A Philosopher's Blog

DeVos & HBCUs

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 3, 2017

As a professor at Florida A&M University, I was cautiously optimistic when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had a luncheon with presidents from some HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).  As might be suspected, HBCUs often face funding issues and increased support would be very welcome. This is especially relevant in Florida since the state has not only cut education funding, it has also imposed a punitive performance based funding system in which state schools must compete. While the top three schools are rewarded with more funding, the bottom three schools are punished. Since there must always be a bottom three, there will always be three schools being punished—even if they are doing a good job.

While this should have been an easy public relations victory for DeVos, she ignited a firestorm with her attempt to whitewash the history of HBCUS and link them with her ideology of school choice. Apparently ignorant of history, she said that HBCUS “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” and added that “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

The obvious problem with her remark is that HBCUS were not pioneers of school choice; they were the result of a system of segregation that denied black students access to white colleges and universities. This segregation also extended to black educators, because “when segregation was rampant some of the most brilliant black educators had to come to [black colleges] in order to have an opportunity to teach. They couldn’t go any place else.” DeVos’ remarks about choice are thus both ironic and ignorant—HBCUs arose in a situation in which there was very little choice for black students. While there were a very few white schools that accepted black students, the real choice for most blacks was a black school or no school.

DeVos was, however, correct to claim that “more options help students flourish” in that having an option to attend college helps students flourish more than having no option. This is, however, rather different than the school choice she envisions as a model for education. As such, her effort to draw an analogy between HBCUs and her vision of school choice fails. While her remarks might have been a result of mere unforgivable ignorance (the secretary of education should have at least a basic grasp of the major historical facts of American education), they could also be taken as expressing a view that favors segregation.

While this might seem like a stretch, it is well worth considering the history of the sort of private schools that DeVos praises. While the Brown decision led to desegregation in the public schools, the ruling did not apply to private schools. As the public schools desegregated, white began to flee to “segregation academies.” This has contributed to a significant increase in public school segregation. While some might argue that using public money to fund private schools will address the problem of segregation, the data shows that private schools are even more segregated than public schools. Shifting public funds to private schools will result in an even more unequal system: well-funded, highly segregated private schools and poorly funded highly segregated public schools.

While I am not accusing DeVos of racism, it is tempting to see her praise of HBCUs and support for them in sinister terms. That is, that there is an intent to mirror the segregation at the K-12 level with segregation at the college and university level. Somewhat ironically, the desegregation of higher education had left HBCUs in search of a new mission to replace that of providing education to black students who lacked opportunities at white schools. DeVos, it seems, might be interested in making the old mission relevant again.

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Bathroom Law: Federal vs Local

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2017

During the Obama administration, the nondiscrimination laws governing public education were interpreted as requiring schools to permit transgender students to choose which bathrooms they would use. In February of 2017, the Trump administration rescinded these protections.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that the Obama directive was improper and arbitrary. As might be expected, he also advanced the classic states’ rights argument, contending that the directive was imposed “without due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos initially opposed Sessions in this matter, but Trump convinced her to agree. To her credit, she did issue a statement about the moral obligation of schools to protect students from discrimination and harassment. Following Sessions, she expressed the view that bathroom access is not a federal concern.

Rescinding these protections does not prevent state and local governments from passing their own laws that provide such protections.  However, it does seem to free state and local governments to pass laws discriminating against transgender students—and this would seem to be the intent behind Sessions’ decision. This raises the moral issue of what matters are best left to state and local government and which should be of federal concern.

While Republicans typically claim to be for state and local control, they are no more consistent in this matter than Democrats are. Rather than having a consistent principle regarding state/local control versus federal control, the parties support state/local control when the state/local governments are doing what they want. When state/local governments are doing what they do not like, they oppose state/local control. To illustrate, Republicans are usually against local control when the local governments want to ban fracking, impose restrictions on gun rights, or provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants. Democrats are typically in favor of local control when local governments want to do those things. While such unprincipled inconsistency is the stuff of politics, the approach to disputes about control should be resolved in a principled manner and with the principles being applied consistently.

