How Andrew Brenner Got it Wrong, part 2

In the last blog, I wrote a response to Ohio State Representative Andrew Brenner’s article calling for school reform and equating public education in the United States with socialism. Either his wife, the intern who runs his wife’s twitter account, or Brenner (it’s still a little unclear to me) accused me of misunderstanding the article. That same person also accused me of bad journalism because I responded to the article (because evidently the standard of blogging is that you’re supposed to let the other person know that you disagree with their clear, unambiguous statements before you disagree with them on a blog post).

Before I could ask for clarification of whatever it was that I misunderstood, Brenner wrote a clarifying article. I want to applaud him for backing off of some of the more inflammatory rhetoric that he employed in his previous article (probably to stimulate the conversation) and employ a more reasoned argument for his policy. I anticipate this new article won’t get as much airtime, but it’s the one that deserves the interaction on the mainstream news cycle.

I still respectfully disagree with Brenner for a couple of reasons; I will deal with the first in this post.

Brenner states, “In one of the school districts I represent, my local school district of Olentangy, we spend approximately $9,400 per student.” He also points out, “While the cost per student in our urban schools is roughly twice the per student spending in the schools I represent, they are failing and failing miserably. I don’t think a school district like Youngstown, which spends roughly $20,000 per student and received 2 Ds and 3 Fs on its state report card, should continue to operate in the manner they are now.” Similarly, Brenner notes, “We are spending approximately one-third the cost in most of our rural schools as opposed to our urban, and they too have poverty and drugs. Yet, these rural schools are out performing our urban and many of our suburban schools.”

If I take these three statements at face value and as the truth, then I have to ask: since rural schools are out-performing urban and suburban schools, then how can we duplicate what the rural schools are doing?

Caveat: I don’t live in Ohio, so I can’t speak to the specific practices of Ohio schools. I strongly suspect, though, that Ohio rural schools succeed and out-perform due to community engagement, not because of school choice. Rural schools can do more with less because the schools happen in communities that have a strong history and habit of pulling together to deal with the ills of the community. In his previous article, Brenner pointed out that early “one-room schoolhouses” often took place in houses of worship—Christian churches.

This wasn’t a coincidence. Basic education (reading, writing) occurred in the home, by the parents. After that children went to some kind of school for either vocational training or liberal arts education (generally understood to prepare for citizenship). Christian churches that were the institution most concerned with the public good in this case and so they opened their facilities and resources to allow for the education of the middle and lower classes. If you were wealthy, you hired a tutor or sent your children to (very exclusive) private schools.

It was the efforts and concerns of the community, and one of the institutions in that community that drove the creation of the public school as we know it.

I don’t think the free market is a “magic bullet” to the problem of school reform. It’s not that I disagree with school choice. It’s that I disagree with school choice as the chief means for school reform. I do not think that education is a product. The product (the outcome) is the educated student. Education is what you do to create the product. It is a system of experiences designed to shape the values, drives, and interests of the individual. Using a product-based model will not provide the solution.

Thank you, Rep. Brenner, for taking on the monumental task of education reform in the United States of America. Thank you for attempting a multidisciplinary approach to reform. My hope is that you will broaden your perspective beyond the ideas of Friedman and economics to bring real, positive, change to education.

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