Saturday Post: A Public School Marketplace?

fist-full-of-moneyIn most Libertarian thought, the “Marketplace” holds a reverence equivalent to that of a holy shrine.  True believers in the Ayn Rand “Objectivism” and Milton Friedman ‘market forces’ see unrestrained “Marketplace Competition” as the source of miracles.  According to them, if everything was just left to open competition untrammeled by thumb-fingered government bureaucrats, then the magic of a “competitive marketplace” is capable of curing all ills, resolving all disputes, and will result in a near perfect world where everyone gets what they deserve.

After having worked their ‘deregulation’ magic on the financial world, many of these believers have now turned their attention to public education.  Are school test scores in poor neighborhoods low?  Have charter schools compete with them!  Are the local high schools not improving graduation rates fast enough for you?  Provide more ‘choices’ to parents!  Are not enough children graduating ready for college?  Obviously teacher unions are the real culprit!  Just allow charter schools, ‘choice’, break the unions, and provide for private school vouchers and everything will be fixed!

At least that is the marketing hype they spin out.

But what happens when you examine the underlying principles of a ‘marketplace’?  Does public education fit?  Will it really work?  And if it does, just how does a competitive market really function?  Are the causes of poor student outcomes really addressable by ‘competition’?

These are the questions that we should be asking.  In fact, given that WNW+Miller has repeatedly talked about an ‘education marketplace’ and even brought in a consultant to help design one, means we should be demanding that these questions be answered.  Fully and in detail.  Because they are betting the future of our children on this mantra.

Below are a series of article links that look at not only the concept of an Education Marketplace, but how such efforts have fared elsewhere.  We highly recommend that you take some time today (and this week) to go through these articles and draw your own conclusions.

False Choices: The Economic Argument Against Market-Driven Education Reform – Minnesota 2020

Our comment on this article:  If you are going to read only one link from this post, it should be this one.  Minnesota and Colorado actually have a lot in common.  Both are predominantly rural states with a single major metropolitan area with a few smaller cities scattered around.  The rural areas are mainly conservative with moderate and liberal forces concentrated in the metro area.  School reform has been at the top of Minnesota’s political hot buttons for many years and it has the oldest charter schools law in the nation.  Minnesota 2020 is a non-partisan think tank focused on public policy concerning education, health care, transportation and economic development.  This report on the results of the ‘education marketplace’ that Minnesota reformers put in place should serve as a warning to Colorado.  You can download the full report here: False_Choices_2012

Key Flaw in Market-Based School Reform: A Misunderstanding of the Civil Rights Struggle – Washington Post

Our comment on this article:  This article is a review of the book, Public Education Under Siege, edited by Michael Katz and Mike Rose.  It is a collection of essays on school reforms.  The review focuses on one particular essay that looks at the Libertarian ‘Reformer’ efforts to tie charter schools, and even private school voucher programs to the Civil Rights movement.  They proclaim that standing up for ‘school choice’ is the equivalent of the Freedom Riders, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.  Even allowing for hyperbole, the analogy is not only badly flawed, but patently false.  

School Reform: The Problems — And Some Solutions – Washington Post

Our comment on this article:  This is a follow up article to the review above.  The Washington Post reporter who wrote the above review conducts a Q&A with the editors of the book, Public Education Under Siege.

The Effects of Market-based School Reforms on Students with Disabilities – Disabilities Studies Quarterly

Our comment on this article:  Charter school advocates constantly try to refute the idea that they do not adequately serve special needs children.  Generally, they will cite a broad statistic and then follow it up with a couple of anecdotes.  It all sounds good, but the underlying logic of a competitive marketplace has never seemed to jive with this image.  This is a scholarly paper that looks at the issue objectively, focusing on actual hard statistics and patterns, not just ‘feel good’ stories.  Because it is an article written for a professional journal (Disabilities Studies Quarterly) the language is a bit stilted.  But it is worth wading through to find the conclusions, including:

The available evidence indicates, however, that, in general, students with disabilities are not well served by market-based reforms including vouchers, charter schools, and the testing and accountability requirements of NCLB.


