What’s the threat to public schools?
Public schools are threatened by agendas that prioritize the corporate control of public education, rather than publicly-funded and publicly-governed schools.
In the past decade, public funding for education has significantly declined. Yet cuts to public schools budgets aren’t because the resource pie is shrinking – in fact, the past twenty years has seen historic highs in the country’s gross domestic product. Cuts to public school budgets are because the pie is being unequally sliced, with corporations and the super-wealthy getting richer and richer. For example, despite massive school closings in Philadelphia, the city’s budget for charter schools increased by $107 million. Government give-aways to corporations through tax breaks and loopholes depress the amount of state aid available for schools. With padded budgets, these corporations and their philanthropic arms foot the bills for school privatization, from charters to vouchers to the political lobbyists that propel school privatization laws forward. Not only are public schools suffering, they are being systematically divested from, siphoning funding and resources to private schools and the corporations that fund them.
The major threat to public schools is the failure to invest sufficient resources in them, while simultaneously shifting the terrain to enhance conditions for school privatization. This means creating corporate-friendly tax conditions that drain public finances as well as legal openings for school privatization policies. Dubbing public schools as “failing” provides a justification to re-work the very organization of our public school system, shifting resources from public institutions to private ones. The major threat to public schools is privatization.
But aren’t public schools failing? Don’t we need reform?
Public schools are no more failing than the cities and communities around them that support them. Unprecedented levels of economic and racial inequality impact the communities that schools build upon. These issues are hardly a failure of education, but a failure of our democracy. Sure, public schools have plenty of problems. But this means they need all the support they can get, not that they should be privatized.
The issue with education reform is that it too often brackets the rest of problems of society. Calls for education reform rarely rally around historic budget cuts to public education at state and local levels. They rarely take up rising child poverty, the increasing scarcity of meaningful jobs, precarious access to health insurance, racially segregated housing patterns. Calls for reform never advocate for teachers’ working conditions or small class sizes. And here’s the paradox of true education reform: the fight for schools is really about what we want outside of schools. Until we recognize this paradox, schools will continually “fail.” Real reform invests in existing public schools and local communities, by building democracy from the bottom-up, not by privatizing the institutions vital to our collective well-being.
What does privatization look like?
Privatizing schools shifts the control of schools – from how they are funded to what gets taught to who can attend – out of public decision-making and into the hands of whoever runs the school. Privatizing schools converts education from a social good that benefits everyone to a private good necessary for the sake of individual’s interests Three main ways that school privatization happens are through vouchers, charters, and increased calls for school “choice.”
Vouchers (and neo-vouchers like “private school tuition credits”) apply publicly funded dollars to tuition at private schools. Frequently, vouchers don’t cover the full cost of tuition, and in many places, don’t cap the income limits of who can use them. This means they function like a discount coupon for wealthy families, who can use vouchers to reduce the sticker price of a school and afford to pay the rest, while imposing financial burdens on low-income families who opt to use them. These families may take on debt to cover the full-cost of tuition for their child, without any guarantee that the school has licensed or appropriate services for their children, especially if their children have special education needs. In reality, most students who use vouchers already attend private schools, as recently shown in Wisconsin, debunking the claim that vouchers provide options for poor families to remove their children from “failing public schools.”
What’s more, vouchers have no oversight over how they’re run. So even though 95% of a school’s funding can come from public money through voucher programs, there are still defined as private – there is no public oversight or regulation to how the school actually functions. As Barbara Miners says, “As a result, a voucher school can ignore basic constitutional protections such as due process and freedom of speech. It does not have to provide the same level of special education services. It can expel students at will. It can ignore the state’s open meetings and records requirements. It can discriminate against students on the grounds of sexual orientation. The list could go on.”
Vouchers, in essence, function as a blank check from the public to private schools to do whatever they want. And there’s no evidence that students do any better in voucher schools than public schools – in fact some research, like this and this, suggests they may actually do worse on certain measures. Vouchers use the façade of school choice to mask what they really are: separate and unaccountable.
Charter schools are alternative schools that use public money. Some charter schools offer a progressive alternative to public schools, providing things like language immersion environments or alternative curriculums in an experimental way that can be scaled-up if successful and incorporated in public districts. But there is a different type of charter – independent charters that operate independent of public regulation – that blurs the space between public and private.
What makes charter schools unique from public schools is what authorizes them: how they’re opened, approved, closed. Unlike a public school (unless it’s a public school that’s been taken over by mayoral control), which has some degree of public oversight, charter schools can more or less do what they want, including what they teach and how they operate. This means that when charters schools fail to perform (i.e. test scores aren’t high enough) they can be closed down as quickly as they opened, leaving students, families, and communities worse than if they had never opened their doors. Young, inexperienced, and uncertified teachers with little to no training on the art and skill of teaching often staff charter schools through controversial alternative certification programs like Teach For America. What’s more, charter schools are free to teach whatever information they want, regardless of its accuracy. Charter schools in Texas, for example, use creationism curriculum to present evolution as a scientific controversy!
Independent charters make up a centerpiece of school choice regimes, and as such, are subject to many of the pressures of choice, such as increased reliance on standardized tests, teacher evaluation practices, excluding students with significant needs or behavioral problems, and restricting employee unionization efforts. The laws around charter schools vary greatly from state to state, but the evidence of their success has been inconclusive at best, and in many instances shows negative impacts for students, especially for under-served students. See here, here, here for more information. Like vouchers, charters form a new type of school system: separate and unaccountable.
