Illustration by Deja Hsu, courtesy of The Pacific Standard magazine

Illustration by Deja Hsu, courtesy of The Pacific Standard magazine

When I look at the oeuvre of a proponent of modern school reform orthodoxies like Eric Hanushek, I’m struck by the disturbing fact that much if not most of his research and rhetoric pretty plainly advance an America that is more, rather than less, segregated by class. Whether inadvertently or deliberately, Hanushek’s favored “solutions,” and the solutions of a bipartisan army of righteously-impatient education change agents, would replace the great melting pot of the American public school system with two rows of sorting bowls: exclusive, child-centered private schools on one end of the class scale and no-excuses charter boot camps on the other.

Our mid-20th century answer for disparate education quality was forced desegregation. Think of the magnitude of that choice and the courage required to implement such a school reform effort: in a time of severe racial tension, leaders said, “We will mix the races together so that whites and blacks are in the same schools, receiving the same quality of education. There will be no more separate but equal, because there will be no more separate.”

Today’s school reform efforts are the polar opposite of that courageous, if fraught and abortive, approach. Today’s school reformers are actively paving the road for more separation, for greater segregation, and they are calling themselves civil rights activists while they do it.

Our national focus has shifted so completely to educational quality that there is no one minding the store of educational equality.

Let us imagine, for the sake of this commentary, that today’s reform movement is completely successful in carrying out the fullness of its agenda. Let’s imagine that Diane Ravitch and all the concerned teachers who listen to her are whipped into submission and stop resisting the glories of reform, that Michelle Rhee finally proves that her principals didn’t cheat to get higher test scores in Washington, D.C., and that Arne Duncan and Barack Obama stop wavering on their reformer principles by talking about things like universal pre-K, and get back to cheering the mass firings of public school teachers like in the good old days.

Wealthy men who now shed crocodile tears while talking about “the civil rights issue of our time” will clink champagne glasses with the business elites who propped them up and together they will celebrate their coup–a permanent reduction in the dollars taxed against the rich to pay for the secular education of poor and middle class children, and a permanent tuition subsidy for the religious and private education of the children of the meritorious haves.

The reformers offer no caps on charter schools. Unlimited, unfettered free market chain charters will flood our inner cities like liquor stores and fast food joints. Some will be good schools; many will be fly-by-night operations. In fact, many charters nationwide already are fly-by-night operations, even in states that have charter limits that are supposed to ensure charter quality. Removal of the cap will guarantee a proliferation of substandard schools that attempt to attain quality ratings by skimming the “strivers” from the inner city and test-prepping them to pseudo-educational excellence.

In order to protect the bottom line, many low-quality charter schools will offer their students virtual instruction. Reformers celebrate the efficiency of computer-aided instruction. I’ve seen kids in credit recovery classes staring at computer screens and working their way through programs like NovaNet, Plato, and OdysseyWare. To be blunt, that isn’t an education. Those companies offer fine products for supplementation, I suppose, but they aren’t able to serve as a standalone education even with an aide or intern scrambling from computer to computer assisting students who get stuck on a problem. It’s my fear that the ed tech boom so many investment-bubble chasers are drooling over will lead us to a place that is heavy on the technology and light on the education. The licenses for those products are certainly cheaper than hiring teachers, but to largely replace teachers with computer programs or access to Khan Academy video lectures is a fool’s errand. It will be good for investors and CEOs, I suppose. Khan Academy is probably a nice tool for teachers to supplement or reinforce their own lessons, but as a wholesale replacement for teachers, I have my doubts. Meanwhile, the implementation of ed tech won’t hurt the children of the wealthy in the least. Their schools will indeed use all the latest and greatest whiz-bang technologies, but always to supplement the direct instruction of engaging teachers in cozy classrooms with small groups of well-rested, well-fed learners who are prepared, a la Dead Poet’s Society, to dig into knowledge and to explore the human condition. It will be the poor kids–the charter kids–who get technology in lieu of teaching.

