What May Be Lost Through Privatization

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The Twentieth Century Fund, a nonpartisan New York City-based philanthropy devoted to "timely analyses of economic policy, foreign affairs, and domestic policy issues," issued a report in October on the history and effectiveness of efforts to privatize the public schools. Written by Carol Ascher, a senior research associate at New York University's Institute for Education and Social Policy; Norm Fruchter, the institute's director; and Robert Berne, the vice president for academic development at New York University, Hard Lessons: Public Schools and Privatization has drawn attention and controversy since its release. The excerpts below highlight some of the report's principal conclusions:

For many privatization advocates, schools are like any other business; privatizers assume that educational productivity, like the production of cars or hand cream, can be enhanced by market mechanisms. Yet this hard-nosed pragmatism about what works in the corporate world is based less on economic or political theory than on an intuitive, ideologically based certainty that "whatever government does, the private sector can do better."

Despite the enthusiasm of its advocates, privatization has not proved itself a solution to low student achievement or declining school budgets. Moreover, it has not improved accountability, widened parents' involvement, or increased equity. The cancellations of Education Alternatives Inc.'s contracts in Baltimore and Hartford, Conn., the brief life of the Chicago Corporate Community School, and the limitations of the other initiatives suggest that privatization is not the panacea its advocates claim. Its problems seem to outweigh its prospects.

The idealization of business by recent privatizers in the United States has been accompanied by a devaluation of both the fundamental rationale for government initiatives and citizens' capacities for engaging in community activities and movements for reform. While stressing important ideals of individual liberty and freedom, privatizers deny the capacity of either voters or politicians to move beyond self-interest to embrace forms of civic participation. Leaning on social theories crudely derived from 19th-century Darwinism, they describe the market as more effective than government because it conforms to "our basic human instinct of operating in our own self-interest." Thus the awkward, often burdensome--and at times even unjust--steps by which democracy proceeds are described as failed alternatives that violate our very nature. Democratic participation, which involves individuals in a range of roles and responsibilities, is to be abandoned for narrow acts of consumerism.

Public education is more than a simple mechanism for delivering a commodity to consumers. Like other public institutions, it is a "vehicle for deliberation, debate, and decisionmaking." Through these processes, education becomes a public service that contributes to the comparative well-being and strength of both local communities and the nation as a whole. Insofar as education produces a more informed and responsible citizenry with a greater appreciation for the diversity of the cultures and traditions of our populace, the entire society benefits.

Public education in the United States has been the key institution for assimilating successive waves of immigrants--a particularly important role today, as the nation experiences an enormous influx of people from countries with different cultures and beliefs. Public schools have also been mandated to actualize the American promise that every citizen is "created equal"; that is, that success should be based on merit and not on hereditary privilege. And public schools have been the locus for our continually shifting dialogues about civil society and the values and beliefs that bind us as a nation. The real danger of privatization, as Jeffrey Henig has pointed out, is not that some students will be allowed "to attend privately run schools at public expense, but that they will erode the public forums in which decisions with social consequence can be democratically resolved."

There are several vital areas in which students and the nation at large are likely to lose should more schools and districts attempt to solve their problems through privatization. Most important, severe criticisms have helped to generate a wide variety of innovations throughout our public school systems. Despite the myth of public education's intractability, the past decade has seen lively experimentation. Districts have introduced school choice, with magnet schools, alternative schools, and Beacon schools providing health and social services alongside education. Significant strides have also been made in the development of curriculum and assessment techniques, and authority has been devolved considerably within districts and even within individual schools. All this would come to a halt if public schools were increasingly turned over to the private sector.

Public discussion and decisionmaking, however cantankerous and cumbersome, has been a key strength of public schools. Debates about curriculum, tracking, teacher preparation and development, as well as about how to educate students with special needs, have traditionally been conducted in environments that foster differences of opinion and tolerate conflict. Such frankness rarely characterizes corporate culture; instead, businesses habitually shield themselves from open discussion and public criticism. Yet it is through such processes of public discussion and decisionmaking that agendas come to reflect a popular will and that democracy is ultimately made to work.

While privatization has been driven in part by the desperation of underfunded urban public schools, the urgency to solve the inequities in schooling is perhaps the most important reason for continuing the struggle to reform public education. For we will not survive as a republic nor move toward a genuine democracy unless we can narrow the gap between rich and poor, reduce our racial and ethnic divides, and create a deeper sense of common purpose.

More than 40 years after Brown v. Board of Education, while Southern schools are generally less segregated, Northern schools are more so. In spite of many effectively desegregated systems and schools, the extent of racial isolation in major U.S. cities is comparable to or worse than that of the era before the movement to integrate America. Moreover, in spite of three decades of struggles for fairness, disparities in funding between urban and suburban schools are increasing throughout the nation. It is almost as if, faced with the grand uniting vision of the Brown court, the nation has lost its nerve and opted for turning its back on the critical schooling needs of its least fortunate children.

The societal price we pay for such abandonment grows daily more painful: escalating turmoil and violence in our cities; a burgeoning underground economy trafficking in drugs, weapons, and other vice; a growing prison system imposing huge costs on the tax base; the ballooning price paid by business for entry-level training programs. Anyone wishing to see a dramatic demonstration of the country's polarization into two unequal societies need only visit a neighboring suburban and urban school system.

Whether or not the privatization movement continues to spread, it will remain marginal to the task of producing an effective education for all children. It may seem an act of nostalgic idealism in this difficult period to envision a national recommitment to provide effective schooling for poor children and students of color. Yet teachers, administrators, parents, elected officials, and policymakers struggle daily to respond effectively to their diverse students in classrooms and schools across the country. What supports the voices of cynicism and despair--and hence of privatization--are economic trends that tighten the screws on America's shrinking middle class. These pressures increase families' anxieties about the future and heighten parental efforts to secure schooling that gives their children an edge in a world that increasingly links high wages and high skills.

Between these two visions--of an America increasingly polarizing into armed camps of privilege and disadvantage or of a nation responding to the diversity of its citizens with a renewed commitment to offering all children an equal opportunity to learn--our public schools struggle to survive and to meet their students' needs. If privatization efforts are likely to remain irrelevant to those struggles, it is incumbent on those who believe in a strong public education system as a precondition for democracy to help resolve the grave inadequacies of public schooling that feed the impulse to privatize.

Vol. 16, Issue 15, Page 47

Published in Print: December 11, 1996, as What May Be Lost Through Privatization
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