Private school tuition vouchers are a big deal in Ohio right now. 100 school districts filed a lawsuit last week arguing that the rapidly growing statewide EdChoice Voucher Program is unconstitutional because it diverts tax dollars from the public schools which desperately need the money for educating the state’s 1.8 million public school students and because the voucher program has accelerated racial segregation.
The expansion of school vouchers always loomed as former U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s primary cause. Congress managed to avoid passing her proposed federal $5 billion tuition tax credit Education Freedom Scholarship voucher program despite that every year for four years she tried to insert this program into the federal education budget. But today many of the state legislatures are growing voucher programs or starting new voucher initiatives.
Here in Ohio, a professor of the philosophy of education at the University of Cincinnati, Sarah Stitzlein explained last week why she thinks giving parents marketplace choices about their children’s schooling is dangerous for the rest of us: “Voucher programs hand over decision-making power solely to guardians of school-aged children, who compose less than a quarter of American adults. These guardians then independently decide where to spend a taxpayer-funded voucher. Often, they look for schools that already affirm their particular worldview or personal wishes for their child. This strips our communities of deliberation about what we want from our schools and what we desire for children collectively. The public loses the opportunity for voice and influence over how it spends public dollars… And because private schools are not required to accept all students or to provide equitable services to all children, communities lose the ability to demand fair educational opportunities without discrimination toward any child.”
The continuing momentum across the state legislatures for private school tuition vouchers is only one aspect of the movement toward privatization of public life. In a new book, The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back, Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian examine school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools as merely one strand of a movement that has also included attempts to privatize healthcare, water, transportation, environmental policy, the criminal justice system, Social Security, public libraries, and higher education. Cohen and Mikaelian consider the following questions regarding how growing privatization threatens our democracy .
Why should citizens be paying closer attention to growing privatization? “Understanding privatization means understanding that it is first and foremost a political strategy… (B)ut it has also become a grab for billions of dollars in contracts and fees. In the years since it sprang from the mind of Milton Friedman as a way to undercut government ‘monopoly,’ it has also become a way for profiteers to tap into the $7 trillion of public revenue… spent by local, state, and federal government agencies each year and carve out a piece (sometimes a very big piece) for themselves.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 21).
What is the definition of ‘privatization’? “Many define privatization as simply the outsourcing of a good or a service to a private company, but it is much more than that… Privatization is the transfer of control over public goods to private hands. Sometimes this happens during procurement—the outsourcing of public services to a private company. In other cases it’s due to austerity—reducing public funding of a vital public good and letting private options take over. Or it can happen through deregulation—when we eliminate or fail to enforce public control…. In all these ways, privatization is a transfer of power over our own destiny, as individuals and as a nation, to unelected, unaccountable, and inscrutable corporations and their executives.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 4-5)
What are public goods and who gets to define them? “Most economics textbooks, and many economists, define public goods in pretty strict terms: they are things that are nonexcludable (meaning that it’s either impossible or impractical to prevent people from using them) and nonrivalrous (meaning that one person using them does not take away from another person’s use).” Cohen and Mikaelian, however, believe that definition is incomplete: “In a democratic society public goods should not be defined by the market. They should be defined by the public and its values. Just because some people can be excluded from having a public good does not mean we should allow that to happen. In fact, after we the people define something as a public good, we must use our democratic power to make certain that exclusions do not happen… Clearly, it is possible to exclude some people from schools… But we decided long ago that this would not happen at K-12 public schools. We could make all our roads exclusive, but we decided that it would be better for both the economy and each of us individually if the public controlled most roads, paid for them, and permitted access.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 5-6)
Who is responsible for protecting the public? “In a democracy, it is the public’s job—not the market’s—to decide what to cede to the private sphere… In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine)…. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 7)
How can a responsible public protect public goods? “That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around…. Public control is exercised in different ways; the public tool kit includes establishing public-goods standards for public money spent on procurement, providing public services, and creating regulations and safeguards for public goods…. What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them…. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 8)
What is the difference between citizens and consumers? “We are both citizens and consumers, but privatization encourages us to approach public goods merely as a shopper while convincing us to forget that fellow citizens need that public good too… As consumers, our only responsibility is to ourselves. As consumers, we promote exclusions, but at the same time we are excluded. We do not have power over what is given to us; we have no right to expect a voice in what choices we have. Private corporations decide for us… (F)or things that we value both for ourselves and for the common good—clean water, education, public health, safe roads and bridges—let’s approach these as citizens of a democracy, as co-creators of public goods… as part of something larger and not merely as isolated individuals, and as a people defined by our responsibilities rather than merely by our desires.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 14)
What is the consequence of failing to protect the public from rampant privatization? “Privatization is not just about money or about who provides what service; privatization is about values, about whether we are committed to promoting the general welfare as enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution…. Privatization… facilitates the upward transfer of wealth, exacerbates inequality, creates powerful interests, separates us from each other, and segregates us by race and class… Reclaiming public goods… is about who we are and what we believe.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 17-18)
Cohen and Mikaelian conclude: “Our definition of public good boils down to a few simple ideas. Public goods are things we all benefit from even if we don’t personally use them, such as education, public transportation, the safety net, and the justice system. They are the things that are essential for life, including water and clean air. They are things that can make such broad and fundamental improvements to our quality of life that no one should be excluded… They are the things that recognize our interconnectedness and interdependence and make us a healthier, fairer, more compassionate and more democratic nation.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 284)
Yesterday morning, when I thought this post was complete, I happened upon this provocative twitter thread from Jack Schneider, an education historian from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Schneider considers several other ways the privatization of education undermines the public good:
“The vision of schools as businesses is currently ascendant. That is, schools should respond to what their customers want. I have a few major concerns about this.
- “First, businesses respond to individuals, because individuals foot the bill. Public schools are publicly funded. Consequently, they need to advance the public interest. Hard as it may be to swallow, sometimes our own desires don’t always perfectly align with the public good.
- “Second… Consider how many people in a typical business ‘make something, vs. how many play supporting roles. Almost everyone in a school is on the ‘making’ side. That is, they’re teachers. These are very lean organizations.
- “Third schools are not simple experience goods. I know immediately what I think of my store-bought coffee or my new headphones. I can offer very clear feedback. but we want a million things from schools. And results often take years to fully understand.
- “Compounding the previous point is the issue of attribution. If I like my coffee, I can thank the barista. But if my kid is thriving in school, who gets credit? The teacher? Her friends? Me and her mom? Her brain? Last year’s teacher?
- “(T)here’s also the principal-agent problem…. In schools, the ‘customer’ is… who? The student, right? But the person demanding and deciding is often the parent/guardian. That’s not ideal.
- “(I)f we all operate as consumers, then we are going to elevate one purpose of schools above all others—the drive to secure for our own kids an advantage over everyone else. But that’s not what schools are designed to do.
- “If schools are businesses responding to parent demands, then there’s also a very real threat to equity. That is: if you’re poorly served, it’s because you’re a bad consumer. That’s a recipe for even grosser inequities than we see today.
- “Finally, there’s the issue of fragmentation. There are very few places left in our society where we come together around our differences. We live in our self-selected echo chambers. If schools are businesses, we should all expect total customization. But at what cost?”