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The Pimply Idea of School Choice

Stephen Gowans

i've been struck recently by how those who proudly proclaim their down to earth pragmatism, are almost, to a person, lost in the clouds of a never-never land. Inspired by the economist's simple model of perfect competition, we get the soi-disant pragmatic claim that the discipline of competition will improve efficiency and lead to lower prices, and end up instead with the insufferable near-monopoly of Air Canada and the bone-headed electricity deregulation of California -- soon, perhaps, to be mimicked by Ontario, where infatuation is strong with the same fairy tales of deregulation and competition laying the groundwork for the New Jerusalem.

Next comes the seemingly pragmatic, but fantastical, idea that schools be graded -- this exerting a Sirenic pull in Ontario, too. Imagine a hockey league where the league standings were secret, we're urged. Yes, and imagine a market of a thousand firms engaged in perfect competition. I did, when I took economics in my first year of university. But it was understood that you weren't supposed to go out and act as if it was all true. Good thing too. At last count, I came nowhere near close to a thousand air carriers in Canada, all competing for my business with low prices and stellar customer service.

Of course, there are few markets that resemble the fantasy-land markets that those comfortable in their pragmatism imbibed in their first year university economics courses. There's the real world and there's the spic-and-span world of economics seminars, where the muck of reality is banished to protect undergraduates from a blown cerebral cortex. And so it is too with grading schools. In a world scrubbed clean of all its irregularities and refractory refusal to be fit into tidy boxes boasting perfect right angles and unimpeachably straight lines, the idea might make some sense. But when has the world ever been clean and uncomplicated and unconfounded by the million and one little inconveniences that mock our tidy theories?

The only way report cards for schools will tell you anything about which schools teach kids well and which don't, is if talent is evenly distributed across all schools. That's the one necessary underlying condition that's going to make the whole idea work -- like the condition that for competition to keep prices to a minimum, markets can't drift toward monopoly.

But anyone who hasn't suspended all critical reflection in favour of waxing vainglorious over how hard-headed, down to earth, and pragmatic they are, knows that these conditions are a fantasy. They might seem to exist in Premiers' offices, or in the newsroom of the Globe and Mail, but...well, maybe that says something how much thinking is going on in those places.

Imagine a hockey league that comprises two teams: the NHL All-star World Team, and the bottom-placed New York Islanders. The All-star team is going to win nine times out of ten, no matter how good, or how bad, the coaches are. Would looking at the standings tell us anything about who's a good coach?

Now, look at how extracurricular advantages are distributed. Access to a home computer, pre-school programs, music lessons after school and on weekends, trips to book stores and libraries. A thousand and one ways in which kids in affluent areas are far more likely to be prepared for school, and to do well in their studies, than kids whose parents can't provide the same advantages. And in case you haven't noticed, rich parents tend to live in the same neighbourhoods and to send their kids to the same neighbourhood schools, while poor parents...well, you get the idea.

Now, I'm not saying that poor kids always do worse in school than rich kids, or that schools in poor areas always perform worse than schools in rich areas, any more than NHL teams with modest payrolls (like the Ottawa Senators, now sitting in top spot in the NHL's Eastern Conference) are destined to do worse than teams with much larger payrolls (like the New York Rangers, well down in the league's standings.) But it's certainly easier for rich kids to do well, and, as a group, they do.

Ah, but what is reason against optics, substance against form? School grading sounds so reasonable, and so simple, and so down to earth, that surely nobody with an even an ounce of common sense could object. That's usually how these things work. Lulled by the reassuring reasonableness, we consent, only to find ourselves stranded at the airport, wondering whether Air Canada will ever get us to San Francisco and whether the attractions of the city compensate for the rolling blackouts.

Thinking about how people in authority like to hide little inconvenient facts that might prove a tad scary took me back to the day, almost twenty years ago, when I ended up in the hospital, doubled over in pain, suffering from what was believed to be kidney stones .

"We need to do an X-ray," I was told. Show up at the hospital next week. All you have to do is lay down on a bed, click-click, and you're done. No problem.

Sounded fine to me.

I started to get a sense that I should have asked the doctor exactly what he meant by "no problem" when, showing up at the hospital one week later, a consent form was thrust into my hands. "Read this and sign it," a nurse barked, with all the warm compassion of Dr. Mengle.

Consent form? Since when do you need a consent form for an X-ray? With anxiety rising, my eyes pored over the page. Possibility of nausea and vomiting...burning at site of injection.... (INJECTION! WHAT INJECTION?)...possibility of anaphylaxis...in rare instances, death. Huh?