Though choice can be a good thing, “school choice” as a program of school reform raises a number of questions. “School choice” converts schools into a consumer product. As education scholar Michael Apple says, “In effect, education is seen as simply one more product like bread, cars, and television. By turning it over to the market through voucher and choice plans, education will largely be self-regulated. Thus democracy is turned into consumption practices. In these plans, the ideal of the citizen is that of the purchaser… Rather than democracy being a political concept, it is transformed into a wholly economic concept.”
Converting schools to a product for individual consumption, rather than a public good for all, has a number of unpleasant side effects. Schools enter the field of market competition, and must be subject to market discipline. Their viability corresponds with their marketability, which may or may not correlate to other things like their quality, how well they meet students’ needs, teachers’ job satisfaction, etc. As such, schools increasingly rely on performance indicators such as high stakes test scores in order to distinguish themselves from other “products” on the market, despite the fact that the indicators have often ill-suited for the aims of public education.
What’s more, school choice enhances racial segregation, as noted here and here. In Michael Apple’s words, “the result is even more educational apartheid, not less.” Under school choice regimes, schools must work to attract the highest performing students from well-resourced families to ensure that the school’s performance metrics are top notch. This means middle class and wealthy families get to choose schools for their children, without much trouble. And it means that schools in turn get to choose which student they accept.
Without public oversight, school choice programs can freely reduce resources away from students labeled as special needs or with circumstances requiring additional support – not only are these students more expensive to educate, they also tend to bring down a school’s average test scores. As a result, students with special education needs, behavioral issues, complicated or unstable home lives tend to be forced out – or, put more delicately, “un-chosen.” And the end result is that school choice programs – from vouchers to charters – increase segregation based on race, class, ability, and language. The bottom line? There is no mechanism in school choice to ensure equity.
What drives privatization?
Privatization is driven by the dollars of corporations and their foundations, by the political maneuvering of high-paid lobbyists, and justified through cries that public schools are “failing.”
Corporations and their foundations have poured millions of dollars into calls for supposed “education reform.” For these corporations, education reform does not entail increased spending for public schools, but rather investing in privatization efforts. Using their associated foundations, these corporations fund advocacy groups that push forward the centerpieces of school privatization. This means pushing forward charters, vouchers, high-stakes testing regimes and attacks on teachers’ unions. As Jonathan Pelto shows, the effort to privatize public schools is funded by three major corporations: the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation and the Broad Foundation. These foundations pour tremendous amounts of money in reform advocacy groups to push forward their agendas, while undermining public schools.
Why do corporations care about schools? One reason is because education is a huge industry. High-stakes testing, textbooks, advertising space in schools are all multi-million dollar industries. Every self-respecting corporation can see the dollar signs hanging above public schools -- what’s to stop them from trying to make those dollars signs hang above their logos instead? But here’s the problem: corporations aren’t interested in schools as “labs for democracy” – they are interested in schools as trending assets in their portfolios.
But it’s not just corporations that push forward privatization. They’ve also brought on board a host of political lobbyists to ensure the political conditions that favor their projects. In Wisconsin, for example, political advocacy groups have spent $10 million in ten years on pro-school choice politicians and policies. Governor Walker’s call to expand Wisconsin’s voucher program certainly doesn’t represent the fiscal interests of the state, but it does pledge allegiance to his pro-voucher campaigns supporters, who gave him $2.35 million dollars (this contributes is the equivalent of five percent of the entire state’s K-12 education budget for 2014). For example, the American Federation of Children, a pro-voucher political advocacy group, has spent $4.4 million on school vouchers advocacy since 2010. The Bradley Foundation, a right-wing organization founded by Gov. Walker’s campaign director, has spent $31 million dollars since 2001 to support pro-voucher lobbying and propaganda. Private interests are doing everything they can to take over public ones.
So, what’s wrong with privatization?
Privatization weakens public schools. It redirects resources away from public schools, open to all, to schools that benefit only a few and line the pockets of the corporations who support them. This makes schools more segregated and unequal. By converting the school systems for the benefit of a few private interests, privatization defeats public schools’ potential to make our democracy work better. What’s more, privatizing schools obscures the real issues for public schools – pervasive racial and inequality that surround schools.
So, where is the fight-back happening?
Even though privatization of schools is seeping in everywhere, people are standing up to it. Check out the following groups for inspiration. We are the alternative!
For example: In Philly, the School Districted announced plans to 24 public schools (about 10 percent of the district’s schools), displacing 10,000 students (mostly of color), while simultaneously expanding charter school enrollment. After teachers, parents and students’ organized a series of community meetings, walk-outs and protests, the school district announced it would not expand charter schools the following year and may actually increase funding for public schools. Parents in Williamsburg, NY decided to sue the state for opening a controversial charter school in their neighborhood, despite significant community organization and opposition to it. Teachers in Seattle decided they would no longer put up with standardized tests that weren’t aligned with the curriculum and ate up valuable teaching time and resources, and organized a boycott. Indeed, parents and community groups have even had recent success in school board elections, like the recent victory in Bridgeport, CT of parents, teachers and community members to beat back corporate-backed education-reform machinery.
What’s happening at your school?
Cool Things Happening:
Community and Parent Activism
High-Stakes Standardized Tests