corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

29 Apr '10

War On Public Schools Rages

Supporters of public education need to realize they’re in the middle of a war for its future, and they’re losing.

The Fraser Institute’s school report-card program is merely the opening salvo in a campaign to strip public education of its funding and direct the resources to the private and nonprofit sectors.

Every year the institute spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to compile and disseminate its rankings of elementary and secondary schools. It has undreamed-of support from corporate media, which turn over dozens of pages each year for school rankings in the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Sun, Toronto Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, and Quebec newsmagazine L’Actualité.

Every year teachers’-union executives and education experts write op-ed pieces pointing out the serious deficiencies in the rankings. And every year the media play the rankers and their critics as a debate between two equally valid viewpoints.

Lost in the debate are the goals of universally accessible, publicly funded education, such as preparing children for citizenship, cultivating a skilled work force, and developing critical-thinking skills.

For its part, the Fraser Institute couldn’t care less what the teachers say. It knows the report-card program is working the way it intends, which is to undermine public confidence in the public system. The wealthy, who send their children to private schools, ask, “Why should I pay for the public system, especially the failing parts?” And the poor ask, “I’m not getting a fair deal from the public system. Is there something else?”

Families are already buying houses near high-ranked public schools if they can afford to, or bussing their kids if they’re fortunate enough to gain access to “better” schools. And divorcing parents fighting in the courts for custody of their children are citing the school rankings as a reason why the parent who lives near a high-ranked school should get custody.

The institute’s Peter Cowley, who manages the report cards, and whose background is marketing, not education, is clear about the goal of school ranking: to “establish one of the conditions necessary for a free market in education; namely the availability to consumers, in this case parents, of reliable information on the comparative value of services provided by competing suppliers, in this case schools”, he wrote in the September 2007 issue of Fraser Forum, the institute’s magazine.

Other conditions are necessary for a free market in education, the think tank says, and it is working to establish these, too. Most important is to create a system in which government or private entities provide vouchers so that children from disadvantaged families can attend private schools. The Fraser Institute already has a program dedicated to this activity in Ontario and Alberta. Children First is bankrolled by the deep pockets of Canada’s third-wealthiest family, the Westons, to the tune of $2 million to $3 million a year. Poor families compete for these vouchers, which can be used to attend religious or private schools.

And once one provincial government offers its own taxpayer-financed vouchers, for-profit school chains will flood into that province. This dismal prospect is most likely to occur first in Alberta, where Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Alliance, stands a good chance of becoming the next premier.

Smith has advocated vouchers since she was a Fraser Institute intern in the mid-’90s. While in the think tank’s employ, she coauthored a study with Vancouver Sun editorial pages editor Fazil Mihlar (then the institute’s director of deregulation), which concluded that “schools must be given the freedom to innovate,” and that making schools compete through a voucher scheme was the way to do this.

To prepare for the day when taxpayer-funded vouchers become a reality, the Fraser Institute already has a Web site promoting for-profit school chains.

“The intended effect of the report cards,” Cowley wrote in 2007, is “to encourage multi-faceted competition among schools, both public and private.”

It is indeed true that high-priced private schools do compete for students from wealthy families. When the Calgary Herald publishes the Fraser Institute’s Alberta school rankings, twice each year, Cowley notes, private schools are prominent advertisers in the paper. The March 21 Herald, for instance, gave prominent placement to the institute’s annual Alberta elementary rankings, leading with a front-page story and 14 pages in the B section. Clear Water Academy, an independent Catholic school, Glenmore Christian Academy, Menno Simons Christian School, and Master’s Academy and College all paid the Herald for ads in the rankings section, while Webber Academy took out a half-page colour ad trumpeting the fact that “the Fraser Institute has ranked Webber Academy as one of the top schools in Alberta.” Webber can easily afford the ad: it charges elementary students $14,000 a year in tuition.

But private schools have always competed for the children of the elite and the nouveau riche, so the Fraser Institute has not actually encouraged competition here.

Public schools are the real target. Competition should not be relevant to public schools, which must educate children from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Public schools must take everyone in the catchment area who shows up at the door, while private schools can screen their students based on testing, report cards, letters of reference, and interviews, to determine if a potential student will “fit in” with the school’s culture.

