This is an important article by author Joanne Balkan about the history of the movement to privatize U.S. public schools, which is now at the heart of the national debate about the future of publicly funded education in this country.
We now have an education secretary, Betsy Demos, who is admittedly doing everything she can to promote alternatives to traditional publicly funded education. Many state legislatures are helping her with programs using taxpayer money to fund private and religious education. Supporters of America’s public education system are concerned about what they say is an assault on the most important civic institution in the country.
In this article, Balkan explains the history and current state of the privatization movement and what may lie ahead for the education system. She is a writer based in New York City and Trout, Mass. Her recent writing has focused on market-based public education reform in the United States, the intervention of private foundations in public policy, and the relationship between philanthropy and democracy.
An earlier version of this article will be included in “The State, Business and Education,” edited by Gina Steiner-Khayyam and Alexandra Drawer (London: Edward Elgar Publishing, October 2018).
I normally don’t include a list of references at the end of posts, but I am with Balkan's article to show the broad range of sources she used for this comprehensive piece. Here’s her article:
Public funding, private management — these four words sum up American-style privatization whether applied to airports, prisons, or elementary and secondary schools. In the last 20 years, the “ed-reform” movement has assembled a mixed bag of players and policies, complicated by alliances of convenience and half-hidden agendas. Donald Trump’s election and his choice of zealot privatize Betsy Demos as U.S. secretary of education bolstered reformers but has also made more Americans wary.
What follows is a survey of the controversial movement — where it came from, how it grew, and what it has delivered so far to a nation deeply divided by race and class.
The backstory in brief
In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, consensus grew around an expansive vision of education in which government plays a far-reaching role: schooling should be government funded and administered, universal, and compulsory until a certain age. In a nation that was increasingly industrialized and home to new immigrants, citizens expected public schools to accomplish a great deal, including impart general knowledge and practical skills, prepare young people psychologically and socially for self-sufficient adult lives, educate for democratic citizenship, unify a diverse population, and create opportunity for upward mobility. Over time, many Americans came to regard public education as a mainstay of democracy.
The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of education, so the federal government had no specified role to play. Since the earliest days of the republic, local and state authorities shaped elementary and secondary (K-12) public education. Racial segregation in schools, which became the law in 17 states and the norm almost everywhere else, was also a local and state matter. This did not change until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated public schools were “inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka).
When the federal government stepped in to enforce school desegregation, it met with fierce resistance. After several years of minimal progress, federal authorities resorted to court-ordered desegregation plans, which they imposed on school districts across the country, not only in the South. For the first time, government at the highest level assumed a significant role in K-12 schooling. In the mid-1960s and 1970s, the federal role expanded to include protecting the civil rights of all students and offering financial assistance to public schools with high percentages of low-income students.
In theses, the political climate shifted. An international renaissance of malaise-afire economics, updated as “liberalism,” challenged the dominant Keynesian model of regulated markets. Governments around the world began to act on a suite of liberalness principles: competition and choice in the free market are the best organizing principles for most human activity because they produce greater efficiency and higher quality; the role of government is to provide a framework that allows the market to function freely; most other government activity merely clogs the system with bureaucracy and special interests. Ruling elites believed that implementing these principles would solve high inflation, stagnation, unemployment, low productivity, and whatever else was ailing an economy.
Liberalism 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.
The ideological shift to liberalism was rapid and widespread. This was the age of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan — two world leaders who aimed to revolutionize economic policy at home and abroad. Governments around the world embraced austerity, deregulation, and privatization. Consider, for example, some major nationalized industries that were privatized in the 1980s: British Telecommunications (1984), Spain’s car manufacturer, SEAT (1986), New Zealand Steel (1987), Japanese National Railways (1987), Air Canada (1988), to name just a few.
He proposed that government get out of the business of running schools altogether. Instead it should fund a voucher worth the same amount of money for every school-age child to use at his or her choice of private school. For Friedman, the choices would include private for-profit schools, private nonprofit schools, religious schools, and “some even” run by the government. A democratic society, he reasoned, requires “a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens.” Hence government has a legitimate interest in requiring and paying for what the community decides will be the necessary “minimum amount of education.” But government running schools is not “justifiable in its own right in a predominantly free enterprise society.”
In this marketed system, competition would, theoretically, eliminate low-performing schools because they wouldn’t attract enough customers to stay in business. In the real world, the poor buy necessities at a price they can afford even if the quality is inferior. This is why the free market has always failed to meet the real needs of low-income people; they get what they can pay for.
In a school voucher system, wealthy families can (and will) add as much money as they want to their vouchers to pay for their choice of schools; middle-income families will pull together whatever resources they can for the best schools in their price range. Low-income families without additional resources will “choose” schools charging the value of the voucher. Almost no higher-quality schools will be available because they will have no incentive except altruism to offer their products at the minimum price. (For example, the value of a government voucher for high school in Washington, D.C. in 2016-2017 was $12,679 while tuition at Washington’s elite private schools exceeded $40,000 a year. As a last resort, low-income families could choose a “government school.” For free-market ideologues, government schools are always a last resort and available to the poor.
Backtracking for a moment, many Southern states anticipated the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision and prepared policies to evade racial integration. 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.”
States also leased unused public school property to private schools. Shortly before publication of his 1955 essay, Friedman added a footnote to address the segregationist versions of “essentially this [i.e. his own] proposal.” He 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.”