Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hoping for a Hurricane

In the hoopla surrounding last week’s State of the Union, we should not overlook the double dose of Duncan—Arne that is—served up in the New Yorker and The Washington Post. Carlo Rotella’s profile of Obama’s Secretary of Education in the New Yorker (the full online article is available only to subscribers, alas), describes Duncan as “firmly on the market-forces side” of the debate on how to improve public education. Rotella observes that while Duncan tries to play both ends against the middle, he pretty much comes down on the side of the fence that makes him a darling to conservatives.:
Duncan must contend with critics on the right who don’t accept the federal government’s active role in education and those on the left who see him as a neoliberal enforcer, exploiting Obama’s Democratic bona fides to impose the free-market reform agenda on the unions. And yet Duncan believes that “a perfect storm for reform”—a heightened awareness of global competition, agreement that there is a crisis, plus desperation in near-broke states—will allow him to push his program through.
Turns out, that when Duncan says, a “perfect storm” provides an ideal environment for reforming education, he’s not just speaking metaphorically. Commenting last week on reform efforts in New Orleans, Duncan said,
I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better.' And the progress that they've made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable. They have a chance to create a phenomenal school district. Long way to go, but that -- that city was not serious about its education. Those children were being desperately underserved prior, and the amount of progress and the amount of reform we've seen in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing."
This is reprehensible.

Sure, Duncan is right in saying that school children in New Orleans were “desperately underserved.” But behind the disastrous state of public education in pre-Katrina New Orleans, or in any pre-economic collapse urban school system, was chronic underfunding and neglect verging on the criminal, the right’s resolute commitment to demonizing the public sector, and the unmitigated assault on the poor that is neoliberalism. The result has been to run these systems into the ground but to chalk up their failures to technical obsolescence and union intransigence both of which are presumed to derive from public schooling’s insulation from the “salutary” effect of market forces.

In the wake of this manufactured disaster, free-market compatible reforms can’t help but offer “some” improvement over what previously existed, and because reformers refuse to support with sufficient funding any models that don’t incorporate their key measures (on the assumption that other alternatives have already been tried and found wanting), they pretty much have a free hand to do what they want to do.

There’s no doubting Duncan’s sincerity in wanting to improve education for all students. But the issue here is not his sincerity. For the past quarter century the notion of commonsense coming from the right—to which the Democrats, if not much of the left, have acquiesced—is that public sector spending is out of control. Any discussion about improving public services starts with reining in costs, as illustrated by the Obama administration’s approach to healthcare.

With cost-cutting as square one, the rest of the game becomes a matter of improving what Stanford economist and Hoover Institution Fellow, Caroline Hoxby (a proponent of free-market methods in education) terms “productivity,” which is a measure of outcomes, say test scores, against input (per pupil expenditures). On this scale it counts as a plus for charters and other alternatives not only if their students actually do better than students in traditional schools, but also if they do roughly the same for less money.

Given the prevailing commonsense and the straitened circumstances of state governments, what we’re likely to see as education reform going forward is modest improvements in educational achievement as measured by test scores, coupled with flat or slightly decreased state-level expenditures for public education. Underwriting any educational cost control will be growing precariousness in the situation of teachers, with higher rewards for entrepreneurial types at the top, and increased scrutiny for those struggling in difficult circumstances.

Particularly pernicious is that Duncan and Co. will represent the current discussion as a truly open consideration of all viable approaches to education, never acknowledging that what has undermined those measures we know produce better teaching and learning environments--smaller class sizes, better school facilities, overall increases in teacher pay, and instruction in the arts--is an unwillingness to start from the position that we need to fund education at all levels more generously and more equitably than we have ever done.