Technology and School Choice: The False Dichotomy

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Terry Moe has a great article in today’s Journal about how entrepreneurial innovation taking advantage of new technology is putting the teacher’s unions on the road to oblivion. It’s a great article, except that it draws one false dichotomy.

Fans of JPGB know that we do love us some high-tech transformation of schooling around here. Matt has been on this beat for a long time, and hardly a week goes by that he doesn’t update us on the latest victory of “the cool kids” over “edu-reactionaries” in the reinvention of the school. But he doesn’t own that turf entirely; I made this the theme of my contribution to Freedom and School Choice (as did Matt, of course).

The problem is that Moe insists high-tech transformation of schooling, and the destruction of union control it entails, is absolutely, positively a separate phenomenon from the wave of school reform victories this year:

This has been a horrible year for teachers unions…But the unions’ hegemony is not going to end soon. All of their big political losses have come at the hands of oversized Republican majorities. Eventually Democrats will regain control, and many of the recent reforms may be undone. The financial crisis will pass, too, taking pressure off states and giving Republicans less political cover…

Over the long haul, however, the unions are in grave trouble—for reasons that have little to do with the tribulations of this year…The first is that they are losing their grip on the Democratic base…Then there’s a crucial dynamic outside of politics: the revolution in information technology.

Really? The victories of 2011 – “the year of school choice” – aren’t in the same category with the long-term path to oblivion the unions are on? On the contrary, 2011 is the year of school choice precisely because it has become obvious that the unions are on track for oblivion, for the reasons Moe identifies.

Moe’s argument relies on the assumption that when Republicans are in power, they always make dramatic and innovative school reform policies their #1 priority.

Sorry  . . . lost my train of thought I was laughing so hard . . . let me pick myself up off the floor . . . there, now where was I? Oh, yes.

The GOP hasn’t touched real school reforms with a hundred-foot pole in years. Why did it all of a sudden embrace real reform this year?

Could it be because…

  1. …the unions are losing their grip on the Democratic base, meaning squishy Republicans don’t have to worry about being demonized as right-wing loonies simply for embracing real reform, and…
  2. …the revolution in information technology has made it obvious to MSM and other key cultural gatekeepers that the unions are the reactionaries, once again reassuring squishy Republicans they won’t be demonized for embracing real reform?

Obviously the financial crisis was also a factor here, as Moe rightly points out. But is that really an immediate-term phenomenon, bound to disappear next week? What really counts is whether the nation feels so rich it can afford to ignore ballooning school costs. Technically the recession ended two years ago and we’ve been in “recovery” for two years. How’s that feeling? Do we feel rich and luxurious again? Are we on track to restore a widespread national sense of inevitable prosperity by 2012? By 2014? By 2020?

Bottom line, the unions losing Democratic support and taking their stand in opposition to entrepreneurial change was the crucial, indispensable precondition for this year’s wave of school reform success.

Oh, and guess what? Sustaining those policies, especially school choice, will be the only way this wave of advancing technology will produce the results Moe is expecting. Only school choice can prevent the blob from neutralizing any reform you throw at it. If the techno-innovators turn their back on choice and competition, they’ll be dead meat. (For more on that topic, see the aforementioned chapter by your humble servant in Freedom and School Choice.)

3 Responses to Technology and School Choice: The False Dichotomy

  1. matthewladner says:

    The unions have been suffering setbacks in blue states. Illinois and Oregon are both deep Blue, and some significant reforms passed in each, for example. States with split partisan control like New Mexico and Nevada have been passing reforms as well.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Yes, and Andrew Cuomo is doing good things in New York.

    Even more important than the politicians, though, are the cultural leaders and gatekeepers. Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, the founders of TFA, KIPP, etc. etc. – all Dems. And the MSM likes them better than Randi Whinegarten.

    As I’ve said before in the context of my Cold War metaphor for the school choice battle, Rhee on the cover of Time is like the election of Margaret Thatcher: a game-changing shift in the landscape of perceptions within which the conflict unfolds. Thatcher at Ten Downing forced people to abandon their unexamined assumptions about the direction of History (capital H). That was a bigger boost to the good guys than any specific thing Thatcher actually said or did in office. Similarly, the rise of the “cool kids” and their predominance in the MSM has forced everyone to abandon their unexamined assumptions about the inevitability of union power.

  3. allen says:

    Two thing.

    First, you’re not giving any weight to the rising discontent of black voters with the public education system. That’s most clearly evident in the two longest-running voucher programs, Cleveland and Milwaukee. That discontent is having an impact on the left in the form of organizations such Democrats for Education Reform and even Citizens Committee for Civil Rights, an organization with crimson-edged left-wing credentials.

    Second, information technology’s less important then you believe it to be in the diminishment of union influence and reassertion of conservative policies. To a Democratic politician a crowd of angry, poor, black mommies doesn’t require sophisticated information mining software to be identified as important. As the formerly solid Democratic front in support of the educational status quo fractures conservative ideas naturally rush to fill the vacuum.

    If you want to see how and where info tech will have its impact on education here’s the Wired article that provides an example –

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