How “Charter” Is Like “Europe”

School room

Not a charter school classroom

Language is a funny thing. Our use of it tends to trap us in shorthand that mismatches the object or concepts we are describing and the words we use to do the describing.

We see useful current examples of this at home and abroad.

The first is the word “charter,” as in charter schools. I’ve made this point before, but I want to re-emphasize it: Charter is a giant word; it contains multitudes.

Lakeland Montessori, the Lake Wales charter district, and the McKeel empire are very different from one another — from size to focus to marketing. We do ourselves a disservice by describing them under a single nebulous term. And there are many, many other charter schools — some affiliated with the School District, some independent. I’ve tried to use “predatory” charter in describing McKeel and its imitators, who aim to grow explosively by marketing themselves as publicly-funded private schools. That distinguishes that model from the more static models. But even that qualifier is limited.

So it’s important to remember that any time you read the phrase, “Charters are…”, you are being misled, even if it’s unintentional. I would prefer that we refer to schools by wealth and/or special characteristics of their enrollments. That is a schools’s single most predictive indicator — in terms of test score. “Wealthy schools are…” is a much better, if still imprecise, shorthand for what to expect from attending a school or judging its performance. The differences between student bodies are far more significant and predictive than differences in method or governance.

In a similar way, the ongoing economic/political mess in “Europe” is often obscured by the use of the word “Europe” in describing it.

The shorthand that ill-informed or ill-intended people use is that the “European” model of social democracy can’t support itself, etc., etc. If I were political conservative, I would probably use that argument, too.

But it’s not true. In fact, Germany and the Netherlands, those bastions of socialized medicine and “European” social welfare — with powerful roles for unions and public employees in their economies — have unemployment rates of 5.5 and 4.9 percent, respectively. We entrepreneurial insurance-sacrificing commerce lovers in the U.S. have an 8.3 percent rate. How can that be? We all know that socialized medicine and strong unions kill economies, or something.

In fact, the European crisis has far more to do with cramming independent countries, independent political entities, far less developed than Germany and Holland — i.e. Greece, Ireland — together with those giants under a single unified currency. Anywhere else in the world, Greece and Ireland would deflate their currency, make their goods and services cheaper, and begin to grow. That’s how Iceland and Argentina righted themselves after their great crises. Greece, Ireland, Spain, etc. can’t do that because they use the same Euro that Germany does.

Now, the European monetary crisis carries its own legitimate conservative critique, one that distrusts technocracy and understands the perils of halfwayism in empowering central authority. I have some sympathy to this critique. Alas, there are no “conservatives,” with the possible exception of Ron Paul, to make it. They’re too busy forcing vaginal ultrasounds and wishing it was 1907.

It’s not 1907. But precision in language remains as vital to good policy — and as elusive — as it was then.


Creative Commons License image credit: quimby

15 thoughts on “How “Charter” Is Like “Europe”

  1. Who is we? Who has done the setting up? On behalf of whom?

    What I’m struck by here is the complete absence of analysis of how this actually works in real life, on the ground. This is the embodiment, to me, of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of libertarianism. You’ll notice how they make not a single allowance for how, say, schools get rid of the kids that choose them.

    Now DR, you’re a pretty honest guy. So I’m going to throw couple of things out here, and I want you to respond honestly.

    1) Polk County, with its enormous and growing conversion charter community, is arguably the most Friedman-friendly, “market-driven” county in one of the most “market-driven” states in the union. And we have been for years. Do you see any evidence that market-driven policies yield the kind of systemic “results” Friedman and his acolytes claim? Do you care? Do you think they care about the results, or just winning the silly theological arguments?

    2) I’ve shown you how this works on the ground in Polk County. Do you think any of these reckon with these real world impacts at all? Do you think these are growing pains? I do not. Do you think this is better than what we would have under a traditional, neighborhood-based school system?

  2. Who is we? Who has done the setting up? On behalf of whom?

    What I’m struck by here is the complete absence of analysis of how this actually works in real life, on the ground. This is the embodiment, to me, of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of libertarianism. You’ll notice how they make not a single allowance for how, say, schools get rid of the kids that choose them.

    Now DR, you’re a pretty honest guy. So I’m going to throw couple of things out here, and I want you to respond honestly.

    1) Polk County, with its enormous and growing conversion charter community, is arguably the most Friedman-friendly, “market-driven” county in one of the most “market-driven” states in the union. And we have been for years. Do you see any evidence that market-driven policies yield the kind of systemic “results” Friedman and his acolytes claim? Do you care? Do you think they care about the results, or just winning the silly theological arguments?

