This post reviews Terry M. Moe and John E Chubb, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education(San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2009).
Moe and Chubb are legendary in the world of Educational Policy. Their 1990 book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools is perhaps the most influential book ever written on the issue of privatization of public education. In this new book the two scholar-activists reunite to make the case again for radical transformation of public education with private enterprise leading the way. In this review I will only very briefly summarize their main argument. My chief interest is in the portions of their book that deal directly with virtual public education, because it happens for the most part at home.
In a nutshell Moe and Chubb, card-carrying libertarians that they are, want public education to stop being run as a government monopoly and open itself up to market forces. The market force they focus on in this work is technology, which they describe in breathless terms as a force that “is fast generating one of the most important transformations in all of human history” (6). The revolution in information technology is rapidly transforming all sectors of life, but public education has been slow to adapt. Why? Because vested interests want to maintain the status quo. These vested interests are mostly the teachers’ unions, the clear bad guys in this book, and the Democratic legislators whose pockets the unions line.
Moe and Chubb spend considerable time explaining the various tactics unions have used to block technological innovation in education but conclude that the sheer magnitude of the technological transformation currently underway will simply prove unstoppable. Change will come slowly and not without constant struggle, but the eventual triumph of high-tech education is inevitable.
That’s basically the story of the book. Moe and Chubb aren’t especially interested in homeschooling as such, but since their technology-as-innovation thesis is illustrated most purely in the move toward virtual schooling, they devote many pages to this trend. The trend toward virtual schooling is not monolithic. Some states have created statewide virtual schools (the most prominent by far being the Florida Virtual School). Some school districts have created their own virtual schools, which are often supplemental to the traditional public schools (with students taking one or two classes per semester). Some school districts have actually created full-fledged charter schools that often partner with private firms to provide a complete public school education online to any student in the state. And of course there are also entirely privately-run virtual charter schools in states that permit them.
In their summary of these trends Moe and Chubb provide the most recent data available, some of which they have compiled themselves and is available nowhere else. There is, for example, a wonderful chart on pp. 116-117 that provides the best and most complete estimates ever compiled of enrollment in state-level virtual schools. As of 2009, state-level virtual schools existed in 27 states (in 1999 only 5 states had them). Florida Virtual School (FLVS) has by far the highest enrollment (almost 100,000 students), but every state that has a state virtual school is seeing tremendous growth. Utah’s Electronic High School, for example, enrolled 3,124 students in 2004. By 2007 the enrollment was 6,763.
Page 123 has an equally helpful chart listing the total enrollment as of 2008-09 for Cyber Charters in every state that has them, along with the number of virtual charters and the year the first one was founded. Leading the pack is Ohio, whose 48 virtual charter schools enrolled 29,965 students last year. Coming in second is Pennsylvania, whose 12 cyber charters last year enrolled 13,996 students (3 of whom are my children). Nationwide, about 100,000 students were enrolled in the nation’s 190 cyber charters in the 2007-08 school year.
Moe and Chubb devote considerable attention to the politics of cyberschools, and again the main theme is the resistance to such initiatives by teachers’ unions, who rightly see such reforms as a threat to their jobs. The authors describe in detail battles in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Indiana, and California where unions have fought against such reforms at every step using every trick imaginable. Only rarely and obliquely however do Moe and Chubb acknowledge that a good bit of the politics has concerned the rampant corruption and financial mismanagement that has hounded this movement. While I am deeply grateful for Moe and Chubb’s hard work compiling and providing us with the latest and most complete data available on these trends, I am less than impressed with their extremely one-sided presentation of the issues. In Moe and Chubb’s world the forces of privatization are always noble and the unions are always evil.
This is of course to be expected. Both men have long been key players in the school choice movement. Moe is a senior fellow at the libertarian Hoover Institution and Chubb is Chief Development Officer of EdisonLearning, one of the nation’s largest private firms working with public schools. If you’re looking for a balanced treatment of the issues of technology and educational politics, you won’t find it here. But you will find the very latest data on virtual schools, a trend that is in my view one of the most fascinating developments in the entire history of American education and emblemmatic for me (as I explain in my book’s last chapter) of the transformation of homeschooling from a protest against government to a policy of government.
Moe and Chubb rightly note that one of the reasons teachers’ unions and school districts haven’t liked virtual schools is that they have enrolled large numbers of formerly independently homeschooled kids. This means families who used to pay taxes but not send their kids to public schools (thus saving the district money) are now drawing on public funds. Moe and Chubb do not mention how this trend has been very controversial among homeschoolers themselves, with some groups (most notably HSLDA) fearing that government-funded homeschooling is a Trojan horse designed to destroy the homeschooling movement. Nor do Moe and Chubb note what other scholars have, that though cyber charters do initially attract previously homeschooled kids, after a few years most of their enrollment growth comes from transfers out of the traditional public school. And that’s the real significance for me of this movement.
People who a decade ago would never have considered homeschooling are now, in large numbers, opting for public school at home. Like Moe and Chubb, I predict this trend will continue to grow at a fast clip, and states that do not currently allow it will eventually cave to political pressure as they see the success and popularity of such programs in states that do. Speaking personally, our family has very much appreciated the flexibility and opportunity for accelerated learning provided by online public education. There have been serious growing pains here in Pennsylvania and not a little scandalous profiteering, but over time the movement is stabilizing, glitches being worked out, criminals caught and punished (0r not), and learning improved. The future of virtual public schooling looks bright.