War on public schools rages

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      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.




      Apr 29, 2010 at 10:10am

      Excellent article and I was unpleasantly suprised to hear of Michael Walker's relation to the infamous Milton Friedman. This article was so well laid out with references to George Lakoff, Karl Polanyi and the history and current state of the "War on public schools", that I think it should be compulsory reading for all parents.


      Apr 29, 2010 at 11:23am

      I just want to cry. Everything seems so surreal now. What happened???
      All the years of progress and intelligence submerged under some blind fog that seems to have descended upon everyone. Will it only be mother earth that wakes them up - too late?
      Yes, this article should be compulsory reading - for everyone who still has a brain and a heart.


      Apr 29, 2010 at 1:10pm

      Why are there two, distinct sides to this? Polarizing public v. private and school board v. government and corporate v. union? There's some good information in this piece but it's also biased and one-sided. My wife and I both work and have chosen to live in a small pace and pay for private school. We are not rich, we go without many things for the sake of our kids education. We got tired of having teachers turn every parent teacher session into an anti-government whine. Teachers who cared most about the kids said when the spoke out in the staff room about educational issues they were severely bullied by union reps. Critical thinking? You are only allowed to think one way in the public system it seems.

      glen p robbins

      Apr 29, 2010 at 1:16pm

      First- I have been a businessman/entreprenuer since my early 20's. I am a conservative 'politico'. There is no circumstance -- in which I would support for profit anything in the K-12 education system.

      I am disinclined toward further funding of independent schools -- and more inclined toward properly funding public schools AND creating opportunities for competition therein.

      I say this having more than my fair share of disagreement with teachers in the public system -- and concerns about how well they perform.

      The vouchure system is a kind of reform technique which I believe is not intelligently thought out for its administrative shortcomings. It is more a political idea than a sound one.

      We should first check the administrative inefficiencies in the public school system. For instance no-one employed in the public school system should be earning more than $100,000 per year--2010 $$

      Secondly, Parent Advisory's must be flushed clean of politicos and given more teeth -- and school administrators need to have proper custody over the schools AND the teachers in those schools. I have experienced a new school (Tri-City) where the teachers (collectively) were either dishonest -- or arrogant -- and the administrators were weak.

      I hear complaints about this all the time from parents -- (all the time).
      Nevertheless, we ought to concentrate on repairing the public model --and let the 'market' for education fund itself. One way to help out is to promote a year end survey of parents of childen in K-12 with results anonymous (to the teacher or school).

      Publish these (school) results in the paper and provide the school with results on a teacher by teacher basis.

      If for profit or private schools are so good -- they can prove this -- like businesses used to by being better -- and creating economic demand like businesses are supposed to. Religious schools -- same thing -- if a religious education is so important than the parishioners and parents will find the money to fund it.

      If the public school model does not improve in these circumstances -- and Teachers do not recognize the need to be part of the solution (and there are perceived problems) then real demand for alternative schooling with increase and policy can be reconsidered.

      Right now -- the 'demand' represented by the Institute and Wildrose Alberta leader is more inflated and residual -- then bona fide.

      Many politicos who advocate away from the public system to private and religious schools are that way because their political support comes from money or religious ideology (ino).

      Kennie Davidson

      Apr 29, 2010 at 8:35pm

      Who would believe the Fraser Institute advocating a school system used in Mainland China! Parents pay for cost the child schools, if the parents are wealthy and the child smart, then it is the first class tier, which in turn enables that child to get into the top ranked Universities. Do we really want that type of educational system.


      Apr 29, 2010 at 9:06pm

      Donald Gutstein has written cogently and accurately about the state and stance of the public schools and their opponents. While I agree that this article is informative to the parents of today's children, the real mandatory audience should be those to the political left and the teacher and public unions. Stop playing the game dictated by the people with all the money and go back to what you are best at: educating, supporting those in need, demonstrating that fairness, justice, and real world responsible decision making are at the heart of what makes and should always make public schools good places for all children. We have to stop reacting and create a new discussion where children and their humanity are the centre pieces. Continue to fight the good fight, but fight on our terms, not theirs.

      Shanty town

      Apr 30, 2010 at 12:38am

      There is a class war occurring RIGHT NOW continue to ignore it at your own peril.


      Apr 30, 2010 at 1:42am

      I disagree that only the wealthy attend private schools, and that all such schools are motivated by profit.

      I grew up in a lower-middle class income bracket, my brother and I raised by a single mother. She wanted us to attend a school in an environment that would respect the values that were important to her as a parent, as was her prerogative. Most of the families at our school would best be described as 'middle class'. About 15% could be described as 'upper middle class', about 5% as wealthy, and about 15% as lower middle class.

      I later attended a public school for one year, and it was much better funded. The small private school I attended relied on a few wealthy donors to expand and support the infrastructure, because the school fees barely paid for the running expenses.

      Please don't forget that private religiously-based schools forego full government funding for the privilege of integrating religious orientation into the curriculum, but it's actually quite minimal. There was one class for 'religion', but the rest were normal provincial curriculum. The balance of the funding was provided by hard-working parents. If these families chose to exercise their right to education in a public school, it would cost the taxpayer much more. A lot of people whine about the 'elitists', but are simply prejudging something that they don't really understand because their values are different.

      There ARE schools that cater exclusively to the wealthy and promote a certain cachet/elitism and are motivated for profit, but these are not the same as religiously based private schools. Please do not lump all private schools together.


      Apr 30, 2010 at 1:45am

      I do believe in free and universal education... but I also believe in options and diversity. This is the difference between a democracy and a totalitarian state.