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McCain Selling Discredited "Magic" of the Market as School Solution

In this election, McCain has championed school choice while Obama has promised to expand the education budget. Mike Rose, author and professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education, agreed to speak with me about the major differences in the candidates' plans. Rose is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the author of ten books, including Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. Mike hosts a bi-weekly conversation about educational issues on his blog.

McCain asserts that educational mobility is tied to economic mobility, arguing that "Too many of our children are trapped by geography and by economies in our failing schools."

Mike Rose: Well, Senator McCain is absolutely right; educational mobility and economic mobility are intertwined in the United States. But it's not as simple a relationship as some would like to think. There are other barriers to mobility in addition to lack of education.

The limitation of the McCain-Palin platform is that there is no recognition that this entrapment is the result of not only of a poor school, but of other factors like poor health care, unemployment or underemployment, failing industry, residential discrimination, poor housing, and transportation, etc. These additional factors present profound challenges to how well kids can thrive in school or move up the economic ladder.

It's predictable that someone with John McCain's voting record and political ideology would put so much store in the notion of choice. This creates the conditions for the primary mover of improvement of public schools to be the market. That's an extraordinary position to take when the vulnerabilities and the blind opportunism of the market have never been clearer.

Choice is a really seductive concept for Americans. Americans love the idea of choice; it's central to our notion of individual freedom. But public school choice is an illusory choice, particularly for people who have limited resources. Let's say you did have the option of going where you wanted to go. How are you going to get there? Are there going to be enough good schools within your area even if you had the means? Are you going to make private schools relax their restrictions? If you do have this terrific school and everybody flocks to it, are you going to provide extra resources to that school?

If you have a choice plan of the kind that McCain is proposing, you're going to have to intervene in the market in all kinds of ways. You're going to have to provide additional monies to particular schools, means of transportation, various subsidies for schools with special needs populations. You're going to have to talk private schools into relaxing admissions restrictions. You're going to have to put into place a lot of regulation, because one of the problems we've seen with charter schools is that some were unregulated so the quality was terrible or they were sham operations with no quality control. What we know about John McCain's voting record is that he's not a believer in regulation. Yet, if you have the kind of public school choice that he's suggesting, and you do it without some kind of significant intervention in the market, well, we can imagine what's going to happen. We've seen it happen in the last three weeks.

McCain's plan says, "we should let [schools] compete for the most effective, character-building teachers, hire them, and reward them." But many educators say competition is toxic to the classroom setting. Could you comment on this idea of competition in the classroom and the effect it has on learners?

Just imagine that environment! If you just think it through for a minute, that model would essentially turn school districts into Hewlitt Packard versus IBM versus Apple. How would that work, if you're really trying to bring this sort of business competitive model to bear on the teaching force? Would you have then a salary scale that could go flying off the charts in the way that it can in industry? Fiscal hawks would certainly not advocate that kind of a payroll scale. Worse, imagine what would happen to school districts and regions, where teachers may be at one school for a year or a half a year and then be drawn away.

Do you mean we could suddenly have headhunters and that sort of thing?

Yes, precisely. We would very quickly have the emergence of a professional class of headhunters for elementary and secondary schools. Imagine that. How could even market enthusiasts think that this would be a healthy thing? Again, it shows the flaw in thinking that the free market is the appropriate model for all realms of human interaction and experience and development.

Public education is a powerful Jeffersonian notion: the idea that the public makes a commitment to the education of its citizens and the care of its children. It doesn't mean there can't be ways of creatively bringing public and private together. But it has to happen in the right kind of policy environment with the right kind of fundamental driving principles.

When you look at the people involved in Obama's education think tank -- like Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond -- you can see that he's got folks who have thought long and hard on this business of teaching as a profession. There's an understanding that in addition to monetary incentives, there's also a number of other things to do to improve the lives of teachers. There's the possibility for mentoring relationships, for collaboration, and the possibility of being involved in school reform and curriculum development. There are incentives in both candidates' platforms, but the Obama plan shows a much richer, multi-dimensional understanding of what a teaching career is like and what it is that motivates people to do it and stay in it.

Last question. When you were researching Possible Lives, you sat down with parents of schoolchildren across the country, and found that for them, "economics and accountability are webbed in a number of other deeply felt concerns," ultimately concluding "The politician who can understand and express in policy those concerns will tap into something powerful." Has either one of the candidates proposed a policy that will tap into that "something powerful"?

Given my own life history as someone who comes from a low-income family -- and I think that my situation is typical of a whole lot of folks out there -- what strikes me about the Obama plan is that it yields an understanding of the lives of families like mine that we just don't find in McCain's. Obama's discussion of education demonstrates an understanding of educational opportunity for people who don't have an easy time of it. Education doesn't just involve test scores bouncing up. Education is about being prepared for the economic realm, but it's also about kids feeling secure, and kids being in environments that suggest they're worth something. All of this adds up to what it means to have a sense that you have a future, which emerges particularly in Obama's speeches. I just don't find that kind of texture or spirit in the McCain plan.

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To read the candidates' platforms for yourself see McCain"s plan and Obama"s plan.