Jonathan Chait Should Stop Writing About Education Reform

Jonathan ChaitWhenever Jonathan Chait writes about the education reform movement, he should be required to put a statement at the start of it. It should be something like this: “My wife works in the education reform movement.[1] As a result of this, I have absolutely no objectivity. Unlike most of what I write about, I have no sense whatsoever for nuance. I just hate the teachers unions and what little I will say about them will represent the most extreme factions. So it is really for the best if you don’t even read what follows because I have nothing interesting to add to any discussion on the issue of education reform.” But instead, he pretends as though he were objective and interesting. Meanwhile, his readers get intellectual whiplash from one article to the next as he moves from liberal to conservative and back again.

His article today was a particularly egregious example of this, Obamans, Selling Out, and the Proxy Fight for the Democratic Party’s Future. His complaint in the article is that supporters of teachers unions attack Obama surrogates[2] rather than Obama and this is wrong because… Really, I don’t know why. He says that they don’t attack Obama himself because the President is popular inside the unions. So the union leadership is trying to protect its members in the best way that it can. And this is wrong because… Again, I don’t know.

The whole purpose of the article seems to be to allow him to write, “The splits within the Democratic Party over whether public services should be designed for the benefit of providers or consumers tend to come out at the municipal level.” Ouch! In case you missed it, Chait is saying that teachers unions are a constituency just like the the school kids. And who you gonna support, huh?! Those greedy teachers or those poor kids? Except, there’s another constituency that Chait doesn’t mention: the people employed in the education reform movement. He must know about it, because his wife works in it. It’s a constituency too.

But in the Jonathan Chait world of black and white education reform, people working for “reform” are only looking out for the kids—unlike those dirty teachers unions that would reduce the school day to 25 minutes if they could. It’s just ridiculous. My problem with the education reform movement is that it seems focused on one thing: teachers unions. It doesn’t spend its time trying to combat the very worst thing about our educational system: inequality based upon the widespread use of local property taxes to fund public education.

When it comes to the people who are always ranting about the budget deficit, Chait has no problem seeing that they aren’t interested in what they claim to be. He sees clearly that these people have ulterior motivations like cutting aid to the poor. But when it comes to education reform, Chait couldn’t be more naive. It seems to not even occur to him that some, maybe even most (Look at who funds the movement!), are not quite so pure. And that’s why his writing about education reform is useless.


[1] According to her Twitter account she is, “Director of Performance Management and Human Resources, Center City Public Charter Schools.”

[2] One of those surrogates is Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which hardly seems to apply. Would he make the same claim if liberals complained about Obama’s Defense Secretary (which we did)?

Update (22 August 2014 10:06 pm)

I want to make clear that this is not about the education reform movement not adopting my favorite issue. I’ve been attacked on this before. People will say that there is no political will to deal with the issue that I am most concerned about and ask if we shouldn’t at least do whatever it is that we can. There are a couple of issues here. One is that education funding inequality is not just any other issue. It is like taxes in the budget deficit debate. If someone isn’t willing to deal with this issue, it shows that they aren’t serious. At best it shows they only want to nibble around the edges of the problem. Another issue is: why is it politically viable to go after teachers unions and to push testing, testing, and more testing? I think a lot of it is that the people who are willing to give millions of dollars for education reform are mostly interested in something else. I’m all for things that work. But at one time, charter schools were what would save us. In fact, to many people, they still are. But it’s turned out that other than moving a lot of teachers out of unions, the charter schools haven’t done that much good. On average, they are about as good as public schools. I think I have plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the motivations of the education reform movement. And so does Jonathan Chait.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

10 thoughts on “Jonathan Chait Should Stop Writing About Education Reform

  1. Property taxes are a big problem. Also, my teacher friends tell me, home involvement. No system of teaching and no teacher is going to work equally well for every kid. Parents need to help kids with learning; unless the kid’s a savant, they will struggle with something. Parents who have horrible demoralizing jobs, or no jobs, often don’t have the energy to devote to being involved with their children’s education. Kids who live in stressful environments often have less energy to focus on schoolwork. Of course there are super-students and super-parents, but most of us would be boned if we had to rely on super-ness to survive. Property-tax financing and the stresses of financial hardship are equality issues, so we can’t do anything to fix those.

    My understanding of charter schools is that the best ones are run by teachers who didn’t fit in their public-school system. And the worst are the for-profit ventures favored by “reform” advocates. The best balance out the worst, so you get an inaccurate measure of what “reform” would really do.

    If any of these “reformers” were serious they would require charter schools to all be non-profit, and to be staffed by union teachers. That could and sometimes does result in productive innovation. I also wouldn’t mind subsidies for parents who want to send their kids to private schools, even religious ones. ONLY if those subsidies were income-based; no vouchers for the rich. From my experience, rich kids should go to school with poorer ones to see out of their bubble world.

    There are lots of good ideas around for helping educate our at-risk kids, and teachers’ unions aren’t opposed to them. Wake me up when any of these highly-financed “reformers” gets real. Incidentally.

    • That is basically my understand of charter schools too. There seem to be some excellent ones and some really poor ones. (Just like public schools!) But somehow, among the reformers, the bad charter schools are not the problem. Or at least, they aren’t the huge problem that teachers getting due process when management wants to fire them is.

      The whole thing makes me angry coming from Chait. He’s too smart to not see what’s going on. I know there are a lot of very sincere people in the education reform movement. In fact, I would say it is overflowing with sincere people. But the balanced budget movement is overflowing with sincere people too. In both cases, the elites set the boundaries of the debate. And everyone else follows along. And let’s face it: there’s more grant money out there to analyse test scores and grade teacher performance. Do Billie and Mindy really want their money spent trying to change the California property tax system? Hell no! Because they don’t give a goddam about the kids.

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  4. Could you sign this petition: change.org/petitions/board-of-education-and-all-educational-facilities-and-municipalities-reform-education-so-that-it-s-fair-for-all-and-not-for-the-elite-few-or-the-dull-many-no-child-left-behind

    • Nice words but far too vague for me to sign onto. Yes, equality of education is something I very much agree with. Unfortunately, it is something everyone would agree with. I can’t tell what you are calling for and I fear it is more fake Education Reform. What I want to see is an end to local property tax funding of schools that gives rich kids better schools than poor kids. But your petition could be pushing for exactly the opposite. It could be pushing for vouchers. Let me know what you are a really for and I may sign up.

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