The Presidential Candidates Views on Education

The following article is excerpted from the New York Times and was published on March 29, 2015.  It is a dialogue between Arthur C. Brooks and Gail Collins


Gail: I’m troubled by Kasich’s record on public education. Ohio has hundreds of privately run charter schools, many of them run by for-profit organizations. State funding has favored the charters over the traditional public schools. None of this has worked out well. Predictably, charters are turning out to be neither a total panacea nor an awful failure. Their successes depend hugely on leadership. So some have done poorly and others have saved kids from failing in traditional schools.

As a general matter, though, charters are really promising. A nationwide study published last year by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that kids in urban charters gained 72 more days of learning per year in reading than in traditional schools, and 101 days in math. Here in Washington, D.C., we have an excellent schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, who has really gone to bat for charters. And even though D.C. charters serve poorer kids and more minorities than traditional schools, they’re yielding faster improvement and better results.

Gail: Obviously there are some good charter schools. As long as they operate within the regular school system and don’t get any advantage in public funding, I don’t have any problem with them — even though I do think a lot of the success stories are due to the fact that the students tend to have motivated parents. Some disadvantaged kids get a big boost and succeed; those who don’t do so well often get nudged out the door. But my real concern is the charters run by for-profit companies. The whole idea of mixing profit and public education is terrible.

Arthur: The research on this is mixed. Obviously, for-profit universities — even those named after presidential candidates — have not all covered themselves in glory, and that market is really in flux.

Gail: The for-profit idea only works if you assume the customers can make — well, educated decisions. Have you ever asked a group of college students if they know what the interest rates on their loans are? I rest my case.

Arthur: Good point. Nobody would label most college students as especially high-information consumers (or voters for that matter). But the data on for-profit education at lower levels tell a different story. An interesting study out of Florida State University shows no significant performance difference between for-profit and nonprofit charter schools. As a general matter, the public sector seems to do best in a supervisory role over schools, rather than running them directly. But I’m agnostic on specific tactics; really, I just want lots of experimentation. The one thing we know for sure is that conventional schooling is simply not delivering the goods, especially for poor kids.

Gail: I’ve always been amused by the idea that the major thing wrong with public schools is teachers’ unions. Public schools are as good as their management. If the principals and superintendents are smart and hard-working, the schools will have good teachers and good policies.

Arthur: If only. The major complaint with teachers’ unions is that they protect mediocrity in spite of the leadership. Remember those stories about the so-called “rubber rooms” in New York where terrible teachers would be temporarily parked instead of fired? Almost every public-school teacher I meet has stories like this.

Gail: Well, every public-school teacher from New York. Which should be way more aggressive about getting rid of the rubber room inmates. No school system can afford to tolerate dead weight teachers, but management is often unwilling to put in the time and effort it takes to terminate them properly. It is true that teachers’ unions can make it hard for a school system to make quick, dramatic reforms; they do slow things down. But look at that from the teachers’ perspective. I’ve talked with multitudinous veteran educators. If they’ve worked at one school for a couple of decades, they’ve probably gone through three or four new superintendents, each of whom announced a dramatic new plan for reform that threw everyone into a tizzy for a couple of years, until things quieted down and the next superintendent came in with yet another big idea. So they do tend to be cynical. Idealistic about the kids, but cynical about the reforms.

Arthur: For sure. Changing objectives and unstable leadership make for big problems. And there are so many great teachers. But again, the real issue with many unions is that they focus on protecting adults instead of serving kids. I think this is as much a moral issue as a policy issue, which is why many reformers from both sides are coming together against the status quo. This is a losing issue for the left. You know the conservative rap on Democratic candidates on this — that they are so in the pocket of public-sector unions that they can’t function as reformers at all. Can Hillary break out of this?

Gail: What reform are you looking for? We’ve been working since the first Bush administration on setting standards for academic achievement. The teachers certainly don’t like all the testing, but I don’t hear Hillary Clinton denouncing the Common Core. It’s the Republican candidates — who, by the way, also totally misrepresent the entire enterprise.

Arthur: There are lots of good reform ideas out there, but most of the boldest proposals are vehemently opposed by a core education constituency. I always start with expanding education choice — charters and voucher programs to empower parents. But you have to pair that with a concerted effort to lower barriers to entry and make it easier to open schools. Throw in a plan for ending the near-monopolies on training administrators and certifying teachers and, get serious about vocational and technical training as well as apprenticeships in the trades. Hillary could have a big moment if she stands up to entrenched interests and fights for some of these reforms on behalf of kids and families.

Gail: You underestimate the Democrats. I’ve never heard any of them denounce vocational and technical training. Almost everybody agrees there need to be changes in teacher education. Everybody likes choice, but not at the expense of the system that’s taking care of the vast majority of the students.