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What's Behind the Push Toward the Privatization
of Public Education in the United States

by Pedro A. Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.
Pedro A. Noguera is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

For the last ten years, efforts to radically reform public education in the United States have been advancing at a dramatic rate. During the 1980s several national reports drew attention to what was perceived as a precipitous deterioration in the standards and quality of education. These reports (1) attempted to link educational decline as measured by student performance on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) and other standardized assessments, to the poor performance of the U.S. economy and the reduced competitiveness of American products in international markets. Interestingly, even as the economy improved in the 1990s, the whole system of public education came under attack partially because of evidence that the performance of American children in math and science related subjects was significantly below that of their Asian and European counterparts. (2) The shortage of qualified workers to fill jobs in the constantly expanding high tech sector of the economy, (3) along with complaints from employers regarding the intellectual competence of high school graduates, has also feu led the demand for reform.

As calls for reform have grown louder, nearly every constituency associated with public education has come under attack. This has included the administrative leadership of large urban school districts who have been accused of being inefficient, overly bureaucratic and more preoccupied with rules and regulations than with providing quality education to students. Teachers, especially their unions, students and parents, especially those from low income areas, have also been the targets of blame for school failure and what has been characterized as the "rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." (4) In the current climate the debate is not over whether or not reform is needed, but rather how far efforts to transform the present system of public education should be allowed to go.

Out of this debate new policies have been advanced, each premised upon different approaches for reforming public education, and two camps have emerged: 1) those who believe that system is still viable but in need of greater accountability and innovation; and 2) those who regard the system as fundamentally flawed and in need of total dismantling so that it can be replaced by privately managed schools that operate on the principals of the marketplace. Though liberals and Democrats mostly fall into the first camp, and conservatives and Republicans largely fall into the second, there have been some surprises. Several Republican governors have taken positions against privatization, while a number of prominent liberals, including Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration and several prominent minority leaders, have come out in favor of some privatization schemes.

Despite their power, teacher unions have been left to the margins of the debate. Castigated by politicians and the media as stubborn defenders of the status quo, unions have been forced into a defensive posture attempting to fight off the most radical reform measures while working to raise the salaries and benefits of their members that are widely recognized as inadequate. Despite the fact that state affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) continue to play a major role in statewide elections, (in states such as California and Maryland their donations and support for Democratic governors are credited for securing electoral victories), their influence in the debate over educational reform has been minimal. While their allies in the Democratic Party continue to express support for their interests during most electoral campaigns, after the votes have been tallied, their influence over policy making related to reform has been barely noticeable. (5) With Democrats like Gore and Clinton edging decisively toward the political center in an effort to appeal to moderate voters, and with many of those voters increasingly open to calls for educational reform, the powerful teacher unions have been compelled to accept the tepid and unreliable support of mostly democratic politicians whose campaigns they continue to generously support.

Support for the privatization camp is drawn largely from certain corporations which perceive public education as hopelessly unfixable, religious conservatives who want to exercise greater control over what their children are taught in school, and a growing number of middle class parents whose children already attend private schools and who resent being taxed to support a system they do not patronize. (6) These constituencies support privatization for both ideological and financial reasons. In most states, this coalition has been unable to muster the support needed to implement privatization proposals beyond a small number isolated cases. (7) However, this appears to be changing.

Other constituencies who once were viewed as reliable supporters of public education now appear willing to support efforts to radically transform the system and replace it with new models, many of which remain undefined and untested. Several recent polls suggest that support for school vouchers is now growing in many African American and Latino communities. (8) Ongoing frustration over the poor quality of public education in minority communities has undoubtedly contributed to this change in attitudes. For parents whose children have long constituted a "captured market" and been forced to attend the most inferior schools, the various privatization proposals, along with other innovations such as charter schools and public school choice, holds out the promise of providing access to schools that such parents hope will be more responsive and accountable to their needs. As a sign of this change, in 1998 Florida became the first state to adopt a statewide voucher initiative. In November 2000, voters in California and Michigan will have the opportunity to cast their votes for similar initiatives.

How do we explain what appears to be a grounds well of interest in privatizing the US public education system? The answer to this question is not as straight forward as it may seem. The US was after all the first industrialized nation to develop a system of public education (Carnoy and Levin 1985), and though the right to an education is not guaranteed by the US constitution, in all fifty states access to education has effectively become a universal entitlement. Moreover, many significant advancements in civil rights for racial minorities, the disabled, language minorities, and more recently gays and lesbians, have first been achieved in public education before spreading to other sectors of American society. Schools in the US are governed locally, and throughout the country communities increasingly look to their public schools for solutions to a growing list of social problems, including: drug abuse, violence prevention, sex education and improvements in race relations. Rather then becoming expendable, in many respects American society has become increasingly dependent upon public schools as one of the few remaining social institutions that can be relied upon to address a variety of social problems.

