According to many would-be reformers of our education system, the free market will bring innovation to education, and when consumers are empowered with choice, the best products will rise to the top. We are getting a chance to see how this works in the real world in some parts of the country. The State of Louisiana is engaged in an active experiment that allows us to see the effects of this philosophy, when schools themselves are turned into "products" on the open market. Governor Bobby Jindal has embraced the preferred policies of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Here are the actions we are seeing so far from this new direction.
As the Nation reported this week, some of the wealthiest people in America have been donating their hard-earned money to influence the outcome of the elections for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
The latest budget signed by Governor Jindal eliminates state funding for public libraries, cutting close to a million dollars out of their budgets.
It was revealed that the person in charge of teacher certification for the state is a 27-year-old product of Teach For America with two years in the classroom, who has allowed her own teaching credential to lapse.
The State Superintendent of Education, John White, has announced rules that allow private and parochial schools to receive public funding in the form of vouchers for up to five years, and submit accreditation generated by non-governmental groups such as the National Association of Independent schools.
Vouchers will be available to parents of students attending schools that receive a C grade or lower in the state's rating system. More than half of Louisiana's students will qualify, although only 4000 vouchers will be available the first year.
This week a Federal judge ordered Superintendent John White to appear in a case brought by a local school district, to explain why vouchers are not guilty of shifting local public funding away from public schools and into private and parochial ones.
This latest conflict reveals the hidden agenda driven by the choice movement. The schools are being rapidly re-segregated, with the full benefit of public funds.
Charter schools have been promoted as part of what people like Arne Duncan call the "Civil Rights issue of our time." They are touted as delivering rigorous instruction for students not currently succeeding in the public schools. But research is showing that charters and vouchers, and the market-driven "choice" model, are yielding a re-segregation of our schools, powered by public funding.
For the full wonders of what the future of a market approach to education has in store for the children of Louisiana, take a look at this pitch from Deputy Superintendent David "Lefty" Lefkowith. Lefkowith is a new arrival to education, having a past working to privatize water and energy resources. He explains the new "course choice" program.
"I'm going to leave the development of the course offering to your best judgment," he explains.
You're going to need to operate like a business. You're going to need to create a business. Now, the first thing you're going to have to do is determine what your costs are going to be to create this service and to provide it. There's instruction cost, there's facility cost - you may be used to the school, just showing up and there's your classroom. Well, in this world you're going to have to make arrangements for your facility - it may be in a school, it may be in a mall, it could be anywhere - it could be online. You have to figure out what you're going to spend in terms of facilities, or virtual facilities.
You're going to have to do some marketing and selling. Even if you go through the process of applying for Course Choice and getting accepted and going through the interview and getting final approval from BESE, that's just a license to hunt. You've got to go out and get students to sign up for your course offering. You're going to have to figure out how you're going to do that. Maybe you're going to fly an airplane over the LSU stadium saying "take my course," maybe not.
In Louisiana the marketplace approach is allowing taxpayer dollars to flow to parochial schools that teach creationism rather than evolution. And the Course Choice program allows all sorts of entrepreneurs to set up anywhere, or offer courses online.
This is the wonder of the market. It allows anyone access to public funds for whatever sort of education they want. It allows parents to use public funding to send their children to largely segregated schools, private schools, religious schools, or to stay at home and take virtual courses. These systems were first promoted back in the early 1960s, when the government began actively pushing for desegregation. How this advances the cause of Civil Rights is a mystery to me, and one that advocates of "choice" need to explain, especially as the consequences of privatization manifest themselves.
What do you think? Is this sort of privatization likely to improve education for all? Or is it rolling back advances made in desegregating our schools?
Dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody