Privatization: Education Eggs in the Wrong Basket







Don’t let the government take away your democracy. It’s at risk, especially in education.

Two developments caught my attention this week.  In both cases, policy makers acted to promote the idea that parents should shop for schools just like when they go to the market to buy eggs.

Democracy be damned? The governor-appointed California State Board of Education approved two KIPP charter schools the San Francisco School District, despite the fact that the District and the County denied the charter.

Who cares about equity? In Puerto Rico, privatizers are swooping in to take advantage of hurricane devastation to get a foot in the door as legislators approved legislation for charter schools and vouchers. As in the rest of the U.S., the funds will come at the expense of the already underfunded public schools.

Both decisions are based on a dystopian vision of education in which democratic decision-making for the common good is replaced by personal choices in an unregulated market and in which equity is not a significant concern. The message in both votes is: Forget about voting. Go shopping for schools. Save a few at the expense of the many.  

Voting and shopping both involve choices, but they are different. The former should be reserved for decisions that are societal in scope. The latter is best left to choices with far narrower impact. Only democracy can ensure equity. The free market tends to create and exacerbate inequity.

Let’s talk about schools and eggs.  Both come in a wide variety.

Public schools differ in quality, primarily because of inequitable funding. The socioeconomic status of parents explains the vast majority of variation in student achievement. Applying free-market principles to public education through charter schools and vouchers will exacerbate rather than ameliorate those differences. Private schools charge tuition, are selective, and governed privately, so they are by design neither democratic nor equitable.  Charter schools compete for students and parents compete for admission. Inequality among families means that competition for access into charter schools is not equitable.  In addition, charter schools suffer from high student turnover that disadvantages struggling students. An unusual number have been plagued by significant corruption.  While taking public funds, they are governed privately.  The public has no say. Charter schools and vouchers for private schools offer no remedy for public school inequity precisely because they are not democratic.

Let’s talk about eggs. Eggs come in small, medium, large, extra-large and jumbo, organic, free range, white and brown.  There is some price variation, but unlike schools, the distinctions among eggs have little to do with race and class. Nutritional value falls within a narrow range.  I can live with a little inequity in egg purchases as long as everyone can at least afford eggs, they are all safe to eat, and producers do not brutalize chickens.  That may take some regulation but we do not need to vote about how eggs are produced and sold because which ones we eat falls into the small effect basket.

Schools are not like eggs. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and supporters of charter schools and vouchers do not understand or choose to ignore the difference between democratic choice and market choice.

Go shopping for eggs, not schools.

I want the community to vote to choose which people  will make decisions about education policy because the goals, content, and process affect everyone– who feeds the chickens, collects and sells the eggs, not as much.

Education policy is about the kinds of society in which we want to live. The big questions are about democracy and equity.

If all students come to understand the complexities of climate science, they will understand the dire implications of global warming for the future of the planet.  If only a few do so do, Earth may become uninhabitable for future generations.  If all students learn about evolution and genetics, they might discover cures for diseases or how to ensure a healthy food supply.  If only a few do, we may be stuck with the consequences of environmental pathogens or poisons. If all students learn how to make decisions in a democracy, they might learn how to improve our society to benefit everyone.  If only a few do, we may fall into the terrible patterns and consequences of authoritarian government.  If all students learn to get along with and respect all people, we might be able to live in a peaceful, equitable country.  If only a few do, we are doomed to sectarian, class, and racial divisiveness.

Policies that affect the wider society in significant ways should be decided democratically– but with one caveat. We have a constitution that protects the rights of individuals and groups.  Without rights enshrined in law, there is no democracy. Therein lies the difference between democracy and the market.  For much of our history, the rights of workers,  racial or religious groups, and the disabled were trampled.  That was the result of choices made at the ballot box, restricted voting, and inequitable distribution of power.

Expanded voter participation tends to broaden rights, whereas restriction narrows rights. A wide range of choices in the market does nothing to broaden rights or address inequity.  That is why charter schools and vouchers are not a solution for more equitable schools.

I do not want the community to decide what brand of eggs I should buy or whether I should purchase large, extra-large, or jumbo. That only affects me. My wife discourages me from getting jumbo, even though I like big yokes.  That’s OK because my cholesterol level affects my longevity and my family. But the circle of impact is small.

I do want the community to vote in elections for people who will represent our values and policy preferences on matters that have social implications such as health care, education, and international relations.

If we care about equity and preparing students for life, work, and citizenship, privatization is putting our education eggs in the wrong basket.  Instead, let’s minimize inequity in public school funding.  Let’s minimize economic inequity among families, so all students come to school ready to learn.

Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist.  He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.

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