I find the general idea of state and local control appealing because there are good arguments supporting this view. One compelling reason is that state and local governments have a better understanding of state and local conditions and are thus likely to do a better job than the federal government. Another compelling reason is that state and local governments are under more direct control of the people affected, which seems more democratic than having the distant federal government impose its will. Because of these reasons, I favor a presumption of local control—that is, the federal government should defer to state and local control unless there are compelling reasons to impose federal authority. As an example, the federal government has a compelling reason to impose its authority in cases in which state or local governments are violating (or permitting the violation of these civil rights).

In the case of bathroom rights, the question at hand is whether the federal government has compelling reasons to impose its authority on state and local governments to ensure that transgender students can choose their bathrooms. The answer depends on two main factors. The first is whether transgender students have a right to choose their bathrooms. The other is what the state and local governments will do in regards to the bathroom choice issue.

If transgender students do have a right to choose their bathrooms and the state and local governments decide to respect this right, then there would be no compelling reason for the federal government to step in. After all, there would be no violation of rights to redress with federal action.

If transgender students do not have a right to choose their bathrooms, then it does not matter what the state and local governments do—there would be no violation of rights that would justify federal intervention.

One obvious way to counter my approach is to argue that the issue of whether transgender students should have the right to choose their bathrooms is not a federal issue. Rather, it is a matter that is to be settled at the state and local level. To use an analogy, while the Second Amendment is a constitutional right, state governments set concealed carry rights. Likewise, while students have a right to bathroom access in schools, it is up to state and local governments to set these rights. This approach does have some appeal and leads to the question of whether bathroom rights are more like gun rights (which are largely under state control) or civil rights (which are supposed to be defended by the federal government when state and local governments fail to do so). While I am inclined to regard bathroom rights as analogous to (or part of) civil rights, this will need to be addressed in another essay.


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Teachers’ Unions II: Protecting Bad Teachers

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2017

One stock conservative talking point is teachers’ unions are a primary cause of educational woes.  If only unions could be eliminated or significantly changed, then education would improve significantly. Those defending unions argue that education would be worse without unions and some contend the effort to eliminate teachers’ unions is part of a plan to transform public education into a for profit-system to benefit a few well-connected elites.

Since the debate is so politically charged, it is difficult to objectively address the issue of whether teachers’ unions harm education or not. However, I will endeavor to address the matter as objectively as possible and acknowledge that as an educator and union member I am biased. As such, my arguments should be reviewed with due caution. Now, to the matter at hand.

One standard criticism of teachers’ unions is that they harm students by protecting bad teachers from being fired. If unions could be changed or eliminated, then bad teachers could be replaced with good teachers and the students would benefit. One variation of this criticism is focused on the practice of last-in first-out: those hired last are the first fired, should firings occurs. The concern is that teachers are retained based on seniority rather than ability, which can result in bad teachers remaining employed and good teachers being fired. Retaining bad teachers and getting rid of good teachers would clearly be bad for the students.

On the face of it, this criticism does match a plausible narrative about unions: since they exist to protect dues paying members, the leadership is not overly concerned about the quality of these members. As such, they do their best to see to it that no one is fired and thus bad teachers remain in the system. These bad teachers, obviously enough, do a bad job at teaching students and this harm can impact them throughout their entire life. Being able to fire these bad teachers would open positions for good teachers. The good teachers would do a good job, thus benefiting the students. From this it follows that eliminating unions would be good for students.

In the case of the policy of firing the last hired, the claim is that eliminating unions would result in merit based hiring and firing, so that when there was a need to fire teachers, the bad teachers would be eliminated regardless of seniority. As such, being rid of unions would improve things for students.