    2) I’ve shown you how this works on the ground in Polk County. Do you think any of these reckon with these real world impacts at all? Do you think these are growing pains? I do not. Do you think this is better than what we would have under a traditional, neighborhood-based school system?

  3. “We” would be the public and our elected (and appointed) officials who run the school system.

    While you can’t expect a youtube video to comprehensively cover all aspects of the issue, I think Friedman’s vision is the most fair to everyone (as is general Libertarian philosophy). I think we can agree that charter schools try to get rid of low-performing kids because of the money incentive from the state, as well as state testing requirements. Without our government setting arbitrary standards, schools would probably use academic testing on their own to shape their vision of the school they want to create. Money could be made with high-performing schools if the child qualifies, and low performing schools for children who aren’t as academically gifted. In the end, your option to choose would be a right, but your acceptance to a certain school would not be a right.

    On to your points:

    1) None of our schools are “Friedman-friendly” as they’re all based on governmental approval of many aspects, from the curriculum to the mandate for every child to attend (or parents go to jail). I dare you to take your child(ren) out of school and not check in with our friendly neighborhood authorities. Needless to say, this crony capitalistic approach to schooling yields poor results, as it’s based on how you can best game the system in your favor.

    John Taylor Gatto (former NY teacher of the year) has much to say on public schooling in his free online book “The Underground History of American Education” (fair warning, long read): http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/underground/toc1.htm

    Also, I don’t recall a theological argument, let alone a silly one, so enlighten me.

    2) I think if we took government out of the classroom we would start to get better results. Charter schools may be the first step, but there are so many variables to this “draw-down” that we could easily screw this whole thing up. I honestly think our best bet is to remove the bureaucracy and let people act like adults and parents for their own children. How that would play out is anyone’s guess, but stepping away from a broken system seems like the best option.

    Now regale me with your scary stories of the many potential failures of this scenario, Billy.

    • Dude, you didn’t answer my questions. Come on. Visions aren’t fair or unfair. Only implementation. Visions are irrelevant.

      • “Visions aren’t fair or unfair. Only implementation. Visions are irrelevant.”
        That statement IS moral and intellectual bankruptcy. When you act without thought, you’re no better than the children you hope you’re trying to help.

        The questions under your point 1) were straw men as they were based on the false assumption that Florida and Polk County are “Friendman-like.” As I explained, they aren’t. Also, you didn’t clarify your statement about the supposed theological argument, so dude, come on.

        I did answer 2) as best I could since I don’t have definitive answers. Your real-world impacts are still based on a school system run by Federal, State and local politicians as well as the vast bureaucracies in school systems, so charter schools at this point just seem to be public schools with a little more leeway in keeping or discharging certain students. Not really a change, just a mutation.

        • Now we’re getting somewhere. I like the mutation language; that’s a very useful term. Inspired really, which is why I like talking to you. I think I agree, but then I don’t want Milton Friedman’s vision of things because the entirety of human history has been unable to achieve it. I guess I would say choice has had its chance and failed to create universal education, which is a function of tax money and compulsory education laws.

          Do you not support compulsory education? That’s an interesting question that I never hear libertarians asked.I disagree with your criticism of my premise on the first question. I said “most Friedman-like,” not “Friedman-like.” And I understand you probably mean that “most” doesn’t matter. I think it does. And the reason I think that is that these school “reforms” are certainly being sold as in the choice/Friedman tradition. Do you disagree with that? That guy on the video you sent is clearly advocating for exactly what is happening in Polk County. Do you disagree?And that leads me to my theology usage. I admit that I have come to use theology in a broader sense than its traditional, formally religious usage. I have come to use it as a descriptor for an idea that does not care about its real world outcomes, that is a belief in a “vision” without interest in implementation. I submit to you that the guy on that video, and even Friedman, do not care to evaluate the results of their vision. Results are secondary to the belief, the faith. Hence, my use of theology.Tell me why I’m wrong.

          • Compulsory education: I do not support it only because it’s compulsory (and I don’t speak for all libertarians, just me). I’m all for education, and  parents should have the option of what to teach their children and how much education they want to offer. Depending on your worldview, you’ll want to teach your children different things. And yes, I can see where things can get interesting in a debate, like compulsory education in science countering the religious malarkey of intelligent design (etc etc), but it should always be about individual freedom. That does mean freedom to be ignorant, as long as it doesn’t harm others.

            You understood my intentions in the “(most) Friedman-like” arguments. Though charters may be pawned off on us as libertarian and/or Friedman-like, they are not. This is mostly because of the Federal, State and local governmental involvement in all aspects of schooling (public, charter, whatever).

            The guy in the video probably likes the idea of charters in their pure form, but that idea gets bastardized when it meets real life. Since all schools have to abide by massive amounts of legislation, we get the public/charter mutant that is concerning us today.

