The Monetizing of Interscholastic Debate Competition by Dave McGinnis

Yesterday I received an email announcing the new “Victory Briefs Squads” program. Like “Debate Drills” before it (and Capitol Debate before that), “Squads” is basically a subscription service for coaching and membership in a club team. For kids who can afford it (and for those who receive some portion of an unspecified amount of financial aid that is available), “Squads” will provide groups of students with a quasi-team experience.

The rise of privatized debate education has roughly tracked the push to privatize other public goods, including education generally. And while it’s natural for markets to spring up in the vacuum when society is no longer meeting what was once considered to be a public need, it is not a good thing that this is happening. When publicly funded resources die off and are replaced by privatized versions, the greatest cost is to democracy itself — because those goods become disproportionately available to the well-off. Ask any rural resident who has had to watch their house burn because they could not afford a fire services subscription fee: certain social goods should be accessible to all, regardless of their ability to pay.

Increasingly, debate is not. And the advent of club-debate programs will exacerbate that problem.

It is already the case that resource allocation in the U.S. is badly skewed, and this is at least as apparent in debate as anywhere else. For example, according to the Council for American Private Education, nationally, approximately 10% of U.S. students attend private schools. At the 2018 TOC, 40 of the 89 entries — or 45% — were from private schools. Those 40 students attended schools where tuition runs, on average, $29,884.00 per year. That tuition cost is about half of the national median family income.

And the public school students who attain elite success in debate hail almost exclusively from relatively wealthy communities. According to Business Insider, the median family income in the United States in 2016 was $59,039. Of the 48 public school students who attended the 2018 TOC, only seven came from counties where the median family income was within +/- $2,000 from the national median. No debater who attended the TOC came from a county where median family income was more than $2,000 below the national median, and 41 of the 48 public school students came from counties where the median income was more than $2,000 above the national median — in many cases, far above. Twenty of the 48 public school debaters came from counties where the median family income was over $80,000. The average median family income for counties represented by public school TOC attendees in 2018 was $78,645.

All of this is just a long way of saying something that should be obvious to anyone who pays attention to national circuit debate. Students at wealthy private schools are vastly over-represented among successful circuit debaters, and those students who come from public schools come from communities that are far wealthier than the national mean.

This is not a problem with debate education. It reflects the larger concern that we are moving away from a civil society toward an increasingly anarcho-capitalist model, with the result that economic elites are thriving in all aspects of life while the group of “poor” Americans (reckoned by the disparity between the most and least advantaged) is both growing and falling further behind.

The United States is in the midst of a vast project of transferring wealth from the bottom eighty percent or so to the top five percent. In 1941, before the start of World War II, the top nominal tax rate was 82%. After Pearl Harbor, it soared to 94% in support of the war effort. The 20th century saw a massive restructuring of civil society, the purpose of which was to create a more level playing field for workers — or, at least, for white workers. Millions of American families entered the middle class on the strength of redistributive policies like the GI Bill and massive infrastructural spending. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the enthusiasm for Great Society policies began to wane. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the top nominal rate had fallen back to 70%. By 1986, Reagan had reduced it to 28%.

It’s no surprise, then, that many publicly funded projects that flourished in the 20th century have waned as we move into the 21st. “Welfare reform” has made it more difficult for poor families to get by. The costs of college and housing, once basic elements of a middle-class life, have become increasingly out of reach. And support for public schools has reduced dramatically due to budget cuts, falling state and municipal tax receipts, and a powerful effort on the part of conservatives to transition to a for-profit model of education featuring private charters and voucher systems that funnel public funds to well-heeled private schools.

This is the context in which modern debate is failing so badly.

The classic model of interscholastic debate was one of publicly funded, more-or-less universal provision. With debate programs based out of individual schools, and with a large plurality of schools providing budgets for coaching and competition, debate was an option made available to large, democratic swaths of American students. A kid could come into high school with no knowledge of debate, be recruited, and work their way through the ranks of a large, diverse program to become excellent. The majority of high school debaters would never become champions, but they would still benefit from the skills that debate inculcates. The raison d’etre for debate was to teach discourse, research, and critical thinking to as many students as possible. National championships and TOC trophies were, as they should be, side considerations.