One easy and obvious reply to these criticisms is that they are not criticisms of unions as such. Rather, they are criticisms of specific practices: retaining bad teachers and retaining based on seniority rather than quality. There is nothing essential to a teacher’s union that requires that it mandate the retention of bad teachers nor that it mandate a seniority based retention system. To use an obvious analogy, there are countless examples of bad policies followed by corporations that do not arise simply because a corporation is a corporation. Roughly put, the bad policies are bad not because they are policies of corporations but because they are bad policies. As such, they do not provide grounds for the elimination of corporations. Rather, the badness of a corporation’s policy provides grounds for changing that policy. The same applies to teachers’ unions: the badness of a union policy serves as grounds for changing that policy, not elimination unions.

It could, of course, be argued that by their very nature unions must protect bad teachers and that it is impossible for them to do otherwise. Likewise, it could be argued that corporations by their very nature must have various terrible policies that harm the public. If so, then solving these problems would require eliminating unions and corporations. However, this view seems implausible; although people’s ideologies do often compel them to see things this way.

A second reply to these criticisms involves considering the facts of the matter. If unions protect bad teachers, then highly unionized districts should retain more bad teachers than districts that are less unionized. But, if unions do not protect bad teachers, then districts should have comparable percentages of bad teachers (adjusting for other factors, of course).

As should not be surprising, the debate over this factual matter tends to involves anecdotes about bad teachers and intuitions about unions. While anecdotes can provide some illustrative examples, they do not provide a foundation for general conclusions. There is, after all, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence which involves doing just that. Intuitions can provide some guidance, but by their very nature they are feelings and thoughts one has prior to considering the evidence. As such, anecdotes and intuitions do not suffice to show whether unions are good or bad in regards to the retention of bad teachers.

Fortunately, Professor Eunice Han has conducted a study of the claim that unions overprotect bad teachers. While it runs contrary to the anecdotes about bad teachers that cannot be fired and intuitions about overprotective unions, the evidence shows that “highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.” Somewhat ironically, districts with weak or no unions retain more lower quality teachers than highly unionized districts.

As Han notes, stronger unions reduced the attrition rate of teachers and increase teacher wages. Because of the higher salaries, there is greater incentive to remove bad teachers and good teachers have a greater incentive to remain. This nicely fits the conservative mantra that top talent can only be kept by paying top salaries, although this mantra is usually just applied to people like CEOs and not workers.

In contrast, weak unions (and the absence of unions) increase the attrition rate of teachers and decrease teacher wages. As such, good teachers will tend to leave for areas with strong unions while bad teachers will often end up in areas with weaker unions or those that lack unions. The statistics show that unions have a positive impact on teacher quality and that the myths of the overprotective union and the irremovable bad teacher are just that, myths unsupported by facts. This also nicely matches the conservative mantra about compensation: lesser talent will settle for lower salaries.

It must be noted that since this issue is so ideologically charged, those who oppose unions will tend to regard the study as biased and might offer “alternative facts” of their own on the grounds that what they believe must be true. Likewise, those who favor unions can be accused of accepting “facts” that match their views. This is, of course, a much larger problem than the debate over unions: if there is not a shared set of facts and methods, then no rational discussion is possible. Only the howling of ideological stances driven by desire for profit and power.


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Charter Schools IV: Profit

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2017

While being a charter school is distinct from being a for-profit school, one argument in favor of charter schools is because they, unlike public schools, can operate as for-profit businesses. While some might be tempted to assume a for-profit charter school must automatically be bad, it is worth considering this argument.

As one would suspect, the arguments in favor of for-profit charter schools are essentially the same as arguments in favor of providing public money to any for-profit business. While I cannot consider all of them in this short essay, I will present and assess some of them.

One stock argument is the efficiency argument. The idea is that for-profit charter schools have a greater incentive than non-profit schools to be efficient. This is because every increase in efficiency can yield an increase in profits. For example, if a for-profit charter school can offer school lunches at a lower cost than a public school, then the school can turn that difference into a profit. In contrast. A public school has less incentive to be efficient, since there is no profit to be made.

While this argument is reasonable, it can be countered. One obvious concern is that profits can also be increased by cutting costs in ways that are detrimental to the students and employees of the school. For example, the “efficiency” of lower cost school lunches could result from providing the students with less or lower quality food. As another example, a school could not offer essential, but expensive services for students with special needs. As a final example, employee positions and pay could be reduced to detrimental levels.