            I now see why you used theology, but when reading the word on its own I take it for what it is. Maybe zealotry or fanaticism would be better descriptors of such arguments you deem too ideological without having real-world application. I know you would describe many of my arguments as such, but I do think vision (or philosophy) is what leads us on a path we all consider “righteous,” no? My “vision” tells me not to tell others how to teach their kids, and in turn they should not force me to pay for their kids’ education. That’s a lot more fair than me going to jail if I don’t pay thousands of dollars in property taxes because I don’t want to fund failing schools.

            I never saw Friedman put ideology over real results, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who do. One of the guys in the video believes his vision is best, while you, Billy, believe your vision is best. The most civilized thing we can do is present our arguments without violence and push for our vision, whether it’s of a better school system or a better society. This is why you’re wrong.

          • No, DR. I think if I actually saw that a privatized system could provide universal quality education, I would support it. I have no vision for education, other that it be universal and reasonably egalitarian.

            But the real difference between us is compulsory ed. Everything else grows out of that. You oppose it; I support it.   And here’s the thing: let’s go to the public with that choice. What will they choose? Rather than complain about the government “monopoly”, school-choice conservatives should attack compulsory ed. Their “vision” cannot work with it in place because it becomes the identical “mandate” that you all so object to in Obamacare. Am I right?

            Start over. Don’t reply, b/c it will get too small.

          • BTW, I don’t think of you as theological in any sene. You will actually interrogate yourself and answer my questions forthrightly. 

  4. I personally don’t see how to frame “no compulsory schooling” in a light that most people will find to be a benefit. We’ve been doing it for so long that it’s a large part of how we shape our lives (as students and as parents). Even if people preferred it, I don’t think they’d give up the lack of thought they have to give to the subject. What’s being taught isn’t something that needs to be chosen, just send your kid to school and let someone else deal with it. Transportation to school is provided to most students. It’s all too easy to give it up, even when parents freak out over school violence, the costs in general, or any number of educational and social issues in schools. After all, we’ve already paid for it, might as well use it.

    Further, taking things away from people doesn’t get votes, so few — if any — politicians would support it. Once the public gives itself bread and circuses, there’s little chance of going back to a system that doesn’t have those tax-based benefits.

    The internet is a paradigm shift, and this may allow real change in education within the next few decades, but I don’t see change in the near future, just more mutation. Eventually only the very poor will go to public schools because mommy and daddy can’t afford the multi-gigabit internet connection needed to participate in interactive classrooms from home.

    Of course then we’ll have someone screaming for subsidized and government controlled internet… for the children. Oh wait, that’s already happened.

    http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_18688577 
    “Comcast Corp.’s Internet Essentials program is the result of a long list of conditions the Federal Communications Commission attached to the cable giant’s January merger with broadcast network NBC Universal. The deal requires Comcast to help provide Internet access, personal computers and digital literacy education to low-income families across the country.”

  5. What you describe is simply what existed at the beginning of the 20th century. It wasn’t better. In any way. You’re not returning us to a golden age.

    And, as someone who did actually homeschool a child for a year, I think you vastly underestimate how difficult it is to do so with working parents. Schools, for all incomes, will be with us for a very long time.But I think is a good illustration of you being honest enough to cop to your beliefs, which I respect. On this, yours and mine are irreconcilable. We just have to compete in the democratic sphere. Far too many conservatives or libertarians lack the moral courage to actually go where their philosophies take them. You don’t. So there you go.

    • I’m not talking about returning to a golden age. I have no doubt that things were worse 100 years ago (in general). My concern mostly deals with individual rights and liberties, mostly liberty from governmental intervention and force. I think it’s appalling that a mother can go to jail because her kids are late for school (
      http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/03/children-late-for-school-parents-charged-in-virginia/).

      Apparently it happens more often than I’ve heard: Google Search Results for “mom goes to jail for kids being late to school”

      The government-run school system won’t get any better, so I think it would be best to remove the mandates, remove the money, and let parents figure it out. I can’t say it’s the best system, I don’t know how it would turn out, but it would be the most fair, as it allows people to choose for themselves how their children are educated without penalizing everyone with taxes — which forces all aspects of schooling into a mandatory public debate.

      I understand it can be crazy-hard to home-school a child, but virtual classrooms could alleviate that stress (just a guess, I can see pros and cons) while reducing costs overall. With this emerging model, we can possibly eliminate under-education from homeschooling parents who don’t have the time or ability to teach their children certain subjects. In my mind, the biggest obstacle would be lack of socializing (and that can be a big deal in some cases).

      Billy, we will meet again on the virtual battlefield of philosophy and ideology. Good day to you, sir. ;)

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