Public Education’s Weird Ideological Divide

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Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Margaret Newkirk reports on the latest trend in school segregation, in which wealthy neighborhoods secede from larger municipalities so their tax dollars don’t have to subsidize poor kids’ educations. Matthew Yglesias points out that this trend is merely an extension of the logic of neighborhood public schools, which lump children together by proximity, which of course means that rich kids get to attend schools with other rich kids — and their parents pay dearly for the privilege — while poor children are stuck in schools filled mostly or entirely with other poor children.

The most amazing thing is how screwy the ideological debate over public education has become. In part, the debate is mixed up because you have private schools, and some conservative proposals to fund them with tax dollars, but those efforts are fairly marginal. The main ideological split lies over what kind of public schools we should have. In Washington, D.C., and many other cities, we have two kinds of public schools: traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools. Neighborhood schools are open to children who live close by and restricted to everybody else. Charter schools are open to all children in the city, and their slots are allocated by lottery. New York City has the same system for allocating charter slots.

Now, if I described these two different methods for dividing up public education slots — either closing off public schools by highly segregated geography, or opening them up to random admission citywide — you’d probably identify neighborhood-based restrictions as the right-wing position and open admissions as the left-wing position. But what we have is the reverse. Moderate liberals and conservatives want to expand and empower the public schools that admit everybody by random lottery. The lefties want to preserve geographic-based restrictions.

A major reason for this is obviously that charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards to promote good teachers and coach up or replace bad ones. This puts them at a crossways with teachers' unions and their allies, which defend paying teachers by seniority and subjecting them to minimal performance accountability. The leading figure in the anti-education-reform movement is Diane Ravitch, who portrays charter schools as a corporate plot. Yesterday, Ravitch toured Capitol Hill, where she again denounced the Obama administration’s pro-reform agenda in her usual colorful terms (“The White House’s obsession with data is sick”).

Ravitch’s latest book is titled Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. Ravitch doesn’t favor all public schools — she likes the ones that exclude kids from outside neighborhood boundaries, because they’re also the ones where it’s hardest to fire teachers. She opposes the ones that can't exclude children whose parents lack the wealth to buy property in-boundary. 

The Ravitch and union view of the world, and its deep suspicion of any attempt to apply empirical metrics, leads to a nostalgic embrace of the old-fashioned organization of public school. That, in turn, leads to a defense of what would ordinarily be seen as an insanely right-wing system.