Tis my wont to recount conversations with colleagues and students by assigning them pseudonyms similar to their real names. However, the debates I describe here weren’t with work folks, but two public figures, each quite well-known in their own field. Identifying them would not only compromise my own pseudonymity, but also be a bit too much like (heh) talking out of school. Simply assigning them similar names might help someone figure out their identities as well.
Therefore, I’ve chosen to name the two men for the booze imbibed whilst debate was underway.
My first sparring partner is very well-known in education reform circles; anyone who reads or writes about ed policy would at least know his name. We met in a pub, a good one, and went through easily four rounds before dinner crossed our minds. And so he is Beer.
The second man is more famous than the first in any absolute sense. He’s frequently on TV where his name is met with applause, and writes for a major political magazine. If I described his achievements even in the most generic sense, most Republicans would be able to identify him. I met him in a bar with other fans, after he gave a speech (not at the bar), and Maker’s Mark was flowing free, so he’s Bourbon.
Bourbon doesn’t talk or present like an elite, but his educational resume reads like one. Describing Beer’s educational history would give away his identity, but suffice it to say a simple google doesn’t give up his alma mater, although he has one. Beer spent some time teaching K-12 in high poverty schools. Bourbon has not taught K-12, poverty or otherwise.
Beer’s views are difficult to predict, save his primary cause, which I can’t describe because it would instantly identify him. Bourbon, who is not involved with education in any real sense, holds utterly typical conservative views: choice, more choice, and more choice still, vouchers good, unions suck. In both cases, I knew this going in. I’ve read both men’s work for years.
As to my own participation, the setting with Beer is right in my zone. We talked for easily three hours. I had plenty of time to lose track, retrack, restate, dig deep, hop around, zing his boss with a clever tag (he laughed). I was at my best.
Bourbon, on the other hand, was a celebrity giving time to fans. I was one of many. He was generously sharing his time with everyone. It was a good time for an elevator speech, and, er, well. I write something under 1000 words, it’s a big day. Short enough for three floors, I don’t do. Paradigm-shifting takes time and in this case I’d never really expected education policy to emerge as a topic. So I don’t know what sort of impression I left. At my best, for better or worse, people remember me. I’m not sure Bourbon would.
Wait. Trump-voting teacher, three credentials, thinks charters and choice are overrated and expensive.
He’ll remember me.
Anyway. While I enjoyed both encounters tremendously, I’m writing about them because both Beer and Bourbon made comments that helped me to see past the end of this era of education reform. Both men, in the midst of discussions about various education policy issues, waved off an issue that was a foundational basis for the modern education reform movement.
In Beer’s case, we were discussing his ready acceptance of cherrypicking charters. Because charter school attendance isn’t a right linked directly to geography, as it is for public schools, charters can be selective. There are academically selective charters, immigrant only charters, Muslim-run charters. Despite all these obvious cases, the major public argument is about the technically open charters (KIPP, Success, other no excuses charters) and whether or not they are secretly selective. The research is pretty conclusive on this point, much as charter advocates deny it.
But Beer shrugged this off. “I want charters to skim. I want them to be selective.”
I was taken aback. “I mean, come on. Go back to the mid-90s when charters started taking off. The entire argument for charters was ‘failing public schools’. The whole point was that the failure of public education was located in the public schools themselves: unions, bad teachers, stupid rules, curriculum, whatever. Charter schools, freed from all those stupid laws, but open to everyone, could do better automatically simply by not being those rules bound public schools. Now you’re saying that they can’t actually do better unless they skim, unless they have different discipline rules.”
“But….that won’t scale.”
“And you’re going to increase segregation, probably, since if charters can skim then they’re going to focus more on homogeneity.”
Shrug. “I want as many kids to get as good an education as possible. Skim away.”
I don’t want to continue, because I don’t want to get his arguments wrong. And for this particular piece, the shrug is the point.
So now, on to Bourbon who was waxing eloquent on the uselessness of unions, one large one (with which I am unaffiliated) in particular.
“They’re losing kids because their schools suck. It’s not money. They’ve had billions. They want more, more, always more. Charters just do a better job and don’t whine for money.”
“Well, charters get to pick and choose their kids. But leaev that aside, charters aren’t ever going to end public schools. Catholic schools in inner cities have been almost obliterated. and even private schools are getting hurt bad by charters, with declining enrollment. Once you offer basically private school at public prices, then many people who would otherwise pay private are going to go for the free option.”