Another counter is that while public schools lack the profit motive, they still need to accomplish the required tasks with limited funds. As such, they also need to be efficient. In fact, they often must be very creative with extremely limited resources (and teachers routinely spend their own money purchasing supplies for the students). For-profit charter schools must do what public schools do, but must also make a profit—as such, for-profit schools would cost the public more for the same services and thus be less cost effective.

It could be objected that for-profit schools are inherently more efficient than public schools and hence they can make a profit and do all that a public school would do, for the same money or even less. To support this, proponents of for-profit education point to various incidents of badly run public schools.

The easy and obvious reply is that such problems do not arise because the schools are public, they arise because of bad management and other problems. There are many public schools that are well run and there are many for-profit operations that are badly run. As such, merely being for-profit will not make a charter school better than a public school.

A second stock argument in favor of for-profit charter schools is based on the idea competition improves quality. While students go to public school by default, for-profit charter schools must compete for students with public schools, private schools and other charter schools. Since parents generally look for the best school for their children, the highest quality for-profit charter schools will win the competition. As such, the for-profits have an incentive that public schools lack and thus will be better schools.

One obvious concern is that for-profits can get students without being of better quality. They could do so by extensive advertising, by exploiting political connections and various other ways that have nothing to do with quality.

Another concern about making the education of children a competitive business venture is that this competition has causalities: businesses go out of business. While the local hardware store going out of business is unfortunate, having an entire school go out of business would be worse. If a for-profit school goes out of business, there would be considerable disruption to the children and to the schools that would have to accept them. There is also the usual concern that the initial competition will result in a few (or one) for-profit emerging victorious and then settling into the usual pattern of lower quality and higher costs. Think, for example, of cable/internet companies. As such, the competition argument is not as strong as some might believe.

Those who disagree with me might contend that my arguments are mere speculation and that for-profit charter schools should be given a chance. They might turn out to be everything their proponents claim they will be.

While this is a reasonable point, it can be countered by considering the examples presented by other ventures in which for-profit versions of public institutions receive public money. Since there is a school to prison pipeline, it seems relevant to consider the example of for profit prisons.

The arguments in favor of for-profit prisons were like those considered above: for-profit prisons would be more efficient and have higher quality than prisons run by the state. Not surprisingly, to make more profits, many prisons cut staff, pay very low salaries, cut important services and so on. By making incarceration even more of a business, the imprisonment of citizens was incentivized with the expected results of more people being imprisoned for longer sentences. As such, for-profit prisons turned out to be disastrous for the prisoners and the public. While schools are different from prisons, it is easy enough to see the same sort of thing play out with for-profit charter schools.

The best and most obvious analogy is, of course, to the for-profit colleges. As with prisons and charter schools, the usual arguments about efficiency and quality were advanced to allow public money to go to for-profit institutes. The results were not surprising: for profit colleges proved to be disastrous for the students and the public. Far from being more efficient that public and non-profit colleges, the for-profits generally turned out to be significantly more expensive. They also tend to have significantly worse graduation and job placement rates than public and non-profit private schools. Students also accrue far more debt and make significant less money relative to public and private school students. These schools also sometimes go out of business, leaving students abandoned and often with useless credits that cannot transfer. They do, however, often excel at advertising—which explains how they lure in so many students when there are vastly better alternatives.

The public also literally paid the price—the for-profits receive a disproportionate amount of public money and students take out more student loans to pay for these schools and default on them more often. Far from being models of efficiency and quality, the for-profit colleges have often turned out to be little more than machines for turning public money into profits for a few. This is not to say that for-profit charter schools must become exploitation engines as well, but the disaster of for-profit colleges must be taken as a cautionary tale. While there are some who see our children as another resource to be exploited for profits, we should not allow this to happen.


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Charter Schools III: Choice & Ideology

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 11, 2017

In my prior essay on charter schools, I considered the quality argument. The idea is that charter schools provide a higher quality alternative to public schools and should receive public money so that poorer families can afford to choose them. The primary problem with this argument is that it seems to make more sense to use public money to improve public schools—as opposed to siphoning money from them. I now turn to another aspect of choice, that of ideology (broadly construed).

