Friday, June 08, 2012

The Forces that Slow the Pendulum

Ramsin Canon:

What adds to this is that the privatization process sets off an endowment effect among parents. In order to eliminate unionized teachers, privatization groups work with politicians to institute "turnaround" programs that suddenly shut down neighborhood schools. People generally react more strongly to losing something they have than they do to failing to achieve something they want. The turnaround process has been traumatic for thousands of Chicago families, and it's a cumulative phenomenon; in the early days of turnarounds, the impact was scattered. Over the years, and particularly with Mayor Emanuel's outspoken desire to pump up the number of charter schools, the sheer numbers of those impacted has grown and grown, networks of aggrieved and distrustful parents have emerged, and common cause with teachers who want to preserve public, neighborhood schools has been found.

So the top-down, political-relationship heavy, marketing strategies of groups like Stand for Children lose their efficacy over time (and ironically, it's a strategy with its roots in the pro-NAFTA campaign partially engineered by Mayor Emanuel). Such strategies rely on the vast majority of people being unaffected in an immediate material way by the policy changes being proposed; the sophisticated marketing with inoffensive, abstract visions appeal to people in the way most advertising does. But the campaigns enjoy diminishing returns as more and more people feel the effects of a policy, particularly in localized conditions, because the effects are concentrated.

And this is not mere speculation. Because charter schools in particular have objectively not had the spectacular results promised, there is no attendant surge in support for the privatization agenda on the ground, of the kind necessary to, for example, defeat a strike authorization vote, break a strike, or dominate local school council elections. Because of the proportions and numbers involved, high-level operations (relationship making with editorial boards, politicians, and social and economic clubs) are less effective. In other words, the proportion of people adversely effected by a given set of policies will be higher in localized conditions; and in adversarial situations involving only those policies, public relations-heavy tactics won't penetrate and persuade.

The larger attack on public sector unions and pensions will give reform more longevity than it would have otherwise, but Canon is right about what is slowing it even now. This isn't ended by rhetoric, it will be ended by people -- parents -- being sick of the facts on the ground. It is inconceivable to reformers that they could make things worse in urban education, but in the balance, they are.

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