A funny thing happened on the way to the PBS National Desk episode "Education: A Public Right Gone Wrong": After inviting more than three dozen free-market enthusiasts, the production crew seems to have run out of invitations.
The show's version of investigative reporting is to pit 38 conservative foundation wonks, for-profit and religious school employees, and assorted voucher recipients speaking in favor of privatizing public education against four people defending public schools. Of these four, one is the president and another the chief counsel of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, leaving the impression that only an organization that puts its own bread-and-butter interests at the forefront of educational policy-making has anything good to say about public education.
By all appearances, this PBS program operates under a code of Let the Viewer Beware. Surely journalism ethics reach a new low when the viewer must examine the annual reports of a show's underwriters in order to figure out that the content is long on vested interests and very short on facts. A truth-in-disclosure statement would reveal a web of financial entanglement that touches nearly every public school-basher who is handed the microphone.
None of the 38 public school-bashers offers any data supporting the claims that private and for-profit schools offer a better education. Unlike public schools, private schools are under no requirement to release information on test scores, expulsions, dropouts, attendance and so on. Conspicuously absent from this public school-bashing fete is University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher John Witte, who conducted a five-year study on vouchers in Milwaukee. Witte's findings were, at best, mixed, concluding that parent satisfaction is up among voucher recipients but academic improvement is not ("First Year Report, Milwaukee Parental Choce Program," University of Wisconsin-Madison, 11/91; "Second Year Report," Milwaukee-Madison, 12/92).
People concerned about the performance of African-American children, whom the program describes as especially poorly served by public schools, should look at the findings of Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, a Wisconsin state initiative. The SAGE report shows that a three-year class-size reduction initiative in the first three grades in public schools has produced academic gains, most notably gains in the test scores of African-American children.
But it isn't in the interest of privateers to admit there's anything good about public schools, and so a message of calamity is established from the get-go, with an off-camera speaker (who turns out to be the Hoover Institution's Thomas Sowell) declaring, "The state of American public education is one big disaster.... Parents are not going to sit back and take this anymore."
Actually, the 1999 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll shows that the majority of parents, even if offered free government-paid tuition, would opt for public over private schools. In Milwaukee over the last four years, new African-American students in public schools outnumber those in voucher schools more than three to one, even though the voucher schools are undersubscribed.
But this show isn't about facts; it's about allowing guests with both financial and ideological stakes in privatizing education to make any kind of unsubstantiated claims they wish. Clint Bolick, chief litigator for the conservative Institute of Justice, asserts, for instance, "Public education has been in serious decline in the U.S. over the last several decades."
In fact, standardized test scores are at all-time highs. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) shows all ethnic groups setting records. The proportion of students scoring above 650 on the math SAT has risen to unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, the number of students taking Advanced Placement tests has soared from 78,000 in 1978 to 704,000 in 1999.
Reporters and other interested parties can easily find this information by reading Gerald Bracey, a respected researcher and policy analyst whose reports on the condition of public education appear in the educational periodical Phi Delta Kappan (10/99).
Admitting to serious inadequacies in public education does not mean granting license to the privileged few to establish an educational marketplace that ignores any obligation to improve education for all children. Vouchers drain public schools of needed funds, and at the same time siphon off the talents of concerned and energetic parents. Public schools are left with the problems private schools don't have to accept.
One example: the Legislative Audit Bureau reports that in 1998-99, just 3 percent of Milwaukee's voucher students have been previously identified as needing special services, and those students received services relatively low in cost, such as speech therapy. By contrast, 15 percent of public school students are so identified, and their services cover the full (expensive) range.
If the free market works so well to the benefit of all children, one must ask why poor children don't have equal access to pre-school education, a bastion of free-market enterprise. Likewise, the free market denies poor children equal access to health care, adequate housing and adequate school buildings. The free market ships jobs paying adequate wages overseas.
What privateers don't want the public to see is that the issue is money, not the adequacy of teachers, the presence of unions or the existence of government red tape. Pure and simple, the standardized test scores of this nation's children can be identified by zip codes, not by whether they attend private or public schools.
Larry Elder, a Los Angeles hot-button radio talkshow host trying to wear a journalist hat, closes the show with one final have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife rhetorical flourish: "Will the control of our children's education be with government and unions, or with parents? I, for one, vote for the parents." Besides mischaracterizing the backbone of public education, Elder's histrionics deliberately cloud the issue: Just because parents choose a private school doesn't mean that school has to take them. Public school is the place where, when you knock, they have to invite you in.
Elder insists this National Desk show is about an "unsalvageable government system." He uses government the way right-wing extremists are wont to do, as a code word for evil. "Public" is used the same way, as a term of scorn and derision. Perhaps someone should remind the folks at PBS what the "P" in their name stands for.
Susan Ohanian is a long time teacher and freelance writer.