I recently watched Downsizing. It’s not a great movie, rather, it’s actually frustratingly mediocre. Besides the issues of a problematic portrayal of a Vietnamese dissident set against a very flat “everyman” protagonist, I think it’s biggest issue is Downsizing has a very interesting premise that just doesn’t play out to its fullest potential. However, it made me start thinking about similar issues with regard to education reform and its problematic devotion to choice. It’s a particularly appropriate time as this week marks the annual education extravaganza of National School Choice Week in the U.S. Before I begin, fair warning, I may make a lot of puns here.
In the movie, without giving too much away as it is still in theaters, Matt Damon’s character, who in real life is actually a big proponent of public education, is struggling financially and decides to “go small” by shrinking himself to a height of five inches in order to liquidate his assets and stretch them much further in this new Lilliputian world called Leisureland. The film exhibits the benefit of this with a sales pitch that Damon and his wife, played by Kristen Wiig, attend. In the pitch, characters portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern show off all the extravagance they can afford with their miniature stature with Dern flaunting her new set of matching diamond and platinum jewelry for the grand total of $83. It’s here I started musing about School Choice Week.
The whole premise is that being small is beneficial because it exists within a larger system. If everyone went small, it would no longer be economically beneficial. But not everyone can go small.
One of the major critiques of the movie is that it presents interesting themes, but never really carries them out to fruition. One of the major themes is inequality. Before going small, Damon and his wife have a going away party at a bar and a drunken onlooker asks them if they think small people should get less rights than their larger counterparts. On its face, it’s an absurd proposal, but he continues to present valid critiques of the situation that, unfortunately, aren’t followed up on. The small people are contributing less to the economy with their outsized spending power. The whole premise is that being small is beneficial because it exists within a larger system. If everyone went small, it would no longer be economically beneficial. But not everyone can go small. For example, those with hip replacement or pacemakers aren’t eligible as the process only shrinks organic material. It looks as if the story will continue on this thematic path when Damon is taken to the slums outside of Leisureland where those working in menial labor for Leisureland reside. However, the end of the second act goes in a completely different direction and the notion of oppressive inequality is largely abandoned for the rest of the film. It plants a theme that doesn’t payoff and this very problematic for the film.
So, what does this have to do with school choice?
To make the connection, let me first describe the issues baked into school choice or, more specifically, the market-based form of school choice put forth by education reform. It’s a bitter pill, but ultimately choice is a privilege and at the same time an act of oppression. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated schools in the U.S., many southern school districts fearing integration touted freedom of choice as means of to avoid it. Many private schools, dubbed Segregation Academies, popped up during this time and were supported with tax exemptions and government subsidies in the form of vouchers, a darling of the more right-wing extremes of contemporary education reform in the United States. Choice today is largely the same as choice yesterday, regressing the efforts after Brown v. Board of Education and contributing to the desegregation of today’s schools and at the same time siphoning off funds from already underfunded traditional public education system. In the U.S. the major culprits being white flight, the succession of wealthy suburbs from urban county districts, and charter schools.
Most importantly, choice allows for not only ethnic segregation to occur, but economic segregation as well.
There has been a lot of pushback on the issue of charters’ influence on desegregation from those in education reform. Some have argued that if parents of color choose a school with students much like themselves, it’s not segregation. This may sound odd coming from the white guy, but this is an absurd premise. For one, self-segregation is most definitely a thing and its effects are most definitely negative. Two, this is the same argument presented with freedom of choice schools, allowing for self-segregation to return to the 1960s. The Supreme Court struck down that argument. But most importantly, choice allows for not only ethnic segregation to occur, but economic segregation as well.
It bears repeating, choice is a privilege. Moreover, it must be meaningful and available if it is to be a true choice. In the most basic of ways, we can see this with bussing and transportation. Most states charter laws do not specify who provides public transportation to a particular charter school. As a result, many, if not most, charter schools do not provide transportation. The same can be said for voucher schools. This is a basic privilege that prevents many parents from attending schools of choice, providing further layers of segregation and oppression on an already compromised system.
Not only do charters often favor those of relative privilege, they exacerbate fiscal issues of already constrained and underfunded school districts.
To make matters worse, it’s been shown time and again that schools of choice siphon off funds from the district. Others, specifically those funded by charter proponents, have made the claim that charters are, in fact, underfunded compared to their traditional counterparts, only to be criticized with further review. Many make an argument for “right sizing” a district by closing schools and selling off property. At first glance, this make sense. But in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, a number of studies commissioned by the local school district as well as the metro council found that charters had a negative impact on the overall fiscal health of the school district. While there were also studies that countered that position, again, they were funded and pushed by proponents of school choice. So not only do charters often favor those of relative privilege, they exacerbate fiscal issues of already constrained and underfunded school districts.
Um, what does Matt Damon have to do with this?
