Boring cover: just the text, sometimes white-on-red/orange, sometimes the reverse colors.

I realize that I never wrote a review of Diane Ravitch’s excellent [book: Reign of Error], which I finished last April. Herewith, just a few notes. It’s an important book, it deserves to be widely read, and I should contribute what I can to its momentum.

  1. The ‘public’ in ‘public school’ is not for nothing. Public schools are to be democratically controlled. A privatized school, without democratic accountability, is not a public school, no matter whether it’s labeled that way.
  2. Privatizing public schools invites the sort of corruption you’d expect when management is removed from public view.
  3. Privatized schools will do what private businesses do, namely maximize profits. There are only a couple ways to raise profits: cut costs, or raise revenues. Very often privatized public schools take the first approach. One obvious way to cut the costs of public schools is to keep out the harder-to-educate students — the students with learning disabilities, the students from broken homes, the students with developmental problems. Private schools often succeed by catering to the easiest students, leaving public schools with the problem students. This, of course, only accelerates the flow out of public schools. [1]
  4. I don’t think Ravitch explicitly says this, but the realization of item 3. — it’s clear to anyone who thinks about how privatization would work — then invites public regulation. You might decree, for instance, that attendance at any of the privatized public schools should be open to everyone regardless of talent and so forth. When there’s money on the line, though, you can foresee the next step in the dance: the privatizers will cut costs in the places where they’re not regulated. Maybe, for instance (Ravitch gives lots of examples here) they’ll expel students who are “misbehaving.” And maybe some of those students really are misbehaving. But maybe a lot of them are just the less-easily-educated students who are costing the corporation too much.

This is a dance we’ve seen before with private health insurance. Since there’s money on the line, insurers have every incentive to only insure healthy people, and find a way to get the sick people out. And since we have public systems (Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, the VA) that are required to take all eligible patients, there’s an obvious risk that the public system will come to absorb only the hardest cases.

It’s entirely obvious that the solution in both cases is just for the government to run both systems — health insurance and schools — directly, rather than contracting it out and then imposing a set of regulations that grows ever more labyrinthine as the arms race between regulator and regulated advances. Obviously the government’s running any service introduces its own problems. So then there’s the empirical question whether the government runs these services better or worse than private industry does. In the context of health insurance, the answer is “Medicare”: when regulations allow it to work, it works more efficiently than private insurance.

In the context of privatized public schools, Ravitch presents a lot of evidence that, when public schools are allowed to compete on a level playing field with private schools, they do just as well as the private schools. This is not the least bit surprising. Private schools tend to draw wealthy parents, so the inputs are typically better-performing students; it’s then no surprise that the outputs are also better-performing. The question is how well private schools do compared to public schools, given identical inputs. In cities like Boston, that comparison isn’t allowed to happen, because of segregation. But were it allowed to happen, there’s every reason to believe that public schools would perform just as well as private ones. (Books in my queue on this topic: [book: How Not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent] and [book: The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools].)

(By the way: perhaps the conservatives in the room will latch onto the fact that regulators don’t allow Medicare to work properly as evidence that we should take this out of the hands of government, which is so often captured by private interests. The logic, then, is “private interests capture regulators, so the solution is to hand the problem over to private interests.” Right, then.)

  1. Among the reasons that private-school advocates advance for why private schools should be expected to outperform public ones is that private schools are free from the sort of onerous regulations that bind public schools — particularly contracts with teachers’ unions. Ravitch gives a lot of evidence that this is just elaborate window dressing over the decades-long movement to weaken labor unions, rather than any particular concern with the nimbleness of private education.

  2. Ravitch writes somewhere (on the web) that we don’t have a schools problem in this country; we have a poverty problem. I can’t find the piece right now (Googling for [ravitch poverty problem] returns plenty of interesting pieces, just not the one I was thinking of), but her claim is that middle-class American students in “poorly performing” schools do just as well as middle-class students in any other nation.

  3. Confusing our poverty problem with a schools problem has led the Gates Foundations of the world to advocate privatization as the balm that cures all ills. This may be what they earnestly believe, but it also plays into the ideology and self-interest of the American business community.

[book: Reign of Error] is a really excellent work. It deserves to be read and widely discussed.

[1] – Here’s where it’s important to cite Albert Hirschman’s legendary [book: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty]. The ability to take your kids out of the public school and send them to a private school (“exit”) amplifies the decline in “voice”; that is, the parents who are most involved in the public school, and care the most about the kids’ education, would be among the first to take their kids to a better school when the public school decays. When the most interested parents leave, the school that remains is even more impoverished and is quicker to decay, thereby hastening faster exit.