Costco Education Alternatives and Walmart Education Alternatives

Gloria Romero against a pixellated background

Gloria Romero adds "distance education" to "charter schools" as ways to undermine teachers' unions

Former Democratic (believe it or not) State Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero continues her jihad against public education– derailed when she finished third in the race for State Superintendent of Schools in 2010 , a position eventually won by Tom Torlakson–  at Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff’s “Education Summit” tonight at Cal State Fullerton.

[Disclosure: I am running against Bob Huff for State Senate.  I am going to try to take care here to limit my comments to Romero and to the underlying issue.  I was not invited to take part in the “Summit” and will not be attending due to an event at my daughter’s public school.]

Romero trades on her admirable history of being the first female State Senate Majority Leader — and, as sometimes happens with successful Democrats, has parleyed that accomplishment into a position pushing largely Republican positions on issues, in her case public education.  (As Michelle Rhee, wife of former NBA star and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has shown, for people affiliated with the Democratic Party that’s where the money is.)  Romero’s view as State Director of her organization seems to be pretty well spelled out here on the California DFER’s blog page, in much of which she attacks teacher’s unions for being anti-technology, using comments from right-wing blogs for support.

To continue to be as fair as possible before I get to the point, here is the press release from Huff’s office about the “Summit”:

Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) will host an Education Summit this Thursday on the campus of California State University, Fullerton. The summit, which will feature a number of guest speakers, will focus on the subject of Online Education.

The Education Summit will be held at the Titan Theatre in the Student Union at CSU Fullerton, located at 800 N. State College Blvd. The summit will run from 6 p.m. to 7:30 PM. Members of the public are encouraged to attend.

“Numbers show that online education is growing in popularity and will better serve the needs and interests of all California students,” said Huff. “Online education is a tool that can be used to help greater numbers of students accomplish their educational goals, and this summit is one way of finding out what works and what doesn’t.”

A 2009 study produced by the Sloan Consortium, titled “Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States,” reached the following conclusions:

  1. In the fall of 2008, more than 4.6 million students took at least one online distance course, a 17% increase over the previous year.
  2. More than a quarter of all higher education students now take at least one online course accredited by a legitimate college or university.
  3. Colleges and universities report increased demand for courses.

The Education Summit features a number of guests that include Keynote Speaker Peter Stewart, Senior Vice President, School Development of K12, Inc., Keith Boyum, Executive Assistant to the President of CSU, Fullerton and Diane J. Donnelly-Toscano, ED.D., Innovative Programs Coordinator at Anaheim Union High School District. Other guests include former State Senator Gloria Romero, who serves as California State Director, Democrats for Education Reform and Elizabeth Moore from the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District.

“This summit is open to students, parents of students and all others interested in the future of online education in California,” said Senator Huff, Glendora’s representative in the 29th District.

To RSVP for the Education Reform Summit, please contact Senator Huff’s District Office at (909) 598-3981.

This seems to be a “Summit” in the sense that the famous nuclear weapons talks back in the day between the U.S. and the Soviets were “Summits” — if only one side had been invited.  (Before you decide which side is the U.S. and which the Soviets in this analogy, ask yourself whether the Soviets would have been interested in making sure that as many students as possible would receive the same exact lecture as part of their mandatory education.)

In other words, look for any critics of spending tax money on distance education in the “guest list” — so far as I can tell, you won’t find them.  As with standardized testing, there’s lots of space for people who want to sell their educational products to the public — and apparently no space for those who think that we can and should provide students with reasonable class sizes and teachers who monitor and work with their students directly.

Distance Education — like other money-makers such as Charter Schools and Standardized Testing — can be good or bad in both its motivation and its effect.  Here’s a simple way to distinguish:

What’s the motivation?

(a) Break teacher’s unions
(b) Give big contracts to campaign contributors
(c) Increase pedagogical efficiency and effectiveness
(d) A and B
(e) All of the above

Everyone’s going to answer “(c)”, but most advocates of these approaches won’t really mean it.  Achieveing “(c)” can be done, but it’s sort of “pie in the sky” — the sort of puffery and promise that is accepted in commerce.  You can tell when pedagogical efficiency and effectiveness are really the goal when you see independent research with appropriate experimental design — including proper measuring of both what is gained and what is lost through a given approach — conducted by people with nothing to gain from either side.  You can tell when there’s another goal or goals in mind — such as A and B — when there isn’t.

I’m more familiar with the research on charter schools and standardized testing than with that on distance education, but in those areas finding really appropriate research tends to be an afterthought.  After all, having invested lots of money in a new technology, the last thing that a corporation wants to discover is that it doesn’t work.  As with any faulty product or service that ends up failing to deliver and costing the public plenty (sometimes in both money and health), you’ll see a lot of shoddy research commissioned to make a particular point.