It is likely that the needs of some students with disabilities are well served in charter schools. It may also be that some charters identify fewer students with disabilities because they offer high quality programs that make labeling unnecessary. But many students with disabilities are not well served in charter schools and, more seriously, many charters systematically exclude students with disabilities, thus creating highly segregated learning environments. In both the US and abroad, this means that “the sending districts [traditional public schools]” are left “stratified, fragmented, and segregated” (Miron & Nelson, 2002, p. 25). Students with disabilities are among the most likely to remain in local traditional public schools—”schools of last resort for those who never applied or who were rejected [by charter schools]” (Ravitch, 2010, p. 220). These “schools of last resort,” overpopulated with low-achieving, difficult- and expensive-to-educate students, will be hard pressed to provide a quality education to students left behind.

Corporate-Led Education Reform Movement Ignores Solvable Problems to Carry Out Its Agenda – FireDogLake

Our comment on this article:  So if all the logic, theory, and evidence demonstrates not only the unworkability of an ‘education marketplace’ but the damage and harm it can cause, why is it still being pushed so hard?  FireDogLake is a progressive blog that has taken a look at this, and this is their conclusion.

We are not prepared to endorse their conclusion wholesale, although we have no doubt that many individuals do see the ‘privatization’ of schools through the charter school effort as a large business opportunity.  We tend to follow Heinlein’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.”  Certainly WNW+Miller have shown JeffCo plenty of evidence of both.

Of course, the ultimate irony of WNW’s worshiping of an “Education Marketplace” is that they have already acted contrary to it’s core principles several times, the most blatant being their bailing out of the charter schools Collegiate Academy of Colorado and Mountain Phoenix.  By the logic of their ‘marketplace’ theory, these schools had shown that they were not well enough run to continue.  Once in financial difficulty, by the Darwinian ethos of a marketplace, they should have been left to fail.  Instead, WNW gave them no interest loans for several hundred thousand dollars. So much for a real ‘marketplace’.

Stay alert, become informed, and inform others, everyone.  That is how we…

Keep Fighting, Jeffco!

9 thoughts on “Saturday Post: A Public School Marketplace?

  1. For WNW Giving money to financially struggling charters does make sense from a market-based perspective. They see these programs as unfairly under-funded. By equalizing the funding they see this as giving them a chance to work. I’m not saying I agree with that, just that it does make sense from their perspective.

    Charters follow all laws with respect to students with disabilities. Charters are equipped or appropriate for every child, and neither are the neighborhoos schools not equipped or appropriate for every child. That’s called the “least restrictive environment” in edu-speak. If you want to bash charters over this, then you need to take a hard and balanced look at all the choice programs in Jeffco including the district run choices such as option schools, GT centers and IB programs.

    • Re: Charter Schools ‘under-funded’
      1) One of the promises made for charter schools was that they could do better than regular schools for less money, since they are not ‘constrained’ by the ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘unions’ of normal schools. So if they require the same amount of money per pupil to achieve more or less the same results, then where is their benefit?
      2) Of the 15+ charter schools in the district, these were the two that were in dire straits. The other 12+ do not seem to have the same financial issues, therefore it can be concluded that their financial problems were not due ‘under funding’ but rather to poor management. This conclusion is reinforced when you examine closely the reasons for their financial problems, which included uncontrolled spending and serious lapses of budgeting when it came to new buildings.
      3) In a real ‘marketplace’ no one would care that they were ‘under-funded’. Underfunded businesses fail all the time in genuine marketplaces. Banks and other money centers do not step in to help…without severe conditions placed on the terms of that help. No such terms were placed on these two charter schools.
      4) We are not actually arguing that the schools should have been left to fail. We are saying that if WNW+Miller truly believed in their own rhetoric then WNW+Miller should have left them to fail. The fact that they did not proves that WNW+Miller do not actually WANT a real marketplace. What they want is a system that allows them to favor schools they like over ones they do not.

      Re Disabilities: Please note that this is a scholarly article in a professional journal. It’s point is that statistics demonstrate that children with disabilities are under represented in charter schools. This makes sense in ‘market-place’ logic. Children with disabilities generally involve higher costs per pupil than children without disabilities. In a ‘market-place’ the manufacturer or vendor of a product controls their cost of manufacturing or sales by rejecting sub-standard material, i.e., material that will cost more to turn into a salable product. If Charter schools are to produce college-capable students for a specific price, then they have an incentive to find creative ways to reject ‘sub-standard’ student material. That is how a ‘market-place’ works. That is how the ‘profit’ motive works.

      That is why we feel that the ‘education market-place’ philosophy is corrosive, dangerous, and immoral.

      That is the point of this post.

