School Choice, Parental Control, and the Public Education Death Spiral

Death Spiral is a term often used to characterize the negative impact of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). A health insurance death spiral occurs when the numbers of healthy individuals within insurance pools cannot cover the higher costs of care for less healthy individuals. Insurance costs go up for everyone and enrollments further decline, setting in motion a vicious cycle akin to the flush of a toilet.
But the death spiral image more aptly captures the Tea Party whip the beast / starve the beast strategy for undermining and hollowing out government institutions and functions. For example, the ultimate effect of the Betsy Devos public education mandate, as imagined by her business and religious sponsors (most of whom have never spent a day inside public schools themselves) is likely to be a public education death spiral. Which is largely the mandate’s intent. Betsy Devos’ education goals include:

  • Releasing states and localities from US Department of Education guidance and mandates;
  • Liberating public school funding for charter school, private school, and religious school options favored by “education choice” spear carriers; and
  • Restoring control of education to local communities and (most importantly) to parents.

Already beleaguered and under siege, especially in poorer and more socially disconnected and chaotic communities (both urban and rural), where many children grow up under handicaps unimaginable in more affluent and stable environments, the Devos reforms would simply strip resources from schools, lure more functional students into a traders’ bazaar of misshapen education options, leave behind those children with the most significant handicaps and disabilities, demoralize public school teachers and staff, and sow confusion and chaos on behalf of a punitive 16th-century Calvinist worldview premised on a concept of predestination that casually assigns its children to the buckets of the damned and the saved.
One could go on forever about the meaning and value of education “choice“. In general, market zealots don’t sufficiently distinguish between true choice and market mayhem. There are also teleological conditions for “meaningful” choice that are typically ignored. And of course the right-wing / evangelical focus on “education choice” bumps uncomfortably close to ideas about choice concerning reproductive rights. However, “parental control” is the concept that lights the hottest fire under the rear ends of right-wing and religious education advocates, and while the concept sounds unimpeachably American, the consequences of a pedagogy based on parental control would be catastrophic. Consider the following:

  • The meaning of “parental control” is fraught. Clearly kids benefit from parental investment in their schools and in their education. And when Devos and the educational reformers with whom she associates refer to parental control, they are often referring to control over where a child goes to school. But Tea Party rhetoric also refers to parental agenda-setting on curriculum and pedagogy. Giving parents this sort of control over the education of their children is like assuming commuters should engineer and construct suspension bridges and tunnels. Or cancer patients should prescribe their own treatments. The premises of the assumption are ridiculous (as someone once said to me when I picked up his newborn son without cradling its head, you might know a lot about something, but you don’t know anything about babies). The reality is that most parents don’t have the foggiest idea about the layered complexity of any child’s educational experience (much less the experience of a classroom full of individual children). And among those parents who do have a clue, the unavoidable tendency is to reduce the complex needs of an entire classroom or school to the specific needs of their own child, or to introduce irrelevant or actively harmful claims upon the teacher and her classroom driven by the political or religious ideology and agenda of the parent.
  • Betsy Devos, alongside other members of the Tea Party, reduces expertise and experience of any kind to mere ideology of unreconstructed elites (and she aims to do some reconstructing). But as is true with virtually any other profession, teaching requires a body of knowledge and a ledger of experience that takes years to accumulate (as well as some native aptitude or talent for engaging and communicating with children). There is probably no profession more important and no job more difficult. What teachers need is the support and trust of parents, not their oversight, nattering, fussing, and preaching.
  • What public schools and teachers do need from parents is the delivery to the schoolhouse door of children who are emotionally healthy and solid. Schools cannot repair, and should not be asked to repair, damage experienced by children in the first few years of childhood. Increasingly, of course, managing that burden of damage becomes the mountain teachers must climb, Sysyphus-like, every day before they can even get to the educational mission for which they were trained. Is there any wonder the burn-out rate for teachers is so high?

Unfortunately, the mission of the new administration, along with its fellow travelers, long in the hatching, is also to gut (more than they already have) other political and governing institutions that support families and parents and children when they are most vulnerable, and most in need of assistance and guidance, which is to say in the years before children enter grade school. Without that support, and without a renewed commitment to public institutions, public values, and public servants, the public education death spiral will likely only accelerate.