What Will It Mean if Trump Extends the Privatization of Public Education?

In the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch asks: When Public Goes Private (in Education), as Trump Wants: What Happens?

Privatization of our schools is not new, but many of its promoters have been obscuring its growth over the past two decades by calling it something different: “For the past fifteen years, the nation’s public schools have been a prime target for privatization. Unbeknownst to the public, those who would privatize the public schools call themselves ‘reformers’ to disguise their goal. Who could be opposed to ‘reform’? These days, those who call themselves ‘education reformers’ are likely to be hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires, not educators. The ‘reform’ movement loudly proclaims the failure of American public education and seeks to turn public dollars over to entrepreneurs, corporate chains, mom-and-pop operations, religious organizations, and almost anyone else who wants to open a school.”

Why have people been so anxious to undermine the institution, historically unique to the United States, of a system of publicly operated, publicly owned, publicly regulated schools designed to serve all of the nation’s children?  “The motives for the privatization movement are various. Some privatizers have an ideological commitment to free-market capitalism; they decry public schools as ‘government schools,’ hobbled by unions and bureaucracy. Some are certain that schools need to be run like businesses, and that people with business experience can manage schools far better than educators. Others have a profit motive, and they hope to make money in the burgeoning ‘education industry.’ The adherents of the business approach oppose unions and tenure, preferring employees without any adequate job protection and merit pay tied to test scores. They never say, ‘We want to privatize public schools.’ They say, ‘We want to save poor children from failing schools.’  Therefore, ‘We must open privately managed charter schools to give children a choice,’ and ‘We must provide vouchers so that poor families can escape the public schools.'”

Ravitch is an education historian, and her story of the growth of privatization under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama—a trend President-elect Donald Trump has promised to swell—captures the essential elements of what has happened: “The privatization movement has a powerful lobby to advance its cause. Most of those who support privatization are political conservatives.  Right-wing think tanks regularly produce glowing accounts of charter schools and vouchers along with glowing reports about their success. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing organization funded by major corporations and composed of two thousand or so state legislators, drafts model charter school legislation, which its members introduce in their state legislatures… If the privatization movement were confined to Republicans, there might be a vigorous political debate about the wisdom of privatizing the nation’s public schools. But the Obama administration has been just as enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools as the Republicans. In 2009, its own education reform program, Race to the Top, offered a prize of $4.35 billion that states could compete for. In order to be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low scores. In response to the prodding of the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools.”

Ravitch lists some of the powerful hedge-fund-backed organizations that lobby for the spread of charter schools—Democrats for Education Reform and Families for Excellent Schools.  And she implicates the role of philanthropy in subsidizing the privatization of education: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, the Bloomberg Family Foundation, the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Fisher Family Foundation, Reed Hastings  of Netflix, Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma that makes Oxycontin, and Michigan’s Dick and Betsy DeVos who made their fortune through Amway.

Ravitch’s piece is a book review of Samuel Abrams’ Education and the Commercial Mindset and Mercedes Schneider’s School Choice: The End of Public Education? These are important books, and I urge you to read Ravitch’s piece as a book review.

But the importance of this article is as an excellent, brief, historical summary of the privatization of education—interesting for all readers, but of particular value for the general reader who has not become deeply immersed in the issues of today’s education war.  The summary is accurate, and Ravitch is very clear about what is at stake.  She describes a resolution passed in October by the NAACP, “which called for a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, until they stop expelling the students that pubic schools are required to educate, until they stop segregating the highest-performing students from others, and until ‘public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.'”

Ravitch concludes: “(T)here is no evidence for the superiority of privatization in education… When there is a public school system, citizens are obligated to pay taxes to support the education of all children in the community… We invest in public education because it is an investment in the future of society… Whatever its faults, the public school system is a hallmark of democracy, doors open to all.  It is an essential part of the common good. It must be improved for all who attend and paid for by all.  Privatizing portions of it, as Trump wants, will undermine public support and will provide neither equity nor better education.”