Privatize Schools? Look for Evidence, But Not at First.







Want to know whether charter schools and education vouchers are good ideas?  Don’t look for evidence– at least not at first.

I am a science educator. Evidence is at the core of the practice of science. Science educators teach their students that a claim about how the natural world works or the success of an engineering design should be supported by relevant and sufficient evidence.  But, scientists and engineers do not make claims or look for evidence without first having a question to answer or a problem to solve about which they are clear.

What scientific questions get asked or what engineering problems are targeted for a solution are not just a function curiosity, but also values.

Claims about schooling are like that too.  Evidence is only relevant when there is clarity– and honesty– about the problem. For example, if the problem is that not all students have equitable access to the same high-quality curricula, resources, and instruction, evidence about equity is vital.  Alternatively, if the problem is that too few children can escape problematic neighborhood schools, a different evidentiary set is called for.  The former is a common good problem.  The latter is an individual child problem. Which question is asked is a values determination.

I think that any attempt to privatize education by turning it into a commodity that parents can shop for in an open market is a terrible idea. My frame of reference is all students.  Others are enthralled by the potential for schools to compete for students and parents to compete for their children’s entry into schools.  Their frame of reference is some students.  Once again, these are values-related judgments.

I did not reach my negative claim about privatization by first looking at the evidence.  Neither did charter school nor voucher supporters.

Let’s think about shopping for cars for a moment.  We can choose between Hondas and Toyotas based on reliability and style preferences. We can choose between 2- and 4-wheel drive vehicles, or decide between gas, electric, and hybrid vehicles. In theory, we can also choose between a Ford and a Ferrari, but alas that is not a real choice for me because I cannot afford the latter. So, any claim about the best car cannot be decided based on evidence.  Sure, there is a plethora of data about cars. But no evidence can be gleaned from that data about which is the best car without knowing what buyers want. For some folks, cars are not even the problem.  They want affordable, reliable public transportation.  What questions get asked, what data is collected, and how the data is interpreted to provide evidence are complex functions of values, preferences, personal needs, and not least, finances.

So, it is no mystery why some of us think charter schools and education vouchers are terrible ideas, while others think they are the greatest ideas since sliced bread.  Similarly, it is not surprising that some of us think that elected boards should govern schools, whereas others find school boards to be anathema. Likewise, there are parents that prefer schools that try to prepare kids to participate in democracy while others want their children to follow authority.


We have different values and therefore preferences for what we want schools to accomplish.  We have different finances.  As a result, some of us are troubled by our taxes paying for a school system that varies along a continuum akin to the Ford to Ferrari spectrum– others, not so much.

In fact, vast variation in school governance and quality is the status quo.  There are elected boards and mayor-appointed boards.  Schools vary substantially due to funding inequity. There are a wide array of private schools catering to different values, secular and religious identities, and abilities to pay tuition. Some schools are well integrated, but most are not.

So, what is the evidence about the best scheme for school governance, funding, and organization?  There is none unless we first determine what we value.

Values are not necessarily either-or propositions but rather continua. Let’s start with three values questions.

Where do your priorities fall on along these continua?

  • From democratically- to authority-derived societal decisions;
  • From common good and equity to individual consideration and personal benefit in the allocation of society’s resources;
  • From maximizing economic, religious and racial diversity at work, in neighborhoods, and in schools to sticking with your particular subgroup;

I land on the left side each of these continua because I place a high value on democracy, equity, and diversity.

With that established, claims and evidence become relevant.

Democracy: Taxes are a public entity. Governance of tax-funded charter and private schools is not democratic.  So without evidence of public democratic governance, charter and private schools cannot claim they are a successful. In the same vein, “no-excuses” schools that teach obedience cannot claim success if there is no evidence of students learning to speak up when they perceive injustice.

Common Good and Equity: From an equitable common good perspective, schools should benefit the entire society, not just a lucky or entitled few. So, without evidence of equity in funding and outcomes for all students, charter schools cannot claim success.  Neither can public systems that permit funding inequities due to differentials in local property values or the socioeconomic status of families.

Diversity: If diversity is a value, then evidence of racial and economic isolation thwarts any claim of success.

Want to know whether charter schools and education vouchers are good ideas?  Check your values.  Ask what problems need to be solved. Examine claims. Then look at the evidence.

My answer about charter schools and vouchers is, “No!” Neither am I am satisfied with the status quo. However, my values– democracy, the common good and equity, and diversity are productive starting points to find better and answers.

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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