  2. Sorry for the edited misspellings! Arghh. Hopefully the point comes through in spite of the typos.

  3. I am a retired Jeffco teacher with 33 years in the district. Way back in the late 80s/early 90s, we had a new superintendent (who didn’t stay long) who rented Red Rocks, bussed all employees there and gave this pep talk on the first day of school. I can’t recall his name but I remember two things.

    He knew he would receive criticism for spending money this way, but justified the expense with the story of the axeman who doesn’t take time to sharpen his axe is not as efficient over time in chopping wood. His goal was to inspire us for the coming school year.

    He had a background in manufacturing with 3M (scotch tape). He related the difference with that job and his new job. He said that the manufactoring/business world (using 3M as his example) would never accept flawed/damaged/less than perfect raw materials to make their products and can turn down those raw materials if they don’t meet their standards.

    Those in education don’t have that ability. We work with all kinds of kids (plus their families and their home situations). The “free market” will never work in public education.

  4. Please also read “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” by Diane Ravitch. It’s a lengthy read, but is full of data that completely deconstructs the argument that our education system is ‘broken beyond repair’ as many libertarian/conservative types will have you believe. Our education system has improved drastically since the 1970s, and this book presents factual data to support the argument that privitazation is indeed very dangerous for our public schools.

  5. I’m not disagreeing with the point of your post. In fact overall I agree. I think the market-based approach is unrealistic and very harmful.

    Look at Jeffco data on children in option schools and programs compared to charters. They are not much different. Those are facts in our district. The problem with low student populations with IEPs is common to all choice programs in Jeffco. Please do not bash charters in Jeffco based on scholarly articles not looking at the facts in our district. I think this argument detracts from the overall point of this post.

    Look at D’Evelyn, a college prep option school for example. How about the New America charter? Charter for deaf kids? McLain HS? Do all the GT centers serve GT kids with disabilities?

    • If you read through all the material, you find that the evidence is that, in general, charters do not do any better that standard public schools. The examples you have given can easily be accounted for by self-selection bias. Aside from income level, the strongest predictor of student success is the how active and involved parents are with their children’s school work. Those who choose to place their children in a charter school, especially one that has a ‘good reputation’ are also the parents who are likely to be very involved in their children’s schooling no matter what. One of the articles pointed out that when the performance of students who got into a specific, lottery-based charter school were compared to children who applied but did not get in, there was no statistical difference. Because the parents had the interest and capability to support their child in applying to the charter school also meant that they had the interest and capability to help the child regardless of what school the child went to.

      In short, the children who attend a charter school are the children whose parents would have them do well regardless of what school they went to. It is not the schools that are making the difference, but the parents!

      Finally and once again, the point of the post was that the so-called ‘education marketplace’ approach being touted by WNW+Miller not only does not work, it would set up a series of incentives that would severely tempt charter schools into creatively excluding children who would not help them get high scores, especially children with disabilities. An additional point is that WNW is not following through on the full logic anyway! The study you are objecting to was a national study. There will always be outliers in any such study. But to pretend that JeffCo is some how immune to the downfalls of the ‘marketplace’ philosophy and so is and will continue to be one of those outliers is akin to thinking that you will win the lottery because somehow you ‘deserve it’. Such thinking is why casinos make money. We do not think gambling with children’s education and future is smart or moral.

  6. I agree! I suspect the parental involvement also impacts the district choice programs. The parents who seek out these programs are very involved.

    The only (small point) I disagree with is that somehow children will thrive in any good school environment. That has not been my experience. GT kids at the elementary level do not necessarily thrive in neighborhood schools. Some kids need more hands on learning not found in the traditional classroom. That’s why we need choice programs. We have great choice programs in Jeffco through the district and the charters. I’ve had my child in many of them (neighborhood, GT, and charter) and these are good schools.

    One of my biggest fears of WNW is that their crazy market-based approach will ultimately hurt the neighborhood schools but also our great choice programs. It’s a difficult tight rope to walk to criticise WNW market-based support for charters (which I oppose) and support for true grass-roots parental support for charters (which I support). That’s the difference that I would like to point out and I hope we can all keep in mind as we work to stop WNW.

    I very much appreciate this post because I think it exposes the true goals of WNW. It also exposes their hypocrisy of fiscal responsibility. I would add that no corporation could survive with a board of directors so out of touch with its employees, clients, consumers or stakeholders as WNW are in Jeffco. Well done.

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