Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

No, Jeb Bush, Schools are not Like Milk

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[Update 7-3-13 Steve Hinnefeld addresses Albert Hirschman vs. Milton Friedman and education reform. “Here’s another way of saying it: The contempt that school choice advocates commonly express for public schools is, at its root, contempt for democracy itself.”]

At the GOP convention, Jeb Bush argued in favor of voucher and school choice using the frame of civil rights.  Bush, brother of failed president and education reformer George W. Bush, went further, offering an even more inapt metaphor.

“Everywhere in our lives, we get the chance to choose,” he said in a prepared version of his remarks sent to reporters. “Go down any supermarket aisle – you’ll find an incredible selection of milk. You can get whole milk, 2% milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D. There’s flavored milk— chocolate, strawberry or vanilla – and it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk.”

“Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?” Bush said.

This perfectly encapsulates what’s wrong with the corporate ed position.  It conflates something as important, complex and far reaching in its consequences as an education with milk, a simple consumer good.  That frame justifies turning public education into a profit making opportunity.  It supports the deprofessionalization of teachers.  It focuses our attention on individuals instead of the ways we systematically provide a different quality to education based on class and race.  Choosing 2% one week and whole milk the next is no problem, but shifting your child between schools even once is a huge decision. The choice of milk depends purely on taste while education is a skilled profession.  While the analogy has surface appeal, its implication are gross and  most people would recoil from them it they were made explicit.  Most people, that is, who believe that providing a quality education to all is a basic requirement in a democratic society that is committed to the idea that all people are equal.

How can you say on the one hand that education is a civil right and at the same time it’s like shopping for groceries?

Chief Justice Warren had a better sense of the civil rights issue when it comes to education.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

There’s another important point to be made here, and it gets to the conceit of choice.

“Choice” is the illusion of power.  Vouchers were not dreamed up to provide choice, but to deny it. We need to avoid confusing a justification with an explanation.

A recent report issued by People for the American Way called Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the 1%, Undermining Democracy details what’s really going on here.

It is important to understand that targeted voucher programs that allow students from poor families, children with disabilities or students in underperforming schools to attend private schools that will accept them are not the ultimate goal of school privatizers. They are a tactical means to a much larger strategic end, which is the end of public education altogether, as pushed by David Koch in his run for the White House in 1980, echoing his late father’s John Birch Society antipathy to public schools as socialist or communist.

“Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling,” stated Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast in 1997. “In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.” Heartland has received significant funding from right-wing foundations over the years, including the Charles Koch Foundation.

If you doubt that many privatizers seek to dismantle public education, take a look at the many prominent right-wing activists and thinkers who have signed the “Public Proclamation to Separate Church and State,” which proclaims that “I favor ending government involvement in education.”

As Milton Friedman, intellectual godfather of the movement, said “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.”

More famously, the late televangelist and Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell said, “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.” At the 2011 Values Voter Summit held in Washington, D.C., in October, one of the most frequent and enthusiastically received applause lines was a call to abolish the Department of Education. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott signed five bills last year that build on the voucher programs put in place by former Gov. Jeb Bush [my emphasis] and promote Scott’s agenda to expand charter schools, virtual schools, vouchers and a program that allows students to transfer out of failing public schools. Florida also gives tax breaks to corporations in return for private school scholarships, echoing ALEC model legislation: With Scott’s urging, that program’s cap increased by $30 million to $175 million while the McKay scholarship program for students with disabilities could nearly quadruple under new looser eligibility guidelines. Florida’s education chief, selected by the state board at Scott’s request last year, is a former executive director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a group created by right-wing funders to make black parents, rather than right-wing economists and Wall Street financiers, the face of the voucher movement.

Read the whole thing. My only objection is that what is typically called ‘privatization’ is really ‘corporatization’ – a shift of public funds to corporations, which since they are collectively owned and managed and not meaningfully ‘private.’

It’s worth quoting a bit more from Friedman on behalf of vouchers.

Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible. In general, they can now take this step only by simultaneously changing their place of residence. For the rest, they can express their views only through cumbrous political channels.

As Albert Hirschman said, “A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them!”  But note too that what Friedman calls the “cumbrous political channels” is what the rest of us call democracy and active citizenship.

Of course we want real choice – students and parents should have options for different educational opportunities, teachers should be given autonomy to find the best ways to teach to their students, administrators and teachers should have the freedom to design programs rather than have things dictated from above.  Teachers should have the choice of joining a union to represent them.  Everyone should have the option of a quality public education.  What corporate reformers like Bush offer is not choice.  It’s a top down agenda designed to undermine public education despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans recognize our public schools are essential.  The goal is to turn public education from a social right, one that all deserve as a consequence of being a human being, to a product, no different from milk or toothpaste.  And Democrats should be condemning this nonsense and articulating this alternative, original, vision.  And we should all be demanding that they do, not to mention ditching George W. Bush’s NCLB (No Public School Left Standing).

Of course, some would claim that vouchers are only a Republican idea, and that the rest of what is often falsely called “ed reform”, as if only those that share their vision are interested in change.  But as Laura Clawson notes, Bush was also in town to publicize the new pro-parent trigger movie Won’t Back Down, along with former Democratic ed policy star Michelle Rhee. The movie will also be screened at the DNC.  (For what it’s worth, the parent trigger demonstrates the incoherence of the “choice” agenda.  If not allowing an individual parent to have the government fund their choice to go to a different school despite the wishes of the vast majority of parents to offer public schooling alone, why can we disrespect the choice of 50% minus one of parents to maintain their public school in the face of a slight majority.  Any why do triggers only operate one way? The answer is the only choices they respect are those that fit with the top down corporate agenda.)

