Education Opinion

The New Politics of Education: School Districts For Sale

By Judith S. Glazer — November 09, 1994 7 min read

American education is for sale. Last month, Hartford, Conn., became the first district in the nation to turn over control of its 32 public schools to a private corporation, Education Alternatives Inc. It is the most recent example of an alarming trend--the abdication of responsibility by boards of education to publicly traded, profit-making companies whose bottom line is not education but the strength of their financial performance for their stockholders.

The fact that this transfer of authority from publicly elected officials to private business occurred in the shadow of Connecticut’s state Capitol is even more disheartening. For it is in Hartford that elected officials and educational policymakers assume responsibility for providing all children in the state with public schools of the highest quality. The cynicism of the Hartford school board is communicated in an Oct. 4, 1994, New York Times article, which quotes a Hartford board member stating that the five-year contract with E.A.I. is both bulletproof and risk-proof from the board’s perspective. Lost in this discussion are the risks for the 23,000 children, their parents, and the professional staff, 30 of whom were laid off in August when the teachers’ union refused to negotiate contract concessions with the Hartford school board.

Why does the wealthy state of Connecticut, which gives the city of Hartford $100 million in education aid, permit its largest and most visible school district to be run by a corporation based in Minneapolis? If, as the Hartford school board avers, the system is “deeply troubled,” then the public has the right to demand that the Governor, the legislature, and the Hartford city council be called to account for neglecting the problems that have now escalated into a major crisis. In its uncritical acceptance of this trend, the takeover of the Hartford schools is perceived by conservative critics as evidence of the failure of the school system’s public bureaucracy. Those who support public education are appalled by what they see as an abdication of official responsibility.

In 1992, the city of Baltimore and its board of education awarded Education Alternatives Inc. a $133 million, five-year contract to operate nine of its public schools with a combined enrollment of 5,100 children. This experiment, now in its third year, has received mixed reviews from teachers, parents, and community leaders. E.A.I., which also runs a school in Miami Beach, Fla., asserts that it can improve the academic achievement of children in the Hartford schools and that it can save enough money in the district’s $171 million budget to earn a profit for its stockholders.

Meanwhile, in a nearby state capital, Trenton, N.J., the state commissioner of education, a gubernatorial appointee, announced a proposed experiment to issue vouchers to parents of children in Jersey City, N.J., for use in private and parochial schools. This proposal has the enthusiastic endorsement of the Mayor of Jersey City but is opposed by various citizen groups and the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. In 1989, Jersey City, which enrolls 30,000 children in 36 schools, became the first solvent school district in the nation to have its administrative and curricular authority transferred to the state level, the ultimate sanction of a statewide educational-monitoring and school-improvement process. Since then, New Jersey has also intervened in Patterson and is about to assume control of Newark. Supporters of voucher plans argue that the system is so disparate and debilitated that it is more equitable to give poor children the resources to attend nonpublic schools than to improve those that are obsolete, overcrowded, and otherwise substandard.

One commonality in Hartford, Baltimore, and Jersey City is the powerlessness of the majority population. In Hartford, for example, nearly two-thirds of the children are from families who receive welfare, and more than half speak no English at home. In Baltimore, the 17th-largest school system in the nation, 81 percent of the 108,660 children are African-American; only 18 percent are white. The Governor of Maryland, who was formerly Baltimore’s Mayor, is also an advocate of vouchers but has not been able to convince the legislature to support the concept. And in Jersey City, almost two-thirds of the children qualify for bilingual or compensatory education, or both.

For the past decade, since the publication of A Nation at Risk and other such political documents, educational reform has focused on blame-the-victim formulas that include school restructuring, curriculum mandates, academic standards, teacher improvement, and effective management. In Savage Inequalities (1991), his relentless critique of racially and ethnically segregated urban schools, Jonathan Kozol maintains that the issues are budget cuts, large classes, shabby schools, teacher burnout, segregation, and the inequities of school funding between poor and wealthy districts. Twenty-one years after the U.S Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 split decision in Rodriguez v. San Antonio, at least 28 states continue to debate what should be the state responsibility in equalizing educational financing.

As a teacher-educator on a 400-acre suburban campus that is 10 miles from Queens County in New York City, I have the opportunity to meet with teachers from culturally diverse school systems in New York’s Nassau and Suffolk counties. These teachers are aware that their tree-lined suburban towns and villages are no longer impervious to the issues and problems pervading the urban centers. They relate that as many as 60 different countries are represented in their schools, that for several children, formal education must be combined with after-school jobs and care of younger siblings, that guns, drugs, child abuse, and neglect are common occurrences. They recognize that there can be no panaceas to resolve these and other problems that directly interfere with a child’s ability to learn. They reject the process-product mode of education in which standardized tests are viewed as reliable indicators of learning outcomes.

They also know that relinquishing responsibility for the management of public schools to private entrepreneurs may give the appearance of positive action but is little more than a chimera providing the illusion of change. It is evident that public officials are talking to each other rather than to teachers, principals, and superintendents. They are adhering to formulaic approaches for achieving models of excellence rather than channeling their energies into the revitalization of their urban centers and their public schools. The long-range impact of the transfer of power and authority to private corporations portends the loss of local autonomy by school boards, the de-professionalization of teachers and principals, and the further decline in democratic citizenship of American communities.

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act incorporates eight national goals, six of which were originally drafted with the full participation of the National Governors’ Association, that advocate state adoption of high academic standards to “build a nation of learners.” While it seems unrealistic to expect states to achieve all of the objectives incorporated into these goals without adequate resources, the privatization of public education is not among them.

Naysayers criticize the promulgation of these goals and the establishment of a National Education Standards and Improvement Council as a threat to local control and decentralized educational systems. Meanwhile, the National Education Goals Panel issues glossy reports that demonstrate the illusiveness of nationwide goal-setting. Its 1993 national-goals report indicates only “modest progress” in its state-by-state analyses of mathematics achievement (Goal 4) and school safety (Goal 6), “but stagnation or movement in the wrong direction” in high school completion (Goal 2) and adult literacy (Goal 5).

It is ironic that the rhetoric of Goals 2000 is being given tacit support by state leaders who are willing, however, to relinquish control of their public schools to private corporations.

We need to recognize the implications of our actions and articulate public policies that restore, rather than undermine, the vitality of public education. If state departments of education and governors are going to support the concept of national goals, they have an obligation to address the social problems that impede their achievement and to support the dedicated and committed teachers and administrators that run these schools. This means providing the necessary resources, replacing obsolescent school buildings and equipment, recruiting well-trained teachers and paraprofessionals, supporting school libraries, and enhancing the role and status of administrators as professional partners in the education of children.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 1994 edition of Education Week as The New Politics of Education: School Districts For Sale