So what is the point of claiming that poor inner-city schools, where parents may have two or three jobs and kids go to class hungry, are competing with wealthy schools, where parents have the time and resources to support their children’s education?

The point of the exercise is to undermine public confidence in the system as a whole, to frame education as a market composed of hundreds of individual schools where the improvement or deterioration of a school’s ranking is due to the effort of principal, teachers, and students.

The Fraser Institute already has a program to make this point. It hands out awards—with a little cash (also financed by the Westons)—in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, to schools whose rankings topped the list over five years, schools whose rankings went up the most, and schools whose rankings are higher than they should be, given their socioeconomic status.

Conclusion: education is improved through the efforts of individual schools. Government officials and teachers’ unions play no part in this endeavour. In fact, as free-enterprise guru Milton Friedman insisted, they are the enemy, resisting improved education because they promote their own agendas, which are not those of parents and children. (Note the name of the Fraser’s voucher program: Children First.)

Friedman launched the project to turn education into a market with an article he wrote in 1955. He was alarmed by “the trend toward collectivism” and worried about an “indiscriminate extension of governmental responsibility” into education through government-run schools. Friedman proposed vouchers, which local governments would give to each child through the child’s family to pay for a general education at any type of school the family deemed appropriate.

“Competition is the most effective way to improve quality, whether in computers, in automobiles, in suits, or in schooling,” Friedman once told an interviewer.

Forty years later, Friedman was still railing at public education. “Public schools,” he wrote in 1995, three years before the Fraser Institute started ranking schools, “are not really public at all but simply private fiefs of the administrators and the union officials.”

The Fraser Institute hews closely to Friedman’s line. Institute founder Michael Walker was a close friend of Friedman’s, and Friedman was an early Fraser Institute adviser and author. Walker is still a director of Milton and Rose Friedman’s voucher-advocacy organization, the Foundation for Educational Choice, based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Friedman’s efforts to apply market principles to education and other areas of social and cultural life have been seen as so extreme that they have been labelled as “market fundamentalism”. The Longview Institute, a progressive think tank in California, defines market fundamentalism as “the exaggerated faith that when markets are left to operate on their own, they can solve all economic and social problems”. Faith, not fact; ideology, not economics.

Thanks to massive corporate backing and to the work over many decades of the Fraser Institute and similar think tanks around the world, market fundamentalism has extended its grip on much of public-policy debate in Canada and the United States.

Privatizing public schools is a key priority. A 2007 study by the progressive National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy found that conservative foundations in the U.S. were pumping about US$100 million a year into organizations advocating for vouchers and school choice.

The Walton Family Foundation, whose money comes from Wal-Mart, provided the lion’s share of the money, more than US$140 million over the five years of the study.

Even U.S. president Barack Obama is veering toward school choice. The Obamas chose Sidwell Friends School, a private Quaker school, for daughters Sasha and Malia. Vice-President Joe Biden’s grandchildren also attend the school, where tuition is upward of US$28,000 per child.

And Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago public-school system, as his secretary of education also raises concerns. Duncan is a strong advocate of measuring schools through comprehensive testing, shutting down underperforming schools and replacing them with charter schools where policies are set by parents, and where teachers’ unions are normally not certified.

Obama created a US$4.35-billion Race to the Top fund to encourage cash-strapped states to expand the presence of charter schools and to punish—and perhaps even fire—teachers who fail to lift student scores on standardized tests in reading and math.

Teachers must face the fact that the deep pockets of the report-card sponsors—and increasing political support—will ensure rankings continue to be produced for as long as it takes to privatize K-12 education.

The Fraser Institute and its market-fundamentalist allies are in the war for the long haul. In 1998, the institute produced its first report card on B.C. secondary schools. Expansion was rapid, encompassing Alberta secondary schools in 1999; Quebec secondary schools in 2000 (with the collaboration of the Montreal Economic Institute); Ontario secondary schools in 2001; Alberta elementary schools in 2002; B.C. and Ontario elementary schools in 2003 (the same year that the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a market-fundamentalist think tank in Halifax, started ranking all secondary schools in Atlantic Canada); B.C. aboriginal education in 2004; and Washington-state elementary, middle, and high schools in 2009 (with the help of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation).