Trying to assure myself that death happened only in rare instances, while desperately pushing down the niggling thought that only in rare instances would one find themselves having an X-ray like this in the first place, I signed the form, trying to hide just how tremulously the pen scrawled across the page.

When what I would later consider my executioner arrived to jam a needle into my arm that would introduce my kidneys to a radioactive dye, I asked: "What's going on?"

"Relax," he soothed. "These problems occur only in rare instances. Very rare. No need to be troubled."

A statistics professor of mine used to say: "Low probability events do occur." I discovered that he knew more than my doctor did. That simple little x-ray turned out to be the equivalent of a 45 minute ride on a roller coaster, hooked up to an Epicac IV drip. All those unlikely events, burning, nausea and vomiting, happened in spades. And not just for a few minutes, either, but for what seemed like an eternity. Why anyone would resort to shocks to the genitals to extract confessions is beyond me, when this much more effective torture is readily available in any hospital.

Depleted, I left the hospital vowing that if I was going to be mugged again, I wasn't going to be lured unawares.

So, let's think through the issue of grading schools and see if there's a mugging waiting for us at the end.

First of all, the grading of schools isn't being presented alone. It's a means to an end, one part of a package deal that also includes the cherished idea of the political Right: school choice. So, if we're going to follow the logic of school grading we have to also follow the logic of school choice. The two go hand in hand.

Proponents of school choice say that being able to choose which school your child goes to transforms public education into a market. Schools will compete for students, and the schools with the best grades will attract the most students, while the laggards will have to pull up their socks to survive. The discipline of the market may be harsh, but the end result -- an inevitability we're assured -- will be better schools all around.

If you're not infatuated with the faux-elegance of the argument, you might immediately perceive a few blemishes, ill concealed behind the copious daubs of make-up applied trowel-like over angry eruptions of illogic.

Blemish #1. For this scheme to work, students are going to have to be free to move from one school to the next, presumably drawn to schools with impressive grades, while shunning the alleged dunces. But remember, the reason neighbourhood schools exist is so that parents don't have to negotiate rush-hour traffic every morning, ferrying their kids to the top-rated school that happens to be on the other side of town. In other words, transportation is a problem, which is the reason schools are neighbourhood based in the first place. Of course, transportation is more of a problem for parents of modest means, but one thing should be clear from the start: this scheme wasn't designed to make life easier, or better, for parents of modest means. Proponents will say it is, but we'll look at that in a second. For the moment, recognize that this could be a good idea if you don't mind expensive taxi fares, or if the top-rated school happens to be in your own neighbourhood.

Blemish #2. Chances are that top-rated schools will be found in affluent neighbourhoods, where kids already enjoy the numerous advantages their parents' affluence affords, and therefore do well on the standardized tests whose scores will be used to rank order schools. Bottom-rated schools will cluster in less affluent areas. One idea the proponents of school choice are keen on is funnelling increased funding to top-ranked schools as a reward for excellence. The idea is that more money, to be spent in furnishing a richer educational experience to the fortunate recipients, will goad poorer schools to try harder, helped along of course by having fewer resources than the top-ranked schools they're competing with. Logically, this amounts to saying the team that finishes first in the NHL standings should get the first draft pick as a reward for excellence. The last place team, surely will try harder next year, so that it can get a top draft pick.

Blemish #3. It's naive to suggest that the schools that get poor grades are going to have to improve to survive. No matter how poorly rated some schools are, everyone can't go to the top-rated schools. An empty school, as the car commercials goes, is not an option.

Look at it this way. Imagine a kids' hockey league that, halfway through the season, posts the league's standings, and then says, in the interests of improving the bottom placed teams, we're going to let kids move among teams.

No matter how much moving among teams there is, the bottom ranked teams will always have a full complement of players for one simple reason: arithmetic. If you have ten chairs and ten people, no matter how vigorously you play musical chairs, the crappiest chair is always going to have to accommodate someone's ass. Not everyone can sit in the best chair , not everyone can play on the top ranked team, and not everyone can go to the top-ranked school. So if I'm coaching the last placed team, or if I'm the principal of the bottom-rated school, I know that I'm going to have a job as a coach, and I know there's going to be kids going to my school. Bottom ranked teams don't get swept away by some Darwinian tide. Nor do bottom-ranked schools. So the idea that bottom-ranked schools are going to have to do better or die is a crock or just plain dumb.

