Mother Jones met with Osborne near his home in Essex, Massachusetts, and spoke with him about the state of education in America, the movement to reform it, and the educational experiments he endorses.
MJ: You've spoken highly of school-choice programs in East Harlem and Minnesota. Is school choice the key to educational reform?
Osborne: Choice is the key that unlocks the door and lets you in, but choice alone is not enough. Some choice systems, like Cambridge, Massachusetts, aren't competitive. Parents rank the schools, and some of them get their first choice, some get their second choice, some get their third. But when a school is not chosen by many parents, it's still filled. They don't close it down, they don't send teachers into other schools, they don't hire another principal and let him assemble a team to improve the school.
In East Harlem, they have more competition. It's not an extraordinary amount; they've only closed three schools in ten years. Still, there's always the chance that your school could be closed if you don't excel.
The fundamental reason schools don't change rapidly is that they have the next best thing to a monopoly. The only way, in a traditional public-school system, that you can have your children go elsewhere than where they're assigned is by paying a lot of money. Even when you take your kids out, the school district still gets your tax money, so it doesn't hurt them a bit. In fact, it's better from their perspective; they have fewer students to educate with the same dollars.
MJ: What do you think of vouchers, which give kids government money to attend any school, public or private?
Osborne: Public choice is far superior to vouchers. The problem under most voucher proposals is that parents could add money to the voucher. They could buy the most expensive education they wanted.
Let's say a voucher was worth five thousand dollars a child. Some affluent people would add ten thousand dollars and send their kids to the fanciest private school. Some upper-middle-class people would add five thousand dollars and send their kids to the ten-thousand-dollar school. The working class and the poor would go to five-thousand- dollar schools. You'd lose the mixing by social class.
Education has basically two major missions. One is to educate the kids. The second is to socialize them. Kids get to know kids who aren't like them, kids from the other side of the tracks, kids with different skin color, kids whose parents went to college or didn't go to college, kids who talk differently than they do. You'd lose that under a pure voucher system.
MJ: Don't we already have class segregation? Just look at suburban schools compared to inner-city or rural schools.
Osborne: Sure. That's one of the things that's wrong with this society: we're really pulling apart. The nice thing about choice is that it allows us to root back in a different direction. We segregate our schools by geography now: you live in this district, so you go to this district. If you have a choice system, you can go anywhere, and you can have racial guidelines which increase integration. That's how it's done in Massachusetts.
MJ: People worry that school choice is going to suck money away from the schools that need that money most, the schools where kids do poorly. What happens to the kids who are left behind in these lousy schools, which are bound to become even lousier?
Osborne: That's the main argument used by progressive and liberal opponents of choice. It's dead wrong. They haven't thought it through. What we have now is the poor kids left behind in the inner-city schools. Everybody else either chooses their schools by deciding where to live, or by sending their kids to a private school.
What would happen under school choice? Kids would leave those awful inner-city schools. That's good for those kids. Under a real competitive system of choice, what would a school board do if a school lost 40 percent of its students and 40 percent of its money? They'd give the principal a year to turn the damn place around or get out the door. There would finally be a reason why somebody had to care about these schools. It would work for the kids left behind even more than for the kids who move.
MJ: Critics of school choice often say that many parents would choose a school based on "convenience"--it's close to work or a day-care center, or it has a great athletic program. If that's how parents would make their decision, would that do much to improve schools academically, or would it only reward schools that have a nice piece of real estate?
Osborne: We need to give parents more credit. Let me give you an example: In East Harlem, they decided the thing that turned the boys on was sports. So they set up a school that had a rigorous academic core and then a focus on sports. But they couldn't fill it, because parents had this fear their kids would spend all day playing basketball, and they wanted them to get a real education. People just aren't as dumb as the media likes to present them, especially when it comes to their kids.
The second thing is that most parents who care about the academic quality of their kids' schools make their decisions even before they reach the level of public-school choice. That is, they move. They live someplace that has good schools, or they choose private schools.
The third thing is that when you get down to the level of choosing a public school, there's not an awful lot of information available to parents about what's a good public school and what's not, academically. The next step that they have to take in Minnesota, and they're working on it, is the publication of a kind of Consumer Reports for the public schools. We need to make that information available, or a choice system isn't going to work very well.