“Wait, what? You’re arguing in favor of a government policy that kills private enterprise?”
“Sure. Well, I reject your premise that private schools are being hurt all that bad by charters. But if so, so what?”
I can only imagine the look on my face. “So you’re arguing against free markets and private enterprise?”
“No that’s what I’m arguing for. Free markets. Parental choice.”
“But no. You are arguing for public schools to be able to act like private schools. That’s government intervention. If the public option allows discrimination and selectivity, there’s no need for private.”
“But then you’re moving all the teachers from the private market into the public market–meaning higher salaries, higher pensions, more government costs. And because these are basically private schools, so you can cap–so there will be even more teachers, thus creating shortages, driving up salaries, driving up costs.”
I wasn’t mad. I was genuinely perplexed. Again, I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to recreate any part of a debate that I didn’t have down cold. In this case, as in Beer’s, I am certain that this was my understanding of Bourbon’s position, and I’m at least reasonably sure I had it right.
Like most teachers, I see the modern education reform movement (choice and accountability legs) as being fueled by two things. Funding the effort were billionaire Republicans or elitist technocrats, the first dedicated to killing the Democrat fundraising monster known as teacher unions, the second dedicated to upgrading a non-meritocratic profession. Nothing personal, that’s just how we see it.
But on the surface, where it counted, the argument for education reform focused on “failing schools”, caused by incompetent and stupid teachers, creating a horrible racial achievement gap because lazy teachers didn’t believe all students could succeed.
[Note: The actual arguments were often more nuanced than that, with many choice advocates like Cato and Jay Greene arguing for all choice and no accountability, and others arguing that all students, regardless of race, deserved the education of their choice. But the bottom line sale, the one designed to gain the support of a public who loved their own schools, was the let’s get poor kids out of failing schools pitch.}
A while back at Steve Sailer’s blog, I wrote a short synopsis of the rise and fall of the modern education reform era, and I probably should rewrite it for here sometime. I’ve also written at length about it here, notably “Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education Reform, End of Education Reform?, and Charters: The Center Won’t Hold.
So the modern education reform movement will probably be dated in the future from either 1991 (first charter) or 1995, the year when the Public Charter Schools Program began, through the early heady days when people were allowed to say that KIPP was ending the achievement gap, the 1998 Higher Education Act, which advocates thought would kill ed schools, through No Child Left Behind, onto New York becoming an all choice district, to Hurricane Katrina allowing the New Orleans’ conversion to an all-charter district, Race to the Top waivers, Common Core, and then the unspooling: Adrian Fenty getting thrown out of office on account of Michelle Rhee (who has apparently left education entirely), Common Core opposition leading to a massive repudiation of all forms of federal accountability, teacher unions rising in red states after Janus was supposed to end union power entirely, and the wholesale rewrite of the ESEA that wiped out most of the reforms won during the Bush/Obama era. Education reformers understand these are dark days, even though the mainstream media appears to have no idea anything happened.
Charters are ed reform’s one happy place. For the moment, they are still popular. Why not? They are, as I say, private schools at public prices. Although everyone should look carefully at California, which is considering not only giving charter control to districts, but also restricting TFA and other alternative teacher programs. Taxpayers may finally care about the issues that didn’t trouble Bourbon.
But as so much else falls away from their grasp, it’s instructive to see both an ed reformer and a conservative shrug off aspects of charters that the original case argued strongly against. Charters were supposed to weaken teachers, but unlimited charters coupled with strong federal laws will only increase their scarcity. Charters were supposed to improve the achievement gap for all kids, but now they’ll just do so for a lucky few.
Or am I missing something?
Anyway. They were great arguments, and have given me much to mull. My thanks to Beer and Bourbon–both the men and the booze.
I met some other cool people at the Bourbon event, and at some point in the evening, I mentioned I write a blog.
One guy said, “Wow, that’s dangerous for a teacher.”
“Indeed, which is why it’s an anonymous blog.”
“Really? I read a blog written by an anonymous teacher from this area who voted for Trump.”
I laughed. “Well, if that’s true, then you read me, although I never say what area I’m from.”
“It can’t be you.”
“No, no, I just mean…it’s not you.”
“OK, then I’d love to know who it is, because as far as I know I’m the only anonymous teacher blogger, Trump voter or otherwise, from this area.”
He got out his phone, brought up his Twitter account, and clicked on a profile. “This you?”
And reader, it was.
First time I’ve met my audience!