While parents want to be able to choose a quality school for their children, some parents are also interested in having ideological alternatives to public schools. This desire forms the basis for the ideological choice argument for charter schools. While public schools are supposed to be as ideologically neutral as possible, some see public schools as ideologically problematic in two broad ways.

One way is that the public schools provide content and experiences that conflict with the ideology of some parents, most commonly with religious values. For example, public schools often teach evolution in science classes and this runs contrary to some theological views about the age of the earth and how species arise. As another example, some public schools allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity, which runs contrary to the values of some parents. As a third example, some schools teach history (such as that of slavery) in ways that run afoul of the ideology of parents. As a final example, some schools include climate change in their science courses, which might be rejected by some parents on political grounds.

A second way is that public schools fail to provide ideological content and experiences that parents want them to provide, often based on their religious views. For example, a public school might not provide Christian prayers in the classroom. As another example, a public school might not offer religious content in the science classes (such as creationism). As a final example, a public school might not offer abstinence only sex education, which can conflict with the values of some parents.

Charter schools, the argument goes, can offer parents an ideological alternative to public schools, thus giving them more choices in regards to the education of their children. Ideological charter schools can avoid offering content and experiences that parents do not want for their children while offering the content and experiences they want. For example, a private charter school could teach creationism and have facilities that conform to traditional gender identities.

It might be argued that parents already have such a choice: they can send their children to existing private schools. But, as noted in my first essay, many parents cannot afford to pay for such private schools. Since charter schools receive public money, parents who cannot afford to send their children to private ideological schools can send them to ideological charter schools, thus allowing them to exercise their right to choose. As an alternative to charter schools, some places have school voucher systems which allow students to attend private (often religious) schools using public money. The appeal of this approach is that it allows those who are less well-off to enjoy the same freedom of choice as the well off. After all, it seems unfair that the poor should be denied this freedom simply because they are poor. That said, there are some problems with ideological charter schools.

One concern about ideological charter schools is that that they would involve the funding of specific ideologies with public money. For example, public money going to a religious charter school would be a case of public funding of that religion, which is problematic in many ways in the United States. Those who favor ideological charter schools tend to do so because they are thinking of their own ideology. However, it is important to consider that allowing such charter schools opens the door to ideologies other than one’s own. For example, conservative Christian proponents of religious charter schools are no doubt thinking of public money going to Christian schools and are not considering that public money might also flow to Islamic charter schools or charter transgender training academies. Or perhaps they have already thought about how to ensure the money flows in accord with their ideology.

Another concern is that funding ideological charter schools with public money would be denying others their choice—there are many taxpayers who do not want their money going to fund ideologies they do not accept. For example, people who do not belong to a religious sect would most likely not want to involuntarily support that sect.

What might seem to be an obvious counter is that there are people who do not want their money going to public schools because of their ideological views. So, if it is accepted that public money can go to public schools, it should also be allowed to flow into ideological charter schools.

The reply to this is that public schools are controlled by the public, typically through elected officials. As such, people do have a choice in regards to the content and experiences offered by public schools. While people will not always get what they want, they do have a role in the democratic process. Public money is thus being spent in accord with what the public wants—as determined by this process. In contrast, the public does not have comparable choice when it comes to ideological charter schools—they are, by their very nature, outside of the public education system. This is not to say that there should not be such ideological schools, just that they should be in the realm of private choice rather than public funding.

To use a road analogy, imagine that Billy believes that it is offensive in the eyes of God for men and women to drive on the same roads and he does not want his children to see such blasphemy. Billy has every right to stay off the public roads and every right to start his own private road system on his property. However, he does not have the right to expect public road money to be diverted to his private road system so that he can exercise his choice.

