A war of words: "Nationalize" versus "Privatize"

One of the more interesting characteristics of the recent curriculum counter-manifesto was its lead sentence, which had this lovely turn of phrase: we ?oppose the call for a nationalized curriculum.?? Interesting, I thought, since I don't believe anyone at the Shanker Institute called for a nationalized curriculum; they called for a national or common curriculum.? Was this a distinction without a difference? Was Shanker just being "sneaky"?? Not at all ? and I'm sure the writers of the counter-manifesto understand all too well that nationalize is a verb, meaning to do something like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez might do to oil companies or hotels.

Nice try, guys.

On the other side of the aisle, of course, is the privatization crowd.? Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier have been sharing their worries about billionaire ed reformers conspiring to kill off public schools for a long time and just about anything associated with ?business? draws hizzahs of privatizing public education.? Just the other day, Gail Collins weighed in on the Times op-ed page with a column called Reading, ?Riting and Revenues.? ?Today,? she opines, ?let's take a look at the privatization craze and the conviction that there is nothing about molding young minds that can't be improved by the profit motive.?

Though I would never be one to pooh-pooh a rhetorical flourish or two, there really are times when the language should be used to clarify not confuse.? The word "demogoguery" often comes to mind.? Words do have meaning.? We certainly can have a national curriculum without nationalizing the curriculum process. ???We certainly can have for-profit organizations operating public schools ? just as private companies service our schools' copy machines, drive our buses, write our textbooks -- without privatizing schools.

Words matter. Distinctions matter. ?So do the facts.

Collins rightly calls out Ohio for its proposed new law letting for-profit businesses run public charter schools without public oversight.? (See Terry Ryan's comprehensive analysis of this big blooper.)? But in Texas, the issue is not so clear.? There, Collins takes out after the state's alternate certification programs, ?some of which have requirements slightly less rigorous than those for the trainers at neighborhood gyms.?? Collins does a wonderful job making you believe that these new for-profit, alt cert programs are whacky ? she simply leaves out the part about the country's current underwhelming teacher education and certification systems.

In the heated atmosphere of school reform there is a great tendency for the kettle to call the pot black.

In the same edition of the Times that Collins was bemoaning the ?privatization craze,? we read a story about coal companies paying Scholastic publishers to write a fourth-grade curriculum called ?The United States of Energy.? ?Is that a sign of how the private sector can misshape young minds? ?You bet.? Do they misshape young minds any better than the public sector?

Well, read Sharon Otterman in today's Times. She reports on nine failing public schools in Gotham that are being turned over to private (though nonprofit) school operators to run.? Aside from the ?host of questions about how much authority these organizations? will have to lead the schools,? as Otterman says, does anyone wonder anymore whether the schools' failure has something to do with the rickshaw construction template of the public school system?? (See Bryan Hassel's Ed Next post on a couple new turnaround studies.? See also David Stuit's recent Fordham report, Are Bad Schools Immortal; Stuit finds that charter organizations don't do much better turning schools around than traditional districts do.)

And vouchers?? This little idea, which has been around for many decades, is the quintessential marriage of the free market and the public purse: handing over public money to individuals to spend in the private school of their choice. First proposed by Milton Friedman, it once ?received qualified support from radical ex-priest Ivan Illich, who himself once proposed a Constitutional amendment barring states from making any law about education. (In fact, David Skinner wrote a wonderful strange bedfellows story in Ed Next (in 2005) called Libertarian Liberals: When the Left was (sometimes) Right, pointing out that Illich, author of DeSchooling Society, represented ?the beginning of the end of the Left's interest in a laissez-faire approach to education.? The most notable ? and successful -- recent head-spinner for ideologues was Democrats for Education Reform, which stands for just about everything that teacher unions stand against.)? In any case, vouchers are back. According to NPR, Indiana just ?approved one of the country's most extensive school voucher programs,? and in Ohio Governor John Kasich is talking about expanding that state's voucher program from 14,000 to 56,000 students.

The point is this: the biggest challenge to education reform is avoiding the rhetoric which clouds the school improvement waters instead of clarifying them. No doubt some reformers believe that public schools don't work simply because they are owned by the public; just as some traditionalists believe that money-grubbing hedge-funders lurk behind every call for market efficiencies. As Neal McCluskey of Cato argues, wanting a national curriculum is just a ?sneaky push for nationalized curricula.? ?Or, from Deborah Meier, ?They, the `billionaire boys club,' have a different agenda??

Folks, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

As I suggested the other day, borrowing from David Brooks, even our famously nonfederalist founders saw some value in a confederation. I'm sure they did not intend the Constitution to be a suicide pact.? And if Madison et al were smart enough to put a commerce clause in the Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3), allowing us to build interstate highways to bring goods to market without hindrance, we would honor them by being smart enough to build an interstate highway to bring the stuff of knowledge to our schools.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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