Two weeks ago I reviewed Terry Moe and John Chubb’s new book celebrating market-based education reform, especially home-based online learning. Today I review Patricia Burch, Hidden Markets: The New Education Privatization (Routledge, 2009), which is a critique of these same trends.
Burch is Assistant Professor of Education Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The main thesis of her book is that more and more taxpayer dollars are being allocated to private companies who are gradually taking over more and more of the daily governance and administration of public schools, yet these firms often operate outside of the public eye. Burch’s book is a call for public accountability.
The book discusses many realms within which the switch to privatization is occurring. Burch’s broader critiques–for example, that these firms are using a significant percentage of their government allocations on marketing (i.e., taxpayers are paying for promotional ads)–apply to many domains, from supplemental services like tutoring and test preparation to the growing array of testing instruments connected to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability protocols. But for the sake of this blog I’m only interested in her discussion of virtual public schooling.
Burch devotes an entire chapter to virtual schools. She begins with some numbers (not as up-to-date or as comprehensive as Moe and Chubb’s) and describes the phenomenon. Her quick review of the literature on virtual schools notes that very few scholars studying the movement have situated it within the broader political discourse she calls neoliberalism (basically, market=good, government=bad). Authors like Chubb and Moe seldom note (much less question) the underlying assumptions of the neoliberal agenda.
For Burch there are two factors driving the growth of for profit public virtual schooling. First is the technology. Online technology has allowed private firms to deliver a product that can compete with brick and mortar public schools at a much reduced cost. This savings has allowed them to devote a good bit of their resources to marketing. Firms have learned to seek out clientele who will likely perform well at the school, helping it meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals required by the Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This means the student body at many virtual public schools is much whiter and richer than other schools in the districts from which its students come. Firms have also learned to court small, struggling school districts. When such districts open a virtual school, they attract students from other districts, gaining a larger share of State public school allocations (and, of course, causing the other districts to lose such funds). Finally, these virtual education firms are receiving financial investments in the tens of millions from leading private organizations with an interest in education products, hoping to grow a movement that will prove lucrative for decades to come.
A second factor contributing to the rise of virtual public education is federal policy. In 2004 federal officials made it clear that virtual schools are one option for districts required by NCLB to offer school choice to students attending schools that repeatedly fail to meet AYP. The federal government has also created grant programs like the Enhancing Education Through Technology (Ed Tech) program which encourages development of these schools. Burch notes that from 1995 to 2005 the amount of federal money available to charter schools increased from $6 million to $217 million. Finally, the federal government has sponsored many conferences and has supported research on virtual schooling, raising its profile and giving it eloquent and sophisticated intellectual underpinnings.
Yet this confluence of technology, private investment, and federal patronage has met resistance. Burch (as Moe and Chubb do not) notes that many homeschoolers, especially HSLDA, are very suspicious of virtual public schooling, worrying that its seductive offer of free computers and curriculum blind homeschoolers to the true agenda, which is to take control of education away from parents and give it to the government, or in this case private corporations funded by the government. Resistance has also come from the public schools themselves, especially from school districts who resent having to pay other districts to educate children residing in their own. Burch’s point in noting this resistance is perhaps the most pivotal difference in her view as compared to Moe and Chubb’s. Whereas Moe and Chubb view the eventual triumph of market-based education as inevitable given the unstoppable advance of technology, Burch thinks that her examples of resistance
draw attention to the importance and the possibility of agency in the rise of the new privatization. In focusing on the general drift of policy, we can overlook how people in its path resist, reinterpret, disassociate, or reassert nonmarket principles, such as the importance of public governance. (p.85)
Strangely Burch doesn’t mention (despite her focus on HSLDA) that one important nonmarket principle being asserted is religious–many conservative Christians believe that it is their God-given responsibility to educate their children themselves. Though such Christian conservatives are usually pro-market, here at least they are not.