Blemish #4. Who gets to go to the top-ranked schools? This is the most crucial question of all. But it's a question none of the school choice proponents seem to want to talk about. Since they won't, we'll have to go over the list of possibilities.

Admission to top-ranked schools could be based on academic performance. But if it were, school ranking, even more so than is true today, would reflect the sorting of students by talent, not the sorting of teachers by talent. What would school grades tell you but that kids with really good marks go to schools where kids get really good marks? It's like saying, the NHL All-star World Team is top-rated. Yeah, no kidding. That's because only the best players get to play on the team. Under this dunderhead scenario, school grading becomes as informative as a wind gage in a hurricane, or a Geiger counter at ground-zero.

Admission could be based on parents' ability and willingness to pay extra fees. Certainly, the top-rated schools could command substantial fees as a condition of entry. And while extra fees may seem inimical to the idea of public education -- and they are -- as I once learned, "there's nothing in Ontario's legislation, (to use one province as an example), to prohibit schools from imposing fees." So it is that in some parts of the province, students are expected to pay for their own musical instruments while in other parts they aren't. In some schools kids are required to buy their own school supplies and in others they aren't. And so it goes, the groundwork already laid for sorting students on ability to afford the substantial fees the highest-ranked schools could demand in a school-choice cum market system.

It does well to remember that the oil that greases the wheels of markets is money, and that whenever someone waxes ecstatic about the merits of market discipline, (a) they usually have a lot of money; (b) what they're proposing would elevate money to the position of king; (c) whoever has a lot money is going to get what they want; (d) if you don't have a lot of money, the touted advantages of market discipline feels like an unwelcome introduction to a proctologist's cold speculum. You can imagine the glossy brochures extolling the merits of the A+ schools. Our superior performance is based on a demanding and enriched program, that engages parents in the education of their child. Parents are expected to contribute both financially and with their time to the ongoing success of our top-rated school.

And what of the parents who can't contribute financially, or who are working two jobs and can't help out at their child's school? Well, there's always the stigmatized dunce schools -- the ones that won't be getting any extra financial help from the province until they pull up student's test scores.

Or how about a loan? There are loans for cars, mortgages for houses. How about a loan to send your kids to top-ranked "public" schools?

Here's where the implausibility of the claim that school choice will benefit poor kids becomes clear. Apparently, all poor kids, upon recognizing that the schools they're attending don't cut it, will enroll in the top-rated schools. It sure will get crowded in those excellent schools, what with every other kid having made the same decision to leave their old, failing school. And then there's the cost of travelling from one part of town to the other to get to the school with all the good teachers, and then there's the little incidental fees the school charges -- not so little when you add them all up -- but you know, if Hansel and Gretel could manage to defeat an old hag in a gingerbread house, then poor kids, and their parents, can jump hurdles like these too.

Blemish #5. The best teachers may very well be found in mediocre or bottom ranked schools, dealing with students who've had less of a head start, and fewer advantages, than others. Or they may be in the top-ranked schools. Or they may be -- and this is probably closest to the truth -- spread evenly through the school system, some good teachers in each school, and some bad, as well. School grading isn't some search light that falls upon the best teachers while leaving the worst in the dark.

There are, then, more than a few blemishes. Were this scheme a face, a quick trip to the dermatologist would be in order.

But let's call a spade a spade, or an acne problem what it is. School grading, no matter what its apparent merits on the surface, is a bone-headed idea at its core. It can't, like so many other things conservative politicians promise, deliver the goods; but then, politics is so rarely about delivering the goods -- at least not to the many. Rhetoric, deceptions, half-truths -- these are the stock in trade of politicians when dealing with the public. But when it comes to dealing with the powerful, the affluent, what the Globe and Mail unabashedly calls "the elite," rhetoric is laid aside and the goods are delivered. They better be. Markets can be political too, and in markets, as Frank Stronach, founder of the auto parts manufacturer Magna, likes to say: He who has the gold, rules. Of course, Frank has lots of gold, so he doesn't mind.

Politicians, just as much disciplined by the market as they wish schools to be, come up with the goods, or they too get swept away by a Darwinian tide.

Is it any wonder that $500 billion of George W. Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut will go to the wealthiest one percent of Americans, while poorer Americans will get nothing?

Is it any wonder that the Ontario government will subsidize the electricity rates of some of Ontario's richest corporations, but not of ordinary Ontarians?

Is it any wonder that under a school choice program that the schools of the affluent are likely to be more richly funded than the schools of the less affluent?

If that's not a mugging, what is?


Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at sr.gowans@sympatico.ca.

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