Billy could, however, argue that as a citizen he is entitled to his share of the public road money. Since he is not using the public roads, the state should send him that share so that he might fund his private roads. He could get others to join him and pool these funds, thus creating his ideological charter roads. If confronted by the objection that the public should not fund his ideology, Billy could counter by arguing that road choice should not be a luxury that must be purchased. Rather, it is an entitlement that the state is obligated to provide.

This points to a key part of the matter about public funding for things like public roads and public education: are citizens entitled to access to the public systems or are they entitled to the monetary value of that access, which they should be free to use elsewhere? My intuition is that citizens are entitled to access to the public system rather than to a cash payout from the state. Citizens can elect to forgo such access, but this does not entitle them to a check from the state. As a citizen, I have the right to use the public roads and send any children I might have to the public schools. However, I am not entitled to public money to fund roads or schools that match my ideology just because I do not like the public system. As a citizen, I have the right to try to change the public systems—that is how democratic public systems are supposed to work. As such, while the ideological choice argument is appealing, it does not seem compelling.


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Charter Schools II: Choice & Quality

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2017

In the previous essay on charter schools I considered the monopoly argument in their favor. On this view, charter schools break the state’s harmful monopoly on education and this is a good thing. It is worth noting, again, that the state does not have a monopoly on education (there are private, non-charter schools). Instead, the state schools often have a monopoly on public money and charter schools break this monopoly by receiving public money. This, it is argued by charter school proponents, allows for more choice. They are quite right. But not all choices are good choices.

Without charter schools, people face rather limited alternatives to the public-school system. One is home schooling. While this does appeal to some people, it does limit the educational experience and requires a great deal of the parent(s). Another is attending a private school. While these schools can provide excellent education, they can very expensive. As such, they are an option only for those who can afford them. Because charter schools receive public money, they can provide an alternative to public schools for those who cannot afford a private school. However, there is the question of why there should be such choice and why people would take it.

One reason often given in favor of charter schools over public schools is that charter schools are supposed to superior in terms of the education they provide (or in some other relevant way). Proponents of charter schools point to failing public schools as evidence for this claim. While this is certainly a rational argument, there are some concerns with it.

One concern is that while there are bad public schools and excellent charter schools, there are also excellent public schools and awful charter schools. As such, there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority. This raises the question about what causes school quality.

The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding. It is no accident that the best schools tend to be in affluent neighborhoods and the worst schools tend to be in poor areas. After all, a significant portion of the funding for public schools is local and is often based on property taxes. As such, high value property generates more funding for schools. Low value property generates far less. Naturally, this is not the whole story for school funding, but it is an important part. It is also worth noting that not just community wealth is a factor—community health is also important for the quality of education. After all, stable communities that have families actively involved in the school can create a very good educational experience for the children. However, wealth and health often travel hand in hand.

As might be suspected, most parents would prefer their children attend the best schools—this is why parents who have the income buy houses in the best school districts. This provides another limit to choice: while anyone can attend the best public schools, they must be able to afford to live in the district. This makes the best public schools analogous to private schools; one must pay to be able to attend. The promise of charter schools is that children can escape the poor schools and go to a superior charter school, using public money.

While this does have some appeal, there are some obvious problems. One is that the poor schools will become poorer as they lose students and will presumably decline even more until only those who cannot escape remain. This would seem to be like pouring money into lifeboats for an ailing ship rather than using the money to fix it.

Of course, this analogy could be countered by saying that the public school ship is doomed and the only viable option is escape. This is a reasonable counter—if a school is so badly wrecked that it cannot be saved, then escaping to another school would be as sensible as fleeing a sinking ship. The challenge is, however, showing that this should be a charter school and not a new public school.

Another is that it would seem to make more sense to use the public money to improve the public school so that parents would want their children to attend. After all, if parents want to choose good schools, the best use of public money would seem to be to make public schools better. Since there are excellent public schools, this is clearly something that can be done with proper funding and a strong community. As noted above, there is no special magic to charters that makes them inherently better than public schools. To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”

In light of the above discussion, the choice argument for charter schools based on quality does not appear compelling. Unless it can be shown that charter schools are inherently better than public schools in virtue of being charters, then it would be more sensible to improve the quality of existing public schools rather than siphoning away public money. There are, however, other matters of choice beyond quality. In the next essay I will look at the appeal of ideological choice—charter schools that offer an ideological or theological alternative to public schools.


