When Public Schools Disappear

Regardless of student performance, charter schools and vouchers may have other worrying consequences…


With last year’s 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, media coverage of New Orleans’ recovery also revived the debate over the city’s controversial all-charter school district. After the storm, New Orleans schools were entirely revamped, with 7,000 local teachers laid off, and the business of school administration turned over to private non-profits. The resulting system is unlike any other in the country, with traditional public schools having entirely disappeared.

Anyone looking to fair-mindedly assess the results of the New Orleans charter program faces a difficult task, since views of the experiment are strongly colored by partisanship. Conservatives think it is a wonder, a model of innovation and entrepreneurship that ought to be replicated across the country. George W. Bush hailed the New Orleans program as “amazing” and the Wall Street Journal said it proved that “disaster can be an opportunity.” Those on the left are more inclined to be skeptical, with an In These Times investigation deeming the program a “failure” that continues to produce low overall performance.

Some things are not in doubt. The graduation rates in New Orleans have jumped and the school system has gone from basically non-functional to basically functional. But it’s also true that the gains were extremely costly and have some troubling aspects: large amounts of outside money needed to be funneled in, and there are allegations that during early phases a lot of disabled and difficult students were excluded by dubious means, with the remaining public schools serving as “dumping grounds” for those who would drag down the reputation of the charters. Thus critics of the New Orleans system suggest that the numbers are misleading, that many children are being left out of the metrics.

It is common for debates over charters to focus on issues like these, examining whether the schools fulfill their stated promise. Do they in fact boost student performance significantly, or is this a bit of statistical sleight-of-hand? Much depends on how outcomes are measured, and while some make the case that charters work wonders, others see their impact as anything from neutral to catastrophic.

But discussions of performance are inevitably narrow. Even if there may be good reason to believe that charter performance is frequently mediocre or even poor, it’s important to also recognize that schools have functions and consequences beyond graduation rates. The welfare of students can be improved even as the welfare of teachers, parents, and communities is damaged.

Assessing charters properly requires assessing all costs, and when we do so, privatization looks worrying indeed. Crucially, charter proponents have spectacularly failed to deal with one of the most serious likely long-term consequences of education reform policies: the destruction of teaching as a viable middle-class profession. Jonathan Chait, in New York magazine, praised the New Orleans model for “break[ing] the traditional union model of teacher compensation,” eliminating job security guarantees that were not tied to measures of job performance. Chait blames “inflexible contracts” for the fact that the hiring process for teachers is less competitive than in other fields, and that American teachers tend to graduate lower in their college classes than their counterparts around the world. This rhetoric, that teacher tenure is killing the schools, has become one of the reformers’ most repeated clichés.

Yet there is a strange contradiction in this logic. After all, if teaching isn’t a competitive profession as it stands currently, how can reducing job security and benefits possibly make it more attractive? Education reformers want to rein in what they see as luxurious excesses in teacher compensation, yet speak in the same breath of attracting a talented pool of applicants. The two goals are in direct economic conflict; lower compensation means worse applicants, and there are already strong arguments that low teacher pay partially explains the talent deficit Chait laments. Thus the real likely outcome of education reform’s changes is that teaching will simply cease to be a realistic potential career; only inexperienced recent college graduates will be able to afford to live on teaching’s poverty-level salaries. The hardiest might stick it out for a few years, but as they begin to desire homeownership and a family, being a teacher will no longer remain an option. Indeed, in New Orleans, charter teachers burn out quickly; the punishing hours and workloads mean that few can hope to sustain a career, and many laugh at the idea of having children of their own while remaining a teacher. (This has contributed to the erosion of racial diversity among New Orleans teachers; during the city’s charterization, a majority-black workforce was thrown out and replaced with a majority-white one. The new model favors hiring young, white, wealthy recent college graduates on two-year stints, and retaining teachers of color is difficult once job security has been eliminated.)

Some education reformers remain optimistic that talent can still be attracted on this model. But the reasons they highlight are bleak. Neerav Kingsland, the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, was one of the prime movers behind the city’s charter experiment. He has written for the American Enterprise Institute that as more and more middle-class jobs are destroyed in the years to come, there will be plenty of highly skilled unemployed people. The unlivable low salaries therefore will not prevent the recruitment of excellent teachers, since higher pay simply won’t be available in any other sector. What’s striking is that this is the best answer education reformers have to the question of how to sustain the teaching profession. It’s a model predicated on misery: it’s true that teaching will offer guaranteed poverty, but fortunately mass unemployment will ensure that good people will be desperate enough to do it anyway.

That such an argument is seriously made in education reform circles should cause some deep reflection on the movement’s social implications. One of the other major oversights of education reform is its failure to consider the risks of spinning off government functions into unaccountable private entities. Chait describes this by saying that charters are controversial because “their structure cuts crossways through the liberal ideal of governance.” By this he means that liberals think public policy should be transparent and voted on democratically, but charters take major decision-making abilities away from the electoral sphere. Hence the complaints by New Orleans parents that even as school performance has improved, they feel totally shut out, tossed about by forces they cannot control.

Charter proponents know how wary people are of allowing standards to be determined privately rather than by voters. This is why a large controversy exists over whether to call charters “public” or “private,” with charter supporters insisting that the schools are public. But the label certainly adopts an unusual definition of the word; if entities that are both owned and managed privately are nevertheless public, so are all government contractors. The National Review said that charter schools are public because they are “paid for by the taxpayers,” but by this standard, so are Lockheed Martin and Princeton University.