Yet, despite this historic role, public education is very much under attack, and much of the decline in public support can be explained by the retrenchment of the public sector which took place in the 1980s, and by the politics of social inequality in the United States. During the 1980s, many school districts were forced to eliminate academic programs (such as art, music and athletics), increase the number of students per classroom, and reduce access to educational services such as counseling as a result of fiscal austerity. Fractious labor relations, decaying buildings and facilities, and an array of social problems, many of which are related to impoverishment of the children they serve, has overwhelmed school personnel. Such conditions have compelled many middle class families to flee urban school districts and transformed many schools into institutions of last resort; exclusively serving those who can not escape or afford the option of private schools.

Changing demographics is another factor influencing decline in support for public education. Fear, racial prejudice toward minorities, and arrival of new immigrants, has also contributed to the flight of the white middle class in particular during the 1970s and 1980s (Orfield and Eaton, 1996). States such as California, Florida and New York have experienced substantial increases in public school enrollment due to the immigration of large numbers of Asians and Latin Americans. (9) As the demographics of the student population has changed, registered voters, who typically older and disproportionately white, have been less willing to cover the costs of public education through tax increases. During the same period voters in several states have approved initiatives such as California's proposition 187 which sought to limit access of the children of undocumented immigrants to public services and schools (10) .

Within such a climate, proposals for private school vouchers resonate and find willing supporters, even though the reasons for support may vary considerably among different constituencies. While some support privatization largely because they hope it will reduce their tax burden, others see it as their means to obtain access to quality education for their children. Unfortunately, to the extent that the current debate over privatization and school reform remains focused on technical matters related to questions of efficiency, academic standards and the delivery of services to students, the underlying political and social issues that are central to the role of public education in American society are ignored.

Left missing from most debates about education is the fact that despite their many weaknesses, public schools continue to offer one of the only sources of mobility and social support to poor and working class families in a society that remains stratified by race, class and gender. In all likelihood the implementation of a voucher system would only add to the disparities that presently exist in education. Though advocates of "choice" and vouchers claim that "...the cure for the problems of a socialized monopoly is a good dose of competition." (Gross and Gross, 19885:352), there is no guarantee that competition would elevate the quality of schools or drive poor schools out of business. Furthermore, it is even less likely that "good" schools that cater to the affluent will be made accessible to all who desire admission. Poor parents seeking to use vouchers to take advantage of elite private schools are unlikely to obtain access given the probability that such schools will not expand enrollment in order to accommodate increased demand. Rather than becoming less restrictive, elite schools may become even more selective as an increase in the demand for admission allows them to raise the cost of tuition and moves them even further beyond the reach of low income voucher holders (11) .

An even more important question is what will happen to low quality schools and the students who are left behind as those with greater ability and means depart for schools that are perceived as better? Particularly given that public school funding is based largely on student enrollment, it seems unlikely that schools that lose enrollment will be provided the resources needed to improve. Rather, it is more likely that there will be a high demand placed on schools that are seen as "good", while those that are seen as "bad" will only get worse. Undoubtedly, such schools will cater largely to poor and non-white students whose parents are unable to take advantage of school choice because their kids are less likely to be selected in the application process by "good" schools. As is true now poor quality schools will be concentrated in poor communities, and rather than being improved through competition, they will more likely become poorer, both with respect to the quality of education provided and the amount of funding available. The essential difference between the present situation and what is likely to occur after privatization is that individuals rather than government will bear responsibility for insuring access to quality education. Under such conditions, the implementation of choice and vouchers will have a triage effect on the public schools, with the "good" schools attracting high ability students and thereby generating more resources, while bad schools are left to flounder unless or until they are shut down completely.

What about the possibility that new private schools will form to compete with the public schools for their share of the educational vouchers? Advocates of privatization argue that this will indeed occur much like the new airlines that were established shortly after the deregulation of the airline industry during the 1980s. However, most of the airlines that were created no longer exist, and those that do are widely seen as offering inferior quality albeit at a lower price. Some still argue that experimentation in education will be different, and given the poor quality of public education in certain areas, that new schools couldn't possibly be much worse. (12) However, unlike the public schools which are required to meet legally established educational standards, both with respect to credentialing requirements for teachers and accessibility for students, there is no guarantee that private schools will be held to similar standards.

Nonetheless, despite the negative consequences that could result from privatization, given the dire circumstances in so many schools and the politicized nature of the battle over vouchers, advocates for public schools must do more than merely extoll the virtues and promise of public education. In many cases the criticisms levelled at public schools by the conservative critics are accurate. Many public schools are failing to adequately meet the needs of students, and too often those who manage them are not sufficiently responsive to the concerns of parents. Rather than reacting defensively or espousing excuses for their failure, supporters of public education must be in the forefront of efforts to promote reform.

At the present advocates for privatization appear to have the momentum and seem to be gaining the political advantage. In such a climate the defense of public education must therefore not merely be based upon their potential to improve, but on evidence that this can in fact be done. Public education is in desperate need of reform, and those who value and appreciate its role in society must be in the forefront of efforts to hasten the pace of change, otherwise America's "one best system" could very well be terminated.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 8, 2000.