How Billionaires Are Successfully Fooling Us Into Destroying Public Education—and Why Privatization Is a Terrible Idea

The billionaire-backed privatization movement is stealthily advancing an undemocratic agenda, cloaked in deceptive rhetoric, that the public is not aware of and does not understand.

Photo Credit: littleny / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new, expanded edition of  The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch (Basic Books, 2016): 

Something unprecedented is happening to American public education. A powerful, well-funded, well-organized movement is seeking to privatize significant numbers of public schools and destroy the teaching profession. This movement is not a conspiracy; it operates in the open. But its goals are masked by deceptive rhetoric. It calls itself a “reform” movement, but its true goal is privatization.

This movement has had strange bedfellows. Some of its funders and promoters on the far right of the political spectrum are motivated by ideological contempt for the public sector; others earnestly believe they are providing better choices for poor children “trapped in failing schools.” Still others believe that elected local school boards are incompetent and should be replaced by private management, or that the private sector is inherently more innovative and effective than the public sector. And some are motivated by greed, while others are motivated by religious conviction. These strange bedfellows have included the US Department of Education (during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama); major foundations and think tanks, both conservative and centrist; billionaires committed to free-market solutions—and certain they know what is best because they are so rich; entrepreneurs hoping to make money from school privatization or by selling technology to replace teachers; the far-right American Legisla­tive Exchange Council (ALEC), which has drafted model legislation to promote corporate interests and to expand the privatization of almost all government services, including education; and numerous governors and legislators (mostly but not exclusively Republicans) who want schools to operate in a free-market system of school choice.

The privatization movement pretends that it is bravely fighting "the status quo," but having captured policymakers at both the federal and state levels, as well as think tanks, the nation's wealthiest foundations, a coterie of billionaires, and major editorial boards, this movement is the status quo. It is stealthily advancing an undemocratic agenda, cloaked in deceptive rhetoric, that the public is not aware of and does not understand.

This combination of money and political power has been potent in advancing school vouchers, which were once considered a cranky right­ wing extremist idea, but have recently been enacted in a score of states. Vouchers are seldom now called vouchers, because voters have consis­tently rejected them: in 2007, vouchers were defeated by a margin of 62-38 in the red state of Utah, and Florida turned them down in 2012 by 58-42. Thus, the promoters of vouchers enact them through the legislature without holding a referendum and try to hide their purpose by calling them "opportunity scholarships," "tax credits," or "education savings accounts." Whatever the name, the result is the same: these programs transfer public money to private and religious schools, even when the state constitution (for example, in Nevada and Indiana) specifically prohibits it.

This same movement—unfortunately bipartisan—has encouraged the growth of privately managed charter schools, which are marketed as superior to public schools (although they usually are not). Charter schools are a less controversial form of privatization than vouchers be­cause they do not involve church-state issues. And yet charter schools eliminate democratic control of schools because they are privately man­ aged and in some cases controlled by out-of-state corporate chains­ sometimes nonprofit, sometimes for-profit. In many states, the charter schools get no better results in terms of student test scores than the lowest-performing traditional public schools, and sometimes they are even worse than the lowest-performing public schools. Charter schools are supposed to be innovative, but their most effective innovations to date consist of choosing their students carefully, excluding or removing students who might get low test scores, and enforcing boot-camp discipline on those who remain.

This well-funded campaign to shift public dollars to charters and vouchers has had a damaging effect on public schools. The money for choice schools is taken away from the schools that enroll a majority of students, reducing their budgets and causing them to lose teachers, services, and programs. Some school districts, like Philadelphia, teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, having cut their services to students (for example, closing libraries and reducing the number of school nurses) and increased class sizes because of budget cuts and the drain on their resources caused by charters. The greater good of the overwhelming majority of students is sacrificed to satisfy the privatizers’ ideological commitment to “choice.”

The campaign for privatization is sustained by billionaires and mega-millionaires who fund charters, vouchers, and school choice advocacy groups and contribute large sums of money to candidates and elected officials who support school choice. The same people and groups who support privatization have fought legal battles to end tenure for teachers and eliminate collective bargaining, which deprives teachers of academic freedom and any voice in the conditions of their workplace. The privatizers hope to establish a free market for schooling where people think of themselves as consumers, not as citizens who have an obligation to educate all the children in their community. They believe that teachers should serve as at-will employees, constantly fearful of losing their jobs. Competition, they believe, will improve the schools, although there is no evidence that this belief is true even after twenty-five years of experience with charters and vouchers. In Michigan, for example, the state encourages schools and districts to compete for funding by attracting students; as a result, every district spends $100,000 or more to market its wares and poach students from neighboring districts. Millions are spent to lure students, with no evidence that it produces better education.

Turning public education into a free-market system of choice is a terrible idea. No high-performing nation in the world has done this.

In a democratic society, all citizens are responsible for paying taxes to educate the next generation, even those who have no children. Public education is a public service available to all. When education becomes a consumer marketplace, every family is on its own in choosing a school. Moreover, the general community feels no sense of civic responsibility for private choices. When it comes time to approve a bond issue, why should the public support a system of private choices? In other words: Why should people who have no children, or whose children are no longer in school, pay for private choices? Those who demand "school choice" give little thought to these consequences of their advocacy; they do not fret about their role in the likely destruction of a demo­cratic institution.

The purpose of American education is to prepare our children for the duties of citizenship in a democracy. The federal and state policies of the recent past have aimed to turn education into a competition for higher test scores, despite the fact that testing always favors the advantaged over the disadvantaged. The creation of competing publicly funded sectors—one public, the other nonpublic—has not improved education. Instead, it has divided communities. And it has created a booming and politically powerful "education industry," where the big prize is profits, not educated citizens.

Adapted excerpt from The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch. Copyright © 2010. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Diane Ravitch is a co-founder of the Network for Public Education. She is a historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University. She is a graduate of the Houston public schools, Wellesley College (BA), Columbia University (Ph.D. in history of American education), and holds ten honorary doctorates. In 2011, she received the Daniel Patrick Moynihan award from the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences for her careful use of data and research to advance the common good. She blogs at dianeravitch.net.


 

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