Education

Why the Arguments for Privatizing Public Schools Fall Flat

There are problems associated with putting the bottom line ahead of the kids.

This animated video by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore looks at school privatization through the eyes of little Timmy, a kindergartener who likes his public school.

Timmy gets a confusing lesson in corporate education reform, starting with the rightwing mantra: “Public schools have failed.”

“But I like my public school,” Timmy protests.

A top rightwing think tank has devoted more than $30 million to spread the message that public education is failing. According to a report by One Wisconsin Now, the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation is a major underwriter of this propaganda effort. Bradley spent millions on shoddy research, media punditry, and a lobbying campaign to promote the idea that public schools have failed and to push school vouchers and other privatization schemes as the “solution”.

Large, national charter-school chains have been major of the beneficiaries of the campaign to fix “failing” public schools. Among them, Rocketship––“a low-budget operation that relies on young and inexperienced teachers rather than more veteran and expensive faculty,” according to a report by economist Gordon Lafer for the Economic Policy Institute.

Not all charter schools are bad. Some offer high-quality, alternative models classrooms that are enriching for kids. But over the last decade, the charter school movement has morphed from a small, community-based effort to foster alternative education into a vehicle for privatizing public education, pushed by free-market foundations, big education-management companies, and profit-seekers looking for a way to cash in on public-education funds. 

Rocketship (see Barbara Miner's report from our new Save Our Schools issue) uses computer programs to teach children for a significant portion of the day, and eschews “extras” like school librarians, art, gym, and social studies, which further reduce staff costs. This combination of real teachers and online programs, dubbed “blended learning,” is the fastest-growing sector of the burgeoning charter school industry.

“The call for public schools to be replaced by such tech-heavy, teacher-light operations comes from some of the most powerful actors in local and national politics,” Lafer wrote in his report.

While privatizers and their advocates claim that charters and schemes like blended learning will increase students’ test scores, national research shows that charter schools, on average, perform no better than public schools.

Voucher school results are even worse. School vouchers where first launched in Milwaukee 25 years ago, allowing poor kids to use public education funds to cover tuition at private schools. Proponents imagined vouchers as a ticket out of poverty, and into mainline Catholic and Lutheran schools that would offer a better education and a safe environment. Instead, fly-by-night voucher academies have popped up in strip malls, corner stores, even an old car dealership.

Rocketship experienced high test-scores when it opened its first school in California in 2009. But those scores have rapidly declined, calling into question the lasting value of the schools’ test-prep focus, and prompting a painful self-examination chronicled in the Education Week article “Growing Pains for Rocketship’s Blended-Learning Juggernaut.”

Two of Rocketship’s five schools have fallen below state test-score goals. “Ironically, by Rocketship’s own standards, they would need to build another school nearby to compete with and replace their own failing schools,” the website Stop Rocketship notes.

More findings about Rocketship from the Economic Policy Institute:

• The “blended learning” model of education exemplified by the Rocketship chain of charter schools—often promoted by charter boosters—is predicated on paying minimal attention to anything but math and literacy, and even those subjects are taught by inexperienced teachers carrying out data-driven lesson plans relentlessly focused on test preparation. But evidence from Wisconsin, the country, and the world shows that students receive a better education from experienced teachers offering a broad curriculum that emphasizes curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking, as well as getting the right answers on standardized tests.

•  Blended-learning schools such as Rocketship are supported by investment banks, hedge funds, and venture capital firms that, in turn, aim to profit from both the construction and, especially, the digital software assigned to students. The very curricular model that Rocketship employs is shaped not simply by what is good for kids but also, in part, by what will generate profits for investors and fuel the company’s ambitious growth plans.

Ruth Conniff covers national politics for The Progressive and is a voice of The Progressive on many TV and radio programs.
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