Category Archives: Education / Youth

Market Economy versus Market Society

A recent opinion column from the Lafayette Journal-Gazette caught my eye. Written by Ed Eiler, a former school superintendent, it began

Three recent newsworthy items deserve our attention. The first is a study in the American Educational Research Journal, which concluded rising income inequality in the U.S. is a primary cause of the growing economic segregation of schools. As the gap grows, affluent families are more likely to segregate themselves into enclaves where there are few poor children in the public schools.

The second is a report issued by the Indiana Department of Education that calculated the net increased cost for the state’s education voucher program to be $53.2 million. Some 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

The final report is one completed by the National Conference of State Legislatures addressing educational reform. The report acknowledges there are no silver bullets and the present efforts at reform have failed. The report recognizes the importance of having all stakeholders be a part of the process of improving our schools.

Why does any of this matter? All of these reports can be tied to the effort to privatize education.

Eiler then references a book by Michael Sandel, who makes an important distinction between markets that deal with material goods, which he finds “valuable and productive” and markets operating  in areas where they do not belong, in our civic lives.

Should educational opportunities be made available based upon the ability to pay? Should we pay children to read books or get good grades? Should people receive health care on the basis of their ability to pay? Should access to politicians and the political system be governed by those who have more money? Should legal representation be affected by one’s financial circumstances? Should you be able to pay someone else to take your place in serving your country? Should citizenship be for sale?

Sandel asserts markets may in fact undermine or crowd out non-market attitudes and values worth caring about and change the character of some goods and social practices. He writes that the most corrosive effect of markets is the loss of our commonality – “we’re all in it together.”

This argument underscores what I have sometimes called a “category mistake.” I’ve previously written that our misguided and unsuccessful drug war is a consequence of placing drug abuse in the category of criminal justice rather than public health. Similarly, too many school reform efforts categorize education as another consumer good, rather than a public necessity.

Of course we all want our children to receive educations that will enable them to compete for jobs and status, just as we all want university graduates to find gainful employment. But the purpose of education goes far beyond those “consumer” goals. Genuine education is not job training; it both enriches the lives of recipients (a market good) and creates good citizens (a social good). As political scientist Benjamin Barber has written, public education is constitutive of a public.

So long as we think of education as a consumer good, a “product” we purchase for our children, we will continue to have affluent families segregate themselves from poorer communities, and we will continue to exacerbate inequality.

Public education is–and must be categorized as–a public good. And an exceptionally important one. Properly understood, it is not something that private markets can provide.

What To Do, What To Do…

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating.

I teach my law and public policy classes through a constitutional “lens,” because I am convinced that students must understand America’s fundamental legal framework and philosophy if they are to approach policy proposals with the necessary analytic tools.

I often introduce the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment with a purposely silly question: “What did James Madison think about porn on the Internet?” Usually, the student I’ve asked will laugh and respond that Madison never encountered the Internet; that then allows us to discuss the expressive values Madison and other Founders were trying to protect, and the ways in which modern courts attempt to protect those values in a world that the Founders could never have envisioned.

But several years ago, when I asked a student that question, she looked at me blankly and said “Who’s James Madison?”

That experience–unfortunately, not an outlier–led to the establishment of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, (CCL) and research to determine how much Americans really know–or don’t– about the country’s history, economy and legal system, and the political and social consequences of low levels of civic knowledge.

If anyone doubts the corrosive effect of civic ignorance, I suggest watching this year’s political campaigns.

There is clearly little we can do that would immediately improve the abysmal state of public discourse as it is practiced today, but in addition to research into the causes and consequences of civic ignorance, CCL has been working with the League of Women Voters and the Indiana Bar Foundation, among others, to produce materials that we hope will help address the issue going forward.

The Center and the Bar Foundation have published a book called “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance.” The book points to the pervasive social and cultural supports that reward knowledge of sporting events and trivia, and makes the argument that we need to institute similar mechanisms that would reward and increase civic knowledge.

Young Americans who can tell you who threw out the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series are capable of answering equally obscure questions about the Articles of Confederation, but American culture privileges sports knowledge over civic literacy. The book suggests a number of mechanisms for bringing civics “into the sunlight”–from relatively “do-able” measures like increasing participation in the excellent “We the People” curriculum and competition, to “wouldn’t it be wonderful” suggestions for a new GI Bill that would reduce student debt while increasing civic information and engagement.

Information about the book’s availability will be posted to the Center’s website shortly.