As mentioned in Downsizing, the system of privilege only works within a larger system on which to take advantage of. For the opulence of Downsizing, it’s only within the larger economic system as well as the crushing oppression of migrant labor that these small people thrive. In the school choice of education reform, it’s only within the larger system of traditional public schools that charters are able to benefit and thrive. For one, to continue my basic example, schools that don’t provide transportation only take children from families that either a) have cars or b) can be provided regular assistance by a support network.
Furthermore, charters have been shown to enroll lower numbers of language learners and students with special needs. This leaves the traditional public school in the system with the most economically and academically disadvantaged students and less money with which to educate them. However, if you take away the system of traditional public schools on which the privilege of choice is based, the whole thing falls apart.
There are a couple case studies that illustrate this phenomenon. For one, the entirety of New Orleans, Louisiana public schools are run by charter operators. The results have been wanting and lambasted by the local community, save charter proponents. Second, there is the Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee, which I’ve written extensively about on the now defunct Bluff City Education blog. The ASD is a turnaround district that has taken over schools in Memphis and Nashville and relies mainly on charters to operate them. It had the lauded goal of going from the bottom 5% of schools to the top 25% percent of schools in five years. After an abysmal track record with student performance, it abandoned that target goal. All of the original movers and shakers in the ASD have left. Furthermore, it has likely contributed to further racial and economic segregation and its former superintendent came under fire for an apologetic statement on the subject. To make matters worse, its been plagued by fiscal mismanagement.
A couple summers ago, I attended the American Education Institute’s Ed Policy Academy. As a conservative think tank, my folks thought I had gone a bit wonky in the head, but I enjoyed it tremendously. I met some really kind, thoughtful, smart, and engaging individuals, even the conservative ones. I disagreed with them vehemently, but respected them immensely. One of these individuals was Howard Fuller, who may or may not disagree with me again on Twitter now that I’ve brought this up. I mean, Dr. Fuller started Malcolm X Liberation University where the library was stocked with stolen books and after that went and worked with freedom fighters against colonial rule in Mozambique. There’s a lot to respect there. However, his organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), went on to embrace more right-wing funding and policy. He wrote a piece called “The Struggle Continues” in which he outlines that mechanisms of choice are, similar to my argument, mechanisms of oppression. However, and this honestly confounds me, he argues for expanding the mechanisms of choice rather than upending them. I questioned him on this, and it got kind of heated, for the both of us. I’m apologetic for that, but not for my position. I understand how problematic it is for relatively young white dude criticizing the positions of an old school black activist then as it was now. However, I simply don’t see the mechanisms of oppression ever transforming into mechanisms of liberation. If we’re going to fix this mess, we don’t need reform, we need a revolution. However, to be quite honest, what that revolution looks like, I’m not quite sure yet. However, I can say it doesn’t come from relying on the current system of choice.
If we’re going to fix this mess, we don’t need reform, we need a revolution.
Honestly, education reform is not truly interested in the notion of liberation. If it was, it would outright reject the market-based mechanisms of oppression that have so poorly served the world at large rather than simply replicating them or, as they would say, scale up. Rather, modern education reform is meant to entrench these mechanisms. It is in this manner that Downsizing most closely resembles education reform. In its diversion in the third act, Damon never really confronts place in a clearly toxic system that is literally killing people. As a result, because the film never really commits to the critical reading that capitalism creates oppressive and deadly situations, it too entrenches them. It is a film that exists within and is benefitting from that system after all.
The critical shortcoming of Downsizing is particularly frustrating given that Alexander Payne, the director, and Jim Taylor, the writer, just nailed similar themes with their award-winning film, The Descendants. But Downsizing only seems to dance around the same subject matter and it’s extraordinarily frustrating. The same can be said for the choice movement today. Charter proponents largely wrap themselves in the rhetoric of liberation and either ignore or outright reject its part in continuing oppressive practices. And, frankly, if there’s something more frustrating than a movie with extremely intriguing premises and themes, it’s education advocates masking oppression in the guise of liberation.
A much better film
They Live, obviously. However, I was reading a review of Downsizing by Sheila O’Malley after seeing the film and she notes some of the same flaws and compares it to The Congress as a similar yet much better film. I hadn’t seen it, so I did and boy howdy is that true. The Congress is directed by Ari Folman as an adaptation of Stanisaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, which I have not read but now really want to. It’s not a perfect film, but it hits the mark. I won’t go too far into the plot; the trailer pretty much sums it up. However, there’s a wonderful crescendo where the cartooned entertainment executive exalts that they are the neo-gods and that they have now manufactured free choice. Things very much devolve from there. Perhaps that bit is a little on the nose, but it is so much more satisfying. In the end, The Congress, too, somewhat embraces the oppressive system by presenting it as one more appealing than confronting the truth, but it’s dystopian themes are more at the forefront than in Downsizing. To quote O’Malley’s review, “Paul [Damon], delivering trays of food to the Leisureland poor, just doesn’t cut it.”
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