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Which Business Model Is Best for Education Reform?

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Anyone listening to the news should be familiar with the "crisis" facing public education today. A pantheon of the great and near great has dubbed it the "civil rights" issue of our day. They are a diverse group the come from all shades of the American political spectrum. It includes Senator John McCain, Bill Gates, Rev. Al Sharpton, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, Jim Nicholson, former chairman of the Republican Party, and New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to name just a few.

In times past, when it came to civil rights, we looked to our government for redress. There were constitutional amendments, civil rights legislation, and Supreme Court decisions that rectified racial inequality and discrimination.

Ironically, in an age characterized by political polarization, when it comes to public education there is bipartisan support for bypassing public institutions in order to close the racial achievement gap!

The solutions include authorizing a massive expansion of charter schools that are not administered or staffed by public education bureaucracies; providing students with government vouchers that allow them to attend schools of their choice that may be either private or parochial; and reforming the "failed" public schools by closing them and creating new schools in their stead.

These solutions are touted as choices that bring the forces of the private market economy and the "business model" into play.

At first, it was conservatives and libertarians who advanced the critiques and solutions. One the earliest advocates of school "choice," the late Milton Friedman, provided the intellectual heavy lifting for the movement.

Friedman argued that students and parents were "consumers" of the education product, and if they were free to shop for their product, market forces would result in the best schools thriving while the inferior schools withered away.

For Friedman, the best outcome would be a variety of school systems; some for profit, others that were non-profit, religious, and even public schools.

As "white flight" and urban decay spread, the call for "choice" became a favorite rhetorical club of Republicans whenever they wished to bring home to their constituencies the failure of the Great Society programs of the 60s. It was a way to demonstrate that the party of Lincoln cared about civil rights, even though they harbored no illusions about making political inroads into urban Democratic bastions.

But theorizing about bringing the marketplace into the arena of public education would begin to ground itself in reality when the Bush Administration proposed and signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, with widespread bipartisan support.

The crack in the public school monopoly widened when the Supreme Court gave a green light to vouchers in Milwaukee in 2002 in its Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris decision.

President Bush reaffirmed his commitment to tying federal education dollars to student test performance in his acceptance speech of 2004 with a rhetorical flourish that challenged "...the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Not to be outdone, President Obama appropriated $4.35 billion that would be disbursed to states based on a competition that awarded federal monies based on state-by-state performance for those states that sought these funds.

A point system was assigned to various performance rubrics that included; improving teacher and principal effectiveness; turning around low-performing schools; using data to improve performance, to name just a few of the criteria.

All of these developments have shaken the public education establishment with a Fukushima-like force, and in my view will prove to be just as destructive in its own way.

That's because nobody has exactly stated which "business model" will work when it comes to lifting the underclass up from their dire straits.

You need look no further than New York City to see what the effect of this cocktail of business reforms has had on its school system.

While Milton Friedman believed that school choice would be the corrective for the education market, the late Sy Syms, the founder of Syms discount clothing chain, liked to point out "an educated consumer is our best customer," and made it his logo. So what happens when your consumer of the education product isn't educated or savvy enough to navigate a system that offers a smorgasbord of 1,500 schools?

The latest census revealed that New York has become a city of new arrivals. If you are a teacher, the point is brought home when your English language learners have to translate for their parent's on open school night. For them, navigating the convoluted school application process is next to impossible.

As Michael Winrip, writing in the New York Times, pointed out, even a parent who does their homework, and puts time and effort into shopping the best schools can discover that you might want to "shop" a school, but the school might not want to "shop" you. So far, the marketplace hasn't proved to be a corrective at all.

Another business innovation has been the small school initiative advanced by Bill Gates, with a hundred million dollar investment from the Gates Foundation. It was hoped that a smaller, more intimate academic setting would have a dramatic impact on discipline, attendance, and hence academic performance. As Gates admitted in a Wall Street Journal interview, that hasn't been the case. The jump in college ready graduates has been negligible and not worth the investment.

But Michael Bloomberg, billionaire businessman turned public servant, must not be listening to Gates. The dissolution of comprehensive neighborhood high schools continues apace. Often four schools with separate principals and administrative staffs reside in a building where one principal and their staff did the job of four.

The latest studies that indicate that about 3/4 of students entering New York's community colleges require remediation demonstrates that another idea inspired by the business community has had no effect.

The most radical idea inspired by the business model has been to close schools and send their staff packing in search of new jobs. This model has been encouraged and abetted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Advocates of this solution claim that when a store fails it closes. That seems simple enough, but what major chain closes dozens or hundreds of stores a year?

A&P Supermarkets closed most of their stores in New York because of high crime rates and the inability of once prosperous neighborhoods to sustain them. A&P once had as many as 16,000 stores nationwide. When it declared bankruptcy in 2010, it listed just 338 stores in operation.

During multiple mergers and acquisitions, it changed the names of its stores, changed its logo, bought other supermarket chains, and operated them using their names.

If name changing, merging, reorganizing, and closing is the business model Arne Duncan is promoting, then it appears that A&P is his template.

Businessmen offering advice and using their extensive wealth to mold public policy should not be confused with running a business. In fact they would never dare to introduce many of their experiments with public education into their own enterprises.

When it comes to education public policy the business model is simply what they say it is.

A highly touted program that awarded cash incentives to students for passing examinations has fallen by wayside after a three year run. It was supported by private foundations, and included Mayor Bloomberg's personal philanthropy.

Bloomberg, New York's billionaire businessman-philanthropist, turned politician, initiated this failed public policy along with a program to reward teacher performance with merit pay that too has fallen by the wayside.

But when these experiments fail, they go quietly into the night. No heads roll, no one is held accountable, and there is never a sense of lessons being learned about the limits of the business model.

Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, which is reputed to lose millions of dollars each year, is the most vociferous supporter of closing "failed" schools because these schools don't deliver on the bottom line. But when it comes to his New York paper, the bottom line doesn't seem to enter into his calculations. Go figure?