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Educating the Monopolists
[February 21, 2003]

By S. M. Oliva

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg first named Joel Klein to head the city’s public school system, the irony was immediately apparent: an antitrust lawyer heading one of the nation’s most infamous (and ineffectual) monopolies. Last month, however, Klein’s tenure as schools chancellor took an ominous turn when he announced a highly centralized, educationally unproven plan to “reform” the schools under his control. If implemented, the Klein reforms will make the city schools completely unaccountable to parents and students unlikely to learn any better than they are—or aren’t—today.

In the late 1960s, the city schools decentralized its operations, handing power to 40 regional school boards. Admittedly this approach failed to accomplish much more than creating 40 separate patronage mills, each of whom trip over one another to bow before the school system’s true master, the teachers union. Klein’s solution is to replace the 40 elected boards with ten administrators appointed by, and accountable to, his office. Furthermore, every school in the city will adopt a standard curriculum, essentially dictating what every single school will teach at a given time.

Now, there are New York schools that are succeeding despite the structural defects in the system. Klein pays lip service to this by saying he’ll “exempt” 200 schools from the uniform curriculum. Now this won’t be a merit-based process: As New York Magazine noted, “Klein won’t pick the schools ranked highest in test scores, because such a group would be so white as to be politically untenable. Instead, he’s grading on a curve that factors in socioeconomic criteria.” In other words, Klein will use the exemptions as a form of political patronage, something that helped cause the city schools’ problems in the first place.

You would think that Klein, formerly the Clinton administration’s chief antitrust prosecutor, would eschew centralized, one-size-fits-all solutions like this. After all, antitrust supporters constantly proclaim their belief in “competition” and the notion that uniform standards are something to be condemned as “anti-consumer.” When Klein prosecuted the government’s case against Microsoft, he argued that the success of Windows as a common platform was evidence that the company illegally subverted competition. There, he called for a government breakup of the company. Yet in his current role, Klein has not called for a breakup of the failed school system; instead he’s claiming that a single curriculum—a “common platform,” if you will—is the solution.

Obviously the situations are not identical. Public schools are not a business. But that’s precisely the problem. The New York Schools, unlike Microsoft, are a genuine monopoly that maintains its operations through coercion and force, not by offering a quality product that consumers want. Bloomberg and Klein are basically saying they—not parents or teachers—are in the best position to tell everyone how the schools should function. And since the city’s oppressive tax structure makes it financially impossible for many families to pull their kids out of public schools, the children are left at the mercy of Bloomberg and Klein’s whims.

It should also be noted that Klein’s uniform curriculum includes few details at this time. The few details that are known are hardly encouraging. In response to Klein’s proposed uniform system for teaching kids to read—Month by Month Phonics (MM)—a group of education professors and researchers offered the following analysis:

No systematic way to teach alphabet letters in kindergarten is offered. The alphabetic system is not taught explicitly or thoroughly in first grade. Rhyme awareness is emphasized rather than phonemic awareness yet research has shown that teaching children to segment and blend the smallest sounds in words(phonemic awareness) is more crucial in learning to read and spell. The awareness activities that are offered in MM focus on rhyming, a low-level skill more appropriate for preschoolers. The vowel spelling system is not taught. No schedule for covering all the letters and major letter-sound relations is included.

The Month by Month program is essentially a revival of the “whole language” approach, which emphasizes context without concretes. As New York University professor Diane Ravitch notes, this approach can work in a “rich literacy environment,” where kids are surrounded by books, but for the majority of households, especially low income ones, the whole phonics approach never succeeds. Ravitch and many others argue that Klein’s program will end up harming minority children significantly.

So why is Klein pushing so hard for his uniform curriculum? Because as an antitrust lawyer, it’s the only way he knows how to proceed. As head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Klein became accustomed to a certain level of omniscient deference. The entire premise of antitrust is that for any given industry—regardless of facts or context—government lawyers know the best way to run things. In health care, for example, the antitrust division has long maintained that doctors who wish to collectively bargain with insurance companies can only do so in one specific manner, and that the only people who can decide that manner is the antitrust division itself. There is no room in antitrust for private innovation or voluntary arrangements; everything is a question to be decided by government mandate.

Thus, it is the antitrust lawyers who are the true monopolists. Men like Klein seek nothing but power. They’ve never had to earn their keep in the free market, and they only justify their existence by convincing people that he knows how to run their lives. In the context of education, this is a very dangerous philosophy. At a time when the illegitimate foundation of public schooling is starting to crumble, Klein’s “reforms” are a last gasp effort to restore the illusion of credibility.

In the antitrust lawyer’s world, one need not prove one’s assertions objectively. It’s irrelevant to Klein that his phonics system is scientifically unproven. All that matters is that he supports it, and since he’s the government, what he says is right regardless of actual truth. This is why Klein is simultaneously eliminating all vestiges of public accountability and oversight from the school system. At the Justice Department, he was used to ruling without so much as an unkind word from his alleged superiors. Indeed, as those of us who follow the Antitrust Division know, antitrust lawyers recognize no limits on their powers or moral authority: not the constitution, not other government officials, and certainly not the citizens they allegedly serve.

For all his abilities, Klein has yet to realize the answer to the city schools’ problems is relatively simple—deregulation and decentralization. Ultimately, it is the monopoly itself which constitutes the problem. No true monopoly ever operates well or efficiently. As an antitrust lawyer, Klein should know that, but he’s confused by the nature of this particular monopoly—in his world, only private monopolies (which don’t exist) are bad, while government monopolies (a redundant term) are good. But right now, Klein’s monopoly is suffocating the intellectual life out of New York City’s schoolchildren, and every day he fails to realize this is another day where we risk losing these children entirely.

If Klein had even an ounce of intelligence, he would embrace the free market in education. After all, if capitalism is good enough to provide Americans with food, clothing, and housing, it’s also good enough to provide quality education.


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