Obfuscation, Rubber Yardsticks, and Double Standards

How the Authors of Hard Lessons Miss the Point

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At the end of last year, Education Week, The New York Times, and several other national news organizations gave prominent coverage to a new book entitled Hard Lessons: Public Schools and Privatization, by Carol Ascher, Norm Fruchter, and Robert Berne. ("Privatization Found To Fall Short of Billing," Nov. 6, 1996, and "What May Be Lost Through Privatization?," Dec. 11, 1996.) The book concludes that privatization does nothing to improve education, harms the poor, and threatens democracy.

This report cannot be taken seriously as an inquiry into the risks and benefits of privatization because it appears that the authors assembled evidence to support a predetermined point of view. The report's problems stem from an elastic use of the key term--privatization. At the beginning, it is sharply defined as "tax credits or other educational vouchers given directly to families to be spent on either private or public schools, or contracting out public schools or school systems to be run by for-profit companies." However, the authors' definition changes when they review programs dating back to the 1970s. Whatever they do not like is called privatization. Government contracting for special instruction for students attending regular public schools is called privatization, as is a business-run private school and an experiment that gave parents vouchers allowing them to choose any local public school. But programs they do like, such as open-enrollment plans that allow state money to follow students to any public school in their metropolitan area, are not considered privatization.

Their review is biased and selective. It details Education Alternatives Inc.'s failed efforts to run schools in Baltimore but says nothing about the apparent success of contracted-out public schools in Springfield, Mass., and Wilkinsburg, Pa., or about community satisfaction with the first Edison Project schools. The review of failed experiments does serve a valuable purpose, however: It shows how school board and union harassment has prevented many private groups from serving students and families as they had promised. It also shows how foolish it is for anyone to take responsibility for a public school without getting ironclad advance agreements about staffing, evaluation, and methods of payment.

A close reading of the book does not reveal exactly what makes a school privatized or public. To the authors, public education apparently includes the New Visions schools that Norm Fruchter has helped create in New York City, designed and overseen by private foundations and taking advantage of waivers allowing them to pick teachers and students and receive public money without committing to explicit performance standards. But it does not include schools run by similar organizations whose arrangements with school boards are contractual, not tacit. The authors clearly think public education is democratic and privatized education is not. But it is not clear why it is acceptable for a school board to waive rules that have been democratically arrived at, and unacceptable for a board to enter a contract that waives the same rules. In the end, it is hard to guess what the authors would think of contemporary reform proposals like charter schools (public schools run under contracts between school boards and nonprofit community groups).

An interesting test question would be this: How would the authors classify a system in which a duly elected public school board was forced to hire all its teachers from a private, monopoly labor supplier? I think they would call this system public, not because it is free of entanglement with private interests, but because it is the system we now have.

There are other troubling inconsistencies: It is wrong for private companies to take profits out of school contracts (thus reducing the amounts of money available for instruction), but it is right for school systems to employ janitors and cafeteria workers at above-market rates. It is wrong for private organizations to resist opening up their books for audits, but a praiseworthy exercise in professional ethics for principals in Alum Rock, Calif., to refuse to publish test scores.

Beneath it all is the authors' strong emphasis on public schools as a "civic sphere," an opportunity for groups to contend and struggle. They think debates over curriculum, standards of behavior, and group claims for recognition and autonomy will somehow bring us together as a nation. The authors do not consider that such conflicts might also distract students and teachers from learning.

From their perspective, the danger of allowing independent private groups to run public schools is that the schools might escape the need to respond to every new twist in community politics. This notion of the school as a vector sum of political forces flies in the face of new findings by Fred Newmann and Gary Wehlage, Anthony Bryk, and Valerie Lee and Julia Smith that program coherency and value consistency, not contention, make schools effective. The authors of Hard Lessons, however, adhere to a "tradition" (now barely 40 years old and scarcely ever observed in practice) that "public schools have been expected to develop our collective capacity for effective participation in society by bringing together students from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds in a common experience." There is a much older tradition in public education that young people prepare for civic participation by learning--reading texts, critiquing arguments, writing, speaking, and understanding numbers. Many people dedicated to integration and opportunity think weak instruction and chaotic classrooms bar low-income Americans from full participation in our civic and economic life.

The tragedy of this book is that it tries to drive a wedge into a growing reform movement of people who agree with the books' authors that effective and equitable education requires strong schools--schools that choose their own staff members, have the freedom to follow well-designed and consistent approaches to instruction, listen to parents, and make and keep promises about what children will learn. Many people, including educational innovators like Theodore Sizer and Deborah Meier, think that the public-policy challenge of our times is to find ways of running effective schools with public funds. Ideas like charter schools and the use of contracts, not regulation, to ensure that schools perform and serve public purposes are promising and must be tried.

The authors consider those who would experiment with competition and private operation of schools as (in their words) "forces of cynicism and despair," whose proposals would lead to an America "increasingly polarized into armed camps of privilege and disadvantage." They do not explain how these horrors would come to pass. Proposals to experiment with vouchers for children whom the conventional public school system has failed, or with contracting between school boards and school providers (mostly groups of teachers and nonprofit community organizations), are a long way from handing our little red schoolhouses over to separatists and robber barons.

Vol. 16, Issue 16, Page 48

Published in Print: January 15, 1997, as Obfuscation, Rubber Yardsticks, and Double Standards

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