Diane Ravitch’s Blog: Alex Molnar: Spinning Rightwing Ideology into Gold

Alex Molnar, research professor and publications director at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, writes here about the privatization movement and its sustained attack on public education.

He writes:

Today, politicians in thrall to neoliberal ideology seek to subordinate the democratic mission of public education to a theory of market-driven economic development and social organization. Policy deliberations are now dominated by of econometric modeling and production function research. This modeling and research is often used, inappropriately, to make decisions about the value of education reforms. The mathematical models used by researchers are made to “work” only by assuming away much of the real world in which people live and students learn. The phantasmagorical belief in neutral “scientific” expertise as the primary basis for policymaking has, therefore, profoundly antihuman as well as antidemocratic implications — a topic Sheila Dow takes up in “People Have Had Enough of Experts.”[5]

The major education reforms of the past 35 years — education vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts — all seek to remove public schools from the control of elected bodies; to subject them to the “laws” of the “market”; and to put them at the service of the economic elite. The world being called into existence is based on the belief that anyone, but not everyone, can succeed—a world of winners and losers, each of whom has earned his or her fate.

Of course, if the privatizers actually believed in science or evidence, they would have already abandoned vouchers, which has no research to support it, and whose results have been shown in some places to actually harm students. In effect, students are given a low-cost voucher to spend in a school where teachers are usually uncertified and the curriculum is based on 19th century ideas that have been long disproven. It is ideology, not science, that drives the voucher movement, and its wicked stepsisters, tax credits and education savings accounts.

Those who believe in evidence would also demand transparency and accountability from privately managed charter schools, which in many states are excused from such inconveniences and use their freedom to kick out and exclude students they don’t want.

Molnar examines the policies of the past 25 years and their neglect of the lives of people affected by them.

He writes:

Over the past two and a half decades, the poor in privatized urban schools have been successfully harnessed to the delivery of reliable profits to investors and munificent salaries to executives. At the same time, the working class has discovered that schools in their communities often cost more than they can afford to pay. The decades of wage stagnation, unemployment, and tax shifting have taken their toll. Teachers and the unions that had won them the relatively high wages, job security, and benefits that are a distant memory for many blue collar workers became a useful target for the ideologues and politicians pursuing neoliberal reforms. 

The neoliberal argument is that public schools cost too much (the largest item in a school budget is for teacher salaries) and performed too poorly to justify the tax dollars they commanded. If “star” teachers could be freed from the union wage scale to earn what they were worth, the resulting competition would create incentives for better teacher performance. Mediocre teachers would earn less, and low performing teachers would be fired. The mechanism proposed for measuring teacher performance was assessing the performance of their students on standardized tests. So began the policy embrace of “Value Added Assessment” (VAA). In the kind of methodologically sophisticated, intellectually fatuous study that has become all too common, Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff claim to have found long-term economic benefits for students whose teachers have higher “value added” scores.[22] 

This is a valuable overview of the recent past, the present, and the likely future. Unless we fight back hard.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She serves on the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation, Common Core, the Albert Shanker Institute of the American Federation of Teachers, and Common Good. She is an honorary life trustee of the New...