Charter schools as a model for Liberalism 5.0

I’ve been following Walter Russell Mead’s series in which he has been writing that the “blue social model” of the New Deal and 20th-century progressivism (Liberalism 4.0) has past its time. He’s now getting into what would replace it. Recently, he wrote about his discontentment with the blue model, which so many left-of-center Americans and Europeans defend as if it were the apex of human development (read the whole thing for a better understanding):

Social critics spent decades, rightly in my view, denouncing our school system from Pre-K through Ph.D.  Mediocre, conformity inducing, alienating, time wasting: the school system trains kids to sit still, follow directions, and move with the herd.  As the economy becomes more fluid, more entrepreneurial, it is clear that raising one generation after another of aspiring time-serving bureaucrats is not very effective.  But isn’t it also a terrible waste of human potential?  Building big box schools where the children of factory workers could get the standardized social and intellectual training necessary enable most of them to follow their parents’ footsteps into the big box Ford plant (and giving the lucky few a chance to escape to the universities and professions) was a huge social advance once.  I am not so sure that we should be proud of that today. Maybe there’s something more we can teach our kids than the bland pablum of the standard school curriculum; maybe there are ways we can organize learning so that it is more individual, closer to home, better integrated with the world of work — and more rewarding.

Much of today’s production that doesn’t take the form of mind-numbing, repetitive work in factories comes in the shape of mind-numbing, repetitive work in offices.  Government, corporate, legal and non-profit bureaucracies suck up inordinate amounts of human time and talent.  It is not at all clear that the output is worth it — or to put it another way, we should be able to get equal or better results with less work.  Information technology offers increasing opportunities to transfer more and more of the routine scutwork of administration over to machines, setting the office drones free to do more rewarding, more socially useful things.

In his most recent post, he discussed charter schools and believes that they point the way to a social model for the contemporary U.S.:

Charter schools show us that there are ways to reform government without always going to pure for-profit privatization.  This is important if we are to build durable majorities for reform; many voters are uncomfortable with ideas like for-profit prisons and schools.  While charter schools can operate under a variety of institutional forms, they often occupy a middle ground between government and the private sector.  Charter schools do not (necessarily) entail the privatization of public education; in practice they look more like ‘communitization’.  Power shifts from functionaries in City Hall to community based educators who organize themselves into small, accountable units to carry out functions once handled by massive bureaucracies.  And because parents have the right to choose among many schools competing for their kids, the public ultimately holds the new schools strictly and relentlessly accountable.

This is more than an innovation in education; it points toward ways in which we can restructure government.  Communitization, whether on a for-profit or non-profit basis, will be a major element in any approach to health care that seeks to reduce costs while improving services.  Systems that give consumers vouchers and allow them to purchase services from a variety of competing vendors are vital to the future of American governance.  Charter schools are paving the way.

The advantages of shifting as many government functions as possible from the lifetime civil service to entrepreneurial and/or community based entities goes farther than the potential for cost savings and quality enhancement.  It is also about shifting the center of gravity of American culture and society further toward entrepreneurial and creative values and institutions.

Blue model society fails dismally at one of the key responsibilities of a healthy democratic society.  Democratic societies must be educational societies; the experience of living in such societies must teach each new generation the virtues, habits and concepts that allow them to make the decisions that preserve democracy over the long haul.  To make decisions as citizens, members of a democratic society must learn some hard truths about the way the world works from their personal lives and careers.  That is what the leaders and teachers in charter schools do — much more than most of those who work in traditional public schools.

A charter school isn’t just, potentially, a school that offers more bang for the buck because it is more flexibly managed and is closer to the community it seeks to serve.  It is also an academy for politics.  The teachers and managers of such enterprises will understand how the world works better than tenured bureaucrats.  They have taken risks and borne the consequences; they have acquired the habits of mind that make them effective citizens in a 5.0 world.  They will be natural community leaders — the skills needed to organize a charter school, motivate its staff, serve its public while balancing its budget are skills our political class could use more of. They will also be better placed to start new businesses.

He connects this with a previous post on the importance of making the transition in a way that middle-class African Americans don’t lose their newly acquired middle-class status, believing that communitization can enable this transition.

As I’ve said before, Mead is asking some important questions about how we organize our society and how we think about politics. I agree with almost of the questions that he’s asking about the blue model. I’m not posting about his solutions because I agree with them all, but because we do seem to be at a transition time in our country’s political economy and I think that it’s good to put these things out there for conversation.


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