Julian Goes Into Libertarian Lions Den to Defend Public Education

So I had never been called a facist, until a random Libertarian recently lobbed it at me on Friday after a mock trial. Kevin Welner (University of Colorado professor and Director of the National Education Policy Center) called me a few weeks back and asked if I would be willing to attend a Libertarian-oriented conference and defended public education in a mock trial (See the post PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM CHARGED WITH FRAUD: GUILTY OR NOT GUILTY?) 

I said yes because it was in Vegas, but I also knew I was probably going into a 1,000 person lions den. The conference was not like any I had attended before. The first session I went to was a debate on whether people should vote or not. To me, that is not even a question we should be asking in our current democracy. Then, during the lecture before the mock trial began, the keynote speaker was vociferously arguing that “minorities” have it better than they have ever had before in the US and thus they should be thankful and stop talking about racism. She went on to argue that considering diversity is no longer important. I am paraphrasing. It was troubling.

I don’t have a video of the mock trial yet, but I do have the script, so you can see where it was planned to go. First the prosectution called its witnesses— which in my opinion, weren’t as forthcoming as they should have been. For example, Corey DeAngelis argued that charters aren’t more segregated than neighborhood public schools, which just isn’t true. Jameson Brewer and I have a new peer reviewed paper coming out soon that uses national, state and local data and shows how much more segregated charters are— regardless of neighborhood demographics. The defense Attorney, Tick Segerblom, a State senator from Nevada, then cross examined the prosecution witnesses.

After the prosecution, the defense witnesses took the stand for five minutes each. Then we were cross-examined by Bob Bowden, a school choice media personality and the prosecution attorney. This is when the sparks flew. Bob had decided his questions would be statements designed as questions— and I wasn’t having it. We battled the whole time— to humorous effect I think. It’s always hard to know exactly how it turned out until you see the replay.

Before hand, as I usually do, I prepared a set of idea to present. Here is what I prepared:

I’d like to begin dispelling the #FakeNews about public education first. Everywhere we look the media is telling us that public schools are failing.

Clearly societal inequality is driving differences in the opportunities to learn.

Unfortunately, in most forums the conversations about public education is often reduced to simple sloganeering about unions and other common talking points.

So please let me introduce evidence into the record today instead of opinion.

Overall, the United States performs respectably in many international comparisons (about the middle of the pack). However! there are some states that are knocking it out the park when compared with countries internationally.

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For example, in Math, only five countries in the world perform better than New Hampshire. There is only one country in the world that performs better than New Hampshire in Science (Singapore).

Note, having union friendly or not having union friendly state policy may have bearing on the success in some states but not in others— a more detailed analyses with more data could more clearly represent the context for all states beyond the top five to understand the factors that drive success in each state.

In fact, the NAEP test – the National Report Card — shows us that the kids of today are smarter than they were 30 years ago

Recent US Department of Education data show that our nation’s graduation rates are at an all-time high.

All of this public education has led to the United States being the most powerful and influential country in the world.

That is undisputable.

The US also has the largest economy and highest GDP in the world. In fact, the United States accounts for 25% of the world’s GDP.

Our public education system deserves credit for making this happen. We’ve made real progress. We do have much more to do.

However, considering that Donald Trump promised in his campaign to spend 20 billion taxpayer dollars on school choice, NOW is a watershed moment for charters and private schools.

I am a former charter school educator, parent, board member, donor and volunteer. I also served on the board of a private school.

But I’d like to discuss the evidence that shows that charters and private schools, on average, perform no better than neighborhood public schools.

Using national data, the Lubienskis found— that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones.

I’m not saying that private schools aren’t important for specific religious instruction. But they aren’t better academically on average.

As I have discussed extensively on my blog Cloaking Inequity, more than two decades of research literature has shown that charters don’t produce results that are much different than neighborhood public schools.

Now let’s talk charters. I don’t want to be the boring stats professor today. But let’s just say that the research comparing charters and neighborhood public schools shows differences between the two sectors in the hundredths of a standard deviation— we are talking two decimals here. By comparison, other educational approaches such as smaller class sizes and pre-K for kids show about 400% more achievement impact than charter schools.

In fact, I spent about 50 hours analyzing one of Corey’s recent charter school research studies. In seven of the eight cities that he studied, charters still had a negative impact on African Americans. Only in Boston did they have a larger AND positive effect— the caveat being that in Boston many critiques have been levied about charter enrollment.

Are there any Texans here?

Even though Corey didn’t specifically mention it in his study, African American students attending public schools in the Texas cities he examined outperformed charter students.

There are two other issues I’d like to quickly mention that I think might appeal to your instincts for freedom.

First, the waste and abuse of taxpayer money by the charter sectors has been documented in the hundreds of millions— exceeding the issues traditionally surfaced in public schools. For example, in California taxpayers paid millions to build and purchase real estate for brand new low-performing charters nearby existing neighborhood public schools.

Second, as the various privacy scandals with Facebook and other tech companies exemplify, we are becoming more critical about the data that companies are taking from us and how they are using it. Emerging research is critical of how Silicon Valley is mapping and strategizing to invade the privacy of children and their families to collect and sell personal data by creating secretive partnerships with charter schools.

In conclusion, if you would have asked me ten years ago to participate in this mock trial, I might have been a witness for the prosecution.

But, I am a scholar. We are convinced by evidence.

Clearly, the system of public education in the United States includes some places that are excelling and some that are struggling.

However, considering the predominance of the evidence, I believe we have much to be proud about our public schools— although we clearly have more work to do to remedy the longstanding and vicious inequities.

Regardless of our politics, I believe we all agree on the fundamental fact that education and children deserve our utmost care and attention.


Both the defense and prosecuting attorneys wandered around many topics in public education in their questioning ranging from school discipline to teacher evaluation to teacher tenure. At the end of the mock trial, the jury voted 6-6.  A hung vote! WOW! I think this was quite an accomplishment for the Libertarian setting we were in. Afterwards, two of the jurors mentioned to me that the defense had changed their mind. We didn’t change the Libertarian-leaning audience’s mind though, 5% were more convicted by prosecution compared to 2% for defense (my best recollection).

On my way to the speakers’ reception a conference attendee walked up and told me that they only reason the jury had been hung was because “it had been stacked.” I told him that maybe we had been the “voice of reason.” He called me a facist and walked briskly away.

As soon as I get the video from FreedomFest, I will post clips from the trial.

Yes, they spelled my name wrong on the marquee and I wasn’t using a pseudonym. Darn diversity.

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