The long-term shift from social rights to commodification is one of the more important (and disastrous) political projects of my lifetime.

By the way, if you think education is a civil right, you should check out the recommendations of those groups with a long and distinguished history of fighting for civil rights.  But they will look very little like those of Jeb Bush.

Of course, Jeb, whose background is more aristocratic then meritocratic, believes it’s the rest of us that are the real racists.

“We must stop pre-judging children based on their race, ethnicity or household income,” Bush said. “We must stop excusing failure in our schools and start rewarding improvement and success.”

I’ll outsource the response to that to Richard Rothstein and Mark Santow.

Politicians and experts typically refer to schools as “failing” if they are filled with low-income children with low-test scores. Faced with enormous challenges, such schools may be doing as well as they possibly can, though.  African-American children from low-income urban families frequently suffer from health problems that lead to school absences; from frequent or sustained parental unemployment that provokes family crises; from rent or mortgage defaults causing household moves that entail changes of teachers and schools, with a resulting loss of instructional continuity; and from living in communities with high levels of crime and disorder, where schools spend more time on discipline and less on instruction and where stress depresses academic success. With school segregation continuing to increase, these children are often isolated from the positive peer influences of middle-class children who were regularly read to when young, whose homes are filled with books, whose adult environment includes many college-educated professional role models, whose parents have greater educational experience and the motivation such experience brings and who have the time, confidence, and ability to monitor schools for academic standards.

We won’t be seeing any Bushes working with us to address those problems any time soon.


8 Responses

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  1. Excellent post David. Thanks. Jeb & co. are certainly not interested in the education of those in the 99%.. Funneling money to Wall Street on the other hand? That’s a slam dunk.

    The Big Hurt

    September 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm

  2. […] 1) No, Jeb Bush, Schools are not Like Milk – I tweet a lot about education, but haven’t written about it much.  I made up for it with this epic (long) post.  The main point is that schools and education are not like a simple consumer good.  Bad metaphors make for sloppy thinking.  More generally, “The long-term shift from social rights to commodification is one of the more important (and disastrous) political projects of my lifetime.” […]

  3. […] Instead of getting into an argument about relative deservingness of individuals, it would be better to have one about what people deserve by virtue of being human. Social insurance is necessary for achieving democratic equality. It shouldn’t be treated like a consumer good. […]

  4. Are you in favor of school choice as it is in our college and university system? Is that too much of a commodity? Should we all go to the closest college to our house?


    January 31, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    • I doubt that what’s appropriate for children is, as a general rule, appropriate for adults. For example, I wouldn’t say we should ship children around the country to live at schools no where near where there parents are, yet that is perfectly find with an 18 year old.

      Is the current system of higher ed too commodified? Well, college attendance is exceedingly screwed by class, whereas public elementary and secondary ed is not (quality is, for both, but that’s a separate matter). Do you think half or more of children should not get elementary education? If not, then college is probably not a useful analogy.

      That said, there is an analogy. If you can afford to go to a college and can get in, you can attend anyone you want. The same is true at lower levels of education. If you don’t like your neighborhood public school and can afford a private school and can get in, you can attend there. Obviously, both paths are, again, skewed by class.

      David Kaib

      January 31, 2014 at 1:20 pm

  5. I agree we don’t need to all ship children across the country, though that is certainly a common thing called “boarding schools.” Fortunately, that is not required. There were easily 20 high schools (mostly public) within thirty minutes from my house, but I was only legally allowed to attend one.

    “Do you think half or more of children should not get elementary education? If not, then college is probably not a useful analogy.”

    I’ve never heard someone argue allowing choice in college education, caused not every student to go to college. If you decided everyone should get a college education, would you try to transition college education to be more like the school system. We should all go to the college closest to our home? What sense could that possibly make? We miss out on allowing schools to specialize in what they do and allow students and parents to choose the school that. I’ve never heard someone argue that allowing school choice in college education was an attempt to defund college education. Yet, you draw that conclusion with elementary and secondary education.

    “If you can afford to go to a college and can get in, you can attend anyone you want. The same is true at lower levels of education. If you don’t like your neighborhood public school and can afford a private school and can get in, you can attend there.”

    So, why don’t we give that opportunity to students that don’t have the money? We spend $11,500 per student per year. Why don’t we let them have that money to choose what school to go to? We heavily subsidize college education, but we don’t do it by building lots of colleges and forcing the neighborhood kids to go there. We give money to students to choose where they want to go. We give more subsidies to lower class students to address issues of equity in college admissions. We have lower cost public colleges and community colleges that are subsidized. We have shown we can address equity concerns with school choice. So anyone that thinks the college system works better than the primary and secondary school system, should at least be open to the possibility that we could accomplish our goals better with school vouchers and school choice than the systems we have now.


    January 31, 2014 at 4:19 pm

  6. […] even for those who seek to enroll their children at charter schools, choice is an illusion. For the most part it involves parents maneuvering their way through a complex process to get into […]

  7. […] is the illusion of power.  Vouchers were not dreamed up to provide choice, but to deny it. We need to avoid confusing a justification with an […]

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