Deregulating Schooling: What Can Go Wrong?

©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh


edited 9/2/11

In a recent series of investigative articles the Philadelphia Inquirer tallied up the disastrous results of the move to deregulate America. They reported that: "Since deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, more than 100 once-thriving companies have gone out of business. More than 150,000 workers have lost their jobs. Since deregulation of the airlines in 1978, a dozen airline companies have merged or gone out of business. More than 50,000 of their employees have lost their jobs. Since deregulation of the savings and loan industry in 1982, about 650 S&L's have folded, with at least 400 more in serious trouble. The bailout will leave taxpayers stuck with a half trillion dollar tab."

The same people who loosened the government rules that regulated airlines, trucking and savings and loans now would like to rewrite the rules concerning teaching and schools. These "reformers" claim that by removing government regulation and opening the doors to competition we will encourage school improvement. Deregulating teaching will open up a whole new source of talent. Opening public schools to competition will drive out the bad schools, encourage innovation and make educators responsive to the need for change. David Kearns, former chairman of Xerox and highly placed Bush appointee to the U. S. Department of Education, puts it this way, "Public schools acting as monopolies are failing. Providing choice means allowing schools to compete with one another for the most valuable of assets: students." (Kearns does not consider that some kids might be regarded as liabilities.)

As pedagogy is purified by the fires of capitalism many schools will perish. That is in the plan. When he was Governor of Minnesota, Rudy Perpich described this social Darwinism with suitable detachment when he observed: "...[Failed schools] will file for 'bankruptcy' like any other business." We are assured, however, that the only schools forced into bankruptcy will be those that fail to become more effective. "Effective" at what? The meaning of that slogan is left to our imagination. Hopefully, it will not be "effective" in seducing the masses or confirming our worst prejudices.

It is not difficult to determine why reformers long for public schooling to be cleansed by capitalism. Too many school districts, particularly large urban ones, echo the worst aspects of the Soviet Union. Their schools bear a remarkable resemblance to Soviet style apartment houses. They are over-crowded, their heating systems malfunction, their roofs leak, their bathrooms stink, their plaster crumbles, the windows will not work and cock roaches saunter arrogantly across dimly lit halls. Even the food is similarly inedible; and you have to stand in line to get it.

There is also a similarity of the worst school districts and the Soviet Union with respect to scarcity. In such districts teachers hoard instructional materials because there are chronic shortages. Elementary teachers do without crayons. Social studies teachers get by with 15 year old textbooks. Ditto machines remain broken for years. Even the tape, bought from the lowest bidder, refuses to stick.

The worst school districts even have their own equivalent of the legendary Soviet bureaucracy. In district headquarters hordes of inscrutable and long-lived apparatchiks discharge barrages of flatulent directives that bear a remarkable resemblance to Stalin's infamous Five Year Plans.

Yes, our worst school systems bear a truly uncanny resemblance to the U.S.S.R.. Indeed, there is only one area where the comparison breaks down. In the good old days the K.G.B. victimized millions of innocents; but they also kept a lid on hooliganism. The worst school districts also victimize the virtuous; but they allow hoodlums free reign.

Some of these conditions are caused by too many regulations. But let's not kid ourselves. Even the "Education President" should be able to recognize that most school problems will not be alleviated by deregulation. Consider the underfunding of urban schools. City schools have the nation's largest number of needy students, yet every year they are starved for money. This year, for example, the recession forced the Los Angeles Unified School District to cut $275 million from its $4 billion budget. Similarly, Dade County had to slash $136 million from $1.7 billion despite 12,000 more students. This meant that Dade County teachers got no raises, 600 teaching positions were left vacant, the school day was reduced from 7 to 6 periods, larger classes had to be scheduled, teachers were laid off and major cuts were made in programs for low achievers. The Chicago schools were forced take the biggest cut of all, $233 million from their $2.3 billion budget. Chicago teachers were compelled to surrender a promised 7% pay increase, 13 schools were closed, and spending on supplies was sharply cut. Competition among city schools for resources will not resolve these sorts of difficulties. Why? Because there aren't enough resources to begin with.

Many so-called "school problems" are properly attributed to the unhelpful things that go on outside schools. In our nation's capitol, for instance, a third of all children are poor. An infant born in D.C. is less likely to survive than a baby born in Jamaica. In the shadow of the White House there are, on an average night, 1,300 youngsters in shelters for the homeless. Similarly, across the nation fully a fifth of all U.S. children live in poverty. And this is only the beginning of the litany of non-school difficulties that are eroding school effectiveness. Consider, for example, that 40 percent of all children born in post 1966 marriages experience the long-term separation or divorce of their parents. Of these fully one third experience another disruption in the step family. Meanwhile the top 20 percent of the nation owns or controls three-quarters of all the wealth.. How would competition among schools resolve the pedagogical difficulties encouraged by these circumstances?

The list of non-school problems that influence school success goes on and on. And with socio-economic events like this operating in the background, any kind of schooling is likely to fail.

Deregulation will inevitably bring some benefits. As the old saying goes, "It is an ill wind that blows no one some good" But we all know, "There are no free lunches." All benefits have their costs. The crucial question is, "Who will pay them?" The consequences of recent deregulations suggests that a whole lot of people will. But they also suggest that educators will pay most dearly. If the past is prologue, tens or even hundreds of thousands of the nation's nearly 3 million teachers will likely lose their jobs. Many others will be force to absorb hefty pay cuts or make other concessions to insure that their schools remain "competitive." Pension systems will also be bankrupted or thrown into disarray. Many older teachers will find their health benefits disappearing just when they need them the most. All of this happened with deregulation in other industries, so why should educators be exempt from similar costs?

Will these costs be justified by better, less costly, schools? Probably not. Deregulation of the trucking, S&L and airline industry certainly has not improved service or lowered consumer's costs. The opposite has occurred. So after school "deregulation" parents can expect to pay more for less. And schooling's total commodification will further encourage the perception that schooling is an individual rather than a public good. As a consequence, public moral and financial support will further diminish and parental costs will continue to rise.

Most agree that a shake-up of complacent, self-satisfied and inefficient school bureaucracies is long overdue. But before we rush to deregulate we should remember that the Progressive Era of American business regulation came about to protect workers, consumers and capitalism itself. Before the regulations were enacted all three were at the mercy of predatory robber barons. Why should we expect anything better if schooling is deregulated?