If they splurge on human-led learning, these schools will put interns and aides and non-certified teachers in front of large classes. To help control these large classes full of poor kids, they will implement militaristic codes of behavior. They will not offer such frivolous luxuries as art and music and physical education. The only thing that will matter, from a school marketing standpoint, will be good test scores, and they will do whatever it takes to get those, including in many cases drumming out the deadwood. They will attach the word “Academy” to their names and put students into uniforms and call them “scholars” and will do their utmost to convince parents that what they offer is akin to what is offered at an Ivy League school while, in reality, their kids will get drill and kill instruction directly correlated to the standardized test that drives accountability, and they will get tight rows walking down the hall and will learn how not to question authority. These children will be berated for failing to make eye contact and nod at the right times. This will be the education of the poor, and it will look nothing like the education of the children whose parents have political clout and wealth.

To be sure, there will be high-quality charter schools. The lucky poor kids will get into them. Maybe–and I’m trying to be fair-minded here–the school reformer intends to expand the number of high-quality charter schools so that any poor kid who wants to get lucky can. This is a purer intention than what I regularly envision, and is aspirational and means well. I still don’t like the idea, however, of creating a fleet of gleaming lifeboats while letting the democratic liner of public education list in negligence. This aspirational ethic, even if well-meaning, is ultimately undemocratic. And, if the school reformers were truly intent on expanding high-quality charters, they would be equally zealous today about closing low-performing charters as they are about closing low-performing public schools. Alas, what I see is a relentless crusade to demonize struggling traditional schools and a whisper of opposition to the worst charters in the nation.

The other school system that will exist when the reformers reach the Promised Land of Choice and Competition will be the private school system. It will offer small class sizes, ample offerings in art and music and physical education, and technology used for research and the deepening and extension of lessons, not for replacing teachers. Students will be encouraged to question and explore and think critically. Confidence, not obedience, will be instilled. Drill and kill will be unwelcome pedagogy. Languages will be taught, and taught well. Even dead languages, in the best of the best schools. Certainly the fact that “it isn’t on the test” will never drive the curriculum. The curriculum will be driven by what the best and wisest parent wants for his or her children, because, if not, the best and wisest parents will take their tuition check and their bright kids and go to another private school that does indeed offer what they demand.

The private school system already exists, of course, but in the future, when the Hanusheks of the world have won, people currently paying the full price of tuition will get a rebate check from the government to defray their costs. This money will come from the limited pool now used to support public education, which at that time will only exist as a ragtag collection of schools of last resort, schools still required to educate all kids, even non-strivers, and that system will have withered to almost nothing.

Reformers contend that vouchers will be fair, because the voucher check cut to these wealthy parents–they pay taxes, too, you know–will not be one penny more than the voucher checks cut to the poorest parents in America. Everyone–rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban–will get a check for say $5000 to invest in their kid’s education. The fact that the $5000 given to the poor won’t get them anywhere near the gates of the elite schools is irrelevant. Life isn’t fair. If they wanted their kids to get into a good school, they shouldn’t have been poor. (Yes, it’s already the case that the poor can’t get into the best private schools, but currently the government isn’t a party to the inequity. Where the government is funding K-12 education today, equity is a guiding principle. In the Hanushekian future, the government will actively encourage unequal education outcomes.) The poor will just need to pick the best charter school they can find. Buck up, poor people.

Will vouchers be limited to the poor? Hardly. Will private schools be prevented from charging more than the cost of the voucher, so they don’t actively keep out the poor? Not a chance. Will private schools taking government dollars in the form of vouchers (or in the form of redirected tax-funded voucher-lite “opportunity scholarship” schemes) submit to the testing and accountability systems, the open meetings requirements, the democratic decision-making processes, the special-needs and LEP student enrollment protections, and the student religious freedom protections other publicly-funded education institutions adhere to? I doubt it.

Whatever wicked principle ensures that the cheapest foods are the most unhealthy will also ensure that the cheapest schools in our School Choice Future are also the most unhealthy for kids. The free market will not guarantee that the most effective schools will survive. It will guarantee that the most marketable schools will survive. We will, via these education policies, add an ignorance epidemic to our obesity epidemic, wherein our poorest students are also our most test-prepped while our richest students are our most holistically-and-critically-educated. American education will not even pretend to equalize outcomes. It won’t even try to confront inequality. It will crystallize our stratification. The American education system of tomorrow will no longer be an intended hedge against human sorting; it will be a party to it.

I am terrified for the future of my nation when I think of the logical ends of these reforms. I’m terrified that we are creating an American caste system which will take generations to undo.

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