I attended the recent debate between the two main candidates for Dallas ISD District 2 at Mata Montessori School.
On one side of the stage, Lori Kirkpatrick, a physician assistant at Parkland Hospital; on the other, businessman and incumbent Dustin Marshall. The debate was quite brief but still revealed a striking, if by now familiar, distinction between two visions for public education.
Kirkpatrick spoke of the gift of public education to society, conveyed an empathy for schoolteachers working under hostile conditions, and underlined the cost to society of not providing teachers and students with the necessary resources and support.
In contrast, Marshall expressed concern over an apparent mismatch between teacher evaluations and student test scores, and focused on the need to craft incentives to drive below average teachers out of the profession and expose "failing" schools. (According to this logic, parents would then have the knowledge required to choose between public schools — as if the choice of where to locate one's family is comparable to choosing between two different colored apples at the grocery store.)
This hard-nosed business approach to overseeing schools actually has a long-failed history. Yet it's an irony that, no matter the facts and evidence, this same approach is pursued relentlessly by those very people who portray themselves as objective and rational.
Why is it that this business-driven approach to public education has such a failed history? One reason is that treating teachers as self-serving individuals driven only by monetary incentives to achieve high class test scores can lead some to respond in kind by gaming the system to save their jobs. Notorious and extreme examples of this have been documented in places like Baltimore, Washington, and Atlanta.
But the more general answer to this question was given by the renowned scholar, James Q. Wilson. Public schools are not "production" or "procedural" organizations but what Wilson called "coping" organizations. This means that their operational activities and outputs are not easy to observe or measure. This is an intrinsic characteristic of public schools. To think of a public school as some kind of black box with well-defined measurable inputs and outputs is a pretense; indeed, a dangerous and dehumanizing pretense given all the students in danger of being tagged as failures at an early stage in life.
There is a further irony here. All this emphasis on test scores, rote learning, and impersonal teaching, is only advocated for students in public schools. For students in private schools it's often just the opposite: intramural sports, Shakespeare, and joyful inquiry, sometimes taught by outstanding former public school teachers who reluctantly fled the system to escape the mind-numbing obsession with constant assessment, monitoring and micro-management.
It’s therefore not surprising that the issue of public v. private schools has come up in the race between Kirkpatrick and Marshall; in particular, concerning why the incumbent, Marshall, chooses to send his own children to a private school while promoting himself as the best qualified person to be public school trustee for Dallas ISD District 2.
Marshall took umbrage at the suggestion his decision had any kind of broader significance, explaining that he sent his children to the same private school he attended and of which he had such fond memories, claiming that one of his motivations in running for office is to help others experience the same positive start that he had at a private school.
Of course, from the perspective of a private citizen, where one chooses to send one's children is one’s own business, and there are plenty of circumstantial reasons one can think of as to why parents may choose not to send their child to the local public school.
But what does it mean — as a matter of public policy — to view one’s private school experience as a kind of ideal to which public schools should aspire? Public schools differ in crucial ways from private schools.
Unlike private schools, public schools are subject to elected school boards, class size requirements, building regulations, as well as all kinds of state regulations, such as being required to cater to students with special needs. Teachers in public schools must have state certification and public schools must comply with a state-approved curriculum.
Private schools are not subject to these constraints. Further, private schools are not bound by the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. In contrast, public schools have no discretion on such weighty matters.
So while one should not begrudge the incumbent his fond memories of private school, it does not necessarily seem the appropriate kind of experience one should be looking for in a public school trustee.
Interestingly, in his debate with Kirkpatrick, Marshall sought to allay any fear that he was some kind of educational extremist, stating that he disapproved of the recent appointment of Betsy DeVos as United States Secretary of Education.
But why is it so many people agree that DeVos is unqualified? The question was recently put in an interview to Diane Ravitch, former Under Secretary of Education to George H.W. Bush, and a leading national thinker on public education. Ravitch responded (talking about DeVos): "Well, she does not understand anything about education except for escaping from public schools. She's never taught. She's never supervised. She's never attended public schools. Her children did not attend public schools. She thinks that public schools everywhere are just awful ..."
If these kinds of criticisms are appropriate of DeVos, are they not also relevant to other candidates for public education posts (like this District 2 Trustee seat) when their experience, both as a parent and student, is limited to that of private schools?
Of course, unlike DeVos, Marshall has not explicitly advocated for vouchers. Indeed it would be foolhardy to do so — the public is strongly against these ideologically-driven social experiments. It is for this reason that Marshall's opponent, Lori Kirkpatrick, is undoubtedly correct in emphasizing that one needs to look beyond words to specific actions in assessing where one comes down on this highly charged political issue. In this regard, Marshall's recurring advocacy of competition and school-choice as the panacea to the problems of public schools is significant — student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school. Reward the winners and drop the losers — precisely the kind of thinking that led to the original idea of vouchers.
How did this Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest paradigm come to be seen as appropriate for public education? And how is the system supposed to replace all these supposed “underperforming” teachers that Marshall is so keen to drive out the system? What better and more experienced people are going to choose teaching as working conditions become ever more hostile?
But perhaps that’s not something we should be concerned with. Diane Ravitch points out that many of the "school choice" advocates seem to think that computers can do much of the work formerly done by "inefficient" teachers. Again though, the plan is selective. As Ravitch puts it: "the poor will get computers, the rich will get computers and teachers."
The truth is that there has always been a battle over two alternative visions for public education. One sees it as essentially about knowledge and enrichment, as education for life as a citizen through the cultivation of independent critical minds, and therefore crucial to a functioning democracy.
The alternative perspective sees public education as serving quite different ends: the sorting of students at an early age to determine their place in society and role in the workforce; the promotion of deference to authority, conformity, passivity, and docility.
The two visions are incompatible. Take your pick.
John Connolly lives in East Dallas. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science and has several articles published on law, politics, and education.
Runoff Election is Saturday, June 10.