Profit Centre in the Classroom

by Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

While President of the United Federation of Teachers, a NYC K-12 union, he made this comment about his leadership goals: “When schoolchildren starting pay union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” That was in the early ‘70’s, according to the “Shanker Blog”, an online page which devotes considerable effort to a semi-denial of the widely-referenced (you can guess why) quote usually dated to 1985. It’s widely referenced because education is primus inter pares on a list of those institutions which declare themselves to be above mere profit, and quite superior to the surrounding society of crass materialists whose children they are laboring to bring to some acceptably above-mere-profit level of civilization. And that background explains why a re-emergence of the Shanker mindset has been accorded little coverage by the Main Stream Media: it doesn’t fit the desired image template. Only The Wall Street Journal, to the best of my admittedly imperfect research abilities, saw fit to report on recent goings-on in the Douglas County School District, described as “a suburban district south of Denver…one of the most affluent in the US, with household income nearly double the national median, [with k-12] schools ranked among the best in Colorado”. Such reportage helps explains why the Journal is the sole MSM print outlet with increasing circulation, advertising revenues, and corporate profits, but that’s only the ancillary point here.More recent classroom visitors than I can confirm or refute whether the time-honored teachings about different models for historic civilizations -military, theocratic, or market-based-are still being presented to today’s students, but some recent anthropology books have made the argument that the natural option for primates turns out to be trade-based, and that we two-legged types have inherited the genes and wiring for trade and barter from the not-quite-two-legged chimpanzees and orangutans, who practice it skillfully, even though they have no Fair Trade Commissions. That’s the basis of a whole new research field: “economic anthropology”. It’s generally considered that the contemporary US civilization is predominantly market-based, a condition generally applauded on the R side of the hall (a little French Revolution governance lingo, there) and deplored on the L side, and it’s similarly generally considered that some of the major enthusiasts for expanded governance are the least market-solution-oriented. That’s why it typically comes as a bit of a shock when folks in public education turn out to be just as what’s-in-it-for-me as the rest of us. One example is the famous Albert Shanker one-liner.

The main point is that the Douglas County School District, in the best (or worst, to some commentators including spokesmen for the public-ed industry itself) example of capitalist practice, has invented a new profit centre for itself: it proposes (final approval by Denver will be required) to modify the ancient capitalist practice of arbitrage to maximize net earnings. And it proposes to do so via an unexpected route: in an industry almost uniformly opposed to the voucher principle (whereby per-pupil State level taxpayer-sourced funding follows the student to pay for his education pretty much at the school of his parents’ choice) the Douglas County edu-crats propose to embrace vouchers. Specifically, they propose to “offshore” (a little mercantile lingo, there) students who so wish to their non-public school of choice, and pay the tuition for them. Since the tuition is invariably lower than the per-pupil stipend coming to Douglas County from Colorado taxpayers via the State Tax Department, the County will keep the difference. Here’s how Journal reportrix Stephanie Simon explains the program sold to County School Commissioners by Superintendrix Elizabeth Celania-Fagen: “Normally, most voucher programs are run by States. Qualified students receive a voucher that is accepted as full payment at local private schools. Douglas County does it differently, acting as middleman between State and student -and taking a cut. The State sends the District $6100 per pupil; the District forwards 75% to each voucher recipient and keeps the rest. Even after administrative costs, the District expects to make what amounts to a profit of $400,000 this year on the 500 students in its pilot program. That money will be used to ‘provide services to the students that are left behind in the regular schools,’ District spokesman Randy Barber said.” The 50-column-inch WSJ piece makes only tangential references to the usual criticism of such programs, that they skim off the better students and leave the remainder with fewer proficiency-seeking classmates to emulate, but it does note that “…most private schools won’t accept disabled or struggling students…” and leaves the obvious conclusion to readers.

As befits an Opinion column, here’s your Humble Scribe’s opinion: the Douglas County School District edu-crats wouldn’t make “proficient” in their foray into capitalism, because they’ve mistaken a short-term profit for a longer-term loss. They’d have done better to provide a few of the intellectual goodies their better students are hungry and are leaving for, because, if their supposed goal is proficiency-for-all, the worst route to that end is the one of exporting the best scholars and leaving the SWWL-dominated remainder to sit in classrooms where they never get to observe and emulate their better-motivated peers at the chalkboard. As this column has attempted to illustrate in recent presentations, the literature increasingly recognizes that almost all students can master the material if they want to, and when some (Students Who Won’t Learn) don’t, it’s because they don’t want to. Advocates of socio-economic-status “integration” in the classroom make precisely this point: that better students, in the real world of peer pressure, are the key element in motivating their inadequately motivated seatmates. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Douglas County should be figuring out how to keep the intellectually ambitious at home, not selling them for the Biblical (Josephian) 20 pieces of silver. They should be recalling the best parts of the “magnet school” concept, aimed precisely at preventing middle-class flight, white and black, from urban districts, and not the ineptness-of-management reasons for its widespread failure.