Racing to the Bottom through School Choice and Privatization

Here is a third and final reflection stimulated by my trip last weekend to Fort Wayne, Indiana.  (The first two pieces are here and here.)  At an afternoon forum last Sunday on public education—during panel discussions and in informal conversations—I heard people trying to parse out the impact on their lives of Indiana’s rapidly accelerating privatization of public schools.

Indiana has a three-year-old, rapidly growing voucher program that has, according to the Associated Press, doubled in size since last year. And Indiana hosts a thriving charter school sector.  While the sponsors of charter schools persistently refer to them as public charter schools, these schools are public only in the sense that they receive public funding. They are almost always privately managed and often privately owned.

In this post, I will compare comments I heard by individuals last Sunday afternoon with reflections by experts writing from a broader, philosophical point of view.  The experts’ comments are abstract, but they do a good job of generalizing the particular observations of individuals in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  After all, school privatization is neither merely a Fort Wayne issue nor an Indiana issue.  Privatization is a major concern today across America.

On one panel I heard a proponent of privatization extol the supposed benefits of vouchers for children as though we are to view our society’s broad mandate to educate over 50 million children and adolescents one child at a time.  This appealing notion is especially understandable from the point of view of parents who feel responsible for protecting the needs of their particular children.  But what about the public’s responsibility for all of our nation’s children?  The Governing Board of the National Council of Churches considered the public’s moral responsibility for all children, not just to each child one at a time:  “We… affirm that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served. As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.”

One Indiana mother complained to me that she thought she would be able to get more involved by choosing a school for her child, but the first charter school she had chosen pushed out her child, and a second school refused to involve her in creating her child’s special education IEP plan.  Political philosopher Benjamin Barber examines the philosophical and moral implications of privatization in Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (2007).  Here is be Barber’s understanding of the issue raised by the Indiana mother who wondered where the power really lies as public services are privatized. “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.  We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.  We choose what kind of car we drive, but it was the automobile, steel, rubber, and cement industries through their influence on congress that chose a highway-based private transportation system….” (p. 139)

Again and again in Fort Wayne I heard community leaders despair about the sacrifice of public ownership and public oversight. They worried about dollars being diverted from the state education budget, dollars desperately needed by the public schools whose fiscal capacity has been significantly diminished by privatization. They also worried about whether there is adequate public regulation of voucher schools and charters. Here is Barber’s understanding of how market systems undermine our capacity to protect the needs of society itself:  “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power (brute force), personal skills (randomly distributed), and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (pp. 143-144)

Pauline Lipman, professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, in The New Political Economy of Urban Education (2011), also reflects on the loss of public ownership when school choice becomes the mechanism for distributing educational opportunity:  “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state.  In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services.  People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice and private pension investments. One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself’….” (p. 11)

I heard parents complain about a system framed through competition which always produces losers as well as winners.  Barber directly confronts the notion of competition: “Inequality is built into the market system, which too often becomes a race to the top for those who are wealthy, and a race to the bottom for everyone else.  Inequality is not incidental to privatization, it is its very premise.  The implicit tactic employed by the well off is to leave behind those who get more in public services than they contribute as taxpayers in a residual “public” sector” (a kind of self-financing leper colony that cannot self-finance) and throw in with those who have plenty to contribute in their own private “commons.’  The result is two levels of service—two societies—hostile, divided, and deeply unequal.” (p. 157)

School choice is always sold through the promise that competition will improve the public schools.  But I heard parents in Fort Wayne describe their sinking realization that school choice is instead undermining the viability of their traditional public school district. State funds are being siphoned away for the private alternatives, but choice itself seems to be privileging the parents who know how to play the game and leaving behind the poorest families.  Education historian Diane Ravitch’s extrapolates these parents’ worries in her new book, Reign of Error: “The federal regulations are like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability.  As worried families abandon these schools, they increasingly enroll disproportionate numbers of the most disadvantaged students, either children with special needs or new immigrants….  Low grades on the state report card may send a once-beloved school into a death spiral.  What was once a source of stability in the community becomes a school populated by those who are least able to find a school that will accept them. Once the quality of the neighborhood school begins to fall, parents will be willing to consider charter schools, online schools….  In time, the neighborhood school becomes the school of last resort not the community school.  When the neighborhood school is finally closed, there is no longer any choice.  Then parents will be forced to travel long distances and hope that their children will be accepted into a school; the school chooses, not the students.” (319-320)

One thought on “Racing to the Bottom through School Choice and Privatization

  1. This is clear and a perfect summary of the disaster that occurs when we forget about our collective responsibility to meet public needs.

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