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Disruptiness in K-12: Historical Perspectives

In his blog recently, Jay Greene summarized the general disruption/creative-destruction argument for privatization and quasi-privatization efforts: you can't easily turn low-performing schools around, but you can replace them with new schools, so that's what we should do in large school districts that Greene labels as obviously failing. There are pieces in his brief post that tie into the Clayton Christensen innovative disruption thesis (a la Disrupting Class), and other pieces that tie into arguments about large-district "portfolio management" ideas or "create new schools" arguments I have read from DC-centered wonks such as Andrew Rotherham and Andy Smarick. Jal Mehta views these as separate arguments, two of his four paths forward in school reform (the others being using international practices as a compass or focusing on broader social reform). In the world of the more simplistic arguments, there's a simple three-step process for reforming schools:

  1. Hold a press conference announcing the latest disruptive/creative-destruction/choice/technoutopia solution to school woes.
  2. ….
  3. Celebrate improved school achievement. 

If only we could figure out what the second step is, we'd be set.

I am skeptical that the big-theory arguments hold much water here: the evidence I find most persuasive on vouchers* and charter schools suggests that the competitive effects are minimal and the direct benefits to students who enroll in vouchers and charter schools are both doubtful (in the sense of whether one would benefit) and highly variable (in terms of magnitude as well as direction). Same with private management of local public schools, technology qua technology, and a number of other configurations one might put into the Greene "creative destruction" pigeonhole. If Greene and others are correct that it's hard to "move the needle" within a large school system bureaucracy, I'm unpersuaded that the generally-discussed alternatives are better or inherently worth the policy candlepower. 

Both proponents and critics of these proposals see them as privatization of some sort. Are there any useful historical perspectives on the modern era of public-private reconfigurations in public education? I think there are several.

  1. We are in the midst of a renegotiation of the public-private divide in primary and secondary schooling. As I explain to students, a "public/private" divide in schooling had no significant meaning in the early 19th century. For example, as Nancy Beadie and Kim Tolley would point out, early nineteenth-century New York state subsidies for schooling included provisions for (privately-controlled) academies. But through both sectarian conflicts and developing policies around a right to education and state authority over children, a fairly rigid public-private divide developed in primary and secondary education in the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century "public" schooling meant publicly-funded, (imperfectly) publicly-accessible, intended (or justified) for public purposes, and publicly controlled. With some important exceptions, that held for approximately a century until the first municipal voucher programs, experiments in private management of public schools, and charter school legislation that clustered around 1990. The first time I taught an education class in summer 1991, my students knew only that public-private divide. Today, college students in Florida know that there is a broad constellation of school-funding arrangements (even if they understand that structure only imperfectly). Predicting the path of this relationship is beyond me, but I think there is no reasonable alternative to concluding that the past 20 years of public-private relationships in schooling are a substantial break from the previous 100-plus years. 
  2. The public-private divide has never been an absolute, strict divide; the modern relationship should be understood in the context of other public-private interfaces. While the core of "teaching" and "school stuff" has generally been the subject of a divide, there are plenty of exceptions from the markets that target schools (educational publishing and furniture markets are the signal examples) to the contracting out of various school services (most obviously construction and state- and district-specific testing systems but also unusual special-education services, much of the mediocrity of professional development and stuff we'd call "management consulting' today, among others). Tax exemptions for religious and other non-profit schools have been significant if indirect support for private schooling. 
  3. The recent notion of a "portfolio district" is just the latest example of bureaucratic management of private contracting, moving it away from idiosyncratic one-on-one relationships. In my work on special education history in Nashville ($$), one of the signs that private contracting out of special education services had become significant in a bureaucratic sense was that the school-board minutes stopped mentioning individual situations and instead approved bulk-style contracts for special education services (i.e., quantities of cases). 
  4. The public-private relationship is at least as vulnerable as entirely-public operations to politicization and corruption. In terms of politicization, textbooks have been vulnerable to censorship because a small group in some very large states served as a gatekeeper for which publishers received the blessings of public largesse in terms of approval for districts to purchase their products. Or, if you want to look at corruption, you don't need to be familiar with the reason for the creation of New York City's School Construction Authority in 1989 (and what's happened since) to understand the risks of corruption in school construction. We've repeatedly seen similar scandals with large-scale funneling of public school funding to private entities, from charter-school financial scandals in Arizona and California to the tax-credit voucher system in Florida. The virtual-school corruption scandals haven't hit, yet, but they are predictable. 

These perspectives are not sexy in either history or education policy, but they are important issues. To wave one's hand and ignore either the history of public-private interfaces in education or the history of problems with unregulated privatization is foolhardy. 

* The researcher whose work on vouchers I generally recommend to others is David Figlio (along with his coauthors). In their work on Florida's voucher programs, Figlio et al. have found some competitiveness effects and some areas with either ambiguous or essentially-zero effects. And this is primarily using the measures (in Florida' assessment system) that are more vulnerable to distortion by their high-stakes nature than measures such as NAEP results. In the broad sense of markets one would expect at least some but not much of a competitiveness effect from vouchers because most densely-populated areas already have at least some private competition in primary education and generally for secondary education as well. As Figlio, Cecilia Rouse, and many others have pointed out, the empirical question is how much more competition could be expected to change public-school behavior. In a complex market with information assymetry (hi, Kenneth Arrow fans!), the answer is "probably not much," especially when advocates of vouchers consistently push for a double standard in accountability that leaves voucher schools with public funding and without meaningful accountability for that funding (Fordham's 2009 sliding-scale proposal on voucher accountability has been ignored by the legislatures expanding vouchers this year). (Some advocates for vouchers etc. like to cherry-pick the evidence, but a number of advocates have acknowledged to me and others that the evidence is weak and fall back on "well, choice is good" sui generis. Or, more persuasively if you consistently advocate for targeted vouchers, "wealthy parents shouldn't be the only ones to have choices." Folks such as Howard Fuller get to make this second argument; those who have advocated vouchers-for-all policies don't without some snickering by me when I find out.)

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Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and editor...