Interview: Last Bell
Last Bell: Breaking the gridlock in education reform, a book co-authored by SABIS® President Carl Bistany and journalist Stephanie Gruner Buckley, was released in early November 2015. The book challenges legislators, school officials, and education reform leaders to do better by America's children by taking a free market approach including for-profit education providers.
In delivering its message, Last Bell portrays the alarming state of U.S. public schools, examines thirty years of failed reform efforts, and concludes that the nation must attract the best public education providers, including for-profit companies, to boost achievement and secure America’s future.
The SABIS® Newsletter team sat down with Carl Bistany and Stephanie Gruner Buckley to talk about the book, its message, and impact.
SABIS® Newsletter (SN): Mr. Bistany, what inspired this book?
Carl Bistany: SABIS® has long believed that the way to raise the education standards for all is to take a free market approach, one that specifically embraces the for-profit private sector. Unfortunately, not many people see or understand the benefits of a for-profit approach in education, and rather than trying to understand more about for-profits and their benefits, over the past few years, people have made the for-profit private sector a target, particularly in the U.S. charter school market.
In writing Last Bell, we wanted to get SABIS®’s voice out there by providing a book that gives a complete picture. We wanted to present the arguments against for-profits and show how they are faulty. We wanted to show the benefits of for-profit school management and use one of SABIS®’s U.S. charter schools as an example of how these benefits are helping students succeed. And finally, we wanted to include some policy recommendations based in SABIS®’s experience to help guide advocates and legislators working on issues facing U.S. public education.
SN: Mrs. Gruner-Buckley, based on your research for the book, what do you see as the biggest issues facing U.S. public education?
Stephanie Gruner-Buckley: The biggest issue is the failure to fix the chronic achievement gaps between different races and ethnicities and between students from rich and poor families. White and Asian students living in wealthy suburbs have access to perhaps the best public education in the world, while black, Hispanic, and other minority students in far less affluent inner city neighborhoods would probably be better off going to school in Vietnam, Latvia, or Russia. Perhaps that's overstated, but the point is that people should be outraged by the inequality of public schools, and legislators should appreciate the huge social and economic consequences that result.
SN: The widening achievement gap and inequitable access to quality education seem like quite significant issues. Mr. Bistany, how do you see Last Bell potentially impacting the work to solve them?
Carl Bistany: Yes, these are quite significant issues that are not new to U.S. public education; they have been around for at least the last 30 years, whether people want to admit it or not. What makes the problems particularly disturbing today is that we now more clearly understand the impact that they will have on the future of the U.S. if they are not solved. In short, if the U.S. does not find a way to improve public education standards for all students, its position as a global leader will be in jeopardy.
That is where the message in Last Bell comes in – as a resource for those who are really committed to finding a solution. The book outlines several of the major efforts over the past 30 years to improve public education standards. The advent of public charter schools was one of these efforts and, in my opinion, is the one that has had the greatest impact. These schools were created in order to inject competition and accountability into public education in the U.S. They were designed to operate free from many of the regulations that restrict traditional public schools and their student outcomes. Unfortunately, charter schools, and for-profit managed ones specifically, have been met with resistance, limiting the scope of their impact and scalability. Last Bell clearly identifies the hurdles facing U.S. charter school operators – many of them erected by teachers unions and politicians afraid of alienating unions – and seeks to remove them using logical, rational arguments.
SN: Do you see the impact of Last Bell as being limited to the U.S. or does it have a broader application?
Carl Bistany: Although the book uses the U.S. and the charter school model as the vehicle to point out the benefits of for-profit engagement in public education, the book’s message is applicable to any country seeking to raise education standards for all students.
SN: Mrs. Gruner Buckley, why do you think for-profits are not embraced in the education sector? Do you think that it is realistic to think this could change? And has the process of working on this project changed the way you look at for-profits in education?
Stephanie Gruner-Buckley: I think it's always about money and power. Unions and school district officials are extremely influential and they do not want to lose funding or control. And so they vilify outsiders in any way they can. The irony here is that they use the money argument to persuade legislators and parents that for-profits are inherently evil and money-grubbing when the reality is that many of them are fighting for-profit involvement exactly because it threatens their own hold on the money. I don't think this will change until there is a crisis point so severe that there's no other choice.
Before researching this subject, I admit I probably would have bought the argument that for-profits were in it for the money. My experience as a business reporter tells me that it's usually about the money. But then I did the reporting and changed my mind. Students are suffering, as is America as a whole, because of this gross inequality. I believe we should use every means possible to change things. I was also fortunate enough to spend time talking to people on both sides of the debate and meeting people at SABIS® Network schools, including teachers, parents, and students. I was genuinely moved by the stories I heard. I wish that all legislators and opponents of charter schools and for-profit education management companies could hear these stories too. I wish they would take the time and listen. I'm sure they would come away with a different view, and America would be far better off.