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Charter Schools I: Preliminaries & Monopolies

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2017

In November of 2016, president elect Trump selected Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. While this appointment seems to have changed her mind about Common Core, DeVos has remained committed to expanding charter schools. Charter schools operate outside of the public-school system but are funded with public money. They can be privately owned and run as for-profit business. As might be suspected, they tend to be rather controversial.

Before discussing charter schools, I need to present the biasing factors in my background. Like most Americans, I attended public schools. Unlike some Americans, I got a very good public education that laid the foundation for my undergraduate and graduate education. Both of my parents were educators; my father taught math and computer science and my mother had a long career as a guidance counsellor. I ended up going to a private college and then to a public graduate school. This led to my current career as a philosophy professor at a state university. I belong to the United Faculty of Florida, the NEA and the AFT. As such, I am a union member. As might be suspected, my background inclines me to be suspicious of charter schools. As such, I will take special care to consider the matter fairly and objectively.

As with most politically charged debates, the battle over charter schools tends to be long on rhetoric and short on reasoned arguments. Devoted proponents of charter schools lament the ruin of public education, crusade for choice, and praise the profit motive as panacea for the woes of the academies. Energized enemies of charter schools regard them as plots against public good and profiteering at the expense of the children.

While there is some merit behind these rhetorical stances, charter schools should neither be accepted nor rejected based on mere rhetoric or ideological stances. As liberals and conservatives have both noted, there are serious problems in the American education system. Charter schools have been advanced as a serious proposal to address some of these problems and are worthy of objective consideration. I will begin with what can be called the monopoly argument in favor of charter schools.

Proponents of charter schools often assert that the state holds a monopoly on education and employ arguments by analogy to show why this is a bad thing. For example, the state monopoly on education might be compared to living in an area with only one internet service provider. This provider offers poor service, but residents are forced by law to pay for it and competition is forbidden. While this is probably better than not having any internet access at all, it is certainly a bad situation that could be improved by competition. If the analogy holds, then poor quality education could be improved by legalizing competition.

This analogy can also be used, obviously enough, to argue that people who do have children in school should not be forced to pay into the education system. This would be, to stick with the analogy, like making people who have no computers (including tablets and phones) pay for internet access they do not use. This is, however, another issue and I will return to the matter of charter schools.

While the analogy does have some appeal, the state does not have a monopoly on education. There are, obviously enough, private schools that operate without public money. These provide competition to public schools, thus showing that there is not a monopoly. By going through the appropriate procedures, anyone with the resources can create a private school. And anyone with the resources to afford a private school can attend. As such, there is already a competitive education industry in place that provides an alternative to public education. There is also the option of home schooling, which also breaks the alleged monopoly.

Supporters of charter schools can counter that there is a monopoly without charter schools. To be specific, without charter schools, public schools have a monopoly on public money. Charter schools, by definition, break this monopoly by allowing public funds to go to schools outside the state education system.

This can allow privately owned charter schools to enjoy what amounts to state subsidies, thus making it easier to start a privately-owned charter school than a privately funded private school. Those who are concerned about state subsidies might find this sort of thing problematic, perhaps because it seems to confer an unfair advantage over privately funded schools and funnels public money into private hands.

Supporters can counter these criticisms by turning them into virtues. Public money spent on charter schools is good exactly because it makes it easier to fund competing schools. Private schools without public funding need to operate in a free market—they must compete for customer money without the benefit of the state picking winners and losers. As such, there will not be very many privately funded schools.  Charter schools benefit from the largesse of the state, although they do need to attract enough students. But this is made easier by the fact that charter school education is subsidized by public money.

As such, charter schools would break the public-school system’s monopoly on public money, although there is not a monopoly on education (since privately funded schools exist). The question remains as to whether or not breaking the funding monopoly is a good thing or not, which leads to the subject of the next essay in this series, that of choice.


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