And very few people were making money from debate or debaters. The costs of attending debate competitions went largely to fund the teams who hosted tournaments. Even when debate camps became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, the costs were modest. In 1993 I was able to finance a two-week stint at the then-prestigious University of Iowa LD debate camp by busing tables for a few months.

Today, this would be impossible. Top camps today run in the neighborhood of $4,000, usually for a 3-week experience. That works out to more money per day than many of those tony private academies that so many debaters come from.

This is not the fault of the folks who run debate camps. They are charging market rates for a high-quality product. Many camps provide financial aid, while programs like the Texas Debate Collective and the Voices Foundation work to make advanced debate education affordable. But these valuable enrichment opportunities are now primarily accessible to the wealthy.

And now, for want of a better term, we have “club debate”. The private coaching model has been around for a long time. Now, club debate programs like Capitol Debate, Debate Drills, and Victory Briefs Squads are formalizing and corporatizing that market. The interscholastic model, which requires substantial district support and dedicated coaches with the organizational skills necessary to build and manage programs, is on its way to being an anachronism. If this trend continues, there will be an inflection point within a very few seasons past which debaters who aspire to elite circuit performance will have to belong to one of these clubs.

This is terrible for the activity. Club debate drastically increases the elitism of debate, while decreasing outreach and accessibility. Club participants typically will be students who have already demonstrated aptitude at debate and who have the resources to buy in to a for-profit coaching model. Victory Briefs Squads mentions in their initial literature that they want to promote equalizing structures — financial aid, sharing work product with home squads and distributing topic-specific prep after the end of the topic. But these are tweaks, not systemic solutions. The more that club debate becomes the norm, the more rarefied national debate will be.

In the long term, this is unsustainable. National circuit debate depends on the interscholastic model in ways that may be impossible for the market to tease apart. There has to be a system to bring debate to students who might not otherwise hear of it. If the interscholastic model fades to the point that it appeals only to those students with a special interest — those with proactive parents, for example, or older siblings who have done the activity — there will simply not be enough debaters to support a competitive circuit.  Additionally, national circuit debate depends heavily on school-based teams to host tournaments.

And while it is possible to imagine a world where all debate students are wealthy club kids and all competitions are hosted by clubs — basically, a “traveling team” model of debate — I don’t think most of us would want to live, compete, or coach in that world.

All of this presents us with a difficult problem. Club debate is not the cause of the decline of interscholastic debate; rather, it is an effect of an ongoing decline in support for public institutions. You can hardly fault students of means who want the opportunity to improve their skills but who lack support from their schools. And you can hardly fault recently graduated debaters who, having invested many thousands of dollars building debate skills, now want to capitalize on all of that effort in a market that is ready to reward them handsomely for their excellence.

But something has to be done. The advent of club debate may be only a symptom of the larger problem, but it is a corrosive symptom. In a club model, there will be no incentive to introduce debate democratically, offering it to the broadest possible base of students. The focus will shift — is shifting — from the virtues of debate as a practice available to all, to the pecuniary outcomes that well-off students and their parents seek: awards, college acceptances, and private coaching paychecks.

I have seen these effects in my own public school. As debate camps have become more expensive, many of my students have found it impossible to foot the cost. More and more often, debaters who in the past might have been motivated to pay $1000 – $2000 for a two-week camp experience do not even consider paying $4000 for a three-week experience. The cost is so far out of reach that many families don’t even begin the process of researching camps: they hear the price and they are done.

Also, while I have the ability to prohibit students on my team from joining private clubs, it is the case that, were I to allow it, some of my students would be able to afford it while others would not. That kind of stratification is happening right now on teams whose coaches either do not know or do not care about club debate.

The over-arching solution has to be for society to come to its senses and make a massive reinvestment in public goods, including education generally and debate education specifically. Obviously, we can none of us individually bring that solution about. But this is certainly a moment for debaters and coaches to reflect on both the causes and the effects of their choices. I once observed that high school debate is the only place where a public school teacher can sit and be lectured at about the virtues of Marxism by a student from a $40,000-a-year private academy. Perhaps we, as a community, can learn to take seriously the talk of liberation strategies so ubiquitous in our discourse. While we can’t fix the dissolution of the Great Society, there has to be a way for the debate community to react to it that isn’t just lunging at the potential profits.