Monday, April 16, 2018

Privatization scheme highlights rifts in Democratic party between donors and educators (Michael Simkovic)

Democrats in Colorado recently voted overwhelmingly to reject public school privatization and deregulation efforts (charter schools).  Chalkbeat reports:

"Delegates at the Colorado Democratic state assembly Saturday sent a clear message to the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform: You don’t have a place in our party.

After booing down the head of the education reform organization, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, delegates voted overwhelmingly Saturday to call for the organization to no longer use “Democrats” in its name. While it’s unclear how that would be enforced, the vote means a rejection of DFER is now part of the Colorado Democratic Party platform. . . . 

The platform amendment reads:

“We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party’s name Democrat in their name.”

Vanessa Quintana, a political activist . . . said that before she finally graduated from high school, she had been through two school closures and a major school restructuring and dropped out of school twice. Three of her siblings never graduated, and she blames the instability of repeated school changes.

“When DFER claims they empower and uplift the voices of communities, DFER really means they silence the voices of displaced students like myself by uprooting community through school closure,” she told the delegates. “When Manual shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school.”

Just two people spoke up for Democrats for Education Reform. . . .

In an interview, Quintana said she sees education reform policies as promoting inequality, and she wants to change a status quo in which reformers are well represented in the party establishment. She feels especially strongly about ending school closure and sees school choice as a way to avoid improving every school.

“Families wouldn’t need a choice if every neighborhood had a quality school,” she said. “There should be no need to choice into a new neighborhood.”

She believes the reform agenda is not compatible with the education platform of the party, which reads, in part, “our state public education laws and policies should provide every student with an equal opportunity to reach their potential.”

This move highlights a major rift within the Democratic Party on education policy. Charter school advocacy, expansion and evaluation has been heavily funded by foundations affiliated with technology companies--most famously the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation--billionaire philanthropists traditionally viewed as Democratic-leaning such as the Broads, as well as conservative and libertarian billionaire philanthropists such as the Kochs and Waltons. By contrast, teachers’ unions have fought for higher wages, stable employment, smaller class sizes, and better textbooks and equipment for students in public schools, as well as nationwide efforts to ameliorate poverty, which teachers say undermines students’ ability to focus on their studies.

There is a serious empirical dispute over the quality of charter schools. The foundations say that charters, often staffed by young, inexperienced, and low-paid teachers with frequent turnover are the future of education.  But peer reviewed empirical studies have not consistently found evidence that charter schools improve student performance, compared to public schools, after properly controlling for student characteristics and expenditures per student. Although some studies get positive results (see here and here ), these studies may have suffered from methodological problems that caused them to underestimate differences in student characteristics or to focus only on the best charter schools rather than a representative sample.  Many studies find that charter schools perform worse than public schools. (See here, hereherehere).  Experiments with K-12 privatization in Sweden produced similarly unimpressive results decades ago.

Given these studies, Democratic leaders may wish to proceed with caution before further alienating one of the party’s most reliable constituencies, even if doing so risks upsetting major donors. Teacher's Unions have been particularly critical of Arne Duncan, President Obama's Secretary of Education.  Mr. Duncan has reciprocated by not supporting teachers in some of the worst funded states in the country when teachers went on strike after facing further pay cuts (in inflation adjusted terms) and massively underfunded pensions. A study by McKinsey found that high-performing college graduates are avoiding or fleeing teaching because of low pay and poor working conditions. (See also here and here for data on teacher's pay by geography).  Teachers earn 30 percent less on average than other educated workers, and relative pay has declined since the 1990s.

Many Democrats reasonably worry that "school choice" might function to defund teacher's unions (and therefore reduce the power of the Democratic party), undermine public education (but see here), to channel public money toward education technology that may be more expensive than its pedagogical value, to justify lower expenditures and lower taxes than are needed to improve the quality of K-12 education, and to facilitate racial segregation (see also here) without offsetting improvements in student learning.  

Technocrats may contend that the argument over charter schools is simply one about evidence of student outcomes. But the evidence for the educational advantages of charter schools has been and remains weak.  And there is strong evidence of a decades-long attack on public education and unions, ostensibly aimed at reducing the political power of progressives.  Democratic political leaders may increasingly consider political implications when they decide whether to support further charter-ization, or to limit it (as Massachusetts did last year).

To be sure, some studies suggest that "injecting best practices" from the highest performing charter schools into public schools can improve student performance without the need to move toward charter schools. These "best practices" ("increased time, better human capital, more student-level differentiation, frequent use of data to alter the scope and sequence of classroom instruction, and a culture of high expectations") may entail higher instructional spending per student.  And these practices seem to work in traditional public schools as well as charter schools.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Of Academic Interest, Science, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink