To Privatize or Not to Privatize

Let’s put these questions on the table: What attracts so many Americans to the idea that private companies can better run the public education system? How do they see this current trend as being best for the country?

Since public education is an institution that has served us well over time, privatization is a topic worthy of further consideration, discussion, and thought before we take further actions in the name of “education reform.”

The term “privatization” goes beyond the act of using public dollars for private services. We have always done that where and when necessary public services can’t be provided any other way. But that isn’t the limit of the privatization process our public education system is undergoing. We are allowing public policy to be developed that puts private interests (money) ahead of the public good. In this case, our education reform laws are putting the education-industrial complex ahead of the needs of school children, their families, and their local communities.

Another way of putting it is “privatization is the transfer of activities, assets and responsibilities from government and public institutions and organizations to private individuals and agencies” (Belfield/Levin). In an ideal world, the part about a transfer of “responsibilities” would hold true.

Hospitals and prisons are both examples of institutions where privatization was tried and continues to be tried with mixed results. Many are probably too young to remember when almost every community had a community hospital. Slowly and without fanfare, they disappeared from small town America as larger non-profit and for-profit hospitals took over. Many Americans now do not have the luxury of having a hospital nearby and hospital costs have risen.

Attempts to privatize prisons through the idea that private providers will be more effective and efficient sounded good to lawmakers in many states but proved more costly—in dollars and human suffering. Here in Idaho, we are now taking back our prison system from private operators.

In our complex education system, there are a variety of ways it is being privatized. A few examples include accountability schemes, performance related pay, contracting out services including to the technology industry, public-private partnerships (sounding innocent enough), allowing international capital in public education through such things as the Gulen charters and philanthropic efforts of all kinds — with good and bad results.

If this is all about results and there is conclusive evidence that privatization of whole systems of education does produce more effective and efficient means of educating all children, then we should go that route. But where is that proof?

It is only because I have a niece and two nephews raised and educated in Sweden in the 90’s that the situation in that country caught my attention. In a 2007 report called Hidden Privatisation, Sweden was one of the countries these researchers looked at because of its “extensive privatisation.”

My brother’s children were taught three languages, seemed to know a great deal of American history, and each became an adult with the skills to become independent and productive citizens. Back when they were in school, my brother seemed pleased with their schooling. More recently, he is complaining about how bad the education system is getting. Anecdotal opinion? Until the “tumble” of the last decade was officially recognized. “No other country has fallen so abruptly as Sweden in math over a ten-year span.” It takes a major long-standing disturbance in a system to move trends in standardized test scores.

The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, whose advocacy efforts focus on privatization, has been noted as a prominent force in the socialist country of Sweden.

So, how is this privatization process proceeding in the U.S.? Just like it has around the world as described in Hidden Privatisation — “camouflaged by the language of ‘educational reform’, or introduced stealthily as ‘modernization’.”

For America, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) used two very big drawing cards that profited education industry and furthered privatization— supplemental service providers and “choice.” Mandated standardized test scores, however arbitrary and meaningless in reality, were the basis for identifying the “underperformance” of students and schools thus defining “the need” for reform services and spawning parental competition for choices.

Parents choose schools based on the hope of better opportunities for their children. More and more, those opportunities depend on the integrity of non-profit and for-profit charter managers. And the supplemental services prescribed by law had no real accountability for results; that money is spent, the harm done.

The Obama administration Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB) is more of the same in the name of “reform.” It promotes charter expansion, investment in data systems, new standards and tests, and promotion of “nonprofit” organizations for school turnaround, teacher and leader programs, and pushes a wide range of “granting” of our federal education dollars to the private sector industries.

In twenty years of funding these same experiments, we now have proof that these “reform” ideas are not the successes that promoters marketed to us. Costs in education have risen dramatically while improvements have been few. Given those facts, why are we pushing to further privatize our public school system?

Perhaps many do not know that growing privatization has been a result of education laws. And a growing number of ordinary Americans see or hear about problems with the public schools and have come to believe privatization is now the only way out. We have been sold on the idea that you can’t change the system and, admittedly, the system is known for its unwavering entrenchment.

I understand the frustration with the current system, but cannot answer for others when it comes to the question of why we are going this unproven route? If private companies fail, who will be responsible? Is it worth the risk especially when a better way to school improvement is known?