Another publication–originally an ebook, but just this month available in paperback--is a mere 36 pages of essential civic information. Titled Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before Opening Your Mouth, it includes “What everyone should know about the Constitution and American legal system,” “What everyone should know about the American economic system,” “What everyone should know about science,” and “What everyone should know about politics.”

Obviously, all of those subjects cannot be comprehensively covered in 36 pages, but the book provides basic facts and settled definitions that can allow people to argue for their policy preferences more productively and convincingly.

I encourage readers of this blog to examine these two products, and if you find them useful–and I think you will–disseminate them broadly. Discuss the recommendations in “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance”with school curriculum officials. Read Talking Politics in your book club. Whatever.

I think thoughtful Americans of every party and political philosophy will agree that–whatever else America’s current election campaign may signify–the nomination of Donald Trump by a major party could only occur in a country where significant numbers of citizens have no understanding of the way their nation’s government works, or the rules that constrain elected officials.

That nomination should be a wake-up call.

 

When “Private” Really Isn’t

Remember when Ross Perot built his third-party campaign on his image as a hard-headed private-sector businessman? And it turned out that his company did most of its “private-sector” business with government?

The revelations about Trump University are highlighting a similar reality: most supposedly “private sector” universities are financed with tax dollars.

Investigations by government officials and reporters over the past few years have uncovered numerous abuses by these schools, which recruit heavily among populations unprepared for higher education, encourage students to take on government-insured loans, and fail to provide them with the education and skills they need to succeed in the job market. According to the U.S. Department of Education, for-profit schools are responsible for 44% of all student loan defaults.

Like Trump “University,” most of these institutions aren’t universities–they’re scams. And  Trump isn’t the only public office-seeker with ties to these lucrative enterprises.

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, in a tight race for re-election, is being criticized for his ties to Yorktown University:

The Pennsylvania Senator is expected to get the Trump U treatment over his dealings with Yorktown University, a for-profit college that has been criticized for its lack of accreditation, questionable academic offerings and marketing to veterans who can receive government tuition aid. Toomey is an investor in the online program, served on its boards and agreed to appear in its marketing materials.

……..

Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio was hit in the Republican primary for his support of the now-closed Corinthian Colleges; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took some heat for his support of Victory University, a for-profit based in Memphis, before its untimely demise; and former President Bill Clinton has faced censure for his lucrative work with for-profit colleges, even as his wife has criticized them.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has consistently attacked schools trading false hopes for the tuition dollars being provided courtesy of taxpayers. The Education Department’s long-debated “gainful employment” rule, which requires colleges to track their graduates’ performance in the workforce and eventually will cut off funding for career training programs that fall short, was recently upheld by the courts. The Justice Department recently announced that Education Affiliates would pay $13 million to settle allegations it had falsified federal financial aid claims and issued fake diplomas, the latest in a string of similar actions.

It is past time to shut down these phony “schools” that exist only to prey on the vulnerable while defrauding taxpayers.

Why do I think that wouldn’t happen in a Trump-Pence Administration?

Ah..Those Laboratories of Democracy…

When I introduce students to America’s constitutional architecture, I sometimes begin by asking them to define federalism. Judging from the blank stares and efforts to avoid being called on, I think it’s fair to say that our federalist system is not widely understood.

That’s too bad, because one of the policy debates we should be having–but aren’t–is how such a system should operate in a time when transportation and communication technologies have changed the way we view state lines. What sorts of rules and policies need to be national in scope, and which are best left to state and local government?

However we answer that question, one important role that states will undoubtedly continue to play is in the development of new approaches to governing.

Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy;” the idea was that state governments would try new ideas and programs, acting as “pilot projects,” that would allow the rest of the country to evaluate the merits of those approaches before adopting them.

Inevitably, some will be cautionary tales, and pre-eminent in that category is Kansas or, as Charles Pierce calls it,

the failed state of Kansas, now in the fifth year of the Brownbackian Dark Ages, as such things are reckoned. Somehow, the fact that Kansas’ status as a supply-side lab rat has dropped the state down a political garbage chute the likes of which hasn’t been seen since they shredded the Articles of Confederation is beginning to seep under the guardhouses of the gated communities. The head of a healthcare company is fleeing to the Missouri border and he’s not shy about telling the world why.

The blistering indictment of Brownback’s Kansas by that company’s CEO is illuminating; noting that Kansas has become a test center of “trickle down” economics, he pointed out that those policies have led to a “dramatic failure of government.”

