Ed Reform is Animal Farm

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

When I became involved in education reform more than two decades ago, the movement was about empowering parents to make choices for their own children rather than having choices made for them by well-meaning but distant bureaucrats and professionals.  At its heart, ed reform was about decentralization of control.

In the last quarter-century this effort to expand choice in education has been amazingly successful.  We’ve gone from the first charter school in 1990 to more than 4% of all students enrolled in charters.  We’ve gone from two, century-old voucher programs in Maine and Vermont to having private school choice in more than half of the states.  And the beauty of expanding school choice is that it generates its own advocates as families that benefit from these programs lobby to protect and expand their choices.We are almost at the point where ed reform organizations don’t have to do very much other than to coordinate choice families pushing for more choices.

But just as choice is achieving escape velocity, a groupthink gang of petty little dictators are grabbing the reins of ed reform organizations to advocate for greater restrictions and regulations on choice. They are beginning to make arguments and advocate policies that are essentially the same as the ones favored by the traditional education establishment. Like their rivals in the traditional ed establishment, this new ed reform establishment mistrusts parents to make choices.  Parents, in their view, are not capable of making good choices without the guidance and restrictions imposed by experts and policymakers. And children need to be protected by regulations and bureaucrats against the errors and abuses of their parents or schools.

It has gotten to the point where, like in Animal Farm, it is difficult to tell the difference between the nanny-statism of the old ed establishment and the new ed reform establishment.  The new ed reformers are no longer fighting for parental empowerment, they are just struggling with the old establishment over who will be in control.  Will it be the smart and righteous reformers, as they imagine themselves, or the stupid and self-interested old establishment, as they imagine the unions and their allies? The reformers are convinced they can do it better, but the arrangements they favor are not all that different from those championed by the old guard.

Reformers are currently gathered in a groupthink frenzy over the need to regulate how charter schools discipline their students.  You know who else issues detailed policies on school discipline? Traditional school districts.  Last year they were in a frenzy over the need to force charter schools to “backfill” so that they can take more students in more grades that are assigned to them. You know who else is pre-occupied with filling seats in schools with assigned students? Traditional school districts.

It is currently the fashion among reformers to favor portfolio management, in which a single super-regulator would control which schools open, which close, and issue policies regarding transportation, special education, discipline and other matters.  We’ve even heard proposals recently to have the entity responsible for opening, closing, and regulating schools be elected democratically.  Let’s see if you can guess what all of this sounds like.  That’s right — traditional school districts.  They are also democratically elected.  They also decide which schools should open and close.  They also issue policies regarding transportation, special education, discipline and other matters.  I have looked from portfolio management to districts, and from districts to portfolio management, and from portfolio management to districts again; but already it is impossible to say which is which.

The advocates of portfolio management or democratically elected authorizers say that the difference is that traditional districts actually operate schools, while their proposed entities only concern themselves with opening, closing, and regulating while avoiding interference in operational matters.  We were assured that things would be fine with portfolio management in New Orleans despite the takeover of that role by the Orleans Parish School Board because the district is prohibited from interfering with school operations.

I may not be able to read the continually revised commandments on the barn wall much better than Boxer, but I’m pretty sure that issuing policies with respect to school discipline, special education, admissions, and transportation necessarily interfere with school operations.  And it is only a hop, skip, and jump from telling schools whether they can suspend kids to telling them which methods best teach reading or how many minutes they should be on the playground.  Anyone who is not hypnotized by the reform groupthink would recognize that school boards do not “operate” schools any more than portfolio managers do.  Boards just develop policies to govern schools, just like portfolio managers do.  They contract with others to operate schools under those regulations, just like portfolio managers do.  And they decide which schools should be opened and which should be closed, just like portfolio managers do.

The ed reform crowd enamored with portfolio management and issuing a host of regulations dictating how schools must operate and what parents may choose has become almost indistinguishable from the traditional education crowd with whom they are vying for control.  I say a pox on both their houses.  I got into this line of work because I was excited about empowering parents to make decisions, not imposing my superior brand of control on them.

(edited for typos)

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5 Responses to Ed Reform is Animal Farm

  1. George Mitchell says:

    This nails it.

  2. Mike G says:

    Much to agree with here! I have a clarifying question, though.

    You wrote: “When I became involved in education reform more than two decades ago, the movement was about empowering parents to make choices for their own children rather than having choices made for them by well-meaning but distant bureaucrats and professionals.”

    My question: What do you mean by the “movement” in this context?

    Using Massachusetts in 1993 as a 23-year-old example, the movement (for lack of a better word, the people trying to change things) “got” charters and standards/testing (controlled by well-meaning bureaucrats!) in exchange for $4 billion in spending more on same old system.

    So the choice team here joined the technocrats team to create a combined thing called “the movement.”

    • Hi Mike — Yes, movement is a loose term. There was a group of folks who focused on standards and accountability, a group that focused on expanding choice, and a group that wanted more money for traditional schools. As you rightly note, these three groups came together sometimes in early reform efforts. I was in the choice group and I thought these alliances were useful. I no longer think so.

      • Greg Forster says:

        This question points to the fact that these tensions within the education reform movement (and I do think we can speak of it as a movement) are deeper and older than most now realize. But Animal Farm is still an apt comparison. The tensions between Stalinism and Trotskyism within the communist movement were also present from the beginning, and Stalinism did not start good and go bad; rather it became powerful enough, after the farmer was defeated, to reveal what it always was.

  3. Tim says:

    I’m with you 100% when you point out the dangers of regulators relying so much on ELA/math test scores, and how that overreliance has warped what schools teach. I’m intrigued by the benefits of the “soft” aspects of schooling that may not be measurable. I agree that parents are in the best position to determine what’s best for their child.

    However, every taxpayer and citizen is a stakeholder in public education, not just parents. Regulators exist not only to ensure that children are attending a school that meets some minimum standard of quality and care, but that the people paying the bills are protected as well. I can think of situations — the Deion Sanders charter schools that were essentially elite athletic teams with a little bit of school-like substance attached come to mind — where in an unregulated environment the interests of parents and schools might be served, but not the taxpayers. Without regulators, who is minding the till?

    __________

    Caveats: I live in a state (NY) where A. charters get ~$15,000 per kid, give or take, so market failures would leave a big mark, and there’s a big incentive for bad actors; B. regulators actually protect charters against ferocious, well-funded opposition; and C. it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which those authorizers would start to resemble a traditional school district (most of the restrictions affecting the day-to-day operation of charters come from state laws, not authorizers).

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