We have to be wise consumers of such research — and the media, including that portion that gets ads from these private corporations (but not from teachers’ unions), ought to do its job as a watchdog, even if it hurts their own advertising bottom line.  (Anyone want to put bets on that?  Probably only people who don’t know that the Kaplan Test Prep is owned by the Washington Post, which recently derived almost 60% of its profits from it.  Do you still expect to get fair reporting on educational policy from the Washington Post?)

The recurrent themes of these attacks on public education are in choices (a) and (b) — this is a way to break unions and this is a way to get money to businesses who recirculate them back into campaign dollars.  While (c) is a promise made to voters, (b) is a guarantee — and (a) is a political hope, to further skew our political system towards conservative ends.

What about their effect?  I’ll give specifics later, when the “Education ‘Summit'” is over, but here’s a broad outline of what makes such reforms good or bad.  I call it the “Costco vs. Walmart” model.

Unions, as you may know, are opposed to “big box” stores — the Walmart and Circuit City and Best Buy and Home Depot type that drive down wages, give inferior customer service, and drive smaller competitors out of business.

There’s an exception, though.  So far as I’ve seen, unions don’t have a problem with Costco, despite that it is not unionized.  (They’d be happy for it to be unionized, of course, but if you took 100 of their priorities it might be down in the low 90s.)  Why?  Because it’s not damaging to workers.  Costco is not out to break unions and it is known for good customer service and business practices.

Now compare that with Walmart.  Walmart is out to break (or prevent) unions and is known for its bad business practices, which create a “race to the bottom” in among competitors, with we — I hope that you’ll pardon the expression — in the 99% suffering the most damage as a result.

Costco pays its employees well and gives them good benefits.  They don’t need a union, as a result.  Does this hurt the unions’ bottom lines?  A little — maybe.  But as long as we have so many Walmarts in the world, it also shows workers that it actually is possible to pay people well, treat people well, and still turn a safety profit.

Charter schools can gain their competitive advantage — or, as we’ve often seen, supposed competitive advantage — over public schools in a variety of ways.

First, they can prevent their employees from unionizing, thus paying them less and providing them worse benefits and working conditions.  Not all of them do so! The best of them will pay teachers well and provide them a high degree of security.

Second, they can pick and choose their students and get rid of the troublemakers — something that public schools can do only with substantial difficulty.  In that sense, they’re not a model that public schools can emulate, by law, and they’re not a solution to our overall social problems, and more than one neighborhood kicking out its own homeless “solves” the homelessness problem.

Third, they can save money by not providing various services that public schools must.  Speech therapy, counseling, etc. — they don’t have to include it on their menu of services, and it’s not really a problem until you turn out to need it.

And I fully give them their due: Fourth, they can provide for innovative approaches that may not be accepted by public schools.  When they really do this — and some do and some don’t — I salute them.  I’m just not going to presume that they do, when their “success” may be due to the first three of these factors.  (Or, in some cases, in may come from cooking the books or not paying their vendors.

(I could go through a similar list with standardized testing, but I’ll spare you.)  The point is that charter schools can do a good job — a Costco-level job — when they are not engaged in practices that simply skim the cream of the students out of the school system and prepare to dump out any student who goes sour.  I’m happy to see competition between such schools and regular public schools — especially if the latter are given enough resources to compete, especially by reducing teacher load to comparable levels.

I feel the same way about distance education.  It’s possible to do it really well — and its also possible for it to be a charade, where students are that much further removed from an adult who cares about their progress and who are just allowed to skate by relatively unmonitored.  (The fact that Michelle Rhee’s focus on massive training to take standardized tests and teacher punishment for student failure led to a corruption and cheating scandal in her own district should give pause to everyone who cares about actual results rather than fakery.)

Now, guess which sort of distance education is cheaper: a Walmart approach or a Costco approach?  Yeah, the former.  If consumers of education (meaning both parents and school districts) aren’t in a really good position to judge a product on its merits, though, the cheaper approaches will succeed over the better ones — and we’ll end up with mostly cheaper ones, especially the ones who spend more money on marketing and advertising.  (Oh, yeah — we’ll also see more from the ones who make better contributions to legislators and school board members.)

What are the good ways (ones that don’t undermine the public education system) and the bad ways (ones where the result for students and society is not the main point) to do distance education?  I’ll have something up on that soon — after the summit.  (I want to see what they say.  Then maybe I’ll just have my own summit at Fullerton — and maybe make it, you know, a summit sort of “Summit.”)  But if you go and hear Romero and others tonight, be sure to ask the right questions and to read the fine print on the research they cite.

Here’s a few questions that I hope someone will ask, while I’m off being a parent tonight at my daughter’s public school.  They’re pretty simple:

(1) What will the role of public school teachers be in classrooms with distance education?

(2) What budgetary changes (in contracting and staffing) would accompany distance education?

(3) What research (and with what students) will have been done prior to implementing distance education and to monitor its continuing effects?

Those of you who attend the “Summit” tonight are about to undergo a sales job.  Make sure that the speakers answer those questions.  When they’re giving you marketing materials, on the other hand, hold on to your wallet — because that’s much of what they’re after.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)