Donald Trump promotes the expansion of parental choice among schools as the way to help children learn. Parental choice in this case is defined as tuition vouchers for children to carry to private schools, more charter schools which are publicly funded but privately operated, and tuition tax credits of various sorts by which parents can apply the money they would have paid in taxes to pay for privatized education.
The thing is that private schools, on the whole, don’t do a better job than public schools. Chris and Sarah Lubienski, professors of education at the University of Illinois discovered evidence of this when they were studying mathematics achievement as measured by test scores: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home… But after further investigation and more targeted analyses, the results held up. And they held up… even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, pp. xvii-xviii)
In a November policy brief published by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Frank Adamson compares international test results from nations with strong public school systems like Finland, Cuba and Canada with school systems that have experimented significantly with privatization like Chile and Sweden, the Canadian province of Ontario temporarily during the 1990s, and more recently the United States. He cautions that, “While these comparisons do not provide causal evidence, they reveal compelling policy considerations about which systems are likely to provide more high-quality education opportunity to students.”
Nevertheless Adamson concludes: “This brief addresses two approaches to organizing, governing, and supporting education systems. One approach, a high-quality public investment system similar to those in Finland, Cuba, and Ontario (today), uses equity-based processes and focuses on teacher professionalization and is often accompanied by high educational outcomes. A second approach, a market-based system of education privatization found in Sweden, Chile, 1990s Ontario, and some U.S. cities, is often accompanied by low and unequal student performance, de-professionalization of teachers, and public dissatisfaction. The evidence of the comparison within Ontario and the between-country comparisons… demonstrate that investments in education as a public good yield higher and more equitable outcomes than other approaches, including the marketization, deregulation, and privatization of education. The findings of this study strongly support enactment of a public investment approach to address issues of inequality and low performance… rather than applying market-based approaches imperfectly to a public sector.”
A short new report on charter schools in Florida describes why school privatization is not working in that state: lack of public oversight. The Center for Popular Democracy explains: “Over the last 10 years, Florida’s K-12 charter enrollment has increased 172 percent from 92,214 to 251,082 students. With that increase came tens of millions of state tax dollars for charters, yet despite this substantial investment, charters have failed to live up to the state’s mandate for ‘high standards of student achievement.’ This should come as no surprise given the lack of oversight… The statutes don’t address background checks on charter applicants. Because of the lack of guidelines, school officials in South Florida say, they do not conduct criminal screenings or examine candidates’ financial or educational pasts. That means individuals with a history of failed schools, shaky personal finances or no experience running schools can open or operate charters.” The Center for Popular Democracy recommends a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until the state can put some regulation in place.
In a third report, Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, is far more skeptical about even the possibility that a state legislature can amass the political capital to regulate a privatized education marketplace. She recently visited Pennsylvania, whose state auditor general has called Pennsylvania’s oversight of charter schools “the worst charter school laws in the nation.”
In a series of interviews with school officials in Bethlehem, Burris learned that state law provides that every child who leaves for a charter school will carry her or his portable funding right out of the public school district’s budget—requiring “districts to pay the charter school a per-pupil tuition fee based on how much the district spends on its own students. In Bethlehem’s case, its per-pupil charter tuition cost per general education student is $10,635.77 and $22,886.44 per special education student.” The same amount must be paid even if the student enrolls in an online cyber school whose costs are much less. “In the case of special education students, the charter gets the higher rate, no matter how mild the disability, and it does not have to prove that it spent the money on special education services.”
As in other states, notably in Ohio, huge profits from the charter management organizations are being reinvested in political contributions to politicians who promise to protect the charter sector. Burris suggests that the influence and power of money in politics renders state governments incapable of protecting the public through adequate regulation of school privatization: “It is hard to understand why every taxpayer in Pennsylvania is not outraged at a legislature that repeatedly rejects sensible calls for reforms. When cash is flush and regulations are thin, those who seek to profit appear, and they ensure reform is thwarted.”
She warns: “(W)hat I learned in Bethlehem is both simple and clear. Pennsylvania’s politicians, like those in so many states, have neither the stomach nor the will to curb the abuses of charter schools as they drain the public school coffers. America must choose either a patchwork of online schools and charters with profiteers on the prowl, or a transparent community public school system run by citizens elected by their neighbors. A dual system with the private taking funding from the public, simply cannot survive.”