Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Years back in a series of investigative articles the Philadelphia Inquirer tallied up the disastrous results of Reagan’s move to deregulate America. They reported that: “Since deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, more than 100 once-thriving companies have gone out of business. More than 150,000 workers have lost their jobs. Since deregulation of the airlines in 1978, a dozen airline companies have merged or gone out of business. More than 50,000 of their employees have lost their jobs. After deregulation of the savings and loan industry in 1982, about 650 S&L’s folded, with at least 400 more in serious trouble. The bailout left taxpayers stuck with a half trillion dollar tab.”

Conservatives who loosened the government rules that regulated airlines, trucking and savings and loans have long wanted to rewrite the rules concerning teaching and schools. These “reformers” claim that by drastically reducing government regulation and opening the doors to competition we will encourage school improvement and eliminate incompetent teachers. Moreover, deregulating teaching will open up a whole new source of talent.

Opening public schools to competition will drive out the bad schools, encourage innovation and make educators responsive to the need for change. David Kearns, former chairman of Xerox and formerly highly placed Bush appointee to the U. S. Department of Education, put it this way, “Public schools acting as monopolies are failing. Providing choice means allowing schools to compete with one another for the most valuable of assets: students.” (Kearns does not consider that some kids might be regarded as liabilities.)

As pedagogy is purified by the fires of capitalism, goes this vision, inadequate schools will perish. That is in the plan. When he was Governor of Minnesota, Rudy Perpich described this social Darwinism with suitable detachment when he observed: “…[Failed schools] will file for ‘bankruptcy’ like any other business.”

We are assured that the only schools forced into bankruptcy will be those that fail to become more effective. But “effective” at what? The meaning of that slogan is left to our imagination. Hopefully, that will not be “effective” at seducing the broad masses or confirming their prejudices. One can imagine schools that cater to ignoramuses being well populated.

It is not difficult to determine why reformers long for public schooling to be cleansed by the chloral of capitalism. Too many school districts, particularly large urban ones, echo the worst aspects of the defunct Soviet Union. Their schools bear a remarkable resemblance to Soviet style apartment houses. They are over-crowded, their heating systems malfunction, their roofs leak, their bathrooms stink, their plaster crumbles, the windows will not work and cock roaches saunter arrogantly across dimly lit halls. Even the food is inedible; and you have to stand in line to get it.

There even is a similarity of the worst school districts and the former Soviet Union with respect to scarcity. Teachers hoard instructional materials because there are chronic shortages. Elementary teachers do without crayons. Social studies teachers get by with 15 year old textbooks. Duplicating machines remain broken for years. Even the tape, bought from the lowest bidder, refuses to stick. And the worst school districts also have their own equivalent of the legendary Soviet bureaucracy. District headquarters features hordes of inscrutable and long-lived apparatchiks discharge barrages of flatulent directives that bear a remarkable resemblance to Stalin’s infamously phony Five Year Plans.

Yes, our worst school systems bear a truly uncanny resemblance to the now defunct U.S.S.R.. Indeed, there is only one area where the comparison breaks down. In the good old days the K.G.B. victimized millions of innocents; but they also kept a lid on hooliganism. The worst school districts also victimize the virtuous; but hooligans nearly have free reign. 

We’re told that a good deal of this is caused by way too much regulation. Some of it is. But let’s not kid ourselves.  Even Donald Trump should be a able to recognize that most school problems will not be alleviated by deregulation or competition. First, because there aren’t enough resources to do the job these schools are charged with. And second, many so-called “school problems” are actually festering social problems that originate well outside schools.

Research sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that 1 out of every 5 U.S. children live in poverty. And for African American children that increases to more than 1 out of every 3. Moreover, 1 in 30 children actually are  homeless. Many go to bed hungry. Twenty percent are food insecure at some time during the year. Eleven percent are born to mothers 15 to 17 years of age. Thirteen percent  live in communities that are unsafe. Seven percent live with a parent or guardian who served time in jail or prison after the child was born. And this is just the beginning of a long list of horrors. Even the best managed school system could not resolve the pedagogical difficulties fostered by these and similar circumstances. With socio-economic realities such as these operating, any kind of schooling will fail.

Deregulation will inevitably bring some benefits. As the old saying goes, “It is an ill wind that blows no one some good” But we all know, “There are no free lunches.” All benefits have their costs. The crucial question is, “Who will pay them?” The consequences of recent deregulations suggests that a whole lot of people will. But they also suggest that educators will pay most dearly. If the past is prologue, tens or even hundreds of thousands of the nation’s nearly 3 million teachers will likely lose their jobs. Many others will be force to absorb hefty pay cuts or make other concessions to insure that their schools remain “competitive.” Pension systems will also be bankrupted or thrown into disarray. Many older teachers will find their health benefits disappearing just when they need them the most. And, because of so-called alternative certification, the teaching ranks will be filled with an ever increasing number of people who are too dumb and/or lax to pee a hole in the snow. Similar things happened with deregulation in other industries, so why should schooling be exempt from similar costs?

Will these costs be justified by better, less costly, schools? Probably not. Deregulation of the trucking, S&L and airline industry certainly has not improved service or lowered consumer’s costs. In fact, in many cases the opposite has occurred. So after school “deregulation” parents can expect to pay more for less. And schooling’s total commodification will further encourage the perception that schooling is an individual rather than a public good. As a consequence, public moral and financial support will diminish still further.

Most agree that a shake-up of complacent, self-satisfied and inefficient school bureaucracies is long overdue. But before we rush to deregulate we should remember that the Progressive Era of American business regulation came about to protect workers, consumers and capitalism itself. Before the regulations were enacted all three were at the mercy of predatory robber barons. Why should we expect anything better if schooling is deregulated?