The false markets of market-based school reform

One of the central tenets of modern school reform is that the public education system would be more efficient if it were run like a for-profit business. Here to discuss the problems with this thinking is Bruce D. Baker, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  A version of this appeared on  his blog School Finance 101.


By Bruce D. Baker

It is often said that many of  today’s education reform policies are about capitalizing on the virtues of free markets, or trying to use the rationality that emerges from less regulated private-sector markets to achieve more efficient production of high-quality schools. 

Two interconnected strategies that are often discussed under this umbrella are the expansion of charter schools and the reduction of barriers to entry to the teaching profession through programs such as Teach For America.

One argument is that by providing a fair public subsidy to charter schools, we can induce competition  between charter schools and traditional public schools. Indeed, there is some empirical evidence to support this finding. On the teacher labor market issue, the argument for reducing barriers to entry is that the market can decide whether it prefers the traditionally prepared teacher, or the alternative, creating competitive pressures for traditional preparation programs to improve and for alternative pathways to produce qualified candidates — those who can compete on a level but less regulated playing field.

There is casual, anecdotal evidence that both of these strategies are “working” to introduce positive market-based effects.: long waiting lists — that is, high consumer demand  — for charter schools in major urban centers; and the fact that candidates from programs like Teach For America tend to get hired and quickly, suggesting high demand for their skills on the open market for teachers.

Ten to fifteen years ago, when charter schools were still mainly upstarts. But that was then and this is now.

Charter waiting lists in the current era are as likely to be policy-induced by deprivation and mass closure of true public options, where those closures are often based on bogus metrics used for declaring district schools as “failure factories.” Worse, these declarations of failure and disruptive intervention and bogus metrics upon which they are based are now codified in state policies promulgated in response to federal pressures (close the worst 5 percent of schools  and tweak your accountability measures).  Today’s charter waiting lists are as much a function of induced under-supply of public options if not far more so than local community demand for more charter options.

Surely if the government forcibly shut down Amtrak choosing some bogus measure to declare it an abject failure, there would be increased “demand” for other means of transportation along the Northeast Corridor. And if the government forcibly shut the U.S. Postal service, other package delivery services would see a spike in business. But I find it doubtful anyone would suggest that this spike resulted from a true market-driven preference for their products or services.  Charter waiting lists in the wake of forced shutdown of district schools based on low average test scores, or even biased growth metrics, are no different.

That brings me to my second point.  Recent speculation on the potential role of TFA in Newark under the proposed reorganization and teacher layoff plan led to a conversation between Newark blogger Bob Braun and TFA leadership, prompting one blogger to try to find a middle ground in the debate.  This blogger brought up an argument on behalf of TFA that I’ve not heard in a while:  that education schools should learn from the market-based successes of TFA and answer this question:  “Why do principals and schools still line up to hire TFA corps members when they have the chance?” I must admit, I’ve been complicit in making similar arguments in my own research in the past. (here and here)

The implication is that TFA has, by virtue of producing high-quality candidates, outpaced the competition (traditional teacher preparation programs) on the free market – the open labor market for teachers. This would be all well and good if the speedy placement of TFA candidates had anything to do with an open competitive labor market, but it doesn’t.

My problem with the current false market scenario regarding TFA is its intersection with the false market for charter schools. Just as charter school expansion – demand – has become heavily dependent on manipulation of markets by policymakers, TFA expansion – demand – has become dependent on those major charter network operators who themselves are dependent on charter market manipulation (forced closure of district schools).[1]

This is not market-based reform, nor should anyone pretend that market mechanisms  are driving any of this. Policy preferences and market manipulation are the real drivers.

Yes, it is reasonable that we might experiment with public subsidies to private providers, be it through direct private management under district contract, or via upstarts like charters (by their original intent). And yes, it is reasonable to test out alternative pathways to teaching.  But when we start forcibly shuttering the public system, under the facade of federally promulgated state policies, and replacing the only true public option with private providers who then establish exclusive arrangements for alternatively prepared short-term staff, we’ve gone too far.

When we start claiming that these shifts are happening due to free market forces and public demand, well… then we’re not telling the truth.

It’s time to rethink where we’re headed before  more damage is done!

[1] It may be that the long term financial viability of major charter networks depends on both incredibly high employee churn and placement of alums in future positions of political power (to continue rigging markets in favor of the institutions that hire them). Churn is required because many well-established charter operators actually pay pretty good salaries over the first several years, outpacing local district schools by 20 to 30 percent, while also offering small class sizes. It is hard to conceive of how these schools would balance their operating budgets were they to retain these teachers much longer than the usual 2 to 5 years. Further, charter advocates in New York City like to point to the exorbitant retirement costs of the city district as one reason why charter spending is actually lower (even though it’s not) than district schools. It it is rather absurd to compare a fully matured district with thousands of retirees to an institution less than 10 years old that likely has no retirees as of yet. Presumably they would eventually have retirees, unless of course they can churn, churn, churn.  TFA helps them accomplish this goal.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · March 4, 2014