Branding issues aside, it’s clear that the risks of private management are quite high. Amy Baral of the Roosevelt Institute has written about the way that charters enable the blurring between corporate and community interests. In Michigan, for example, 80% of charters are run for profit, meaning that students can expected to be treated and educated well solely to the extent that doing so makes money. And in both for-profit and non-profit charter schools, the incentive to meet standards by any means necessary can come at the expense of both teachers’ and students’ ultimate well-being. The competitive pressure explains why many charter schools adopt brutal and inflexible disciplinary policies, with students punished heavily for everything from coughing too much to wearing the wrong-colored shoes, and constantly being expelled to keep outcomes and budgets up. “Every kid is money,” as one New Orleans principal put it.

It’s also true that education reformers seem worryingly uninterested in meaningful community control. Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans is scathing of those who believe in an autonomous and participatory model of schooling. “The future is not autonomy,” he writes. “The future is trust, risk, freedom, and accountability.” Kingsland is cynical about giving teachers increased flexibility, scoffing at the belief that “the magical moment is when you give an educator the chance to pick her math curriculum.” So much education reform rhetoric carries these authoritarian undertones, whether it is the emphasis on discipline or the suggestion that democracy is a mere inefficiency.

But there is a final major danger to education reform plans, one seldom noted, which is that even as it injects money into the school systems it touches, it ultimately clears political space for funding reductions that hurt poor children. It does this by strengthening the consensus that education should operate more like a marketplace and less like a basic universal guarantee. As the education reform movement has built power, it has emphasized the primacy of choice, which comes in the form of either charters or school vouchers, both of which are intended to create a miniature market where schools compete over students. The ultimate aim is to remove government entirely, what Jeb Bush called “total voucherization,” and proponents are open about wanting to “move from a government-operated school system to a nonprofit-operated school system.” This would not only change the way schools themselves operate, but would also change the way political conversations about schools operate.

Take the case of school vouchers. In their function, school vouchers are logically indistinguishable from food stamps. They are an in-kind benefit for the poor, redistributing wealth downward and subsidizing a basic good. Food stamps allow poor people to go to a grocery store and purchase food, school vouchers allow them to go to an educational institution and purchase learning. The two operate in precisely the same way. That might be a perfectly legitimate way to ensure a basic educational standard. But there will inevitably be political ramifications to the change. Food stamps themselves are highly controversial, because conservatives see them as an unearned subsidy to the poor. Last spring, congressional Republicans announced that they would be pushing hard to roll back food stamp benefits, on the grounds that they undermine the “dignity” that comes in “taking care of yourself.” Others spoke out against those who haven’t “contributed quite as much to society” being fed for free.

There’s no reason why this dynamic would not immediately replicate itself if education operated similarly. If food subsidies shouldn’t be guaranteed, why should educational ones? In fact, “education stamps” might be even more vulnerable to attack than their nutritional counterpart. Food is a more essential necessity of life than education, thus if conservatives reject arguments that food should be guaranteed on necessity grounds, they are even more likely to reject such arguments when deployed in favor of a right to schooling.

In fact, it’s easy to suspect that conservatives are not really in favor of vouchers, and that once public schools were fully abolished, the vouchers would be next to go. Milton Friedman even said something similar in his original proposal for school privatization. Though he strongly supported vouchers, Friedman was clear that the vouchers were only a way of getting the public to sign on to a fully-privatized system: “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system…” Friedman was perfectly honest about what the ends were, saying that ultimately “the privatization of schooling would produce a new, highly active and profitable private industry.” Friedman spoke of the advantages that businesses would get from a whole new crop of customers, and the wondrous efficiencies that would be introduced to education by a complete surrender to market forces.

A nightmare scenario is easy to picture. When education operates like food stamps, there will be pressure to cut spending on the grounds that they are a handout from the taxpayer (which they are). Just as conservatives consistently want to attach work requirements to other forms of welfare, a series of onerous conditions would be placed on poor people’s receipt of vouchers. The current system, with its absolute guarantee of schooling as a fundamental unconditional right, will quickly erode. In this situation, poor students would have to take the schooling they could afford. Most of the cheap or subsidized schools would probably be rudimentary job training centers, which only offered education in exchange for a student’s agreement to permanently indenture themselves to the school’s parent company. If this scenario seems far-fetched, remember that it’s exactly what already exists for other basic resources such as food and healthcare.

In assessing the school choice movement, it’s important to recognize both the successes of some charter schools and the dangerous, antidemocratic risks that they carry. The real worrying aspect of districts like New Orleans is less what they are right now than what they make possible for the near future. If charters run like their brochures say they do, and are decentralized, varied, open to all, then community-centered liberals should be fully in favor of them regardless of how they are classified. And it’s certainly exciting to see college preparatory programs blossoming in a city whose schools had traditionally been known for sitting firmly at the bottom of nearly every available ranking. But the gains in performance and graduation rates come with costs as well. They may well sacrifice the long-term viability of the teaching profession, and they risk destroying community control and opening education up to the same cost-slashing political pressure that food stamps are under. Before transplanting the New Orleans model nationwide, education reformers should contemplate the dark potential consequences of their political success.