Brownback implemented unprecedented tax cuts in 2012. The largest cuts were in the highest tax brackets, and Brownback promised that they would provide a “shot of adrenaline” for the Kansas economy. They actually had the opposite effect, with Kansas lagging neighboring states in job growth and missing revenue targets in 11 of the past 12 months. In the face of ever-deeper debt and another round of degraded bond ratings, Brownback has asked his citizens to pray and fast to solve the budget crisis.

That should turn things around. Not.

It is tempting to look at the hot mess that is Kansas and feel better about Indiana. And granted, our fiscal problems–while substantial– are less severe. But our Governor has  generated his own cautionary tales.

Take, for just one example, his attack on public education and his fervent support of school vouchers. Indiana now has the largest voucher program in the country–and some of the most consistently under-resourced public schools. The public justification for expanding the voucher program is that allowing parents to choose private schools will improve education, at least as measured by test scores. (Given the percentage of families using those vouchers at religious schools, however, it is likely that the Governor’s preference for church over state– his consistent effort to bolster religious institutions and practices– is implicated.)

So how has Indiana’s “laboratory experiment” been working out? Not so well.

Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions. And they showed that the results were not explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers transferred out of above-average public schools.

Perhaps Governor Pence can call for a day of prayer and fasting to raise the test scores of those voucher students. In the meantime, other states can be grateful for a federalist system that lets them learn from–and avoid– others’ disasters.

Facts and Frames

I think it was Talleyrand who said something along the lines of “language has been given to man to enable him to conceal his thoughts.” Nowhere is this observation more apt than in the debates over school voucher programs.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that many public systems are underperforming, and that people of good will are working on a variety of reforms intended to improve them. Reform is not a dirty word; it is also not a specific description. Some reforms show promise; others do not. Some are consistent with the democratic mission of public education; others are not.

Thus far, the scholarship evaluating voucher programs suggests that participating schools perform no better than public schools when you control for student population–that is, if the children in the public and private classrooms all have the same socio-economic characteristics, voucher schools do no better (and sometimes far worse) than their public counterparts. I should also note that despite careless rhetoric used by proponents and opponents of this or that reform, vouchers and charters are different animals. Charters–whatever their merits or problems–are public schools.

Indiana, under Mike Pence, has vastly expanded its voucher program, and the funds for that expansion have come at the expense of the state’s underfunded public schools. So it is understandable that members of local school boards have gotten “a bit testy,” as the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette put it.

Things have gotten a bit testy between several members of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Last week the foundation sent a new report extolling the virtues of vouchers via email to Mark GiaQuinta, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board.

He responded with “more distortions and lies.”

The ensuing back-and-forth was not a model of civil discourse, but it certainly highlighted something that many of us who consider ourselves pro-reform but anti-voucher have long recognized: this is a fight to which people bring different weapons. Voucher proponents use framing (it is hardly an accident that the Friedman Foundation’s vice-president is a PR professional). Voucher opponents, by and large (and with some exceptions), counter with facts. 

Voucher proponents frame these programs as a means of getting poor children out of failing public schools and into private schools that will give them a better education. That may even be their sincere intent, but it is a frame, a proposition for which, thus far, there simply is no evidence. Quite the contrary; as the Brookings Institution reported a few days ago:

Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions.

Fort Wayne School Board members responded with several facts inconsistent with the “frame”:

  • A majority of children using vouchers in Allen County go to religious schools at taxpayer expense, raising troubling questions about family motivation and public oversight.
  • Fewer than 10% of Allen County children using vouchers ever attended public schools.
  • Three times more students left Fort Wayne Community Schools that had earned an “A” rating from the state than left “D” schools.

At its base, the voucher debate is an argument about democracy, and the role of public schools in creating a polity–an “us”–out of the diverse populations that make up our nation. As I have previously written, in an article titled Privatizing Education: The Liberal Democratic Idea, Constitutionalism, and the Politics of Vouchers,

Arguments about the education of the young are at least as old as Socrates. However, it is fair to suggest that the voucher debate that has erupted over the past few years is qualitatively different from many that have preceded it. Rather than arguing about whether public schools are deficient, and if so, in what respects; rather than debating the merits of one “reform” over another, the issue has become whether America should continue to support a system of free, publicly controlled schools or whether government’s educational role should be reduced to dispensing vouchers to families, enabling them to “buy” educational services in the marketplace. It is a classic political confrontation, engaging partisan strategies and implicating political ideologies.

And all too often, giving short shrift to facts and the actual consequences of ideologically motivated reforms.