After laying this groundwork Burch provides some original research in the form of qualitative case studies of two virtual charter schools: Einstein Academy and Learning Point Academy. Both schools have an overwhelmingly white and economically advantaged clientele (95% or higher), though the students who attend these schools reside in districts with far higher percentages of minority and poor students. Burch explains how both schools have sophisticated screening procedures to determine whether a potential student is “a good fit” for the school–mostly having to do with the student’s parents. If the student has a stay-at-home parent who is capable of guiding his or her child “in coverage of the curriculum,” then it’s a good fit. If not, parents are discouraged from enrolling their child. As one administrator Burch interviewed put it, “There are parents that are not able to do this…. I have to say this school is not for their child. What I am really saying is that you can’t do this.” (p.93)
These are very significant findings, for one of the chief arguments proponents have been making for virtual schooling is that it will help erase the achievement gap between black and white, between rich and poor. But if Burch’s two schools are representative, the exact opposite is happening. These schools are pressured by their financial backers to meet AYP, a feat that is much harder to accomplish when one has a large percentage of disadvantaged students enrolled.
Another pitch often made by backers of virtual schools is that they provide individualized instruction. Burch finds this not to be the case at all. She interviewed many teachers who expressed frustration at the limitations placed on them by the format of a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Though most teachers loved the curriculum of their school overall, they found it very difficult to help students who were having trouble with it, and the virtual setting makes it much more difficult to discover these students in the first place.
Finally, Burch finds that the cost efficiency calculus of these schools often leads to consequences that are not good for public education. For one, these schools pass as much of the cost and the work on to parents as they are able–through such things as requiring parents to transport their children to the annual testing sites (federal law prohibits online testing for NCLB), pay for internet hook-up (or at least a portion thereof), and of course provide a good bit of monitoring and data keeping of their children. All of these things again make it much more difficult for poor families to take advantage of this “public” education option.
Another example of the negative consequences of market logic emerges when school district and private firm policies are being worked out. School districts who hire firms to run schools for them are constantly pressured to implement cost-saving policies–increasing the teacher/student ratio from 30 per teacher to 50, for example, or picking the firm’s curriculum rather than a competitor’s. And did I mention that the taxpayers are paying for the advertisements these companies are constantly running?
Overall I found this a bracing critique of virtual schooling. I’d love to see a public debate between Burch and Moe or Chubb. Moe and Chubb blame teachers unions for obstructing the development of these virtual schools that would, if we’d only let them, provide inexpensive, up-to-date education to all Americans, equalizing the achievement gap, customizing instruction, and rewarding excellent teachers with higher salaries than they’re currently making (they really did say that, several times). Burch would scoff at such claims, noting that where these programs have gotten a foot-hold they screen out difficult children, force all kids into a pre-fabricated curriculum, and never cease looking for ways to cut costs.
On the other hand, just as Chubb and Moe ignore the real problems of free market public education, Burch does not deal seriously enough with the real problems of many traditional public schools. At a few points she acknowledges that traditional public schools frequently do a very poor job educating the nation’s poorer students, and she is very effective at showing how these market-based reforms are not really helping them much either. It may be the case that middle class whites “are leveraging their social capital” to enroll their kids in virtual schools (p.97) in an effort to escape more diverse public schools. Burch doesn’t actually say that racism is the motivating factor, but it is implied. I think, on the contrary, that many of these parents are betting, perhaps rightly, that they can provide a better education for their children at home and at the same time protect them from negative peer influences. Given the breakdown of the local public school, these parents are doing what they can to make sure their kid will make it. To get at this dynamic better Burch would need to expand her interviews from the administrators and teachers at these schools to the parents and children. Many other researchers have devoted much time and attention to the question of parental motivation for homeschooling, and the consistent finding is that academic, moral, and social concerns are prominent, not racial exclusivity.
I do think that Burch is probably right that virtual charter schools are not the reform that is going to help the urban poor jump into the middle class. They may turn out to be very good, however, at helping those who have already made it to pass on their advantages to their children. This may not be as honorable or farsighted as creating an equitable system for all children, but high ideals are not going to kill market education. Parents love their (our) own children more than those of others. Burch’s compelling account of virtual charters illustrates this fundamental social reality very well.