The Fordham Institute Credo: Disrupt Public Education by Removing Disruptive Students from Charter School

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been a stalwart advocate for free market systemic education reform since the 1990s.  Under the leadership of Chester Finn, the institute has built a strong coalition of organizations, think tanks, and allies from the private and public sector.  Michael Petrilli assumed leadership of the institute when Finn stepped aside as president of the organization earlier this year.  His work is supported by a host of partner organizations like ALEC, AEI and the Hoover Institute and a board of trustees that include luminaries such as former secretary of the Department of Education, Rod Paige.

I wasn’t surprised, therefore, that Petrilli wrote the following:

“Because these are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.

This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.

It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.”

I am very glad Petrilli made these ideas public on the pages of the New York Times.  While free market “choice” proponents have longed proclaimed that the key to their supposed success is the purported superiority of their educational approach, free market “choice” critics (see Emma Brown for detailed analysis of charter school practices in Washington D.C.) have likewise pointed out that any purported success of charter schools has more to do with the fact that they can “choose” their students and remove low-achievers and students they deem to be disruptive.  Traditional public schools cannot simply remove disruptive students.  They are required to “serve all comers” as Petrilli points out and are not able (or willing) to simply abandon children who bring to the education experience a range of problems.  That charter schools are able to remove disruptive students is “a feature, not a bug” of the choice system.

This is certainly not a new proposition.  It has been at the core of the free market choice movement.  Consider, for example, a video of Chester Finn in 1996 at Georgia Public Policy Foundation.  I post this video as a reminder to those engaged in resistance to corporate education reform that the issues we are grappling with are not new and did not begin with the Bush/Paige administration or the Obama/Duncan administration.  In this brief video, Finn provides a great deal of insight into the agenda of the free market driven “choice”/charter school movement that would later become the RTTT policies that the public, whether on the political right or left, is currently living with — and resisting:

  1. On the issue that Petrilli addressed in his New York Times commentary, Finn explains in 1996 that the power of the charter school rests with the strength of their discipline policies, which are made clear to students and parents prior to enrollment.
  2. Finn positions local school board governance as a problem, praising cities like Chicago and Boston that had, by 1996, already turned governance over their schools to their mayors who had the ability to appoint members of the private sector to oversee public schools.
  3. In response to concerns about standardized testing and the practice of “teaching to the test,” Finn explains that there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test.  All you need is a good test to teach to.
  4. Finally, and probably most importantly, in 1996 Finn explains that the free market of public education policy provides an excellent opportunity for the private sector to possibly “make a dime.”

While there is justifiable outrage over Petrilli’s missive about disruptive students and the power of charter schools to remove them from their rosters, this is certainly not a new idea.  He is simply reiterating the Fordham Institute’s credo of privatization through free market principles in the education arena.  One thing is certain about the corporate reform movement.  They have remained true to their message and they have the power and money to continue their quest.  Fordham Institute is well situated to remain at the table of policy discussions, with board members who have entered and exited the federal policy arena through the Department of Education.  The policies they have long promoted are now the law of the land and, in fact, much more than a dime has been made by entrepreneurs seeking to expand their wealth through the privatization of the education sector.

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