Why’d PBS Air “School Inc.”? It’s Not Entirely Clear

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By Amy Shuffelton

In School Inc: A Personal Journey, aired by PBS stations nationwide starting in April, creator/writer/narrator Andrew Coulson takes the viewer on a whirlwind tour of private and charter schools across the globe, as well as to once-great industrial cities, wineries in Chile and breweries in Ireland, in order to answer the series’ guiding question: Why can’t education use innovation to grow like a successful business?

For some viewers, however, there is another, more immediate question: Why did PBS and its local New York affiliate, WNET, agree to broadcast and distribute such an unbalanced, journalistically questionable series on such a controversial and complicated topic as education?

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School Inc was produced by Free To Choose Media. According to a Free to Choose spokesperson, it was created by Coulson, who raised the funding necessary to make it. When Coulson was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he approached Free to Choose’s Founder, Bob Chitester, about finishing and distributing the series.

Free to Choose network shares a name with its first production, the 10-part series by economist Milton Friedman that aired on PBS in 1980. Friedman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, argued that free market economic principles are the basis of human freedom and wellbeing. Friedman’s neoliberal followers have opposed government regulations in a host of domains, including education. As the “Inc.” in its title conveys, Coulson’s film is strongly guided by this logic.

Chitester pitched School Inc to Thirteen, the New York City PBS station and part of the WNET family of companies. Starting in April, the series has been aired by local PBS stations across the country. It can also be viewed through the PBS Passport program.

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Two major premises, that education is best categorized as an industry and that industry is best subjected to unfettered free market forces, are maintained throughout.

The upside of this approach is that those premises give the series a strong through line as it builds its argument across three hour-long, globe-trekking episodes. The downside is that the series never considers countervailing accounts of education and presents only strawman versions of the evidence that challenges his ideals.

Episode One, The Price of Excellence, starts with Coulson wearing 1970s attire and holding an early Sony Walkman. When the Walkman was invented, he points out, it was expensive, but thanks to entrepeneurial inventiveness it soon became widely affordable. Because competitors were hard at work on cheaper replications, Coulson explains, quality improved as prices dropped. Why hasn’t education followed this trend?

Over the course of three hours, Coulson revisits the story of Jaime Escalante, the real-life Los Angeles teacher whose success preparing low income public school students for the AP Calculus exam was made famous in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. He visits Cranbrook Schools, an elite private institution in Michigan. Then he turns to charter schools, which aren’t limited by commitments to tradition as schools like Cranbrook are.

What makes the series truly provocative is that Coulson doesn’t stop there. In Episode Three, Forces and Choices, he visits for-profit private schools in Hyderabad India, Sweden, and New Orleans. And in the last ten minutes of the series, he brings his argument to its conclusion: the key to scaling up educational excellence is free market competition between for-profit schools.

School Inc. PBS

Supporters of traditional public schooling can find grounds to quarrel with Coulson’s interpretations all the way through. There are alternative explanations of every phenomenon that Coulson blames on governmental intervention. Horace Mann and Thomas Jefferson, both strong advocates of public schooling, are quoted out of context.

Although Coulson cites a few studies out of Stanford, these are cherry-picked and counter-evidence is given a weak presentation. Important currents in education, such as race and income inequality, are barely touched on. Coulson ignores the many successes and innovations present in public schools across the United States and the globe.

When Coulson visits Chile in Forces and Choices to argue for a US voucher program similar to the one put in place by Pinochet in the 1980s, he dismisses opposition as a few disgruntled students. In fact, Stitzlein says, educational inequality rose dramatically in Chile and led to riots. “This is a serious outcome that he just swept under the rug.”

Often Coulson holds his hands out to the viewer in an expression of “can you believe people won’t accept this obvious answer?” An expressive presenter, Coulson’s voice often also had that tone. But in a domain as complex as education, there are no obvious answers.

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Coulson does consider the possibility of civic discord in the last ten minutes of the series, but his answers are not convincing School Inc. turns to Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer’s dissent in the case Zelman v Simmons-Harris, which upheld an Ohio voucher program. Breyer worried that publicly financed voucher programs, which funnel federal funds to religious schools, raise the possibility of religiously based social conflict.

Coulson’s response should raise concern for anyone worried about First Amendment rights. To show that social conflict is unlikely to follow, he uses the example of a voucher program proposed in New Orleans. One of the schools eager to participate was a Muslim school. When Louisianans got wind of this, controversy followed. So the Muslim school dropped out. In Coulson’s eyes, the problem was thereby solved.

Wait, I found myself thinking as I watched, that’s discrimination, not a defense of First Amendment rights. I expected Coulson to explain why it was not, but the series moved on to clips of jazz performances, which, according to Coulson, demonstrate Americans’ ability to get along.

New York University education historian Diane Ravitch’s blog went so far as to call this series a “suck up” to Trump and DeVos, “public television’s effort to curry favor with the Trump administration.”

According to WNET’s Specter, the second part of the series title, “A Personal Journey” is key to understanding the project. “When you read that subtitle, you know that you’re going to get a point of view, and we’re not opposed to presenting different points of view.”

To Stitzlein, this is insufficient warning of School Inc.’s ideological tilt. She worries that well-intentioned viewers will watch the show and think they are getting the whole story. They are getting a consistent story, but not a complete one.

Perhaps PBS’s decision to run this series reflects an admirable commitment to taking viewers outside their comfort zone. After all, in an age of ideologically polarized media-consumption, there is much to be said for exposing viewers to ideas they might otherwise ignore.

Attempts to get a response from PBS about the decision to distribute the series were not answered.

However, I shared Stitzlein’s disappointment in School Inc. The series breezes past evidence and arguments that contradict its commitment to unfettered free markets in schooling. Valuable though it is for PBS viewers to encounter a wide range of ideas, it also matters that arguments take account of all the available evidence.

Amy Shuffelton is Associate Professor of Cultural and Educational Policy Studies at Loyola University Chicago.

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

6 comments

  • Charles E. Martin

    I first viewed this series in April. I am delighted that PBS chose to broadcast this series. Bravo!

  • Bob Jones

    Maybe PBS aired it to inform debate? There’s no reason every documentary on this topic has to be balanced, or conform to Shuffleton’s views. It’s called free speech. She is also free to dispute the claims in School Inc., but not to suppress those views. From my perspective as a tax payer, we pay more than ever for education, but with no improvement in quality. Something needs to change, and the argument that distributed processing (or free markets) works better than centralized control (government schools) is compelling. This has been proven in a variety of industries and settings. Why should education be different? In any case, it’s hard to defend the current system, where we pay so much for so little.

  • It is good to see PBS airing documentaries that add alternative views to the discussion. Many public schools ARE currently competing for students, both in under served neighborhoods as well as in areas where the available student population has been declining. The evidence is that competition among schools raises the performance for all schools. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to those who are invested in the status quo or that have seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but it’s better for our students, their families, and our communities.

  • Deborah Bishop

    “Although Coulson cites a few studies out of Stanford, these are cherry-picked and counter-evidence is given a weak presentation.”
    Seriously? Since when does the liberal media ever offer, much less consider, counter-evidence to their “cherry-picked” versions of anything?

  • Chris

    It was a great series. I’m glad they aired it(and I’m also glad they aired the original Free To Choose series). Such fantastic work by the Friedman Foundation.

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