. A step further, they calculate a comparison of how students with similar teachability indices fare versus expectations at different public schools. And finally, they compare how that achievement is related to money spent on education.

That’s a lot of scientific jargon, but bottom line of the study is the blinding glimpse of the obvious that schools and teachers do make a difference. Given students of equal difficulty to teach, some schools do extremely better than one would expect, others fail miserably -- and the amount of money spent seems to have little correlation. In the current system, kids in those poor performing schools are trapped. In a school choice system, kids are free to move to the better performing schools. Note -- this study was done only on public schools.

Education Working Paper 6
The Teachability Index:
Can Disadvantaged Students Learn?

Jay P. Greene &
Greg Forster,
The Manhattan Institute

Dr. Solomon next goes on to debunk claims that private school kids get a better education than public school offers. When statistics don’t bear him out, he cites unfair advantages of private schools over public schools.

Privatization zealots point to several banner-ads for their agenda. First, they say that kids in private schools outperform their peers, but proponents do not understand demographics. On average, private school children do well for three major reasons. They are more often from better-educated, more-affluent families---almost perfect corollaries for academic success. The parents are generally proactive in the child’s education. And those who refuse to work hard or misbehave can be expelled. If public schools had those advantages, we would have no problems. But dozens of careful studies have shown miniscule differences between private and public school academics with the same demographics. If privatization were the answer---or even AN answer---we should see huge advantages, but we do not.
I’ve addressed this issue in detail before, which you can read here. Let me just say that it never ceases to amaze me how public school apologists continually refer to problem kids as obstacles to doing the job of educating children. Problem kids need education too! It is not acceptable to treat them as speed bumps in the road to problem-free public education. Perhaps more than any other students, these are the ones crying out for help -- and best exemplify the need for school choice.

More Dr. Solomon --

Zealots also claim that private schools cost less than government schools. But this is based on the misconception that tuitions are equivalent to costs. Most private schools in America are church-subsidized and we have no records of the costs. Thus, if a Catholic school charges parishioners $1,200 per year and the public schools receive $5,000 per year per pupil, an erroneous conclusion is drawn concerning costs.
For my column, which ignited the flammable Mr. Coleman, every Catholic school I spoke with made it clear what their cost-per-pupil was and could tell me exactly where money came from to make up the difference between tuition cost and per-pupil-cost. When Sol Stern called St. Paul Superintendent Pat Harvey and asked what the per-pupil educational cost was in St. Paul, for whatever reason she didn’t have a ready answer. Mr. Stern obtained a figure from the State Department of Education. The point is, the cost to educate a student in all but the most elite private schools is far less than in a government school.

While writing this post, I recived an email from a parent of a student at IHM-St. Luke's -- a Chatholic School mentioned in my article -- "While it may be true that only upper income parents can truly afford a private school such as SPA (12K for kindergarten last time I checked...), the thought that parochial schools are somehow elitist and out of reach of minorities or the working poor is ridiculous. They offer generous tuition assistance to lower income families. There are few behavioral problems because it's simply not allowed - what actual rules with consequences might not accomplish, peer pressure can."

Mr. Solomon’s next target is Edison Schools -- a private, school management company.

But forget about this and let’s look at actual evidence from the nation’s largest private school company, Edison Schools. Edison was formed in the image of the zealots, with the wholehearted belief that private schools could cut though the red tape and bureaucracy of government, hire competent teachers and create a true learning environment---and they could do it for less money. Edison started because the first Bush administration planned to push through a voucher plan where families would receive government money for private school tuition. And since there would be a serious shortage of private school seats, Edison would fill that bill. But the plan was interrupted when George H. W. Bush lost his re-election. Edison plowed ahead anyway but instead of building private schools, it switched gears and bid to operate “failing” public schools. This would be the test. Edison schools vis-a -vis government schools, within the same school district. The race was to begin. But Edison stumbled right out of the gate.

In an effort to keep the costs in line with government appropriations, many, perhaps most schools---lost money. For over a dozen years, Edison gradually lost money and often failed to produce on its promises to either cut costs or to boost academic performance. After reaching a high of close to $40 per share in early 2001, Edison’s share value tumbled to a low of 14 cents. In November 2003, the company was taken private. Today, instead of the thousand schools it planned to open, Edison operates 157 district partnership and charter schools. The average student achievement is claimed to be above similar public schools, but only marginally. Worse, Edison has had contracts terminated in many school districts for lack of academic performance in some cases and for costs that exceed government appropriations in others.
Okay -- how many of you have a Xerox PC on your desk? An NCR PC? The point is that the fact that these two companies failed to sustain a presence in the PC market in no way slowed the computer revolution. Edison’s story is much the same. It was created in anticipation of a market that did not develop and now operates in a market, as do private and religious schools in general, dominated by a government monopoly. That’s not a very favorable business environment for any company.

And just has we have failing public schools today, we will have failing private schools tomorrow. That’s not the point. The point is that today when a public school is failing, students have no options. In an environment of active school choice, a student has the immediate option of selecting another school. One should also consider that any failure by Edison is at its investor’s expense, not the public‘s.

If one were to use a logic similar to Dr. Solomon’s vis a vis the unfair advantage demographics give private schools, think about the unfair advantage of government schools going to the taxpayer well every time they mismanage their finances. Edison, a private company, has no such luxury.

Dr. Solomon then delivers his conclusion.

Again, if privatization were an answer, Edison Schools would be the true world-wide success story---but it is not. Now that the No Child Left Behind has gotten a strangle hold on our schools with unreasonably high goals and expectations that have never been achieved by any school system in any country, the George W. Bush administration will surely take another run at the final destruction of public schools in his final presidential term with vouchers.

But doesn't it seem reasonable to see some dramatic and notable results from privatization before we destroy the public school system that has clearly been a major factor in the tremendous success of the American dream?
Like most critics of school choice, Dr. Solomon misses the point. “Public education” is about a concept -- educating all children is in the public interest. “Public education” is not simply the delivery system. A true public education system -- one that educated all children -- would consist of government schools, private schools, public and private charter schools, religious schools, cyber schools and schools of kind not yet imagined. Government’s role would be to ensure that all children of all economic backgrounds had the ability to attend any school that parents felt best met the child’s needs.

That’s what school choice and public education are all about. If you’ve read this far, give yourself an “A” (extra credit for clicking on the links.)