Valerie Strauss has published a new article by Joanne Barkan, a fine writer who has over the years incisively analyzed corporate school reform and the role of venture philanthropy driving public policy in education. A version of her new article will appear as a chapter in a book to be published next October in Britain, a chapter outlining the history of the privatization of public education in the United States.
In the new piece—a survey of the history of education privatization in the United States— Barkan shows how, since the 1950s, American politicians have been wooed by libertarian Milton Friedman and his followers to compromise our society’s commitment to publicly funded and operated schools designed to guarantee universal access for all children.
School privatization was first promoted in the 1950s by Milton Friedman, a libertarian economist at the University of Chicago. Barkan describes neoliberal (neo-libertarian) thinking as it has increasingly driven education policy over the past 70 years: “Neoliberalism led logically to specific policies such as cut taxes and government spending, deregulate the economy, and transfer as much government activity as possible to the private sector, including education. And when government funding is necessary to get something done, turn management over to the private sector.” After Reagan’s A Nation at Risk report created a sense of crisis, “The sky-is-falling panic about public schools and the ‘standards and accountability’ demands attracted bipartisan support. Neoliberal thinking had influence far beyond ideological devotees. It tinged political moderates, self-identified liberals, media people, and think-tank opinion makers. It permeated what became the dominant wing of the Democratic Party—the ‘New Democrats.’ Their jargon included choice, competition, efficiency, and downsizing government; they often competed with Republicans for pro-market credibility.”
First the Republican Party which pushed vouchers, spun a narrative of public school crisis with A Nation at Risk under Reagan, and then spread their critique of public schools to Democrats as Republican George H.W. Bush engaged Arkansas’s Democratic governor Bill Clinton in support of educational accountability. Later, as President, Clinton eventually promoted the expansion of charter schools. Under President George W. Bush, the bipartisan, 2002 No Child Left Behind Act formalized the ideas of accountability and privatization—expanded by later by Barack Obama with the 2009 Race to the Top. Trump’s appointment of libertarian Betsy DeVos, a Milton Friedman acolyte, to lead the U.S. Department of Education, has taken us full circle.
After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, vouchers became a tool for preserving racial segregation in some Southern states. Barkan explores the era when racism and the ideology of privatization colluded: “Between 1954 and 1959, eight states adopted what were whites-only versions of Friedman’s voucher system. They used public funds to pay for white students to attend all-white private schools, which were called ‘freedom of choice schools’ or ‘segregation academies’” She adds that Friedman himself, “argued that both forced segregation and ‘forced non-segregation’ were evil. His solution for the South and everywhere else was publicly funded vouchers used for ‘exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools. Parents can choose which to send their children to.’”
Over the decades, explains Barkan, for Republicans and Democrats, the motives for buying into an ideology of privatization have been different: “While conservatives consciously aim to shift control over K-12 education from government to the private sector, moderates in the edu-reform camp do not have privatization as their main goal. Instead, they want to move as many students as possible, as quickly as possible, out of schools with low standardized test scores. They see their 20-year-old alliance with conservatives as tactical. Yet not only have they ended up buttressing conservatives politically, they practice a kind of triage without thinking through the consequences. By steadily draining resources from district public schools, they undermine the very schools that the overwhelming majority of American children, including low-income children, still attend.”
Barkan summarizes years of studies of charters and vouchers—the scandals and corruption, the promotion of racial segregation, and the evidence showing that charters and vouchers have failed to improve students’ academic achievement overall. She also describes the fiscal impact of school privatization: “All of the taxpayer funds that end up in private and religious schools are funds no longer available for public education… The public schools are left with the same fixed expenses but fewer students and therefore less money coming in. They almost inevitably deteriorate: a school that could previously afford, say, a librarian, art teacher, nurse, or smaller classes can no longer cover costs.”
Barkan’s piece is a broad survey of American school privatization. A growing body of recent research confirms her concern about the fiscal impact of charter schools on the public school districts where the charters are situated. Charter schools have been around now for nearly two decades, and economists have been examining all the ways that the expansion of charter schools steals essential public school funding. In a report published by the Economic Policy Institute in November of 2016, school finance expert Bruce Baker documents fiscal losses caused by charter school expansion and concludes: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available. That is, resources should be used most efficiently and equitably to achieve the best possible system of schools for all children. Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light… To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”
In a brand new study, published last month by In The Public Interest, political economist Gordon Lafer demonstrates devastating net financial loses for three California school districts after their privatized charter school sector was expanded. Lafer explicates the stranded costs that remain for public school districts after students begin leaving for charter schools and taking their school funding with them: “The difficulty in making cutbacks in central school district offices is a reflection of the fact that elected school boards and school district officials are responsible for guaranteeing an appropriate education to all children in the community rather than a limited set of students affiliated with a given charter school or charter management organization network. Each charter school is only responsible for its own students. If a charter is designed for 500 students, when the 501st applicant shows up, the school is free to declare itself full and turn the child away. For public school districts, there is no such thing as being ‘full.’ They are required by law to make space for all children, and they take responsibility for those that need the most academic support, including those most expensive to serve.”
Lafter continues: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools–announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”
Bruce Baker suggests we think of charter schools as parasites on their host school districts.