In the end, though, there will be a certain percentage of parents who aren't going to make decisions based on academic criteria. But the fact that information is available so that they could choose a school based on academic performance, even if only a small percentage actually do, is enough to force the schools to keep on their toes.
MJ: Is the private sector better equipped to keep on its toes? Should more systems follow the examples of Baltimore and Dade County, Florida, by contracting private organizations to run some public schools?
Osborne: It's a great idea. You want innovation in the system, and innovation normally comes from new organizations much faster than old ones. A business could run a charter school; a church could run a charter school, as long as it was nonsectarian; a nonprofit organization could run it; a school district could run it; a group of teachers could run it; a group of parents could run it. Theoretically, anybody with a plan and a staff could get a charter and run a school.
MJ: Free private schools.
Osborne: Exactly, except let's call them public. They'd be public, paid for by public dollars, but they would not be controlled by the bureaucratic system. They would be accountable to the parents of the kids who went there, who could fund them or defund them by either sending their kids there or yanking their kids out. It's a different form of accountability.
We're so hung up on who owns the damn thing, on whether it's a public company or a private company. That's a lot less important than whether or not an institution has the right incentives, whether it's a monopoly or it's competitive, whether it has to please its customers or it can just ignore them. It doesn't really make that much difference to me that the U.S. Postal Service is public and that New England Telephone is a private monopoly. They're both pretty unresponsive to my needs--unlike Sprint, which is incredibly responsive to my needs, because they know I'll go to MCI or AT&T if they're not.
MJ: Will it necessarily take more money to make schools more effective?
Osborne: When it comes to how much money government should spend, I'm a liberal. When it comes to how we spend it, I'm pretty frustrated with the traditional liberal approach. I'm certainly for spending more money on education, but we shouldn't pour more money into the same system. If we reinvent it, though, I'm perfectly willing to invest more money.
MJ: A lot of kids graduate from high school without many marketable skills. How much do we need to change what we're teaching under the traditional method?
Osborne: There are states like Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Oregon that have rigorous apprenticeship programs for juniors and seniors in high school. They learn half in the classroom and half on the job, including skills that are technologically sophisticated but don't require a liberal arts degree.
Apprenticeships are just one example of how we need to rethink what we teach. New York commissioned a survey of employers and employees within the state to find out what skills they needed in their workforce. The survey asked if employees needed algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. The vast majority of those surveyed said no. They said that employees need logic, probability, statistics, and measurement.
Now, maybe those subjects are beginning to be taught, but in 99 percent of schools, it's still algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. There's not a hell of a lot of computer programming being taught in the high schools, and that's a skill that's clearly useful in this economy. This economy needs people who are able to think on their feet, work in teams, be very flexible. But we're still teaching people mostly to memorize and spit it back. We won't get an enormous amount of change in how we teach until we make these schools compete with each other so that they have an incentive to change.
If you want to see what I mean, visit the District 4 school system in East Harlem and then visit a New York district that doesn't have choice. Ask yourself, where are the poor kids doing best, and why are they doing best? When you look at the test scores in East Harlem, you realize there's been dramatic improvement. It has brought what was the worst district in New York fifteen years ago up to the median level. When you walk through the schools, you're still looking at students who are performing at the median. But everyone admits it's a hell of a lot better than it used to be.
MJ: Many education reforms could threaten the job security of teachers. Should we expect to see free-agent teachers starting to turn up?
Osborne: Part of the idea of the charter schools is that a good teacher who is incredibly frustrated--and there are a lot of teachers who fit that description--would get five other good teachers together and start a charter school. They would be free agents contracting with the school district. They wouldn't be salaried employees anymore. We should open the door for that kind of relationship, which is a much more professional relationship.
One of the things teachers say is that they want to be treated as professionals. Well, most professionals are not tenured employees. So let's pay them better but also let them be more at risk in the marketplace.
MJ: Is it tougher to reform education than other government functions?
Osborne: It's probably easier, because the public cares about education so intensely. The public sends its most precious possession, its children, to the public schools. There's nothing that the government does that people care about more than education.
That's the reason education has gone so much further along the path of reinvention than the rest of the public sector. Education is clearly five or ten years out in front of most of the public sector in terms of how much it's changed. If you look at everything that's going on around the country and put it all together, you realize that our public-education system in ten years is going to look radically different than it looked ten years ago.
Josh Clark, a Boston-based freelance writer who contributes frequently to Mother Jones, interviewed David Osborne for this article.