In 2010, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, another market-fundamentalist think tank in Winnipeg, served notice they will be ranking all secondary schools in Western Canada. Their target is the NDP government of Manitoba, which has refused to turn test scores over to the think tanks.

School report cards put teachers and education experts in a difficult spot. They know the rankings are false and misleading, but they do their cause no good when they refute the rankings. University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz found that repeating falsehoods and slogans helps lodge them in people’s minds. Refuting them can lead people to remember the falsehoods better. It doesn’t seem to matter if the falsehood comes from several sources or from one source repeating it multiple times, Schwarz found. “A repetitive voice sounds like a chorus,” Schwarz contends.

Adolf Hitler held a similar view. He wrote in Mein Kampf that “only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on the memory of the crowd.”

Constant repetition is a hallmark of Fraser Institute studies. It has produced hospital waiting lists for 19 years; “Tax Freedom Day” for 34 years; an “Economic Freedom of the World” index for 13 years; and B.C. secondary-school report cards for 11 years and counting.

Teachers respond to the report cards with accurate information, pointing out limitations in the ranking system, such as the narrowness of the criteria. But the studies done by Schwarz suggest that denials and clarifications, even though they seem like the correct thing to do, can actually increase the impact of the report cards. Rather than refuting a false claim, Schwarz and his colleagues found, it is better to put forward a completely new claim that makes no reference to the original falsehood.

University of California cognitive scientist George Lakoff makes a similar point when he explains that conservatives are winning the war of ideas because they have managed to frame public debate on just about every issue. Lakoff defines a frame as a mental structure that shapes the way we see the world. Once a frame has been clamped on an issue of public concern, denying the frame merely reinforces it.

Two frames, or fundamental values, dominate western democratic societies: freedom and justice. In the 1960s they merged in the civil-rights movements of African-Americans, students, women, and other oppressed groups.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

But half a century later, the oasis of freedom and justice remains a speck on the horizon. For that unhappy state of affairs we can thank the work of market fundamentalists, who captured control of public policy by driving a wedge between freedom and justice, sanctifying the former and demonizing the latter.

The lofty value of individual freedom was debased into shabby advocacy for the free market. Freedom of speech, of association, and of choice became freedom to exploit and freedom to be greedy, as Austrian philosopher Karl Polanyi warned.

Freedom came to mean being free to choose between competing consumer products, such as higher- and lower-ranking schools. As the Fraser Institute puts it, the purpose of the Children First voucher program is to help “families afford the school of their choice”.

Justice, in its many manifestations—social, economic, environmental—was attacked mercilessly, while the two institutions most capable of promoting justice, government and unions, were cast as enemies to be crushed.

For Fox News Channel resident demagogue Glenn Beck, social justice is a threat to freedom. He recently defined it as “forced redistribution of wealth with a hostility toward individual property rights, under the guise of charity and/or justice”, perpetrated by progressives, socialists, and Marxists.

Unions have a long history of promoting justice. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation, for example, engages in many social-justice initiatives that “focus on poverty, child and youth issues, race relations, gender equity, homophobia and heterosexism, bullying, environmental issues, globalization, and violence prevention”, as well as on aboriginal education.

The task for progressives is to condense social-justice programs into a frame that can be clamped onto education and can challenge the hateful rhetoric of the Glenn Becks of the world.

If public-education supporters hope to counter the success of market fundamentalism, they must stop denying the free-market frame and start constructing a frame based on social justice, and they must be prepared to do this consistently for many years.

Postscript: On June 1, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, Atlantic Canada’s market fundamentalist think-tank, will host former Florida governor Jeb Bush at the institute’s 15th anniversary dinner in Moncton. Bush will recount how he imposed school choice and rigorous testing on Florida’s school children. He probably won’t talk about the seven decades-long relationship between the Bush and McGraw families. The McGraws own CTB McGraw-Hill, one of the largest developers of school tests in the U.S. and a prime beneficiary of Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which mandated universal testing and healthy profits for the testing companies.

This story first appeared in The Georgia Straight. It was reprinted in

Buy Now