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

edited 2/10/17 

President Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, tell us they are determined to deregulate schooling. That might be a good idea. But let’s not forget what happened the last time we deregulated things. In a series of investigative articles the Philadelphia Inquirer tallied up the disastrous results of past such initiatives. They reported that after deregulation of the airlines in 1978, a dozen airline companies merged or went out of business, and more than 50,000 of their employees lost their jobs. After deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, more than 100 once-thriving companies went out of business and more than 150,000 workers lost their jobs.  After deregulation of the savings and loan industry in 1982, about 650 S&L’s folded and many more got into serious trouble. Their bailout under Federal Deposit Insurance stuck taxpayers with a half trillion dollar tab.”

The same philosophy that loosened government regulation of airlines, trucking and savings and loans will likely inspire a rewrite of the rules concerning teaching and schooling. “Reformers” claim that removing government regulations and opening the doors to competition will encourage school improvement. It will, they say, drive out the bad schools, encourage innovation and make educators responsive to the need for change. They charge that public schooling is a monopoly; and that is why sso many are allegedly failing. Forcing schools to compete with one another will change that for the better.

As education is purified by deregulation and the fires of capitalism some schools will necessarily perish. But the only schools forced into bankruptcy, wise are reassured, will be those that fail to become more effective. O.K., but here is the crucial question: “effective” at what? That is left to our imagination. Hopefully, they will not prove more “effective” at lying and misrepresentation in the same manner as for-profit colleges have been doing.

Can inner city public schooling be cleansed by competition? After all, without it many of them echo the worst aspects of the former Soviet Union. Take scarcity, for instance. In many big city districts teachers have to buy their won instructional materials because of chronic shortages. Ancient heating plants fail, roofs leak, paint peels, teachers get by with 15 year old textbooks, copy machines remain broken for months. Even the tape, bought from the lowest bidder, refuses to stick. 

The worst big city school districts also feature their own equivalent of the legendary Soviet bureaucracy. In district headquarters hordes of inscrutable and long-lived apparatchiks discharge barrages of flatulent directives that bear a remarkable resemblance to Stalin’s unachievable Five Year Plans.

But let’s not kid ourselves; even Betsy De Vos should recognize that most inner city school problems really reflect the unfair way we pay for schools as well as underlying social and economic problems. Consider underfunding. Setting up competition for resources among city schools is ridiculous. Why? Because resources are chronically insufficient. Then there is the fact that many so-called “school problems” are actually caused by the disastrous things going on outside of school. For example, 21% of US children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. In fact, U.S. child poverty is among the worst in the developed world. And this is only the beginning of the long, long list of non-school factors that erode school effectiveness. Consider that in Washington D.C. there were 7.9 deaths under the age of one per 1,000 live births in 2012. In contrast, Oslo, Sweden experiences less that 2. Plus the top 20 percent of the nation owns or controls three-quarters of all the wealth. How would competition among schools resolve the pedagogical difficulties that are fostered by these kinds of circumstances? 

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.” In other words, all benefits have their costs. And 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. All of this happened with deregulation in other industries, so why should educators 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 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 further diminish and parental costs will continue to rise.

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?